Grace Vs. Works?
by Eric V. Snow
Does the Bible contradict itself? Are Christians “justified by grace alone by faith alone by Christ alone”? Or do Christians have to literally obey God at some level in order to be saved?
Consider the message of Gal. 2:16: “[T]hat we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (NASB throughout, unless otherwise noted).” So then--works have nothing to do with salvation. But what about Matt. 19:17: “[B]ut if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments”? Or Heb. 5:9: “And having been made perfect, He [Jesus] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” So what then--are works a condition for salvation in the latter verses, but are not in Galatians?
First of all, to solve this seeming contradiction, we must realize that justification is not the same thing as salvation. Surprising? Consider Romans 5:9: “Much more then, having now been justified [past tense] by His blood, we shall be saved [future tense] from the wrath of God through Him.” Justification, meaning the wiping away of all past sins, has already occurred in Christians’ lives when we repented and placed our faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. By contrast, salvation, meaning having our lives lasting forever because we have bodies made of spirit, has not occurred yet since we have not entered the kingdom of God yet. So Gal. 2:16, which talks about justification, need not conflict with Hebrews 5:9, which talks about salvation.
Of course in some cases the word “saved” does mean the same as “justified.” One meaning for the word “saved” is that the death penalty of our sins has been removed by Jesus’ sacrifice, which is the same thing as justification. But another meaning is being given eternal life through an immortal spirit body when Jesus comes back, since then we could never die. The word “saved” is applied to Christians in three different tenses in the Bible. In Acts 15:11, it is used in the past tense: “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Salvation is a process in I Cor. 1:18 since it is in the present, progressive tense: “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Finally, in a familiar text, it is used in the future tense: “But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13). Obviously, the Bible uses the word “saved” in several different ways about Christians, or else the Bible would contradict itself!
A useful schema (employed by the Seventh-day Adventists) in analyzing salvation’s three different definitions uses the terms “justification,” “sanctification,” and “glorification.” “Justification” has the basic definition that Christians are given a right standing before God through having all their sins forgiven through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. “Sanctification” is the process by which Christians actually become righteous through developing holy righteous character through the Holy Spirit living in them. “Glorification” occurs when we enter the kingdom of God and are given a spirit body at the first resurrection when Jesus returns (Phil. 3:20-21; I Cor. 15:49). Here justification is gained by faith through grace alone, but sanctification involves Christians actually obeying God literally in order for them to be made actually holy. Justification is gained by men and women accepting Jesus’ sacrifice by faith, baptism, and repentance (Acts 2:38). “Works” have nothing to do with it here. In contrast, for humans to actually become holy, they must gain the Holy Spirit and then follow its lead in obeying God. Sanctification involves human effort and participation in a way that neither justification nor glorification involve, for the latter two are fundamentally just “done” to humans by God, while the former requires the effort of continually yielding our will to God’s will.
It’s important to realize that while literal works aren’t a requirement for an imputed or forensic justification (as per Romans 3:21, 28; 4:1-8; 10:10), they are a requirement for sanctification. This is a similar concept to what Roman Catholics call “infused grace,” as supported by the ninth canon of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, which condemned the Reformers who said men and women could gain grace by faith alone without any cooperation between man and God in order to gain it. For example, good works will determine who will be a “sheep” or a “goat” in Matthew 25:31-46, while faith remains unmentioned in this context. The preceding Parable of the Talents describes a man so lacking in good works that he was denied admittance to the kingdom of God (Matt. 25:15, 18, 24-30) when he saved but did nothing with his one talent that he had received from God.
Now consider the problems supposedly created by contrasting Gal. 2:16 with Rom. 2:13: “[F]or not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” Then, as always, Martin Luther’s “book of straw” poses its own wrinkle on the subject of justification: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). This contrast seems to be a blatant contradiction, but is not when the context of James’ statement more carefully scrutinized. First, if we have not works, we did not really have any faith to begin with. “[F]aith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Thus, if we do not obey God, we are not justified because we would have shown we never truly repented (which always must involve the determination to obey God in the future). For if we truly repent, we will begin to obey God because we have an overall obedient attitude (Acts 26:20), even if we may continue to sin now and then. Thus, when James says (v. 21), “was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar,” he means that Abraham showed he had an overall obedient attitude (the proof of true repentance) by doing a literal work of righteousness. Through this repentant attitude, Abraham fulfilled one of the conditions for being justified (Acts 5:31; Luke 24:47; compare II Cor. 7:10; Acts 13:24). So now we know justification, by its main definition, comes only from faith ultimately.
