This is the question that Ligon Duncan proposes to answer in this recent video for the Gospel Coalition's New City Catechism series (a series that sounds like a great idea to me!).
His opening point is, I believe, his best: "in salvation we are saved not only from the penalty of sin, but the power of sin."
It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Duncan sets this notion aside in his summary of the three reasons growth and good works are important in the Christian life. These three reasons are, to express gratitude to God, to be assured of our salvation, and to draw others to the Gospel. This, it seems from what he says, is why God desires to free us from sin. For these three reasons.
Is that really it?
I believe that seeking salvation from the power of sin for its own sake, should be the central reason we pursue Christian growth. I believe Scripture is overwhelming in its claim that freedom from sin is one of the primary reasons Christ dies for us. John Piper gives a better account of the work of God in growing in holiness in this description of sanctification for the same video series. But, something still seems missing. He still does not give a substantial reason for seeking sanctification in a way that makes sense. So much of the witness of Scripture seems missing here.
All too often, our attempts to explain the gospel begins with the doctrine of justification - how do we 'get in the club'? This ignores that the place from which we develop our doctrines is a Bible which is first and foremost a comprehensive narrative. Our 'justification' is one piece in a bigger puzzle that makes sense only when we understand the whole story. When we start with justification, questions about ethics and holiness get left to the side and have to be shoved in somewhere later with half-hearted motivators like 'gratitude' and 'advertising for the faith.' We are missing the 'big picture' of what salvation is about.
When you look at the story of Scripture from cover to cover as a whole story, instead of just a sourcebook for rules and doctrines, this whole 'salvation' thing takes on a much more multifaceted meaning than we often get from overly-Reformed descriptions of salvation that focus more on God's judgement and His desire to preserve His holiness, than on His 'hell-bent,' relentless, desire to free His creation from the clutches of sin and death.
Paul, in Romans, is confronted with this same question about grace and works. If we are saved by grace, why should we stop sinning? What follows is a multiple-chapter elaboration on God's plan of salvation from sin and death.
In Romans 6:6 he says that we were saved, "that we should no longer be slaves to sin." We have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. In that mysterious and mystical relationship, we take part in His defeat of sin and the birth of new life out of darkness (read the whole chapter!).
Paul continues to deal with some related issues, particularly pertaining to the Old Testament law. But he brings his thoughts to a glorious crescendo in chapter 8, describing how we are the beginning of God's imminent restoration of all creation: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies" (8:22-23).
This is why becoming a righteous and just person matters; because God came to redeem His creation and make it new. This is at the heart of His works in Christ. To ignore Christian growth and holiness is not just to ignore a chance to be grateful, a chance to be assured, or a chance to advertise for the faith. To miss this is to miss the whole point of salvation.
I do not believe we can achieve Christian perfection in this life, nor does our salvation depend on it. We are saved by grace. Yes, absolutely. And if we are in Christ, we will be with Him in the new world. But I also believe that the work of God in Christ is fundamentally about renewing the creation, and we are called to join in this renewal. We were not simply cleared from a death sentence and handed a ticket to heaven. We have been redeemed, renewed, recreated. The God who made the heavens and the earth has begun that same creative process all over again right here in the middle of this world, through Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation.
What does this mean for our daily lives? For our relationships? For our career plans? These are hard questions. But they are issues central to the questions we are exploring in this blog. How can we live more cognizant that we serve a God boiling over with love for His creation which has been tormented by sin, death, and decay? A God who can never fill us with 'too much love'? A God who wants us to treat everyone around us with the same self-emptying, boundless, love that He shows in His acts of redemption? How do we be and announce in word and deed the new creation?
2 Corinthians 2:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."
I believe that Paul is here making an intentional allusion to an important doctrine expounded by the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, regarding God's plan to make a new creation:
"See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth." -Isaiah 65:17
Let us try and learn how to go forth to love and to serve, knowing that the Redeemer God who tramples over death by death and makes all things new, is with us.
"But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.
He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men."
-St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation of the Word of God