For many evangelicals and for some ostensibly Reformed folk, it has been fashionable for the past several years to teach that we are justified now by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed but that because salvation includes sanctification and sanctification entails works, we shall finally be saved, as they say, “through good work”. One prominent evangelical organisation published the thesis: “You are not saved by faith alone. Be killing sin.” Thus, what this two-stage approach to salvation gives with the right hand (initial justification sola fide), it takes away with the left (final salvation through works).
This is an intentional revision of the Reformation doctrine of salvation. Their goal is that Christians should be more sanctified and produce more good works, but they are dissatisfied with the Reformation doctrine of justification, sanctification and glorification by grace alone, through faith alone. They do not believe that good works are nothing but the fruit and evidence of justification and sanctification. They do not accept the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. They reject the notion that sanctification is, as Walter Marshal wrote, is a “gospel mystery”, that there is not a straight line to sanctification. They reject the notion that progressive sanctification is the fruit of justification and that good works are the fruit of progressive sanctification.
Justification and salvation in Romans 5:9–10
In light of the proposed revisions, let us consider briefly how Paul thinks about the nature of both justification and salvation and how he relates the two in Romans 5:9–10. Paul writes,
Since we have now been justified by his blood how much more shall we be saved from wrath through him? Because if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, by how much more shall we be saved by his life?
The two-stage view depends 1) upon the notion that there is an initial justification and a final salvation; 2) that initial justification is through faith alone but final salvation, because it involves our sanctification and sanctification is by grace and cooperation with grace (i.e., by grace and works) is through works.
The first premise is manifestly contrary to the Pauline doctrine of justification and salvation in several places, including this one. We have been saved (Eph 2:8) by grace alone, through faith alone. In this passage, Paul is teaching us that the future aspect of our salvation, i.e., the consummation of our salvation, is also by grace alone, through faith alone. Works are never instrumental in our justification, our sanctification, or our salvation taken as a whole.
It is true that salvation is or can be a comprehensive category. It is also true that the Westminster Divines were aware of this when they said justification “is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC, 33) and sanctification “he work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC, 35). The divines never mention our works in connection with or as instrumental to our justification or sanctification.
The Divines spoke this way because this is what Paul teaches us. We have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from the works of the law (Rom 3:24, 28; 4:1; 5:1; 8:1). Sanctification is being worked in us. It results in a change in us. We do good works because we have been freely justified and because we are being freely sanctified (Rom 7:4; Eph 2:10; 5:9; Col 1:10; Phil 1:11; 2:13; Gal 5:22; James 2:14; 3:13). We are being conformed to the image of Christ. Mortification (putting to death of the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man) is being worked in us by the gracious, gradual work of the Spirit.
According to Paul in Romans 5:9, we have already been justified. There is and can be no future justification. That we were already justified will be declared at the judgment. The Reformed describe that as vindication. We are not out on bail in this life. There will be no future justification or re-adjudication for believers. God has already issued his declaration for all who are in Christ.
The means of our justification is the blood of Christ, which is a synecdoche, i.e., a figure of speech in which the part (Christ’s blood) stands for the whole namely, Christ’s substitutionary, actively suffering obedience in our place. That much is clear enough from what Paul says here in these two verses.
This is why Paul says, in both verses, “shall be saved”. Note well the passive voice. It is something that is done for us by God. We are not saving ourselves. We are being saved and were we to think about how God saved Noah and family or the Israelites at the Red Sea, two paradigmatic examples of salvation, we understand right away why Paul uses the passive voice. Noah and family were saved. They did not save themselves not even in the littlest bit. The Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. “For it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:8).
According to v. 9, the instrument of our salvation is Christ. Paul says we were saved from wrath “through him”. Christ saved us. Notice too how Paul moves from the past tense, i.e., from something that has already been accomplished, to the future tense. It too is in the passive voice. We were saved. We shall be saved. In both tenses we are the recipients not the agents of salvation.
By nature, after the fall, we were incapable of contributing to our salvation because, by nature, we were God’s enemies. We might say that Paul is not speaking strictly or properly here. He is speaking as though faith and the things of which faith lays hold are one thing: Christ and his death for us. That is how and why he speaks of Christ and his death as the instrument of our salvation.
By contrast, the medieval church (followed by Rome) came to postulate that although we were sick, like the man lying by the side of the road (Luke 10:29–33), we can still cooperate with God’s medicinal grace. Paul, however, says that we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1). We “were reconciled” to God. Christ did that for us, in our place. Again, we are passive recipients of the benefits of Christ’s obedience for us.
The instrument of our reconciliation is Christ’s death (“through the death of his Son”). Since we have been freely reconciled to God, how much more “shall we be saved”. Again, notice how, in v. 10, the future aspect of salvation is in the passive voice. Even in future, at the judgment, it is something done for us and given freely to us. We are merely grateful recipients of God’s free salvation. We are not co-workers or partners or contributors.
How shall we be saved in future? “By his life.” Here the ground and instrument of the consummation of our salvation is not our works at all. It is Christ’s works for us. It is in no way by our life that we saved and in every way by Christ’s life.
Christ is the last Adam (Rom 5:12–21). We are only Adam’s children and God’s adopted sons, in Christ. Christ was in the wilderness doing battle with Satan for forty days. He was crucified. He died. He was raised. He ascended. We are the beneficiaries of his active suffering obedience. Insofar as he acted for us, as our representative, we are united to him legally. By the grace of the Spirit, through faith we are mystically united to him now. We live our Christian life by faith in the Son of God who gave himself for us (Gal 2:20).