Also, in resolving the seeming contradiction between James and Paul concerning justification, we need to realize “justification” and “sanctification” have secondary meanings to those found in the three-definition schema of salvation described above. Since we humans keep sinning all the time, including after we have confessed our sins to God and accepted Jesus as our personal Savior at some definite point in the past, we continually need to keep getting justified as we keep sinning. But, contrary to what those who accept “once saved, always saved” maintain, justification should not be seen as a one-time event that forgives in advance all the sins we will commit in the future. Paul’s own terminology using the language of athletic contests, which means, of all the contestants involved, some win and some lose, shows that Christians can lose salvation even after having sincerely repenting and accepting Jesus as their personal Savior (notice I Cor. 9:24-27; II Tim. 4:7). This view can turn God’s grace into a license for sin, since no matter how much we may sin, it is automatically already forgiven at the moment we initially accepted Jesus as our personal Savior. As for sanctification, in one sense we are “sanctified” (made holy) all at once, which is when we receive the Spirit of God after baptism and the laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-19; 19:6). But becoming obedient in the habits of daily living is a gradual, life-long process, so sanctification should be mainly seen as a process rather than something instantaneous (Rom. 6:13, 16, 19, 22; I John 3:7). Hence, one solution to the seeming contradiction between Paul and James on justification is to see the former as normally talking about the initial moment of conversion, while the latter discusses how it needs to be maintained by a continuously repentant and faithful relationship with God.
Now--what is the relationship between righteousness and faith? Since justification literally means “to be declared righteous,” it is obvious that righteousness must also be gained by faith, just like justification (the removing of sin) is. The Bible shows that two types of righteousness come from God, since that word is used two different ways. The first type of righteousness is forensic or imputed, meaning it is attributed to us by God due to our faith only (Rom. 10:10), without any merit involved. We find this type in Rom. 4:6: “[J]ust as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” The second type of righteousness--imparted righteousness--is gradually gained as spiritual character is developed through using the Holy Spirit to overcome through various trials (Phil. 3:12-13). This type is described in Rom. 6:16: “[Y]ou are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” This second type is actual righteousness, composed of acquired habits of obedience, and is not something God just arbitrarily asserts we have. Imputed righteousness corresponds with justification’s normal definition, while imparted righteousness corresponds with sanctification.
A Christian receives imputed righteousness when he places his faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. As Paul put it in Romans 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned [regarded] as righteousness.” Or, as the Old Testament put it (Gen. 15:6): “Then he [Abraham] believed in the Eternal, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” When imputed righteousness is given to a Christian, he has still has to overcome all his old evil habits from his life prior to repentance. Likewise, Abraham, in Rom. 4:10-11 was declared righteous before he was circumcised: “How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision [not the actual reality--it was only imputed spiritually], a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned [to be looked upon as having] to them . . .” Notice also Rom. 4:22 (KJV): “And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.” Then Phil. 3:9 says: “[A]nd may be found in Him, not having a righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith [only--without works] may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law [i.e. from coming under the Old Covenant by being circumcised], but what which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith [without the physical act--”work”--of being circumcised].” Thus, there is one kind of righteousness which is attributed (imputed) to us purely on the basis of faith, without having overcome any evil habits we may have, or obeying various physical rituals (such as circumcision) found in the Old Testament.
Imparted righteousness--the “second” type of righteousness--is gradually developed as a Christian progresses in his spiritual life as he overcomes sins with the Holy Spirit’s help (Rom. 8:13). For God does not just intend to only say (declare) that we are righteousness by removing our sins from us (which constitutes imputed righteousness), but He wants us to actually become righteous by overcoming sinful ways of life. Note Rom. 8:3-4: “He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” We are to become holy (sanctified): “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).
