Christianity Today has a very well done essay on the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, and its relationship to ethical conduct. Here are some highlights:
Justification by faith, which gives us assurance of our standing before God, is not just a pastoral doctrine. It goes to the very core of our theological tradition. Martin Luther described it as the "first and chief article" of Protestantism "on which the church stands or falls." It is no surprise then that recent affirmations of justification have attracted evangelicals as diverse as Tom Oden and R. C. Sproul, Pat Robertson and Ron Sider. Still, don't be surprised to see more debates about justification unfolding. Next month's cover story, by British scholar Simon Gathercole, will look at how some evangelical scholars are reinterpreting Paul's teaching on justification.
So what is the "first and chief article of Protestantism"? Scripturally, it goes like this: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Alienated from God, hostile in mind, we practice evil behavior (Col. 1:21). Though we offend his perfect holiness, God acquits those who trust in him and in what he has done for us through Christ: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
Theologically, we understand it like this: In his perfect life and obedient death, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and became the head of God's new family. We belong to Christ; we belong to this new humanity. Christ is judged righteous, and we who believe are made alive in him.
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Such a radical idea has caused many to think: This is too good to be true. Surely I must contribute something to the process. But we contribute nothing. We don't even contribute faith. With God's gift of faith, we paradoxically deny the meritorious nature of human action and affirm the work of Another. It is not faith in faith, but faith in Christ.
Thus, Protestants from John Calvin to John Wesley have agreed: We have peace with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Another question that has troubled Christians since the days of Paul is this: "Why bother to be good when it seems to make no difference to our salvation?"
Paul has little patience for such an attitude, partly because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in justification. It is not only about getting rid of personal guilt; it is also about taking on a new corporate identity. "We died to sin," Paul says. "How can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:2). We have been baptized into Christ's death; shouldn't we live with him in resurrection life? As members of his new humanity, shouldn't we live like it? Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:12).
Simply put, those who are truly justified will lead lives of holiness, knowing with Paul that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).
Sadly, many in our churches have sold the extraordinary gift of justification for the pottage of therapeutic religion. Rather than finding assurance in Christ, some assure themselves they have done nothing so bad as to deserve condemnation.
Even worse, others flaunt their freedom, abusing the truth that Jesus covers a multitude of sins. As Paul said of people who accused him of teaching that we should sin to bring more grace: "Their condemnation is deserved" (Rom. 3:8).
Such attitudes do not exemplify trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who treats holiness with deathly seriousness. They turn the old notions of merit on their heads, treating a priceless gift—Jesus' righteousness—as if it had no value.
The Bible says this type of faith—faith without good works—is as good as no faith at all. It's as dead and meaningless as the selling of indulgences.