Where’s the comfort of grace? How does such a focus on works square with Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians that it is “by grace you have been saved, through faith—And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast”? Paul says the same in Romans chapter 4:
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)
Paul doesn’t stop there. He makes the same point to the Galatians in chapter 2:
“Yet, we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
These verses from Paul and James sound like they’re contradicting one another. What does this mean when it comes to sin and faith and living by grace—or not? How we resolve this apparent conflict has direct bearing on our questions about salvation and sin—and whether we’re really Christians.
Is It By Faith or Works?
Let’s unpack this theological conundrum, starting with “What’s a contradiction?” According to the law of noncontradiction, “A and non-A cannot both be true in the same sense and at same time.” This means that things we often think are contradictions really aren’t—that’s because while they might seem to be the same, they’re not actually the same thing in the same context. A lot of theological debates could be more easily resolved if we just employed this simple lesson of logic. This is certainly the case with the apparent contradiction that, on the one hand, Paul teaches salvation by faith alone while, on the other, James teaches that salvation is not by faith alone.
We have to begin by asking, do they each mean the same thing in the same context? The answer to this question is “no.” Paul is speaking to an audience who thinks obedience to the law is efficacious in securing salvation, which it is not. He uses the term “justified,” which means “to be made righteous,” exclusively relating to the true faith that comes from a renewed heart. The context is about the very nature of redemption—that it is a gift of God and not of works. This is because no amount of obedience to the law—as fallen sinners—can save us because God is pure and holy, and good works can’t make us pure and holy because they’re always stained with sin. Only Christ’s righteousness can justify us—and that’s a gift. As we cited above, Paul repeats this foundational teaching about redemption often and with undeniable clarity.
James, on the other hand, is dealing with an entirely different problem. He is speaking to people who have taken Paul’s teaching and assumed that they can go on sinning so that grace may abound, something Paul himself condemns. James is addressing the antinomians (those “against the law”) of his day who think the law is meaningless and good works unimportant. The faith he’s focused on is not redemptive faith, but a person’s “profession of faith.” Is that profession true or not?
While Paul focuses on the imputed righteousness of Christ as the foundation of salvation, James shows that this “justification by faith alone” is not a faith that, in practice, is alone. For it to be true justifying faith, works must essentially flow from it. Paul is focusing on the salvation of the sinner who is dead in his sins. James is focusing on the believer whose salvation necessarily produces good works.
Paul’s statement that sinners are justified by faith alone still stands—and this salvation is from first to last, by faith. Doing good works does not add to the efficacy of Christ’s imputed righteousness. You are saved by grace. But, as James insists, and as Paul teaches in Philippians 2 where he says that we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” our faith is never alone. Our faith—and the life of the believer—is marked by obedience. A believer does good works. According to John, “Whoever says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person” (1 John 2:4).
So, how does this help us with answering the question, “Can I really be a Christian when I still sin?” You might be just as confused as ever and wondering how much fruit you need to be saved—because, when you look at yourself, you admit that you don’t have a whole lot. How much sinning can a Christian “get away with” and still have assurance of salvation? Can a Christian ever be confident in his salvation, and if he is that confident, is he just being prideful, resting on his laurels, and presuming that he’s better than he really is?
To answer these questions, let’s go to one of the most controversial chapters in Scripture—Romans 7. It’s controversial because it taps into the tension—both theologically and practically—of justification, which is the one-time declaration by God the Father that the believer is righteous, and sanctification, which is the continuous work of the Spirit in the life of the believer to make him righteous. This tension between faith and works is significant. It has caused deep divisions within the church, and it often provokes judgment, fear, condemnation, and foolish abandonment of good works among believers—a problem that has been around since the very beginning of Christianity. The letters by both Paul and James dealing with separate, though intrinsically related, issues of redemption are proof of that.
Romans 7 is where Paul talks about wrestling with the flesh and his struggle to obey the law. Scholars throughout Christian history have differed on how to interpret Romans 7. Some, such as Pelagius, Arminius, and Erasmus, said this struggle with sin is a description of an unbeliever. Others, such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, said it’s a description of the believer. It’s not surprising that these men fall on opposite sides of this debate, because they each have a different view of the natural state of fallen man.