We must never think, as many professing Christians do, that we are not to work hard to actually become righteous, since they think being declared righteous is enough with an initial conversion experience which they might call “being born again.” They want imputed righteousness without striving to actually become righteous by obeying the law, which is imparted righteousness. But Paul says we shouldn’t be casual about working with God to gain salvation! “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). How much is this opposed to the idea of resting in Jesus and being fully confident in our salvation and relationship with God? To the contrary, we must put effort into becoming sanctified (holy): “[D]o not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present your selves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members of instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). “[Y]ou are the slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness” (Rom. 6:16). Then, what does righteousness result in? “[S]o now present you members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:19). Then, what does sanctification result in? “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). Observe how imparted righteousness is linked sanctification, and in turn how sanctification is made a condition to salvation! Thus, at first we are declared righteous because Jesus took away our sins, but later we are actually to become righteous by overcoming sinful habits with God’s help.
In order to become truly righteous, we need more than just our faith IN Jesus, which only allows us to be declared righteous (justified). Instead, we need also to have to actual faith OF Jesus, not just IN Jesus, since we must have God’s help in order to become truly obedient in all the habits of our life. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). To have the death penalty removed from us by being justified does not make our old sinful habits go away automatically. We must have God’s help to overcome our carnal ways of life, through the faith OF Christ. Since Jesus needed God’s help in order to resist sin (Heb. 5:7), then surely we do also (Rom. 8:13). We are to learn how to live a righteous life by Jesus’ own faith coming into us, becoming a part of us: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith OF the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). We could never become actually righteous by our own efforts alone: “And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa. 64:6).
One stumbling block to various professing Christians attempting to become actually righteous is the common belief that the law is done away such that there is no need to obey God. But this confuses the law as a guide to conduct with the law as a source of salvation. Christians should look to the law as if it was a mirror helping reveal what is wrong in their lives (James 2:23-25): “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.” The law defines what is righteousness since sin occurs when it is disobeyed. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (I John 3:4, KJV). “Sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13). “Shall we say, then, that the Law itself is sinful? Of course not! But it was the Law that made me know what sin is. If the Law had not said, ‘Do not desire what belongs to someone else,’ I would not have know such a desire [was sin] “(Rom. 7:7). “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law convicts us since when we disobey it, it condemns us (Rom. 4:15): “[F]or the Law brings about wrath.” “[F]or sin, taking opportunity through the commandment deceived me, and through it killed me” (Rom. 7:11). Obviously, that which is the source of condemnation cannot be a source of salvation! Yet, the law is still a Christian’s compass as to what God wants us to do in our lives.
Furthermore, the law is clearly still in force: “Do we nullify the law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10-11). Obviously, you cannot transgress what has been abolished! “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man . . . “ (Rom. 7:22). How could Paul “joyfully concur” with something that has been abolished? He certainly did not in Galatians! In Eph. 6:1-3, he says the Fifth Commandment is still in force. Of course, some aspects of the law have been abolished (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 9:10; l0:8-9). But the moral law, which is codified by the Ten Commandments, must still be in force, or else the Bible contradicts itself. Thus, the dual law theory is true.
The law does not contradict grace so long as we realize specifically how each has a different role. The law is the great sin detector--it tells us what to do and not do. Grace describes the attitude God has towards mankind’s sins: He forgives us through unmerited favor. This results in an overall relationship or state in God’s sight, not a moment-by-moment condition in which we are judged sinners and lose salvation each time we sin, only to confess and repent in order to regain salvation again. Obedience does not earn salvation, since only by grace, not by the merit of lawkeeping, is salvation ultimately saved. Without Jesus’ death on behalf of our sins, nobody could be saved. But if one routinely sins without repentance or an overall obedient attitude, one will lose salvation. Lawkeeping earns nothing concerning salvation, but lawbreaking without repentance costs salvation since “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) before and after baptism. However, so long as one has an overall obedient attitude, which will inevitably manifest itself in works, one will still be saved. So long as a Christian has the Holy Spirit, which is the presence of salvation conditionally, he or she will still be saved (II Cor. 5:5; Eph. 4:30; l:l3-l4).
But how do we explain about being saved by grace when we encounter such scriptures as Matt. 16:27 (KJV): “For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of His Faith with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works.” Or Rev. 20:12: “[T]he dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds”?
