As long as the call for an obedient faith or the assertion that good works are necessary for salvation has justification to fall back on, the demand for a â€œrealâ€ and personal holiness among those who trust in Christ is not a threat but a comfort. The reason is that the perfect righteousness of Christ satisfied all the claims of the law and justice upon the elect. Christians no longer face condemnation, not only for original sin, sins committed prior to faith in Christ, sinful acts while a Christian, or even for the wickedness that clings to their good works that are the fruit and evidence of saving faith. All their sins in all aspects of their lives have been blotted out by Christâ€™s work on the cross.
As the Heidelberg Catechism so helpfully puts it:
Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all Godâ€™s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had beeen as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. 
In other words, God looks upon me as really perfect and he looks at my good works which are filthy rags as a spotless raiment only because of Christâ€™s righteousness imputed to me by faith alone.
As long as this understanding of justification is the basis for considerations of obedience, good works, and sanctification (i.e. the logical priority of justification), we are fine. Obeying is easy because we know that despite our weakness and infirmity we are clinging to the cross of Christ, not to our own efforts, as the source of our real and personal holiness that makes us, as the Heidelberg Catechism also puts it, â€œright with God.â€
But thatâ€™s generally not the way it goes when people consider their good works and faithfulness. After all, faith is awfully close to faithfulness, and so maybe my faithfulness is not simply evidence of my faith but also proof of my own goodness. Of course, going all the way back to the Garden, humans want to justify themselves before God. This is the way we are wired because the Covenant of Works is so deeply rooted in our who we are as divine image bearers. We want to believe that if we do good works, we will live eternally because of our goodness, or at least because we tried hard. But to bring faithfulness close to faith is like pointing an addict to dope.
Yet, some like Norman Shepherd didnâ€™t recognize the attraction of self-righteousness for the works-addicted. He feared that an overly forensic conception of salvation would encourage moral laxity among Christians, as if an overemphasis on justification would yield a neglect of good works. Mind you, simply making sanctification a distinct but simultaneous benefit of union with Christ wonâ€™t fix the problem of potential moral laxity. Definitive sanctification, for instance, merely heightens the problem of antinomianism â€“ if I am simultaneously justified and sanctified, then Iâ€™m all good all the time. Thereâ€™s no need for improvement.
This problem may have been responsible for the efforts of Norman Shepherd to find biblical and confessional reasons to get Christians to live better. But unfortunately, like all moral nudging it ended up making Christians who, stood guiltless before God because of Christ, feel guilty.
In the twentieth and twenty-first of his thirty-four theses, Shepherd asserted:
The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, â€œthe doers of the Law will be justified,â€ is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25). The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb. 3:6, 14).
The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believerâ€™s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day
A natural response to these assertions is â€œhave I been obedient enoughâ€? Or â€œhave I been sufficiently faithfulâ€? After all, if Iâ€™m not obedient, then it sounds like Iâ€™m going to compromise my state of justification. And if Iâ€™m not personally obedient, then I need to worry about judgment day. At the same time, if the truth of my justification is linked to my own goodness and godliness, and if my good works are tainted with sin, Iâ€™m in a heap of trouble. Which is another way of saying that linking faith and obedience closely, even if the aim is to get people to be holier, is to destroy the comfort of a clear conscience that comes with justification by faith alone.
The Reformers saw this problem and addressed it directly when explaining justification and good works. According to the Belgic Confession, Article 23, the obedience of Christ:
is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.
In fact, if we had to appear before God relying– no matter how little– on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.
Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”
The problem of a plagued conscience was also pertinent to the consideration of the Christianâ€™s obedience and faithfulness. In the next article (24) the Belgic Confession affirms:
[A]lthough we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.
The great advantage of justification by faith alone and its priority to sanctification and good works, then, is that it calms a sinnerâ€™s conscience. It could be my problem alone, since I may have more dirt to plague my conscience than others. But then again, if perfection is the standard, all are condemned and should be haunted by Godâ€™s holy standard. That is all the more a reason for highlighting justification by faith alone as the solution to a guilty conscience, and rejecting any formulation that prompts sinners to wonder if they have done enough to be saved.