An incomplete story is a dangerous thing. Anyone who has ever read Agatha Christie or even watched the famous rumpled sleuth, Colombo, recognizes the truth of this maxim in crime stories. But, the maxim holds true in every area of our experience. Knowing just half of the truth, taking just half of your prescribed medication, can lead to serious outcomes.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.—2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (ESV)
It is possible to have a partial picture of the Reformation.
Today is indeed a very historic day in the Christian Church. 500 years ago, the priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. This was more than a political re-alignment of the European states and much more than renegotiated political or even ecclesiastical alliances. It was first in foremost a revival in the life of one man, Martin Luther. And that revival spread. Revival in that one man’s soul had its spiritual roots in John Hus of Bohemia and in the ministry of John Wycliffe of Oxford. The Reformation brought about a counter Reformation in the Roman church. For all the squabbling and all the division, the Reformation remains an unprecedented watershed occasion that brought about incomparable good. Modern democracies trace their being to the Reformation. Not only theology but also philosophy, education, labor, medicine, journalism, manufacturing, and so many more human endeavors were positively impacted by the Reformation. It was a veritable Christian Renaissance. That renaissance was and is, chiefly, about the central figure of the Reformation and about all of church history: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As the Reformation gloried in the doctrines of Grace it exulted the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet it is quite possible to see only half or part of the great portrait of the Reformation, and this would be to, also, regrettably, disregard part of the Biblical portrait of Christ. When we neglect any truth revealed in Scripture we become open to infections of the soul. When we neglect essential truths of the first order we risk the destruction of our souls.
The Reformation recovered the essential Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Church. Some would say that this essence is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and then when we believe in him we are forgiven. That is, of course, a central message of the Gospel. But there is another part of that message that Saint Paul speaks of many times. It is a message that goes from Genesis to Revelation. And what is that message? Well, it may sound a little strange on this Reformation day but here it is:
We are saved by works. No, before you walk out of here all angry and in a huff, consider what I am saying! I take you that I am speaking directly from the Scriptures. We must be saved by works.
“What in the world do you mean by saying such a thing on Reformation Day? “ Well, I hope to answer that directly from the Scriptures. What I mean to say is this:
We are saved by works because God has commanded it.
No, it is most certainly true that the apostle Paul writes in that famous chapter Romans 4:2 that “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. What does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
You might say, “Well, there you go. How utterly foolish you are! This entire Reformation think is about ‘justified by faith’ through the grace of God not by works.” And, dear Sir, I could not agree with you more. That is indeed the essence of the Gospel! However, we are saved when it is accounted to us as righteousness.
The Apostle Paul is referring to the command that God gave to all mankind to be obedient to him. Moses recorded the Creation in Genesis. In Genesis 2:16, 17 God commands perfect obedience or death. The Fall was about this event: the loss of God-required purity. Even Jesus repeated this teaching when he said in Matthew chapter 5, “ Be ye therefore perfect even is My Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) This passage reflects the perfection that God called for in the garden of Eden: “If you obey me you shall live. If you disobey me you shall die.“ The theology emerging from the Reformation called this arrangement the “covenant of works.“ But we think God that “what God has required, God has provided.“ That is the divine response to our sin: the Covenant of Grace. He has provided a righteous Man. That Man is our own Lord Jesus Christ. So, it is absolutely essential that we understand that the Covenant of Works, the obligation for a perfection before a holy God, is maintained. It is not done away with whatsoever. The entire New Testament is about how to achieve this state standing before a holy God.
Have you not read the Psalms which also require perfection of God’s creatures? Consider Psalm 24 written by King David himself whose life was far from perfect in obedience:
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24:3-5).
So we misunderstand this we come to Second Corinthian‘s chapter 5 and verse 17, “you are a new creation…“ The apostle Paul is addressing our old creation. He is addressing the fact that our lives are far from perfect and we need a covering. And this is what I meant that we are saved by works. Yes we are saved by faith, which is the instrument, hand which reaches out and grabs hold of the promise. But it is the promise of God‘s righteousness that covers us and allows us to stand before a holy God.
Yet, when I say “saved by works” we must see something more:
We are saved by works because Christ has accomplished it.
Faith in the Lord’s plan of salvation secures for the repentant believer the righteousness of God. This was so with Abraham in the Old Testament. This was so with David in the Psalms. This is so with the apostle Paul when he says the Jesus Christ Himself was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. To declare that salvation is by works is to magnify the life and the glorious person of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. To diminish this in any way is to block the radiant rays emanating from the cross of Christ and from the sinless life of Jesus. He is our righteousness as well as our sacrifice. That is the full picture that we must see.
