Justification - Works of Law vs. Obedience of Faith

Ferrell Jenkins
St. Louis, Mo.

The subject of "justification" is one that has intrigued men who have desired to know about God's plan. It is certainly a subject worthy of our very deepest concern. It is seen to be the theme of the book of Romans. In Romans 1:16-17 the apostle says: "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; for it is the power of God unto salvation unto everyone that believeth; to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith; as it is written, but the righteousness shall live by faith."

Throughout this book is shown God's way of making man right or just before him. This also seems to be the theme of Galatians. It is evident, also, that James taught justification, but from a different aspect than that of the apostle Paul. This will be considered in due time. In order that we might understand exactly what we are speaking about, we must first define the terms of our subject.


The first and most evident word to be defined is justification. It is said to mean "to deem right, to do justice, to be treated rightly, to show to be righteous, to declare, pronounce righteous" (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament). Thayer says that it means, "to judge, to declare, pronounce righteous and therefore acceptable" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Someone has denied it as meaning "a process by which wrong is corrected, and bad is made good, and good better, in the way of actual improvement of the thing or person justified" ( H. C. G. Moule, "Justification By Faith," The Fundamentals, Vol. 11). Webster says, in the printing industry it means, "adjustment, as of type, by spacing it so as to make it exactly fill a line, or the cut so as to hold it in place." We can see from this curious use of the word the idea of making right that which was wrong. When a piece of type has been justified, that means that it has been corrected or set in the proper order as it ought to be. But this is simply an individual case. Otherwise the word means something quite different from an improvement of condition. It is not so much the idea of improvement in everyday life as the idea of vindication. If one is seeking to justify an opinion, or to justify a course of conduct or justify a statement or to justify a friend, it doesn't mean that he is trying to improve the status of the thing spoken of, but rather that he is trying to vindicate so as to aquit or to make free. An example of this use is found in the Old Testament with reference to the law of Moses, "If there be a controversy between men, and they come into judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked." Here we call see that the righteous one is not improved but rather he is vindicated or he is made righteous in view of the law. "Justification" is a forensic word. We must realize that just because it is based in the Bible, its common usage as far as the word is concerned does not change, but simply it has a newer and different application. We believe then that the best definition for the word is "to vindicate, aquit, or to make righteous." You will notice that the one who is justified is not necessarily a sinner, in fact in the example in the law of Moses, we saw that one is justified because one was right in the sight of the law. In fact we must say that in common usage the judge justifies the righteous. He vindicates those that are acceptable in accord with the law. So there is a great difference between justification as the term is used in the court and as it is used in the Scripture. The righteous or just man is vindicated in the court. He can of course because of his conformance to law, but in God's plan it is the sinner who is made righteous or vindicated before the throne of God. In both cases it means to vindicate, but in one it is the vindication of the righteous, in the other it is the vindication of one who in reality is guilty.

Works of Law

We now find it in order to ask, "what are works of law?" We are going to discuss "works of law versus obedience of faith." We must understand what is meant by works of law. By the expression "law," any law is meant, that is, a rule or in arrangement that men must follow because they are bound under it. By "works" we simply mean the deeds that are performed under law. This evidently would mean if a person by his works or deeds performed everything that the law required, he would therefore be a just, a vindicated, or a righteous person in the sight of the law. So then thc question is, "Can one be justified by works of law?"

Obedience of Faith

The next term of importance is the expression "obedience of faith." By this we have reference to the obedience that comes as a result of faith. It first seems that we should define the word "faith" because many have a misunderstanding as to its true meaning. The best approach is to ask, what does faith mean in common everyday life and speech. Notice such phrases as, "we have faith in a policy, we have faith in a particular remedy, we have faith in a lawyer, or in a physician, or in a political or military leader." If we use this same expression with relation to Jesus, we would say that we must have "faith in Jesus." The word simply means to have trust or reliance for a thing or person that is supposed to be trustworthy. Abbott-Smith says "in active sense, faith, belief, trust, confidence." Thayer says, "conviction of the truth of anything, belief." It seems very evident that this word carries more weight than the idea of a mental conviction, but rather it is the kind of practical confidence or practical reliance that is willing to follow the instruction given by one thought to be trustworthy. As we mentioned previously, to have trust in a military leader does not mean simply to have a mental conviction or opinion concerning him but to be willing to follow him in battle. The same would be true concerning the physician. If one has the proper faith in the physician he will follow the instructions given by the physician in order that he might be healed. If we have faith in a remedy and the remedy recommended is that three doses be given, we will give three rather than one. This shows faith, reliance, or confidence in the remedy. That this is the meaning of "faith" as it is expressed in the New Testament, can be seen by the use made of it in Hebrews 11. It is described as the "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." In this chapter the worthies of old are displayed before us as they take God at His Word and follow His every command. The "elders" of times past treated that which was hoped for and unseen as solid and certain, because they had trust or reliance upon the faithful Promiser. Picture, if you will, a great factory containing machinery to make great products. With the touch of one finger on an electric switch the huge machinery can be made to operate. Such a little touch! But it is the means of contact. So it is with faith when it is obedient. It gives one contact with the greatest of all, Jesus Christ. One can then enjoy His grace, and eternal love.

By What Means Justification

The question now is asked, "By what is man justified, is it by works of law or by obedience of faith?" Is man saved by his own meritorious works under law, or by his faith in Jesus Christ? Let us study the first five chapters of Romans very briefly. We first learn that the righteous are to live by faith that is revealed in the gospel (1:16-17).After showing that all, both Jew and Gentile, are under the guilt of sin, Paul says that no flesh shall be justified by the works of law (3:20). The same thing, is taught in Galatians where he says, "Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident (3:11)." The righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel is "apart from the law" (3:21). It is made known through faith in Jesus, and we are justified by His grace (3:22, 24). God justified the individual who has faith in Jesus (3 :26). Boasting is excluded by a "law of faith" (3:27). This is in harmony with Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:8-9, "for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory." All men are justified in the same way (3:30). The greatest of all Old Testament examples is called in to show that man can be justified apart from the law, by faith. He says, "for if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God" (4:2). And again, "Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but is of debt (4:4)." It is evident that Abraham was not justified by works of law for if that had been the case God would have owed him justification. It is shown that righteousness was reckoned apart from works, by the statement of David (4:6-8). Then it is pointed out that Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision. The apostle further shows that through Jesus Christ we have access to the grace by faith (5:1-2). We must remember also that we are "justified by his blood" (5:9). It would, of course, be necessary that one come in contact with the blood before this justification could be accomplished. A passage in Paul's address at Antioch of Pisidia sums up very well the point under discussion. It states that "by faith every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39)." In Galatians the contrast between the two means is seen when the writer says, "that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (2:16)."

James and Paul

Different individuals have felt unsympathetic toward the teaching of James because there is an apparent contradiction between him and Paul on the doctrine of justification. James used Abraham as an example of justification by works. It should be noted though, that the Jacobean letter does not say that one is justified by work apart from faith, but rather that the faith of a person is not sufficient for justification unless it is coupled with works. Instead of meritorious works of law, it seems that James has in mind that practical application of faith. This certainly corresponds with what we have said concerning the definition of "faith." In the Pauline epistles there is found this same type of teaching. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love (Gal. 5:6)." James and Paul, along with all the other writers of the New Testament, are in full agreement that man is justified by a faith that is obedient and not by meritorious works of law.

Truth Magazine IV:3, pp. 17-19
December 1959