The Gospel and Godliness
If the gospel you believe does not include obedience as a fruit of faith then it is short-sighted and you will end up spiritually crashing into a wall. Certainly, we need to be exceedingly careful to make clear that our hope and confidence before God, and His righteous judgment, is singularly on the basis of the merit and mercy of Jesus. He has fulfilled the law in His active obedience and satisfied the wrath of God through His atoning death on the cross. Salvation is by grace alone, and is received by faith alone. As J.I. Packer wrote, "there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners."1 This is the heart of the gospel. If we lose this truth we die. But the heart of the gospel beats and carries the blood to the rest of our body, giving strength and movement to the muscles of godliness.
I am writing this because I am concerned. Perhaps it is more of an online phenomenon than a real problem in the church--but I doubt it. I have been hearing of a kind of Christianity that (at least) sounds as if it is all heart and no muscle. As if the Christian life is one of all faith, and no works. As if God only gave us His law to show us our sin and direct us to Jesus, but not to also serve as a rule for godly living made possible in our lives by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Yet here is our Savior, who not only rescues but commands (Mt. 5:20)--offering a salvation that not only frees us from sin but enslaves us unto righteousness (Rom. 6). Jesus, in His saving work, not only redeems us--He also shows us how to live. He is both Savior and example. We not only get justification in Christ, we get sanctification in union with Him too.
Jesus denied Himself to save us. This, in turn, becomes the example that we are to follow. As Paul says: "We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please Himself, but as it is written, 'The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on Me.'" (Romans 15:1-3)
Jesus suffered for righteousness' sake; and so must we: "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps." (1 Peter 2:21, ESV) Consider what Peter goes on to say in the same passage--that Jesus died on the cross not only to cleanse us from sin, but also to empower us to live righteously: "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
Jesus' death not only delivers from something, but, though it, He also delivers us unto something else. He saves us from self-righteousness and delivers us unto righteousness. He saves us from ungodliness and delivers us unto godliness. Godliness is not just an idea that remains impossible until the resurrection. It is a reality in the life of believers. Thomas Watson wrote:
It is not a fantasy, but a fact. Godliness is not the feverish fantasy of a sick brain; a Christian is no enthusiast, one whose religion is all made up of theory. Godliness has truth for its foundation; it is called "the way of truth" (Psalm 119:30). Godliness is a ray and beam that shines from God. If God is true, then godliness is true.2
But godliness is not just a "fact" either. It is much more. Godliness is not only the command of God; it is also the promise of God. When He unfolded the promises of the New Covenant through the prophet Ezekiel, our Lord said:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27, ESV)
Together with the forgiveness of sin, godliness is one of the blessings of the New Covenant. Think of it this way: The Lord demands our obedience, but we don't obey. So Christ meets God's demands for us. We are then credited with His obedience when we believe in Him. Then, through our union with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we offer our obedience to the Lord and He finds it fully acceptable. Get that: through Jesus, God accepts our obedience. Again, Watson explained:
Obedience must be in and through Christ. "He has made us accepted in the beloved." Eph 1:6. Not our obedience—but Christ's merits, which procure acceptance with God. In every part of worship we must present Christ to God in the arms of our faith. Unless we serve God thus, in hope and confidence of Christ's merits, we rather provoke him than please him. As, when king Uzziah would offer incense without a priest, God was angry with him, and struck him with leprosy (2 Chron 26:20). Just so, when we do not come to God in and through Christ, we offer up incense to him without a priest, and what can we expect but severe rebukes?3
Should we be concerned about godliness? If by "concerned" you mean that we should focus on it instead of Jesus, then the answer is a resounding 'No!' A quest for godliness can be self-righteously perverted and so become an idol itself. There is such a a thing as 'legal sanctification'--a cheap counterfeit to the "evangelical sanctification" Christ purchased for us. Godliness is always by faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen (Gal. 2:20-3:4). Should we be concerned about godliness as it is the will of God for us and the work of God in us--a fruit of our saving union with Jesus? Absolutely! If we are following Jesus, we are not only believing in Him--we are growing in our obedience to Him. The Apostles preached the Gospel for the realization of "the obedience of the faith" (Rom. 16:26). The Gospel, when truly received by faith alone, necessarily gives birth to a Spirit-wrought obedience that is the sweet fruit of it (Col. 1:5-6).
1. J.I. Packer A Quest For Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) p. 130
2. Thomas Watson The Godly Man's Picture (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992) pp. 12-13
3. Thomas Watson A Body of Practical Divinity (Philadelphia: T. Wardle, 1833) p. 213
Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification
Edward Fisher The Marrow of Modern Divinity (with Thomas Boston's notes and an intro by Philip Graham Ryken)
J.C. Ryle Holiness
Nick Batzig "Jesus Christ: Savior or Example" (see the clip of Sinclair Ferguson talking about "Jesus as Savior first, then Example")