Often as Christians read the Bible and learn the doctrines therein, they will over-extend the logical implications of these doctrines, which leads to unwarranted conclusions. One of the most obvious examples of this is the over-extension of justification by faith alone. In an attempt to avoid the error of works-salvation, some people will say that since the faith is alone, this entails that we do not really have to do anything in our Christian lives. We can live however we want. We can live evil lives. We can even become atheists, because our justification has been settled by faith alone. This misunderstanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone often serves as an excuse for sin. Why not live in sin? We are justified. So, do Christians have moral duties? In this article, I would like to affirm justification by faith alone, but suggest that Christians do have moral duties.
The Son of God had to be slaughtered for our sin. If we want to develop a practical doctrine of our relationship with sin that honors and reflects the biblical data, we need to ask ourselves how God reacted when his people sinned. It seems to me that he thought of it as a departure from faith in him. Even if the Israelites continued worshipping him, sin was still what kept the creature from his Creator. Whether they synchronized their faith with Paganism and worshipped other gods alongside God, or they worshipped him alone, and were highly ritualistic, God still condemned them. Whether the crime is idolatry or coming to God with lip-service but an empty heart, these crimes are still a punishable offense. They are abhorrent to God to the extent that he has devoted cities to destruction and left them in ruin because of their sin.
God hates sin so much that when the sins of his people were laid up his Son, he crushed his only begotten Son under the heavy weight of his fury. He destroyed his Son because his Son was marked with the sins of his people. The slaughter of the Son of God is a demonstration of the severity of sin and God’s wrath against iniquity. The cross of Christ is a picture of God’s hatred for sin and his love for mankind. Do Christians have moral duties? It seems unthinkable that we would continue in sin knowing that God hates it so much that his Son had to be slaughtered to atone for his people.
This recognition of the severity of sin demonstrated in the cross seems to also disarm the idea that because Jesus died for our sins, that we can live evil lives. It is rather precisely because Jesus died on the cross that we should be impaled with the groaning desire for righteousness and holiness.
Love is the fulfillment of the Law. What does it mean to keep the Law? What did it mean for the Jews before the death of Christ and what does it mean for Christians today? Paul tells us that love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:10) and if we love one another, then we are keeping the Law. However, in an attempt to show that Christians need not concern themselves with moral duties, many suggest that we should just love each other, and that is all. But this love that Paul writes of should not be taken as a generic or abstract entity that is beyond all human definition. If we were to think of love like that, then anything could be called love. I would suggest that this is not really love that is being described, but hatred.
Love is nuanced, particular, and contains precepts within it. One cannot just broadly say that we need to love and this frees us from further discussion of the matter. Rather, Paul tells us, “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness…” In this paragraph, there are ten moral precepts that the person who loves will keep. If you are being impatient, then you are not being loving. If you are arrogant, then you are not being loving. Do Christians have moral duties? We are commanded to love one another, and this love has within it particular precepts and commands that we are meant to keep.
It should be said that Jesus kept the entire Law. He loved God with all of heart, strength, soul and mind, and he loved his neighbor as him. He did these things in their fulness for his entire life. But how did he do that? He did that by obeying the perfect Law of God. He was a devout Jew, born under the Law, and he said, “I do know him and I keep his word.” (John 8:55). Thus the way love manifests itself is in keeping moral precepts, and I think that this is obvious. If one loves their wife, they will keep the moral precept, ‘you must not commit adultery.’ The command to love contains moral precepts within it.
We are dead to sin. It is quite interesting how little the human thought process has changed. People have always looked for ways to justify their sin as they mightily try to circumvent the command to sin. Some people apparently brought this challenge to Paul as well. He answered it in Romans 6:1-2, writing, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” The Christians is dead the sin. The Christian is a new man. The old man that he once was is dead. As he writes similarly in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” The man that we once were, bringing forth the lust of the flesh has passed away. He was crucified with Christ so that we would no longer be slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) The new man is here and he is dead to sin.
Therefore, since we are dead to sin, how should we behave? Paul writes, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14) Do Christians have moral duties? Well, what does this passage say? There is very little exegesis that is required. In fact, many who argue that we do not have moral duties will say, “we are not under the Law, but under grace,” as though that implied that we could do whatever we want. But Paul suggests that this paradigm means that sin is not master over us. We are to present our bodies as an instrument of righteousness.
Is this just salvation by works? People often misunderstand the call to righteous living. People suggest that if we are living righteous lives, it must be the mechanism by which we think that we are saved. Thus, we are performing what is known as salvation by works, which is where one merits their justification over a long period of time. This would obviously stand in contrast with Romans 4:5, which reads, “To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5). Yet while Paul taught this doctrine of justification by faith alone, he also said, “for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” While we are justified by faith alone, we are also called to keep the Law. How do we put these two truths together?
Well as I pointed out in my article Does Romans 2 Teach Salvation By Works? what Paul is saying is that the person who is justified will do good works. They are not saved by good works, but they do good works as a consequence of their justification. Thus we can say that justification is by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone. We are still called to do good works and to live a righteous lifestyle. If a person believes in salvation by works, they will trust in their works. Their works will be the mechanism by which they are justified. But in this case, that is not what the Christian church is advocating. The church advocates that our works are not the mechanism for justification, but are an outpouring after our justification.
In this way, they may be thought of as an overflow of the joy that we have for God’s forgiveness. We are rejoicing over what God has done for us. We are rejoicing that he died in our place, taking our sins upon himself, and then defeated death. We are rejoicing that he gave us this positional standing of righteousness before that Father that comes by faith alone in him. As an overflow of this rejoicing and this love that we have, we desire to do the will of God. As Jesus said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”
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