The former believe fallen man has vestiges of spiritual ability within him to activate some manner of righteousness, either to earn salvation or to determine it, though they differ among themselves regarding the degree of that innate ability. The latter believe that fallen man has no spiritual ability and no inward righteousness, and that he is completely dead in his sins and unable to activate even the most miniscule effort toward righteousness or faith, having nothing in them to earn or determine their own salvation. The former believe that man’s fallen nature can still choose the right and holy, at least to some degree, while the latter believe that man’s fallen nature can only choose to sin—even his most seemingly “good” acts of common grace are corrupted by sin and love of self over love of God.
Those who think fallen man brings something to the table in justification, believe that this ability sees him through sanctification, and that he can become the “saint” in practice that he has been declared to be by God in standing. They don’t see why there should be all this struggling with sin, since he’s quite capable of girding up his loins and obeying the works of the law. They also have no problem with the unbeliever “delighting in the law of God” since the fall didn’t quite eradicate all of man’s original righteousness.
On the other hand, those who think fallen man brings nothing to the table of justification come to a very different conclusion. Man, they believe, was thoroughly corrupt when God reached out and dragged his dead body from the grave and breathed new life into him. They also believe, as Paul teaches, that he is just as corrupted by sin as a Christian, even though he is a new creature in Christ. His “newness” is not an eradication of the sin nature, but the infusion of the Spirit into his dead soul, bringing to life a new man who struggles against the flesh, but only by the power of God. This is why Paul says, “Yet not I, but the grace of God, which was with me,” in 1 Corinthians 15:10, and in Galatians 2, where he writes,
“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. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:20-21)
In chapter 3, he calls the Galatians who think they contribute anything to their salvation, “foolish,” and wonders who had “bewitched” them. “Let me ask you only this,” Paul says. “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Sin and Law
According to Paul, the Christian life—from beginning to end—is all of grace. Living to Christ means Christ is living in us. This becomes apparent in Romans 7 where he describes his struggle with sin and obedience to the law—God’s standard for human life whether you’re an unbeliever or a Christian. Beginning in the fourth verse, he writes,
“My brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:4-6)
Paul is describing two different kinds of people here: Those who are under the law and dead in their sins. And those who are free from the law and alive in Christ.
The law is spiritual, but the unredeemed are not—they are not spiritually discerned. They are spiritually dead, and they are unable to obey the law. Because of this, the law cannot save them. The law condemns them. The person in this state lives “freely” as if there is no law, sinning but not realizing they’re sinning. It’s only when they hear the law that their consciences are pricked, that they see themselves for what they are. But even at this moment of conviction, without any spiritual renewal by God, they can’t do anything about it. They still can’t fulfill the requirements of the law. They hate it, they love themselves, and they think they’re good enough. The law condemns them, but they don’t care. They go on their merry way.
But something happens to those who are given a new life in Christ. They “die to the law” in the death of Christ. They are now alive apart from the law, resting on Christ’s obedience for salvation, for He has fulfilled the demands of the law for us. We are covered by the righteousness of Christ by God’s grace. We did nothing to deserve this. We were totally dead in our sins, but God chose to regenerate us, to give us new life, and to cover us by Christ’s work on the Cross. With this change, we now love the law of God and delight in it, even though it continues to show us how far we are from God’s holiness’s which is a constant reminder of our need of grace.
Paul’s entire teaching in Romans is focused on this point—salvation is the work of God, not our work. We are regenerated, given faith and repentance by His grace, and justified by His work, by His grace, by His decision. This glorious salvation, however, isn’t the end of the story for the Christian—as we have learned from James. It is just the beginning.
While the believer is free from the condemnation of the law because he is covered by Christ’s righteousness, his relationship with the law doesn’t end. God’s holiness is always the standard. The law remains, but the believer’s relationship to it has changed. We don’t ignore the law; instead, “we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” The old way, the fallen way, the way of the sinner was to try to keep the law in his own strength. It was, and it is, never enough. We are sinners and simply can’t do it. But, as believers, we have a new way. We have “the way of the Spirit.” We can now keep the law, not to be saved, but because we have Him living within us.
