When Easy Obeyism becomes Hard

sisyphusAs 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 “real” 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 Christ’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 God’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. [60]

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 Christ’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, “right with God.”

But that’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 didn’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 won’t fix the problem of potential moral laxity. Definitive sanctification, for instance, merely heightens the problem of antinomianism – if I am simultaneously justified and sanctified, then I’m all good all the time. There’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, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” 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 believer’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 “have I been obedient enough”? Or “have I been sufficiently faithful”? After all, if I’m not obedient, then it sounds like I’m going to compromise my state of justification. And if I’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, I’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 Christian’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 sinner’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 God’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.

36 thoughts on “When Easy Obeyism becomes Hard

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I am currently teaching Galatians to High School students and I see much the same argument from the False Teachers there. Certainly justificaiton by faith alone can’t be enough. Let’s just throw in a little circumcision and a lot of Moses, and then we will have faithful followers.
    But, I think Paul’s words regarding circumcision apply to those who empasize faithfulness as necessary for justification, “Christ is of no value.” As you stated well, we are hard wired to the Covenant of Works. Yet, as our Standards and Scripture relates, Christ as the Second Adam kept that Covenant for us. Yes, we might in our sinful nature try, but thank God for the good news that Jesus did it for us. That is so incredibly liberating to all sinners (such as myself) who struggle and recognize our lack of faithfulness.
    As those who are called to shepherd the flock of Christ, I am perplexed at how teaching justification by faithfulness is a message of comfort. Sounds like Law to me.


    Matt Holst


  2. Mr. Hart,

    This is the best news to a troubled conscience that money can’t buy! I can’t tell you how many Reformed sermons that I have heard that assumes the Gospel. I start to wonder if I mistakenly entered the Rotary Club or synagogue. Befuddled why the Gospel is assumed in preaching? Coddled by the Gospel, perhaps?


  3. Well put DGH- now take time to tells us what is wrong then with Doug Wilson ( the orthodox voice in the Federal Vision according to Tim Prussic) and his book ‘Reformed Is Not Enough’? Seems to have not troubled John Piper very much.


  4. Calvin on John 5:29. “And they who have done good to the resurrection of life.” The inference which the Papists draw from those passages — that eternal life is suspended on the merits of works — may be refuted without any difficulty. For Christ does not now treat of the cause of salvation, but merely distinguishes the elect from the reprobate by their own mark; and he does so in order to invite and exhort his own people to a holy and blameless life. And indeed we do not deny that the faith which justifies us is accompanied by an earnest desire to live well and righteously; but we only maintain that our confidence cannot rest on any thing else than on the mercy of God alone.


  5. So you’re saying that I can just make a decision for Christ, and if I should continue to live as I did in my old ways, my assurance should not be shaken?


  6. So what you’re saying is that the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism were secretly written by Lutherans…?



  7. Exactly. No difference between Heidelberg, Belgic Confession, and Billy Graham. Oh wait, even Billy talked about the need for changing my old ways.

    So I guess if you raise this concern, you’re saying you agree with Rome’s anathemas against Protestant teaching on justification?


  8. Forget Rome (in a manner of speaking), does one agree with Paul’s accusers that at bottom this is antinomianism?

    But the only thing Reformed take more seriously than sin is grace, as in super-abounding.


  9. No, i’m not saying that, although you’ll probably just tell me thats what i’m doing anyway.

    This is teh quote…
    The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification,

    so it looks like he agrees with you on this.

    he goes on to say…
    but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day

    and you disagree. you say the personal godliness of the believer is NOT necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day.

    How is what you are saying different from what I wrote –

    So you’re saying that I can just make a decision for Christ, and if I should continue to live as I did in my old ways, my assurance should not be shaken?


  10. Bill W., my personal righteousness is Christ. As the Belgic Confession teaches, “Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which he has done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness.” The Belgic Confession also says that to suggest something more is necessary, such as my “personal” righteousness, is to deny the sufficiency of Christ.

    Somehow, I doubt that’s what Calvin had in mind.


  11. dgh, Im sure the Belgic confession is really good, but i’ve never read it. But i have read in Hebrews where it says “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” And so my bible says that without holiness i won’t see the Lord, and your belgic confession says that holiness denies the sufficiency of Christ. Mr. Hart (Sorry to call you “dgh” before, I just found out yoru name) I’m sure your a holy guy, i really don’t doubt that. And I’m not being facesous when i say that. But i think the bible is pretty straight foreward that if you’re going to see the Lord you need holiness. If there’s a nother way to interpret hebrews then I’m not aware of it but i’d like to hear what you think about it.


  12. No offense, Mr. W., but you sound exactly like 16th century Roman Catholics after reading confessions like the Belgic. If you want to claim that personal holiness is different from the righteousness I have through faith in Christ, then you may want to do so in a way that denies Rome.


