Justified by faith or by faith and works?

Richard Burgess

One of the biggest questions relating to the Christian life is the question of faith and works – is it really faith only, or is it faith and works, and if so how much faith, and how much works, 90%/10%? 80/20? Or 50/50 etc? And if so, what kind of works? It’s a question that can plague people right up to their dying day.

Galatians is a good to place to go for the answer (along with Romans). It’s largely what Galatians is all about. Do I need works to be saved? Do I need works to belong to the Covenant community? Do I need works to stay saved?

Paul had grave concerns over the church in Galatia and doesn’t start off with his usual thankfulness – contrast it with the church ar Corinth which in a mess, yet Paul is thankful ansd rejoices in the gifts of God’s Spirit at work among them! Not so the Galatians, after the usual introduction it starts with concern, “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel,” (1:6), a gospel that was taking them back to the law, to works, to merit, a gospel that was in fact, no gospel, a gospel that was definitely not good news.

In some versions it says in 4:15, “what happened to all your joy?” or, “You were so happy! What happened?” (GNT). Legalism is a joy robber, it’s a killer. If you’ve lost your joy somethings wrong. What about you?

In answer to his accusers Paul affirms his call to be an apostle, and shares how he received the gospel by revelation (1:11-24), he then goes on to say how he went to Jerusalem to check it out with the Apostles, and they were happy that the gospel he was preaching was indeed the true gospel (2:1-10).

He then tells them to about an occasion Peter visited him when he was in Antioch to further illustrate his point (2:11-16). Now Peter knew the liberating power of the gospel. He was the first person to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. When he arrived in Antioch he was quite happy to sit down and eat with the Gentiles (something that would have been unheard of for a Jew), but then some Jews from the Circumcision party arrived from Jerusalem and he changed tack and wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles. Not only that his influence led the rest of the Jews in the church there, including Barnabas, to do the same. This wasn’t a case of theological conviction but of cowardice. He knew the truth but compromised it out of fear. Fear of others, what others would think; fear of rejection, loosing face with those who had status in Jerusalem. Are we like that?

As far as Paul was concerned this was hypocrisy, a denial of the very gospel, and was in danger of destroying the very essence of the gospel, so Paul nipped it in the bud before it did anymore damage. He says, “I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned… ” (2:11) and went on to explain his case. Praise God Peter was able to take the rebuke of a brother and coworker in Christ – are we?

The fact is expediency should never be our operating principle. Truth should take precedence over politics, power and practicality.

The same thing was happening to the church in Galatia, there were those who had infiltrated their ranks and were seeking to add law to grace, works to faith. It’s a problem that comes round time and time again. In a survey conducted in the United States in 2016, three quarters of Americans (77 percent) agreed that people must contribute their own effort for personal salvation.

It’s something I’ve encountered as some Christians come towards the end of their life, even among those who would hold to the doctrines of grace. More than once someone has said to me, “I’m not sure I’ve done enough.” My answer is always its not about whether you have done enough, it never has, the question is, has Jesus has done enough, and the answer is a mighty, yes!

The New Perspective. Over recent years scholars have been doing fresh research on Paul and out of it something called the New Perspective/s (there are multiple strands) has come into play. It’s referred to as Covenantal Nomism – simply, grace and law. The idea is we are brought in/saved by grace alone but covenant membership is maintained by law, that is living in accordance with covenant guidelines. According to the New Perspective there is then a final justification based on works, albeit works done by the Spirit. To me the logical outcome of that is that there is no assurance this side of heaven! No blessed assurance. That makes Romans 8:1 redundant. In my mind it is another gospel.

Gal 2:16 says, “We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.”

Works of the law are mentioned 3 times in verse 16. The New Perspective sees this as the identity markers of circumsion, the Sabbath, food laws… but the reality is its way more than that. When we look further into Galatians and elsewhere in the New Testament we come to the conclusion it refers to anything that we can do to merit salvation or final justification.