Flesh and Spirit
This doesn’t mean obedience is easy. We are still unable, in ourselves, to keep the law. It’s a struggle, and we can’t ever think we need to keep it to be saved. We’re free from that oppression of the law. Yet, we’re required to keep it, despite our persistent inability. That inability does not negate our responsibility. We are called to “bear fruit.” And what is “bearing fruit” except being conformed to the image of Christ, which is “keeping all his commandments”? This is the mark of the Christian who loves Him. Scripture is clear on this point, for Christians are to obey His commands, to be set apart, to be holy. Does this mean that when Christians are regenerated, they instantly become perfect saints who never sin? Some verses might seem to imply that, some people might (wrongly) believe that. But it is not the case.
While Christians are immediately justified by Christ, the process of sanctification, of becoming actually and practically conformed to His image, is not immediate. It takes a lifetime, and it is a struggle—a difficult one. Paul describes the painful ordeal here in Romans 7. It is a struggle between the flesh, which is still “sold under sin,” and inner man, the spiritual man who has been set free and who is able to obey only because he has the Spirit indwelling within him. Paul writes,
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:14-25)
This is clearly a description of a Christian because unbelievers hate the law, they’re dead in their sins, and enslaved with no spiritual power to break their chains. The Christian, however, loves the law, but is still carnal in his flesh and bound by it (strapped to it). He hates his sin, but his old impulses love it. This is what is meant by the flesh being “sold under sin.” He is spiritually awake, spiritually empowered by grace, and spiritually adept, but the remaining power of sin pulls at him to lull him to sleep, to weaken him, and to strip him of his new will. The resulting war within the self is epic. Every true Christian can testify to it. It’s a war of loves—our love for God and His holy law and our love for ourselves and our sin. This is the “power of sin” within, though its power is nothing compared to the power of the Spirit, who is promised to help us.
While the battle is between the old and the new, the flesh and the spirit, the Christian is always sustained, strengthened, and empowered by the Spirit. In other words, we cannot do it alone. We couldn’t justify ourselves by our own efforts, and we can’t sanctify ourselves by our own efforts. Our sin is too great, and the law is too pure. We are always in need of God and His abiding grace.
This is Paul’s message in every letter he wrote—our complete and total dependency on Christ. When we try to do obey in our flesh and do the work on our own, we fail because, just as we had no power in our justification, we have no power in our sanctification. This doesn’t mean the two are the same. In our justification, we weren’t even aware of it happening. God renewed us and He imputed Christ’s righteousness to us. But in sanctification, once that faith was activated within us and our wills broken from the condemning bondage of sin, our eyes were opened to the beauty of God’s holiness and the heinousness of our sin. We became infused with the life-giving power of the Spirit. We became spiritually discerned. And what do we do with that spiritual discernment and awareness? We look at ourselves and say, “I don’t want to be sinful like this any longer.”
Because of our love for God and His holiness, we want to be like Him, not out of obligation or to earn salvation that has already been given to us, but because we want to be like the One we love; we want to please Him. So we begin the struggle, fighting against the sin within—and that sin is powerful. The old man is angry, he hates the law, he hates God, he loves himself. But we don’t need to be afraid; we have a new principle working in us—we have the power of the Spirit. We fight, we struggle, we often fail, but we keep going—all the while knowing that we can’t do this of ourselves. From first to last, salvation is of the Lord and by His power. We must lean on it, look to it, hold on to it, and use the spiritual weapons of spiritual warfare to overcome the enemy within and without.
We can’t emphasize enough how difficult the struggle is. “Who will save me from this body of death?” Paul cries out. If you’re not crying that daily, you should ask yourself, “Am I a believer?”—because that’s the state of the believer. It’s not the state of the unbeliever who doesn’t struggle with sin—because he doesn’t love God. The believer, however, is in the battle; he’s fighting sin because he loves God’s holiness. He hates the body of death, while the unredeemed love it. The “body” here is not the physical body. It is the inner man, the old man, the old thoughts, feelings, proclivities, and desires. This old self is the body of death that the new man with his renewed mind wars against. It is the flesh that wars against the Spirit, but if we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Given the difficulty of the struggle, we must help one another, urge one another on toward love and good deeds, encourage, rebuke, discipline, teach, pray for, and show one another grace. If you see a professed Christian sinning, don’t just write them off and mumble, “Well, I guess they’re not a Christian.” Go to them and help. See what’s going on. Are they struggling with their sin, or are they enjoying it? Do they love God’s law or hate it? Do they weep over their disobedience or weep only when they’re caught? Are they humble in their sin or prideful?
