08
Feb
19

SALVATION APART FROM WORKS?

Why the Question?

It is not uncommon to hear or read comments from those who adhere to the “free grace” view to the effect that “Lordship” teachers advocate salvation based on human works. To them, it is clear that those who believe some level of obedience to Christ is certain to follow genuine conversion simply add the necessity of good works for salvation to the back end of the Christian experience.

The question this raises is whether it is biblically accurate to state that salvation is apart from works. Do those who insist that Christ must be received in all his offices as God’s Anointed One believe that salvation is based, even in part, on the believer’s works of obedience to him? As we have seen, the answer is an unqualified No! That should be clear to anyone who makes the effort to investigate their views carefully. Yet, to anyone who understands the issues, such a declaration does not answer the question posed here. The issue is not whether a person’s works either before or after conversion form any part of the foundation for his justification before God but whether the faith and repentance God produces in his chosen people are sterile so that they produce no fruit for sanctification? The Scriptures are unequivocal in their answer to this question. Though justification before God is altogether apart from works, God’s overall work of salvation is not apart from works at all. Justification by faith alone is only one facet of God’s overall salvific work.

One must be careful when talking about God’s saving work to be precise about the aspect of that work to which he is referring. It has become all too common, even among people who have been trained in evangelical institutions, to refer to salvation in such a way as to confuse one work of God with another. Many give little effort to an examination of biblical contexts to discover in which sense a writer is using the word “salvation.” It is exceedingly important to distinguish between justification and sanctification in discussions such as this one. Justification does not involve a sinner’s good works at all; sanctification does.

One of the errors of “free-grace” advocates is to apply what the New Testament Scriptures teach about justification to sanctification. Perhaps it will be helpful to the reader if we reproduce the comments of J. C. Ryle about the differences between justification and sanctification. He wrote,

(a) Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.

(b) The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ, imputed to us, and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.

(c) In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful. In sanctification our own works are of vast importance and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour.

(d) Justification is a finished and complete work, and a man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.

(e) Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be to all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work, and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.

(f) Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God’s sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures, and the moral renewal of our hearts.

(g) Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness [fitness] for heaven, and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.

(h) Justification is the act of God about us, and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us, and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men (Ryle, 1952).

Is salvation apart from works? It should be clear that the answer depends on whether one is talking about justification or sanctification. Does justification before God require any works of obedience on the part of repenting sinners? Not at all. In fact, any attempt to offer God any obedience at all as the ground of our acceptance before him amounts to an act of unbelief and rebellion against him.

Does sanctification, of necessity, involve the believer’s works of obedience to Christ? Absolutely, since that is the very nature of sanctification itself. The Scriptures everywhere forbid us to trust ourselves, but they never forbid us to exert ourselves in the pursuit of holiness. Paul was clearly speaking accurately when he told King Agrippa that he preached to sinners “that they should repent and turn to God and do [practice] works that are commensurate [the word Greek word means to be worthy or to weigh the same thing] with repentance” (see Acts 26:20). Was he adding works to faith as the basis of justification? Of course, not! He could not be clearer in his teaching about justification by grace alone and through faith alone. Still, it should be clear that he expected those who had professed repentance to act in accordance with that profession by practicing works of obedience to God. Though these works of obedience can have nothing to do with meriting a righteous standing before God, they are nonetheless a necessary evidence of the reality of conversion. Salvation would not be salvation without them. A presumed salvation that produces no change in a person’s life is not the salvation about which the apostles preached.

Works of obedience to Christ have no merit for justification but their evidentiary value in demonstrating the reality of God’s work in a person’s heart should not be disputed. As Spurgeon quaintly stated the issue, “What is down in the well is going to come up in the bucket.”

A Pivotal Passage

It is likely that there is no more important passage in the New Testament Scriptures dealing with this issue than James two, verses fourteen and following. Some have even imagined that some discord existed between Paul and James since Paul clearly taught that justification before God is through faith alone, yet James asked, “Can faith save him?”

How can one reasonably reconcile these two teachings? The answer is Paul and James are answering two different questions. We would not expect the same answer to the question, “What are the effects of water?” as we would to the question, “What is the chemical composition of water?” Both are about water but the answers would be decidedly different because the questions are different. Paul was answering one question, and James was answering another question altogether. The question Paul was answering concerned the manner in which God declares sinner’s righteous in his sight. Does God declared sinners righteous in his sight based on their works of obedience to the Law or through faith alone, in Christ alone?  His answer was unequivocal. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified through faith and apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).

The question James was answering concerned the nature of genuine faith. It concerned what kind of faith is effectual in uniting sinners to Christ. Pay attention to his introductory question. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him” (James 2:14)? In the original text, the word “faith” is preceded by the definite article and refers to the kind of faith he has just mentioned, i.e., a faith that is not accompanied by works.  His question is not, “Can faith saved him?” but “Can that [kind of] faith [a faith that does not produce works] save him?” His answer is an unequivocal “no!”

When he later writes about Abraham being justified by his works in his offering of his son (see verse 21), he is writing about an event that occurred years after God had declared him righteous in his sight through faith in his promise. James was not speaking about that initial event but about Abraham’s faith being vindicated by his obedience. It is the nature of genuine faith to vindicate itself by producing obedience.

Concerning James’ teaching in these verses, Thomas Manton has written the following helpful comment,

 

In this whole discourse the apostle shows not what justifies but who is justified; not what faith does, but what faith is. The context does not show that faith without works does not justify, but that assent without works is not faith.

 

James vs. Paul?

 

The only question that remains is whether James and Paul were actually in disagreement on this issue. Although I could appeal to several passages that show their complete agreement on the issue, I will confine myself to one verse in Galatians five where Paul was writing about what now has value before God. In verse six he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” The faith he describes is a working faith. The word translated “working” refers to active, energetic and effective accomplishment. It should be clear that he knew nothing of a mere profession that produced no loving obedience to God. Genuine faith is active, energetic and effective in producing its effects in believers.

 

Conclusion

 

After a careful examination of these issues, it seems it would be impossible to conclude that salvation in the broad view is apart from works. Though we must stridently assert that God declares sinners righteous in his sight apart from a scintilla of obedience on the part of the sinner, we must nonetheless assert with equal stridency that a mere mental assent to propositional truth that produces no loving obedience to God is not the faith through which God declares sinners righteous in his sight.

 


1 Response to “SALVATION APART FROM WORKS?”


  1. February 12, 2019 at 12:19 am

    Most excellent! Concerning the believers works in sanctification, I am reminded of Phil 2:13.


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