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What ‘Justification by Faith Apart from Works’ *Doesn’t* Mean

28 October, 2008

Especially in Reformed circles today, there are so many different meanings given to ‘justification by faith’ and ‘without works’ and ‘by faith alone’. A lot of what’s said is frankly opposed to what the Reformed confessions have claimed, but it’s often hard to put your finger on error when the words that everybody uses seem to be exactly the same. This has been going on for a long time, and it’s helpful to recognize the different ways we come up with to get around the powerful wisdom of a gospel that seems so much like ineffectual foolishness to us, apart from the grace of God. There are a million versions of law, after all, but only one gospel.

So what are some of the ways to affirm ‘justification by faith apart from works’ in a way that is ironically exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches? Here is an excerpt (in my own paraphrase) from Scottish theologian John Brown’s Life of Justification Open’d (1695), discussing these things especially from Paul’s words in Romans 4:

1. All our works are excluded in justification, but only in the sense of our works done under our own power and strength, rather than by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.

Nothing we’ve done, even by God’s grace, contributes to our justification. Paul expressly tells us that neither Abraham nor David were justified in this way (Rom 4). If Abraham were justified by works he would’ve had something to boast about — but not before God (v. 2). Such a scheme makes the reward to be considered according to debt rather than grace (v. 4). Only faith receives justification, and only this relies completely on the God who ‘justifies the ungodly’ (v. 5). Otherwise, if the above is true, we should at least in part be saved by righteous works we do, and not according to God’s mercy (in contradiction to Titus 3:5).

2. We’re not justified by keeping the ceremonial law, but the moral law is still part of what we need to uphold for justification.

But the works of the moral law are still works of righteousness that we do, and if we’re considered as obeying this law we cannot be called ‘the ungodly’. Paul doesn’t draw such a distinction between the different parts of the law when we condemns justification by works of the law: he says Abraham was not justified by works, yet Abraham certainly performed both ‘ceremonial’ and ‘moral’ deeds — in fact, works according to the moral law would in this case given even more occasion for boasting than the ceremonial law, and render the reward not strictly of grace but of debt. When Paul speaks of the law as something that commands obedience, he speaks of it as convincing us of sin, and exposing our sin (Rom 3:207:7). This law makes all the world guilty (3:19) and brings us under a curse (Gal 3:10). This law carries the promise of life upon obedience (Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). He even speaks of such works in his own experience (Phil 3:9). These things can hardly be restricted to the keeping of ceremonies to the exclusion of the moral law.

3. All works are not excluded in justification, but only merely ‘external’ works, done out of fear or duty rather than love and faith, as inward works of grace.

Can we really say that only ‘external’ works are intended by the ‘not by works’ of biblical justification? Do only ‘external’ works lay the ground for human boasting and glorying before others? Do only these add debt to the reward which is merely of grace? Did anyone back in those days actually appeal to this distinction when they tried to say that justification is partly on account of works? Is that how the law is to be understood? Were the works of Abraham merely ‘external’ and not from faith and love? Was Paul thinking of only external works when he said that he did not desire to be found in his own righteousness (Phil 3:9)?

4. Paul was only excluding the Mosaic Law from justification.

If this means only the ceremonial laws, it has already been answered. If this means only the judicial laws, then justification still includes obedience to the moral law, again, this is contrary to the whole flow of Paul’s reasoning. If this means the whole Jewish Law, then again it includes the exclusion of the moral law, which also necessarily excludes any works that are done in any way in obedience to any law of God (which is Paul’s point!).

5. Paul only excluded perfect works from justification, our attempts at full conformity to God’s requirements. But he’s not talking about our imperfect obedience, which is accepted through grace and ‘credited to us as righteousness’.

Even this kind of half-law would give us ground for boasting, because it’s still something we perform. Nobody — Abraham, Paul, or any other believer — has supposed that their works were completely perfect. And can we honestly suppose that anyone in these controversies with Paul was arguing for justification partly on the basis of utterly perfect works? Paul, further, never suggests such a distinction between perfect works being excluded, but honest yet imperfect attempts at law-keeping being included in our justification. This whole approach is rooted in the false assumption that ‘faith’, when it is opposed to works, really means ‘our honest attempts at faithfulness to God’s commands’.

6. Paul was only excluding the kind of works that are done with a boastful attitude because of their worth in justification.