If you see a theme here, you’ll begin to understand the “fruit” that we look for in the believer—and it’s not mere outward conformity to the law. The most well-behaved man can be the most depraved. Depending on where a Christian is in their spiritual journey, and depending on their former lives, each life will look different. For example, the Christian who lived in complete debauchery before he was redeemed might be rough around the edges, curse sometimes, show anger, or engage in some worldly behaviors. Yet, he longs to be better, to improve, to be more obedient to God. He welcomes the rebuke of more mature Christians, knows how far he has to go, and weeps at the darkness within as he gets on his knees and begs for God’s mercy to sustain him and Christ’s Spirit to sanctify him. His soul is humble because he knows his sin. He wants to be holy, and he wants to be like other more mature Christians. He’s just not as far along on the path, and we should be tender with such a man, not judgmental.
In all his struggles, this man might even be closer to God’s holiness than the believer raised in the Christian home. The “old Christian” might be outwardly “clean,” but he is filled with pride and condescension, lies to himself about his hateful heart, and exhibits a hostile spirit when more mature Christians rebuke him and try to show him his sin—even in love. He doesn’t grieve over the struggle with sin because he doesn’t think he’s engaged in it. His pride has won out, and he resembles nothing of Paul who cried out for God’s grace to sustain him in the war with the old man. He simply carries on justifying himself by his good works while his wholesale dependence on Christ’s justification is absent. Such a man should not presume to be in the kingdom, yet he does, for he is looking at the wrong kind of fruit.
We must issue a very strong warning here because we so easily want to justify ourselves and excuse our sin. Too many might be assuming that Christians can live in all kinds of wickedness as long as they feel bad about it. This is not what Scripture teaches, and it’s not what we’re saying here. The Christian war with the flesh is internal, and, indeed, we all are dealing with sin in different ways on our separate journeys, but Paul also teaches that the state of the Christian life is one of victory, of putting off the outward behaviors of sin even as we struggle within. This “putting off,” however, is still by dependency on the Spirit, but it is real repentance, real turning away from sin. Consider his teaching to the Galatians in chapter 5:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-25)
These are sobering words. The battle is real. The struggle with the flesh is real. Sometimes we falter. Find us the perfect Christian, and we’ll have to negate most of the New Testament. Fighting sin is difficult, and we do fail at times—hence our need for the Advocate at the right hand of God and to seek forgiveness daily. Don’t run to conclusions of perfection, even when Paul says, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” He is talking about that those who live in these states of sin, whose lives bear these as “abiding fruit.” This is not the same as struggling, slipping, but then repenting, while still bearing fruit of the Spirit. The Christian doesn’t live by the desires and passions of the flesh. He wars against them and doesn’t let them take root in his life. His life looks, outwardly, very different from the unbeliever’s, even with his sin, and especially compared to his old life. There is real change. There is real repentance. There is real fruit of the Spirit.
The fact is the Christian life is filled with the tension between Paul’s message and James’. You are saved by faith alone, but that faith is not alone. You are justified, but you are also sanctified. As a Christian, you are a sinner striving against sin because you love God and you love his law. You grieve when you fail, and you lean on Him every step of the way. If you’ve sinned and you enjoy it, and if a fellow believer confronts you and you resent her and you secretly hate God’s law that’s forcing you to part ways with your beloved sin, then, no, you probably should not assume that you have been justified by faith. But if you love your Savior and you long to be in His presence, but that inner man is constantly beating against the walls of your spirit, demanding that you give into your lust, your pride, your fear, your despair, your lies, and your hunger for self-justification, then you know the reality of the Christian’s spiritual battle. It’s brutal. It’s exhausting. It’s humbling. And it is never-ending. But it is never without hope. You are sustained by God’s power and His grace.
You are never alone. The work, ultimately is God’s, and He has promised that “those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” If He has justified you, He will see you through to the end. If He is for us, who can be against us—even our old selves that war against the Spirit. Our Father will never forsake us, and we need to remember that in those dark moments of the soul when we think the flesh has won. Paul writes in Romans 8,
“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:32-39)
Never forget His promises. It is God who justifies. It is God who sanctifies. It is God who glorifies. Look to Him, look always to Him, and He will see you through every temptation and every trial. He will bring you home, and every sin, every tear, will be washed away.