What we need to realize here is that our “reward” is not salvation, but rather how high or low a position we will have in the kingdom of God. The parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27), which has servants receiving positions of rule over ten (v. 17) and five (v. 19) cities, plainly shows different ranks will exist in the kingdom of God. The servants were rewarded due to their differing efforts, differing positions, relative to their ability (Matt. 25:14). Obviously, getting into the kingdom of God is not based on ability or what is earned, but with whether you repent, have faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, and accept God’s grace. [True, such faith must manifest works to be real (James 2:26)]. A reward is something given in exchange for some service, good work, achievement, or accomplishment, such as being put on the honor roll at school in exchange for having good grades, while grace is something given completely freely, in exchange for nothing, and is totally undeserved. Thus grace is the opposite of a reward, and since eternal life is a gift (Rom. 6:23), it can NEVER be a reward in exchange for services (works) rendered.
Since getting into the kingdom of God is by grace, the amount of time you are a Christian in the process of sanctification has nothing to do with whether you are saved (Matt. 20:1-16). Instead, the issues are: Have you repented? Did you have faith in God’s grace? Did you receive the Holy Spirit, which is what makes you a Christian (Rom. 8:9)? For if you die the day after having gained the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, you are every bit as much saved as if you were a Christian for fifty years and then died. For instance, those who repent and believe during the Great Tribulation will be saved despite having only believed for a brief period before being martyred in it. But the person who is a Christian for fifty years before dying has a chance to gain a higher position in the kingdom of God if he works hard to overcome his past bad and sinful ways. Thus, besides the benefits of being happier in this life due to obeying God’s law lifelong, there also can be a great spiritual benefit (rank in the kingdom of God), even though everyone receives by grace the same basic benefit and gift: eternal life (Matt. 20:12-16).
Are Christians qualifying for the kingdom of God now? The answer is yes or no, depending on the definition of the word “qualify” used. If “qualify” is taken to mean “to be fitted or competent for something,” the answer is no, because Christians on their own will never be fit enough or competent enough for God’s kingdom. On the other hand, if the word “qualify” is taken to mean “to get authority, license, power etc. (i.e. something) as by fulfilling required conditions,” then the answers is yes. If Christians fulfill the required conditions of repentance and faith, they will enter the kingdom of God due to God’s grace. Thus Christians either are or aren’t qualifying for the kingdom of God, depending on how the word “qualify” is used.
A key point in reconciling grace and works is that an obedient attitude is a condition to salvation. Grace is undeserved and unmerited, but it is not unconditional. As someone once pointed out, “We have to be eligible for grace.” God lays down certain requirements for anyone who wishes to receive salvation: Repentance and faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, which must be expressed by baptism (Acts 2:38, John 3:5; Mark 16:16). Repentance literally means “a change of mind” or “having another mind.” And since repentance involves not only the confessions of sins to God, but also the will to try to obey God in the future, you must have an overall obedient attitude if you wish to be saved. Naturally, if you have this obedient, repentant attitude, you will produce good works matching it. For a faith that produces no works cannot save: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19).
Those who truly repent, are baptized, and then receive the gift of the Holy Spirit will strive to obey God. The Holy Spirit is not passive within you, but it will flow out in righteous works if you allow it to. The branches (Christians) will produce fruit (righteous works) if you allow the Holy Spirit to work within you (John 15:1-8). Thus, if one is repentant, one had better be trying to obey God, or else one’s “repentance” or “faith” were delusions. Occasional slip-ups can be expected, and are routinely forgiven (“justified”), but they should decrease as one grows spiritually (II Pet. 3:18). Those who strive to gain more of the same faith Jesus had, the faith OF Christ, will establish the law (Rom. 3:31) in their lives, and avoid sinning as much as possible. Of course, our sins can always be forgiven even after baptism (I John 1:8), but may we minimize them! Repentance without works is just as dead as faith is without works.
Notice that the fact God has conditions to his grace does not mean we earn salvation by fulfilling those conditions. Rather, through repentance and faith, we are doing only what was required of us already (Luke 17:10). No amount of lawkeeping today can take away a single sin committed yesterday. Only through Jesus’ sacrifice, and not through commandment keeping, can any sin be forgiven. And surely no one has “earned” the right to have Jesus’ innocent life slain for himself or herself!
Consider: If God had no conditions to salvation, then anybody could demand the benefits of God’s grace, which is eternal life. It would become a right. Even a criminal who never repented or believed in Jesus’ sacrifice could whine to God, “I want eternal life and forgiveness now!,” and God would have to give it to him if He imposed no conditions. On the contrary, notice Gal. 5:21 and I Cor. 6:9-11. We must have an obedient, repentant attitude if we wish to be saved. Only by laying down conditions can God keep His impartial grace from being abused.