  13. Mr. Hart, no offense is taken. I really don’t know about roman catholics in the 16th centry. But it seems to me if you want to harass a fellow because he says that you need holiness if you’re going to be saved, then you want to do it in a way that’s a little different from my local calvary chapel who says that if you just decide for Christ then your saved forever, no matter what. I bet that you and me would agree about being saved and holiness and everything pretty much… I’m just saying that it’s a little bit harder to explain why a saved person has to be holy than you make it out to be. You either HAVE to be holy, your it is OPTIONAL. If you want to explain how there’s another choice besides HAVE or OPTIONAL, that would be good. Or maybe if i don’t understand Hebrews 12 (there are a lot of things i don’t understand in the Bible) right then that would be good too. But you can’t just tell me that i’m like a “16 century Roman Catholics”. For one, i don’t really know them, and 2… that doesn’t explain anything. It just lets you stop listening to me since you have a label for me. But I don’t have a label for you, Mr. Hart.


  14. Well, Mr. W., it might help if you understood Roman Catholicism before complaining about Calvary Chapel. I find it odd that you object to the idea of trusting in Christ merely saves you, because of course we “need” to do more. Have you considered that your holiness is only about as holy as filthy rags (https://oldlife.org/2009/09/09/easy-obeyism/)? And why do you insist on separating Christ’s righteousness from yourself, as if his righteousness is different from your “personal” holiness? Given the direction of your thought, how is it that you are not trusting in your own righteousness even a little bit? And how smart would that be if your good works are filthy rags?

    As John Goodman’s character in Raising Arizona says, with a chicken leg pointed at his temple, “think about it.”


  15. Mr. Hart –

    I don’t object that trust in Christ saves you. that is all that saves you, as any christian knows. sometimes the Bible talks about people’s holiness, like i pointed out in Hebrews,

    if ther’es no difference between my righteousness and Christs righteousness, then how are all of my good works like filthy rags? so there’s a chicken leg for you.

    Hebrews isn’t talking about imputed rihteousness. And i still don’t get how you can’t tell me whether good works are not OPTIONAL or necessary. I do’nt think you can explain it either, which is why you keep avoiding the question. but until i go and read a bunch of Roman Catholics from the 16th century, you’re not going to take me seriously. And if i did do it, you woudl probably say, “Well, Mr. W, if you read them in LATIN you would really understand. I can’t take you seriously, Mr. W, until you read ancent catholics in LATIN.”


  16. Finally, a “Raising Arizona” reference. But instead of Goodman, how about Hunter: “That’s no answer. That ain’t no answer.” That might apply here.


  17. Sorry, I guess i put the writing in the wrong place. I think if you look beneath this part here you’ll see what i was writing.


  18. Bill W., could it be that you haven’t done a very good job of explaining how good works are necessary? After all, “as any Christian knows,” “trust in Christ saves you.” so perhaps you could do us all a favor and explain how good works are necessary for salvation and how trust in Christ saves. I’ll give you a little hint, the Reformers already figured that one out, even though they wrote statements that you regard as little different from Calvary Chapel. They said that good works are necessarily the result of saving faith, that is, they are the fruit and evidence of true faith. That is why they put justification logically prior to sanctification.

    Maybe the problem here is your overly high assessment of good works. They really are filthy rags. The Bible (Is. 64:6) and even the Confession of Faith (16.6) say that. Maybe if you acknowledged the sin that clings to a believer’s “goodness,” you might back off insisting that “good works are necessary for salvation.” If they are necessary, then either the are really good (which becomes a real problem for everyone post-fall and pre-consummation) or they are tainted and need the life supplied by Christ’s righteousness.


  19. Mr. Hart, you don’t have to be fresh and say things like “I’ll give you a little hint.”

    Your good works are necessare because if you don’t have them, you don’t really have faith. I agree with the Reformers, it looks like.

    The Westminister Confession says “VI. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him;[20] not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight;[21] but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.[22]”

    I don’t suppose God is accepting and rewarding filthy rags. And as you pointed out, there’s no difference between my works and Christ’s works. (You still didn’t tell me how there’s no difference between my works and Christs works, but my works are filthy rags, and Christ’s works are NOT filthy rags?) (You also haven’t answered how good works are not necessary, but they are “necessarily the result of saving faith.”) Sounds like they’re necessary to me.

    I also figure that if you look at Matt. 25.31-end you will see what a saved person looks like. They saved peoples are the ones who have been doing the good works and then forgetting about them, and the unsaved peoples are the ones who had not been doing the good works, and they didn’t even see what they should have been doing. How is it possible to have a saved fellow who didn’t do the good works?

    I don’t think that you and me really disagree a whole lot, Mr. Hart, except that you really want to give old Mr. Shepherd a hard time, and I can’t figure out what makes him so awful.


  20. Bill W., have you considered that Paul was awfully hard on the Judaizers. They preached Christ, after all. Yet, for some reason, that wasn’t good enough.


  21. Mr. Hart, you’ve confused a talk about good works with a talk about works that aren’t morally necessary. Nobody needs to not eat bacon.

    A lot of theological fellows like to act like the sorts of things they deal with today is the same thing the apostels had to do with.


