Protestants agree that faith, not obedience, is the condition of our acceptance with God both at (Eph. 2:8) and after salvation (Gal. 2:20). Faith is the condition of our acceptance. Obedience is the evidence of our faith. Faith that saves obeys. Faith that does not obey does not save. Or, as James puts it, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
When Scripture talks about us being judged by our works (Prov. 24:12; Matt. 16:27), it means God will determine whether we have saving faith by whether we were workers of righteousness or workers of iniquity (cf. Matt. 7:21). Since the faith that saves obeys, if we were not obedient, then our faith was not valid. If we did obey, our faith was valid. In the words of Romans 2, eternal life is given to those who persevere “in doing good,” and thereby demonstrate their faith.
The key question we must answer is this: must obedience be perfect for one to remain God’s child? This is where a focus on our relationship with God through Christ is crucial. When I speak of a “performance model” versus a “relationship model,” I am talking specifically about a model of ongoing acceptance with God.
On what basis does God continue to accept me as one of His own—because of my performance (performance model) or because of my relationship to Christ through faith (relational model)? Is my relationship with God the result of my works, or is my relationship with God the context of my works?
Some of my students feel that God is pleased with them if they perform perfectly. To the degree that they do not perform perfectly, God is displeased and does not accept them. These young people want to please God. They want to live in relationship with Him. But in their minds, any sin of commission or omission means they are no longer saved, they are out of the kingdom, and they have to get saved again.
A student once told me that he had been backslidden all semester. When I asked him why, he said that he had struggled to read his Bible as consistently as he thought he should, and so he gave up, since falling short in Bible reading meant he was already not saved (again).
Such a “performance model” of ongoing acceptance with God is precisely what I see Paul condemning in Galatians: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3); “Does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5).
“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:4-5).
A relational model of acceptance with God does not give believers the license to rebelliously practice willful sin in their lives (1 John 3:4-6). Those who are born of God cannot practice sin (1 John 3:9)! Rather, a relational model highlights that God deals with us as with sons, chastening us when we need it so that we will not be judged with the world (1 Cor. 11:32; Heb. 12:5-10).
The NT consistently proclaims believers’ freedom from sin’s power and calls us to cease from sin and live in holiness (John 5:14; Eph. 4:28), though it also recognizes that believers can and may sometimes sin (1 John 2:1-2; Matt. 18:15). Paul told the Galatians to stand fast in their faith-based liberty in Christ. He also said they must use their freedom to serve others through love (Gal 5:1, 13).
The liberty of relationship with Christ is not license for fleshly living. A relational model sees our acceptance with God through faith as the basis for an ongoing life of obedience which will ultimately hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.