Posts Tagged ‘Justification by Faith



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.




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.



Justification through Jesus’ faithfulness or ours?

I was just over at where Josh made the statement “Our salvation is by both trust in the One Who is just and faithfulness to the One Who is just.” This statement made me wonder whether the term “sound church” means solid and trustworthy or if it means there is just a lot of sound.

Now perhaps he meant to say exactly what the statement implies, but, for now, I am willing to cut him some slack and assume he was simply being imprecise. After all, “love believes all things,” right? The statement along with his entire post makes it appear that he has been drinking at the fountain of N.T. Wright and “The New Perspective on Paul.”
I left the following comment to his post:

There is no question that your statements are self-contradictory.  Perhaps, they would be less so if, rather than using the general term, “salvation,” you would specify which aspect of salvation you are talking about.  Since “salvation” encompasses both justification and sanctification, it is true that the latter involves our faithfulness.  Still yours is a dangerous and misleading statement.  

When Jesus talked about Abraham’s works, there was no suggestion that he would be declared righteous in the day of judgement based on his faith and his faithfulness, i.e., works.  In John 6:28  the Jews asked Jesus a question. “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?'”

Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It was in this sense the Jews addressed in John 8 were failing to do the works of Abraham.  Abraham acted as he did because he believed as he did.  He rejoiced in the coming Messiah; the Jews wanted to kill him.

When Paul talked about justification through faith alone, he was answering the question, “What justifies before God, faith or works?”  When James declared that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” he did so in a context in which he is answering a completely different question.  That question was not, “What is the means through which sinners are justified, faith or works of obedience?”  The question he was answering concerned the nature of justifying faith.  “Can a faith that does not produce obedience be the means of justification before God?”  Of course not,  since it is not faith.  True faith will produce obedience, but to say that salvation is both by trust in the one who is just and faithfulness to the one who is just is terribly misleading.

Since I posted the above, Josh responded to my comment and assured me he was not talking about earning our justification but about sanctification. Though some of the statements he made disturbed me, I was doing pretty well giving him the benefit of the doubt until he made the following analogy:

The analogy of marriage can clear up some your misunderstanding about how actions do not “earn”, but might be “necessary.” On my wedding day, I promised to love and be faithful to my wife. We made a covenant. My actions/deeds did not buy or merit or earn her love, however, my faithfulness will maintain that covenant. If I demonstrate a lack of faithfulness, I can break that covenant and our marriage could end in divorce. To reiterate: faithfulness does not earn covenant blessing, but a lack of faithfulness can destroy that covenant.(emphasis mine). This is why salvation is often compared with marriage in Scripture and why the Bride in Rev. 19 is clothed with linen that symbolizes the deeds of the saints

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent his position and he is free to correct me if this is not what he is saying, but the following seems to be his meaning.

God has entered into a covenant with us based on the redemptive work of Christ alone [he denies the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers in justification]. As a blessing of that covenant, we are justified before God apart from our own works. We do not earn justification. Still, if we act unfaithfully we can break the covenant. It appears from his analogy, that God would divorce us at that point.

For me, the question at this point is, how much faithfulness does God require? Let’s use his analogy. Suppose he was only sexually unfaithful to his wife one time and in his heart he didn’t mean it, he just wanted a sexual thrill, would that be enough to break the marriage covenant, or would he have to be unfaithful repeatedly and habitually? The answer is, it doesn’t matter whether he is unfaithful one time or many times, he has still been unfaithful. If you have no positive righteouness imputed to your account but are only pardoned, then all the positive righteousness is up to you. The maintenance of the covenant is your responsiblity. Since justification is a blessing of the covenant, that means the maintenance of justification is my responsibility. I can have it by faith alone, but I must keep it by my life long obedience.

Then, he posted this:

The only thing we can do to attain justification is have faith in Jesus to whom we must be faithful in all things for the rest of our lives (Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:2), if we want to inherit salvation of the Father and heaven (Emphasis mine) (John 14:6).

Perhaps you are more holy than I, but I must confess that if that were the case, God would have cast me off long ago. This is why it is important to understand that we are not under law, but under grace. If those under the law failed to continue in all the commandments that were written in the book of the law, they were under a curse. It was for this reason that God cast them off. Why are we not under law? Because Jesus, our representative, has been faithful to all the covenant obligations under which he was placed. He has fulfilled that covenant once for all. He has filled it up with obedience and cancelled its curse for all who are in him. We are no longer under that covenant. We are under a new and everlasting covenant that is based on Jesus’ faithfulness to fulfill all the demands of the first covenant. Describing the blessings of God’s new covenant of promise, the author of Hebrews wrote,

17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:17-20).

The integrity of the covenant depends on Jesus’ faithfulness, not ours.

If he were right, and our final justification depended on our faithfulness, not a single one of us would arrive in heaven safely.

These two doctrines (single imputation and covenant maintenance by our faithfulness) he is teaching go together, and this is why they think double imputation is dangerous.  If believers are really secure, we are in a dangerous position since we don’t have to do a single thing to maintain the covenant and the justification that flows from it.  If he were right, Romans six and seven would have been unnecessary or would have read much much differently. Paul would have written something like, “What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin since we have been forgiven for everything we have done to this point? God forbid, because if we are unfaithful to the covenant, God will divorce us.” That, my brethren, is another gospel.