By Mike Willis
In recent months, brethren have turned once again to reconsider the basis of our justification before God. To those familiar with restoration history, this theme is not new; brethren wrestled with it and with the denominational perversions of it in the early years of the attempt to restore New Testament Christianity. Some among us today are making the same mistake as the denominationals regarding the basis of our justification before God. Hence, I think that this material on justification should be useful to our readers. What Is Justification?
The basic idea of justification is to be declared legally innocent-to stand before God without accusation and thus be recognized and treated as righteous. We use the word “justify” in a different sense today; for example, someone says, “I was justified in spanking my child” and means that he had a sufficient cause for giving the child a spanking. That is not the way in which the word “justification” is used in the Bible. It refers to man standing approved before God, spotless and without sin, because his sins have been washed away in the blood of Jesus. That this is its basic idea is seen in these passages: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:33-34).
There have only been two ways of being justified before God ever suggested to man: (a) through sinless perfection and (b) through forgiveness. The former method is also referred to in the Bible as justification through works; the latter is referred to as justification through faith. To help us contrast these two methods of justification, I want to reproduce this chart to make the following contrasts crystal clear:
|By Works of Law||By Faith in Christ|
|1. Meritorious (Rom. 4:4).||1. Gratuitous (Rom. 3:24).|
|2. To the sinless (Gal. 3:10).||2. To the sinful (Rom. 4:5).|
|3. Stands before God:||3. Stands before God:|
|a. Without pardon (Rom. 3:20).||a. Through pardon (Rom. 4:6-8).|
|b. Without grace (Rom. 4:4).||b. By grace (Rom. 3:24).|
|c. Without Christ (Gal. 2:21).||c. Through Christ (Rom. 3:24).|
|d. Without faith (Rom. 4:14).||d. By faith (Rom 3:28).|
|e. Without obedience of faith (Rom. 4:14).||e. Through obedience of faith (Rom. 4:12).|
|4. Results in:||4. Results in:|
|a. Boasting (Rom. 4:2).||a. Exclusion of boasting (Rom. 3:27, 1 Cor. 1:31).|
|b. Reward as a debt (Rom. 4:4).||b. Reward as a gift (Eph. 2:8).|
With this chart before us, let us itemize some of the distinctions between justification by works and justification by faith:
1. Justification through the works of the law is an earned salvation; justification through faith is by grace. The man who has lived a sinless life has earned his salvation. Hence, Paul wrote, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due” (Rom. 4:4). God should grant the man who has not sinned salvation because He has no basis on which to condemn him. On the other hand, the man who is justified by faith is justified by grace, because God, in His mercy, has forgiven him of his trespasses. Paul again wrote, ” . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).
2. The man who is justified by works must be sinless; the man who is justified by faith is a sinner. If the man who is trying to be justified by works is going to be justified at all, he must never sin because he who sins is under the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10). The man who is trying to be justified by faith is seeking to be justified through the blood of Jesus Christ. “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). He freely recognizes that his transgressions classify him as an ungodly man and petitions God for forgiveness. When he is justified, he is justified on the basis of being forgiven.
3. The standing before God of the two parties is very different. The man who stands before God justified by works stands before God (a) without pardon (because he has not sinned); (b) without grace; (c) without the need of Jesus Christ. The man who stands before God justified by faith stands before God (a) through pardon (Rom. 4:6-8); (b) by God’s grace (Rom. 3:24); (c) through Jesus Christ’s blood (Rom. 3:24); (d) by faith (Rom. 3:28); and (e) through the obedience of faith (Rom. 4:12).
4. The man who is justified by works can boast (Rom. 4:2) because he has earned his salvation; God is obligated to give salvation to the sinless man because he has earned it (Rom. 4:4). On the other hand, the man who is justified through’ faith has no personal grounds for boasting; he can only boast in what God through Jesus Christ has done for him (Rom. 3:27; 1 Cor. 1:31). His eternal inheritance is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8).
Although we can theoretically speak of two systems of justification, practically there is only one system of justification because no man can live a sinless life. “We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). No man can be saved through the works of the law (Rom. 3:19, 20; Gal. 3:10; Rom. 7:9) because he cannot perfectly keep that law. Had men been able to be justified through perfect obedience to a law, the law of Moses would have been just as sufficient to save us as any law which God could have provided. Hence, the system of justification through works renounces a need for a Savior (Gal. 2:19-20) and, thus, frustrates the grace of God. Anyone who professes that man can be saved through perfect obedience to the law renounces any need for Jesus Christ.