This is what the apostle Paul means when he says in Galatians 2:20:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Not only is Jesus Christ our sacrifice when he died for arsons up on the cross, but he is our righteousness with the perfect life that he lived, the sinless soul that is his, and even the virgin birth stopped the generation of sin through Adam for Jesus was born of woman without the aid of a man. And all his glorious life he is our righteousness. And the apostle Paul is also saying then that he is our sanctification. “And the life that I live I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Oh, dear Christian: have you trusted in only part of Christ? Have you trusted only in his sacrifice? Have you not realized that he lived the life that you could never live? Have you not received the purity of life and knowing this have walked in the shade of the evening with God, like Enoch? You walk with God because you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, to receive him as both sacrifice and as your righteousness is to begin a life of sanctification. How is this? It is because we desire to become like our Lord. He sent His only begotten Son to live for us and die for us, therefore out of gratitude we seek to be like Him. Our language, our desires are increasingly like His own. We begin to think, “My very purpose in life is fashioned after that of my heavenly Father. It is pure love that compels us to live for Jesus Christ. I say again, Christ has met the requirement of the law and we are saved by His life.
The great Charles Hodge of old Princeton put it like this:
“Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ, so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and his righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God” (Charles Hodge, Commentary on 2 Corinthians [Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d.], pp. 150-151).
Oh, to be accepted by God! But you can be: when you trust in Christ and in His life, as well as in His death, you are clothed in His righteousness. This is what Paul meant when He said that you have become the righteousness of God through the One who was made sin for us.
But there is one more thing:
We are saved by works when Faith has received it.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
I would be untrue to the Reformation, yay, untrue to the Gospel itself, if I did not appeal to you to believe and receive the Lord Jesus Christ in all His fullness. Recognize that Almighty God still requires a perfect life before him and that you cannot bring that condition with you to heaven. You are a sinner. I am a sinner. Indeed, I am a blasphemer saved by grace and called to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. But I am covered with His works. You, too, have violated God’s laws. You are a rebel outside of the household of God until you come to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is your life as well as your sacrifice.
One of the great legacies of the Reformation and of church history itself remains the great revivals: The Evangelical Revivals in Germany, the Netherlands, in England under names like Wesley and Whitefield; the Great Awakening in America with Jonathan Edwards, the Welsh revival of the early 1900s, the revivals in our own day, in the Global South and the Global East. And what is this a revival of? It is a revival of true religion which says that God’s holy commandments must be met and not met through some spurious and empty work of man through his religion, but only through the religion of God which says, “that what God requires God has provided through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, the Almighty is only approached by faith that is counted to you as righteousness. It is in this sense and in this sense alone that we are saved by works. You see, it is always the question of whether it is your works or God’s works. That is what is before every man, woman, boy, and girl today. And the Gospel says that all our work so like filthy rags, unacceptable to God. Even as God Himself slaughtered an animal to clothe Adam and Eve when they went out from the Garden, so He just sent His only begotten Son to be slain on across that we might be clothed in the righteousness from God.
The Reformation was not merely a political movement in Europe. It was a revival in the soul of one man that overflowed into the souls of otherds and eventually became a great revival. In a similar way, we must never allow the truths of our faith to become merely academic. They must always be personal to connect with other people l. This personal experience of the grace of God in Christ will more readily fulfill the mission of God in the world today.
Saved by works? Yes. Yours or His.
Whenever I received the Gospel of grace I was moved to compose a song which I would like to close with today. It is this song about God sovereignty over time. It is about his sovereignty over my life. The title of the song is, in route in a real way, the message of the Reformation changing one life, mine.
Of all of the things I’ve been told | There’s none that more thrills my soul | Than knowing that God is in control | It gives me the strength to go on; | Whether it’s good or it’s bad, no reason for me to be sad |God has given us all that he had | When he gave up his only Son | He’s in control, He’s in control | Tenderly sculpting my soul | To the image of Christ my King | He’s in control | There was a time when I thought | Life was a chance to be bought | But, I was confused and distraught | By the lies that I had been told | So God in his mercy and might | Allowed me to see the light | And I know now that it is all alright | I know who is in control | He’s in control, He’s in control | Tenderly shaping my soul To the image of Christ my king He’s in control | He’s in control, He’s in control | Tenderly sculpting your soul to the image of Christ your King | He’s in control He’s in control | He’s in control.