  22. A lot of theological fellows like to act like the sorts of things they deal with today is the same thing the apostels had to do with.

    Bill, if you don’t mind, this is an interesting comment.

    I know it’s not all that inspirational of a text to most, but Ecclesiastes speaks of there being nothing new under the sun. Your view here seems to be that that probably is an outdated posture. Whatever else this implies, it seems to me that to think there is some great divide between what the Apostles tangoed with and what we do is to ultimately render Scripture irrelevant—after all, who here owns a donkey or a manservant or a maidservant? How ironic for a Biblicist. But human beings are the same creatures today they were they day they were sent packing east of Eden.


  23. Mr. Zrim,

    I suppose the same sorts of things do come up from time to time. What i probly should of said is that EVERYTHING we face doesnt neccessarily fit into one of the main categories that Apostle Paul was dealing with. In other words, take a couple guys fighting over the days of creation, and before you know it, one of them is “denying the Gospel.” Which seems to be not a real good take on the fight.

    And when a couple of reformed theologians are fighting over divorce and remariage, it doesn’t mean that one of the fellahs is saying that everything in the church in Corinth was A-OK and the other one is just as right as Paul.

    What i mean, and probably didn’t say to well, is that I hear a lot of fighting over the Bible and it’s fighting between a couple of Christian brothers, not fightingting between those who are not “of us,” like in 1 John. But that sort of thing does come up, too.

    I think you’re outta context in Ecclesiastes. It’s not a propositional statement, as if airplanes were not new when they were invented, and Jesus’ sacrifice had been done before.


  24. Mr. Hart,

    I’ve never even heard of Mr. Shepherd before this, but you’re responsible for the content of your letters. If you want to make a case, you gotta do it, or at least tell me that somebody else did it, like you just did. As it stands, you’re first writing wasn’t convincing. Maybe this is just a “website” for fellows who know about Mr. Shepherd already.


  25. Bill W.,

    I suppose the same sorts of things do come up from time to time. What i probly should of said is that EVERYTHING we face doesnt neccessarily fit into one of the main categories that Apostle Paul was dealing with. In other words, take a couple guys fighting over the days of creation, and before you know it, one of them is “denying the Gospel.”

    Your example seems to assume “we” know what “the gospel” is. It seems to me you are assuming the point of this very conversation, namely, What is “the gospel” and by extension who is “us”?

    I think you’re outta context in Ecclesiastes. It’s not a propositional statement, as if airplanes were not new when they were invented, and Jesus’ sacrifice had been done before.

    The beauty about wisdom literature is that one is never out of context when employing it. Air travel may be relatively novel, but the human quest which lies beneath it is an old story. Similarly, there may not be a circumcision group afoot today, but the human quest for self-justification simply finds another of myriad ways to sneak works into the equation. The sooner one grasps that we’re at once built for but unfit to accomplish works-righteousness the easier it becomes to see how this conundrum is the daily human story across all places and times.

    Don’t you see that otherwise, if nothing else, your take here runs the risk of saying the book of Galatians is as irrelevant to Christian living as (you evidently think) Ecclesiastes is?


  26. Bill W. is correct on this. He did a good job of showing what the Scripture teaches clearly… That true faith produces fruit. This is what the Word calls “the fruit of righteousness”.


  27. 1 John 3:
    1-See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
    now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will
    be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will
    see Him just as He is.
    3-And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

    4-Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
    5-You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
    6-No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
    7-Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;
    8-the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from
    the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the
    works of the devil.
    9-No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
    10-By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious:
    anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God,
    nor the one
    who does not love his brother.
    Emphasis mine, but the NASB pretty much nails the Greek verbs here.

    A person for whom sin is the flagrant norm is not a Christian or John’s a liar. Everybody sins. Those who have born from the first Adam into the last hate their sin and wage war with it as the enemy that it is. Those not fighting the Romans 7 war over time do not have the same enemies as those that are.

    I say again: I certainly don’t believe that Lazarus (perfect illustration) played any part in raising himself from the dead, but once raised he did obey his masters voice and walk outta that tomb. Had he laid there stiff and stinking with no pulse, nobody would have believed he was alive. And quite rightly so.

    There’s no such thing as a Christian with no Gospel vital signs.


  28. Most of the enemies of Joel Osteen also have a false gospel, about which they feel very self-righteous—–many of them want to fight “easy believism” with legalism, and counter prosperity with purgatory.

    We need both law and gospel, but we don’t need a balance of the two. We don’t need equal time for both. Not everything in the Bible should get equal attention, because not everything in the Bible is gospel.


  29. Nor should justification and regeneration get “equal time”. Bruce McCormack—”The problem is that one of the ‘gifts’–regeneration–is very difficult to distinguish conceptually from that ‘union’ which is supposed to give rise to BOTH justification AND REGENERATION….For where regeneration is made— if only logically–to be the root of justification, then the work of God in us is once again made to be the ground of the divine forgiveness of sins.” p 110, “What’s At Stake in Current Debates Over Justification?”,


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