I believe with all my heart that we can do nothing to merit eternal life. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God accepts and declares us righteous not because of our good deeds, but because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn God’s favor. We depend entirely on his gospel grace.
Full stop. Period. New paragraph.
We can also be obedient.
Not flawlessly. Not without continuing repentance. Not without facing temptation. Not without needing forgiveness. But we can be obedient.
Obedience is not a dirty word for the gospel-centered Christian. We are saved from the wrath of God by sovereign grace, and that sovereign grace saves us unto holiness. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ has redeemed us from all lawlessness to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
More Spiritual than the Bible
Sometimes in a genuine effort to be honest about our persistent imperfections we make it sound like holiness, of any sort, is out of reach for the Christian. But this doesn’t do justice to the way the Bible speaks about people like Zechariah and Elizabeth who “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Likewise, Jesus teaches that the wise person hears his words and does them (Matt. 7:24). There’s no hint that this was only a hypothetical category. Quite the contrary, we are told to disciple the nations that they might obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).
God expects the Christian to be marked by virtues like love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5:22-23) instead of being known for sexual immorality, idolatry, theft, and greed (1 Cor. 6:9-11). No Christian will ever be free from indwelling sin, but we should no longer be trapped in habitual lawlessness (1 John 3:4). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
That’s true, you may say, but in the end all our righteous deeds are nothing but filthy rags. There’s nothing we work we can do that truly pleases God or can be considered righteous in his sight. I’ve probably explained Isaiah 64:6 with similar words, but I don’t think it’s quite right. The “righteous deeds” Isaiah has in mind are most likely perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and without wholehearted obedience. In Isaiah 65:1-7 the Lord rejects Israel’s sinful sacrifices. There is nothing really righteous about these deeds. They are an insult to the Lord, smoke in his nostrils, just like the ritual “obedience” of Isaiah 58 that did not impress the Lord because his people were oppressing the poor. All that to say, we should not think every kind of “righteous deed” is like a filthy rag before God. In fact, Isaiah 64:5 says “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God.
John Piper explains:
Sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cited Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is true–gloriously true–that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the prefect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean that God does not produce in those “justified” people (before and after the cross) an experiential righteousness that is not “filthy rags.” In fact, he does; and this righteousness is precious to God and is required, not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God. (Future Grace, 151)
A Double Danger and a Triple Testimony
It is a dangerous thing to ignore the Bible’s presumption, and expectation, that (a certain kind of ) righteousness is possible. On the one hand, some professing Christians may be deceived, thinking that personal holiness isn’t really necessary and therefore it doesn’t matter how they (or anyone else) lives. On the other hand, some Christians may be too reticent to recognize that they actually do good things. We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. As Piper puts is, “our Father in heaven is not impossible to please. In fact, like every person with a very big heart and very high standards, he is easy to please and hard to satisfy” (152)
There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God through faith alone, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet.
Obedience is possible, prescribed, and precious.