Scripture says categorically we are, “saved by grace through faith…” Eph 2:8; “to the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” Rom 4:5. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Rom 8:1.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is the bedrock of the gospel, without it, there is no good news and no church. It was the radical life-transforming message of the early Church. It is what the Reformation in the 1500s was all about. The church was bogged down in power, politics, performance and penance. The Roman Catholic Church believed in infused righteousness… What we might call sacramental justification: baptism, confirmation, confession, mass, the last rites… And if you didn’t have enough at the end, then there was purgatory, a further means of self improvement. Read the story of Martin Luther (1500s).

Justification is not a process, but a legal declaration wherein we are declared right.

How? Because a transaction took place. Christ came and lived out the righteousness of God on our behalf, he then bore our sin, or to quote Paul, “he became sin for us.” Martin Luther described it well, “All the prophets foresaw that on the cross Jesus became the greatest murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer that there ever was. Our most merciful Father sent his only Son into the world and said to him: Jesus, you will become Peter the denier; you will become Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; you will become David that adulterer; you will become Adam, that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise.”

To fill out the rest of that quote from Paul, he became “sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor 5:21). That we might become the righteousness of God in him! That’s something!

Justification is, Jesus + nothing equals everything! “For you are saved by grace through faith… not from works, so that no one can boast.” Eph 2:8, 9. It is more than not guilty, but made right as he is right, forever. We receive an “alien righteousness” as the Reformers called it – a righteousness not our own. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. (see Rom 1:17; 3:21,22; 4:5; 5:17, 19; Phil 3:9).

Let me illustrate it. If you were millions in debt and had no way to pay it off and someone came and paid it off for you that would be great. And that’s what Jesus has done, cleared the debt. But, the question would arise what if I go into debt again. But suppose that person not only paid your debt but then said I’m going to fill your bank account so that you need never worry about it again! That is just what Jesus has done! Hallelujah!

But what about James? Anyone who knows their Bibles will immediately raise James 2:14 and say, doesn’t that say something about works?

Yes it does, but not in regard to our salvation. Firstly, in some versions it says “such faith” or “that faith” or “this kind of faith” as if it might refer as some say to a false faith, but ‘such’ or ‘that’ and ‘this kind’ are not there in the original. Its talking about genuine faith. Secondly, the mistake is frequently made that what James is talking about is salvation and so people think he is contradicting Paul. When we understand him we discover he is not.

The word translated “save” is a big word, having a variety of meaning, and before jumping to conclusions we should ask how a writer is using a word. James uses it five times, but not in regard to eternal salvation. Indeed his letter James affirms their faith, rather than questioning it. His problem is with how they are living it out, or not as the case may be. In his letter James uses the word save to refer to deliverance in life from the death-dealing consequences of sin (see 1:15,21). A believer whose faith is not accompanied by works will not be saved from the consequences of his sinful behaviour. It is about being saved in life for life. Such faith will not help them. Note, James doesn’t take them to the gospel as if they were not saved.

James is also about adding fuel to your faith, giving life to it, so that it will benefit others. The Christians he was writing were withdrawing in the face of difficulty, of persecution. What James is saying is give life to your faith. Don’t hide it, don’t sit on it, don’t let it just be words.

Christ formed in us. Back to Galatians. In chapter 4:19 Paul says to them he is “suffering labour pains… until Christ is formed in you.” That is the concern of every pastor/elder. He knows that Christ will not be formed in them by works of the law, by human effort, by performance, that produces ugly distortions, but through faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit.

It’s very easy, and dangerous, to slip into performance-oriented Christianity where we are earning our salvation, earning God’s presence and blessing, earning God’s gifts. Now you are saved, you’ve got to do this, that, and the other, and before you know it we put the new convert under law. God forbid!

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1). We are free from earning God’s approval, from moral and religious performance, from externalism and legalism. Freed to live by faith in the way of the Spirit, to be transformed from the inside out. Not so much me growing in Christ, but Christ growing in us.

Two great hymns sum up:

“And can it be…” especially the last verse, “No condemnation now I dread, Jesus, and all in him is mine, alive in him my living head and clothed with righteousness divine…”
“Jesus thy blood and righteousness, thy beauty are my glorious dress, midst famling worlds in these arrayed, with joy shall I life up my head….. bold shall I stand in that great day for who ought to my charge shall lay, fully absolved from these I am, from sin and fear and guilt and shame.”


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