Again, Paul excludes all works without distinction, even the works of Abraham — who I’m sure was not conceited as to how meritorious his works were — and anything that would give us a ground of boasting before men, though not before God. In his reasoning Paul assumes that you can’t even mention ‘works’ without ‘merit’ coming into the picture — merit is inseperable from works, good or evil. And should we really think that in Philippians 3:9 Paul meant by ‘his own righteousness’ only the works that he expressly considered to be praiseworthy? Did Paul account any of his works as such before God??

7. All works are excluded in justification, which is by faith alone, yet faith itself is considered our one work of obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, and that’s why we’re justified.

How easily may proud ‘Self’ lift up its head here and boast that it was justified because of something within it, or because of (even one!) work of righteous obedience it has done — glorying it itself rather than in the Lord. Even if we add to this view that faith is entirely the gift of God’s free grace, that would not be sufficient to keep down pride: everyone who thinks their own good works are part of the ground of justification also thinks that all these works they do and must do are done only by grace. Yet even this lays ground for boasting, and even of more ground of boasting for some over others, because of stronger faith. The point is that even in this way justification ‘by grace’ is wrongly opposed to justification through Christ and his imputed righteousness. In this way faith is again misunderstood: rather than something that takes hold of another’s righteousness that is not from ourselves and outside of us (Christ’s imputed righteousness), we make faith another commanded duty, and another part of obedience to the law. This again makes the reward ‘of debt’, as if justification were by works — only this time we attempt to lower the bar of God’s requirements.

8. Paul excludes ‘the works of the law’ from justification, but not the works of the gospel, the things that the New Testament requires of the lives of believers.

Again, we have to realize that the same ground of pride, boasting, and glorying is laid down here that is laid down by justification according to works of the Old Covenant: either way they are works of righteousness that we do, and are therefore in our justification before God in direct opposition to sheer mercy (Titus 3:5). When Paul wants to exclude all our pride by contrasting faith and works, he doesn’t contrast gospel-works with law-works. He contrasts all works with faith — faith which in justification isn’t considered ‘in itself’, but is only that which takes hold of the righteousness of Christ by directing us away from ourselves and to Christ alone for our righteousness. Can we really say that none of Abraham’s works were gospel-works? He was certainly a part of the New Covenant and a believer when he was credited as righteous by faith, yet this was ‘not by works’. Isn’t it obvious that even if only gospel-works were considered part of our justification then God would not be the justifier the ungodly (Rom 4:5)?

In sum, saying that ‘gospel obedience’ is part of our justification is the same thing as saying that we are justified by works of the law, for whatever we are required to do in the New Covenant is commanded of us already in the Old. In this case, our gospel obedience is no different than obedience to God’s law, which is our ‘perfect rule of righteousness’ — which all our obedience must conform to if we would be justified.

  1. Darren permalink
    28 October, 2008 1:15 pm

    Heh, it’d be interesting if we took a true/false survey of Christians using these statements, how many would identify all of them as false.

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    28 October, 2008 2:13 pm

    I suspect the results wouldn’t be very encouraging.

    What IS more encouraging is that whoever has true faith, no matter how ignorant or weak, the object that faith holds is strong and able to save completely — he is faithful and he will do it.


  3. Darren permalink
    28 October, 2008 7:43 pm

    That’s the beauty of justification by faith alone. We’re saved by grace alone, even if we can’t articulate the doctrine very well, or even very correctly 🙂

  4. 29 October, 2008 5:20 am

    Hey, wait a minute-does this mean that what flies under the banners of ‘The New perspective on Paul’ and ‘ Norman Shepherd and The Federal Vision’ is …wrong?

  5. creedorchaos permalink*
    29 October, 2008 9:14 am

    Well, they may not be wrong on every single thing — but I certainly believe they are on this thing.

    I think two of the most helpful aspects about discussions like John Brown’s here are that,

    1) When it comes to doing theology, the *force* of what we do and don’t mean in affirming biblical claims is often just as important as affirming the claims. We don’t always have to be equally explicit and thorough to be faithful in handling these things, but we should never fall into any position which implicitly, explicitly or consistently *contradicts* the stance of the biblical witness, either.

    2) Some things that are ‘new’ have been around a long time. 😉 The language used by the various parties in the current debates has been used before, and while it’s pretty ambiguous at times, there are also basic themes regarding justification (e.g. imputation, the character and role of faith in justification) that are hard to make obscure when pressed. But they have to be pressed.


  6. 4 November, 2008 1:06 pm

    B, I think GLW was tongue in cheek on this one. Pretty sure he’s a gnome-slayer.

  7. 4 November, 2008 1:42 pm

    Yeah, I know, GLW’s great — he just gave me an opportunity to get a few more of my two cents in. 😉


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