When Christians do not live out the character of God’s Spirit living in them (cf. the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23), we fail to take saving faith to its logical conclusion.
We do not do righteousness to get God’s gift; rather, righteousness is God’s gift in Christ, and we demonstrate active faith in Christ as we live accordingly. We do not stop sinning in order to be “saved”; rather, we are “saved” from sin through faith. To the extent that we really believe, however, we should live accordingly.
The Beginning of God’s Plan
While Paul usually presents this ideal in terms of two contrasting options (e.g., Spirit versus flesh, Romans 8:3-11), the life of Abraham shows that the faith through which he was initially reckoned righteous (Genesis 15:6) was imperfect (e.g., Genesis 16:2). Nevertheless, over the years it grew to the place where he could offer up the promised seed in obedience to the God he trusted (Genesis 22:10-12). Initial justification and transformation is obviously crucial, but it is only the beginning of God’s plan to display his righteousness in those who depend on him.
Zeal in itself is no guarantee of pleasing God (cf. Genesis 8:8; 10:2-3). Even actions offered by one generation or person in sincere devotion to God can become for another routine legalism once severed from the motivation of the Spirit. That is why churches born out of passion for God can become legalistic or complacent in the next generation when they continue their forebears’ behavior without cultivating their relationship with God.
The Church Through History
Church history reveals that the church, at least on a large-scale political level, has often lived no differently than nonbelievers (and in some cases worse). But then, Paul’s theology may have been largely untested because it has been largely untaught; emphasizing either moralism or justification without transformation truncates Paul’s message of unity with Christ.
Western Christendom today has imbibed the radical Enlightenment’s skepticism of the supernatural, suspicious of miracles and other divine interventions. For Paul, however, the genuine Christian life is “supernatural” (divinely empowered) from start to finish, a life by God’s own Spirit. Apart from acknowledging and embracing the Spirit, the best imitations of Pauline religion are just “flesh.”