Every now and then, through the course of the New Testament, there can be found a number of references to “attaining” everlasting life, or some such phrase that implies somehow that we have to work to reach the goal of our salvation in Christ. This shows up in Catholic piety and prayers, where a heavier understanding of human effort is included in their theology, but in Protestant teaching it’s generally ignored, because our works of the law have nothing to do with our salvation. In Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, I read today a good explanation of the balance of this complicated interplay:
For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, having righteousness from God; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (3:8-16, truncated)
I noticed two sides to this condition Paul describes in himself. In the first few verses, he notes that he has already identified with the “righteousness of God” – what theologians would call justification. This past even has opened him up to the present reality of sharing Christ’s sufferings, and the future possibility of being raised from the dead on the lat day. In the last few verses, Paul says that he is not perfect still, and is working hard toward that goal. And with it comes the exhortation in verse 16 – we all need “hold true” to what we’ve already got.
A hint of the balance begins to show forth here: we who have been baptized into Christ already have an identification in God’s righteousness (implying our sins must have been forgiven), but if we’re going to be mature, we’ve got to realize that the whole point of that justification we’ve received is to enable us to reach eternal life. Forgiveness and justification aren’t the end of our salvation, but only the beginning.
Now, does this mean that once we’ve gotten that initial grace from God, the rest of our salvation is up to us and our efforts? Yes and no. There is ‘work’ involved on our part, but it’s not entirely up to us. I underlined part of verse 12, in the middle of the quote, because I think it’s the key to this passage’s issue. We “press on” (or otherwise expend effort) to make God’s righteousness our own, because Christ has made us his own. One way of putting this is that works are a necessary outflow of justification, which is more explicitly stated elsewhere. Another way of putting this is that this process of becoming perfect (theologically termed as sanctification) is a matter of “coming to terms with our justification” (a quote from Dr. Gordon Isaac at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, while talking about Martin Luther’s theology).
Even here, though, I think we should be careful about throwing around the word ‘work.’ Paul says “press on” here, clearly showing that he’s putting effort into his sanctification. In another letter, Paul made it absolutely clear that sanctification cannot be pursued without the Holy Spirit. So it doesn’t come down to us simply working hard; it must still be God-directed. Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the author and perfecter of our faith. God gets us started on the right track, and helps us to stay on the track. It’s just like growing up: when you’re “born again” you’re just a baby and need to rely heavily on God’s graces (directly in matters of justification, and indirectly through Bible teaching, the Sacraments, and Church fellowship, etc.) to keep your spiritual life alive, but as you grow up, you have to take increasing ownership of that life God gave you. “Those who are mature” must “hold true to what we have obtained.”
This, I think, is where the more Catholic-style teachings about ethics and Sacraments come into play with a more Protestant-style understanding of justification. We are justified by grace through faith alone, but that’s just our “regeneration” or “second birth” or “new life.” From there we’re expected to grow up and take ownership of our faith – not to the point where we don’t need God anymore, but to the point when we’re mature enough and Christlike enough to be his bride, his children, a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, and all the other beautiful descriptions of what we were made to be. Over the course of that growing-up process are many things that help us stay on track: Sacraments to give us objective and physical connections to God, the Bible and good biblical teaching to keep our faith well-informed of God’s truth, corporate worship to keep us in unity with one another, a system of ethics which highlights biblical virtues so we practice being Christlike in this life, and so on. These are all tools to help us grow in Christ. Can any of them be misused and rendered useless? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make any of them bad, outdated, unworthy, or unnecessary.
The point of our justification is so we can have eternal life. But we haven’t been resurrected yet, so we’re still on the way. Let us take hold of that, just as Christ has taken hold of us. For Jesus has made us his own; we also need to continue to make him our own in return. That is the point of being a Christian.