Salvation Through Works
I know of no more abused term today than “salvation through works.” Today, “salvation through works” is taken to mean any system which. says that man’s eternal salvation is conditioned upon his personal response to the gospel. For example, I am charged with teaching “salvation through works” when I preach that a man must believe, repent, confess and be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sins. Too, some among us assert that we are teaching “salvation through works” when I teach that a man must repent and pray for the forgiveness of the sins which he commits following his becoming a Christian. Both charges only reflect the ignorance of what is meant by “salvation through works” as it is used in the Bible.
If you have understood anything that I have said thus far, you will now understand that “salvation through works” is a biblical term which refers to a system of justification based on perfect obedience to law. Those who are using the term “salvation through works” to refer to either the “plan of salvation” or the need for repentance and prayer in order to obtain forgiveness of sins committed after baptism are either ignorantly or willfully perverting a Bible term. I know of no one among us who is teaching “salvation through works” in the biblical usage of the term! All charges to that effect are absolutely groundless.
Salvation Through Faith
Salvation through faith, though a profound Bible doctrine, is very much misunderstood. It is, as has already been shown, the only means whereby men can be saved. Since so many misunderstood salvation through faith, let me make one or two observations about it. First of all, faith is not a work whereby we merit God’s salvation; rather, it is a condition for receiving His grace. If I said, “I will give you one million dollars if you will walk around this block backwards,” no one who walked around the block backwards and received the million dollars would think that he had worked to earn that money. He would perfectly understand that walking around the block backwards was a condition which the man met to receive the money.
Secondly, the external acts of faith manifest as much reliance, if not more, on Jesus as does belief itself and, therefore, may become conditions of salvation just as certainly as faith is a condition of salvation. This being true, baptism is as much a condition of salvation as faith is. Let us clearly understood that one is not earning his salvation when he is baptized into Christ; rather, he is simply meeting another condition in order to receive his salvation. For this reason, we read of the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) in the great book which speaks of justification through faith. In the example of Abraham who was justified by faith, Paul showed that Abraham was justified before God when he took God at His word and did what he said. The faith which justifies is an obedient faith!
Any blessing which is conditioned on the obedience which springs from faith is scripturally represented as conditional on faith itself for whatever is suspended on an outward manifestation of faith is thereby suspended on the faith thus manifested. This is exactly the reason James wrote, “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (Jas. 2:22). Hence, though faith cannot constitute the grounds of justification (only the blood of Christ can be the grounds of justification) any more than perfect obedience can, yet the blessing of God may be conditioned as much on obedient acts as on the act of believing itself.
Some brethren have no proper concept of justification through faith. They seem to understand that one has made salvation dependent upon “salvation through works” the moment he states that one must obey any of the commandments of God in order to be saved. One of two things is true: either salvation is given to man conditionally or unconditionally. If it is given unconditionally, then all men will be saved since Christ died for all men. However, if it is given conditionally, then man must in some sense respond to God’s grace in order to receive. If there is so much as one response required, that one response deserves to be labeled “salvation through works” to the same extent as if there are five responses required to receive the gift of salvation. Actually, the obedience to the commands of God are conditions of salvation and cannot properly be called “salvation through works.” Labeling these conditions for salvation as “salvation through works” is only a theological smokescreen being used to justify fellowship, with those who refuse to obey God’s word!
Those who are shouting that we are teaching “salvation through works” are doing so for one reason: that they might justify their fellowship with those who are engaged in supporting institutionalism, the sponsoring church, instrumental music, missionary societies, etc. Brethren, do not be deceived by this. Their main purpose is to lead the Lord’s people into an unholy alliance with those bent on making the Lord’s church a human denomination. All of this double talk about “salvation through works” is only an attempt to say that those who are using instruments of music in worship, supporting benevolent and evangelistic societies from the church treasury, and perverting the organization of the New Testament church through the sponsoring church arrangement can be saved without the cessation of their false practices. Are you ready to accept that?
Truth Magazine XXI: 21: pp. 323-325
May 26, 1977