In a very important sense, we can always be confident of our salvation so long as we have an overall repentant and obedient attitude, which will be a manifestation of our faith. Literal obedience will then be a natural outflow of our faith and obedient attitude. If we sin, now and then, we can always be forgiven so long as we repent and strive to keep that overall obedient attitude. Occasionally, of course, we have bad attitudes, especially when under stress, but so long as we repent of these mental slips there is no danger to our salvation since our overall attitude would still be correct, and we still would have the Holy Spirit, which is what guarantees eternal life so long as it is within us (Rom. 8:11; II Cor. 5:5). Those who worry about having committed the unpardonable sin almost certainly have not committed it, if they still wish to repent. Let us never give up being a Christian because we sin occasionally, for with God’s help and forgiveness we will triumph: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
Eric V. Snow
The Revolutionary Implications of the MMT for Interpreting Paul’s “Works of the Law”
by Eric V. Snow
One of the great puzzles in Paul’s writings is the meaning of the term “the works of the law.” For example, Paul wrote: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). The term appears again in Gal. 3:5: “Does He [God] then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” A long time problem in interpreting this term is that it appeared absolutely nowhere in ancient Jewish literature outside the New Testament. IF this term means all acts of lawkeeping and obeying God, whether it be caring for the poor, avoiding stealing, keeping the Sabbath, or getting circumcised, then the classical Protestant Reformation’s view of how Christians are saved is fundamentally correct: works--literal acts of obedience--have nothing to do with being saved (except, perhaps, as being evidence of having saving faith). However, IF this term has a narrow meaning, as referring to rituals of the ceremonial law, or various Old Testament judgments not tied to the Ten Commandments (i.e. the moral law), then this opens the door to the view that Paul merely condemned obeying the CEREMONIAL law as a condition to salvation, with particular emphasis on circumcision. For various gentiles were seriously tempted to be circumcised because standard Jewish theology said that one could not enter the Old Covenant relationship with God, and thus be saved, without being circumcised (compare Acts 15:1). For the Jews, circumcision was seen to be the equivalent of baptism for Christians--as absolutely necessary to gain an initial relationship with God, and thus necessary for salvation. So, when Paul wrote (say) Gal. 2:16 or Rom. 3:28, did he mean no acts of obedience were a condition to salvation, or just no acts of obedience to the ceremonial law were a condition to salvation, such as circumcision?
As described in Martin Abegg’s article, “Paul, ‘Works of the Law,’ and MMT,” in the November/December 1995 Biblical Archeology Review, there has been uncovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls an ancient Jewish document using this term for the first time outside the Bible. This document is known as the MMT (Hebrew for Miqsat Ma’ase Ha-Torah, “Pertinent Works of the Law” by one translation). It describes the works of the law in a list based upon ceremonial rituals, or various judgments, but not upon the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath. Examples of laws listed in it are: cleansing lepers, letting blind and deaf people into the Temple, carrying gentile corn into the inside of the Temple, intermarrying with Ammonite and Moabites (i.e. gentile) converts, plowing with different animal simultaneously, mixing wool and linen in cloth together, and presenting gentile offerings. Since none of these “works of the law” concern the great precepts of the Ten Commandments, or such duties as caring for the poor, or even tithing, keeping the Sabbath, Holy Days, etc., the MMT’s definition of “the works of the law” radically narrows the meaning of what Paul was condemning in Gal. 2-3 and Rom. 3-4. It means literal works obeying the moral law can be a condition (not that they earn) to salvation, which is in accordance with certain always troubling scriptures like Matt. 19:17 or Rom. 2:13: “[I]f you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “[F]or not the hearers of the Law are just before God (contrast Gal. 3:2, 5), but the doers of the Law will be justified.” Hence, Paul can be seen as generally dealing with the initial stage of salvation--”justification”--and seen as denying repeatedly circumcision as being what reconciles you to God in this first stage of the salvation process. In contrast, “sanctification” can be seen as requiring some literal works of obedience to the moral law, as the chain link of logic in Rom. 6: 13, 16, 19, 22 would indicate.