One of the most difficult subjects to wrap one’s head around is the interaction of faith and works. Once a person receives the forgiveness of Christ, is that all there is? Is no further action required, or is there something the believer has to do? If we are saved by faith, as the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, do works have any role whatsoever in the life of the Christian?
To suggest they do not is dangerous at best and unbiblical at worst. Since the very best we can do is, as the prophet Isaiah said, “filthy rags” before God (Isaiah 64:6), we know that our efforts have no part in becoming righteous in God’s eyes other than our reception of the forgiveness offered. Even so, the moment of conversion– the justification of the believer through the atonement of Christ– is only the first step in the process. The ongoing walk with Christ in this life, or sanctification, follows as surely as exhaust flows from an internal combustion engine. Sanctification is the natural result of justification, and is not possible through works. This being said, the works are the overflow of the conversion.
Paul teaches that there is more than a passive reception of purity involved in sanctification. In the great doctrinal thesis that is Romans, Paul points out the necessity of involvement in the work of sanctification. “For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:19b). Here he indicates that the nature of man is to offer up service to one of two masters: sin or righteousness. When man chooses to allow his sinful nature to dictate his course, the resulting actions will be an increase of sinful activity. Conversely, when man surrenders himself to God and appropriates the righteousness offered through the cross, his actions will result in actions that are increasingly righteous or undergoing “purification.”
Paul further highlights the effort required of the believer in the process of sanctification in Ephesians 6:22-24: “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth”. The “laying aside of the old self” suggests effort in addition to the justification of the substitutionary atonement. To suggest that no effort at all is required can be taken to such extremes as universalism, or such passive forms of Christianity as Quietism.
Paul continues and instructs the believer to “put on the new self”. The Greek word used here, enduo, has the connotation of not merely having a garment but putting it on, of literally sinking into the folds of it and having it envelop the wearer. This is very clearly an energetic act as opposed to a passive occurrence. Just as a parent lays out the clothes for a child, the child is undressed until they put their clothes on. When the child is small, the parent puts the clothes on for them. As they mature, they are to dress themselves.
Too many Christians are laying around waiting for God to dress us when He has provided us with everything we need. We need to not overstep our bounds, to be sure, but we must also ensure that we are assuming the responsibility our Father intends for us to take. Saved by Christ, empowered by the Spirit, we are to live out our lives demonstrating the hope we have within us.