…if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. (Gal. 3:21)
If you don’t agree with the statement made in the title, it is likely you have misunderstood the relationship between justification and good works as taught by the Protestant Reformers and those who followed in the heritage of their doctrine. The intention was never to take away emphasis from doing good works and keeping the moral law of God, as many have accused them. They uniformly insisted that without personal holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). They constantly warned about the rude shock that many false believers who live lawless lives would receive on the Day of Judgment when they will call out, “Lord, Lord!” and hear Jesus reply to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me!” (Matt. 7:21–23). God desires and is pleased by good works from us and we are not to slack off from doing them (Heb. 13:16).
The point of insisting on sola fide is not so much that good works are not necessary for justification, but that for sinners like you and me, good works are simply not possible without justification. Because if love is the fulfilling of the law, then you cannot even begin to keep the law, until you first believe, understand, and are assured of God’s mercy to you in your justification—that he is not a tormentor, but a loving Father, so loving, in fact, that he spared nothing, not even his own beloved Son, to ensure your salvation. We love him because he first loved us. And only because we are assured of God’s love to us in the Gospel, we are also able to respond in love and gratitude to him by keeping the law. “If you love me,” our Lord said, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Christ lived and died to show us how necessary a perfectly righteous life is for God to let any of us into heaven and, at the same time, how utterly impossible that is for us sinners to achieve. If there was any other way we could have attained to life, then that would have been the way, and Christ wouldn’t have bothered living such a humiliating life and dying such a cruel death. Christ did not suffer the way he did just to make righteousness a little easier for us, but to accomplish and fulfil all righteousness for us; not to help us attain righteousness but, even while we were yet sinners, to be our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30), and that not only in our justification, but just as much in our sanctification, and finally in our glorification, so that in all eternity we may know him to be Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness.
(This article is adapted from an address given at a conference on the topic of the doctrine of Justification held in June 2017 by Pilgrim Covenant Church)