Misunderstanding Justification

By Mike Willis

Despite the fact that so much has been written by so many Christians regarding salvation, every generation must be taught these basic facts again. In the recent controversies regarding the grace-unity movement, evidences of misunderstanding regarding salvation manifested themselves as many began to discuss justification by works versus justification by faith. The denominational understanding of these two ideas has penetrated the thinking of some preaching brethren. Consequently, it should be helpful to each of us to be reminded of the distinction between justification by works and justification by faith in the books of Romans and Galatians.

The Denominational Error

In the eyes of denominationalism, “justification by works” refers to a system of justification in which man is required to do anything in order to receive this salvation. The exact expression of this concept of justification differs on the basis of which group is making the argument. The most consistent group has been the strict Calvinists who make salvation wholly dependent upon God, stating that man is completely passive in conversion. These Calvinists apply the opprobrium “salvation by works” to those who make salvation conditional upon anything which man does himself. Salvation is based upon unconditional election, they say. Before the beginning of the world, God chose certain men to be saved without any consideration being given to what those men might or might not do. According to the traditional Calvinist theory, a man is saved because God chose to save him, not because of anything else. Hence, if God chose to save a man, that man will be saved even if he is an atheist, blasphemer of Jesus Christ, immoral, and otherwise living contrary to God’s will. When a man states that a person must believe in Jesus in order to be saved, the strict Calvinist will respond that this is teaching “salvation by works.”

Some who have come under the influence of Calvinism have not been as consistent in the application of the principles of Calvinism as others. The Baptists have generally fallen into this category. Many of them teach inherited depravity and perseverance of the saints, but also teach a conditional salvation. Nevertheless, their concept regarding “salvation by works” is tainted by the Calvinist philosophy. The Baptists want to make salvation conditional only upon faith. If one teaches that water baptism is a condition for salvation from past sins, he is charged with believing in “salvation by works.” Acts of obedience to the gospel are not rendered as conditions for salvation, but only as expressions of faith on the part of people already saved for time and eternity. One is saved on the condition of faith alone, not because he rendered obedience from the heart to any of the commandments of the gospel. Remember that both pardon from past sins and continuing security with God are based on “faith only.” So goes the Calvinist dogma as popularly preached by Baptists and a host of other denominational folks.

Lately, some of our brethren have begun to teach Baptist doctrine with reference to salvation. The only difference in these brethren and the Baptists is that the brethren have arbitrarily included repentance and water baptism in the conditions for salvation. Sometimes, the semantic device of including repentance and baptism under the umbrella of “faith only” is used. Hence, these brethren state that man is saved on the conditions of faith, repentance, and water baptism, or else the condition of “faith only” explained so as to include repentance and baptism. Either way, it is said that man’s further and continued obedience to the gospel has nothing whatsoever to do with his continuing in a justified state. Hence, observance of the Lord’s supper, righteous living, and other acts of obedience by faith and love to the commands of the gospel have nothing whatsoever to do with a conditional relationship with God which includes our continuing justification. To teach that one must do these things in order to stay saved is to teach “salvation by works,” according to these brethren. These things are done as expressions of faith on the part of people already in a secure relation with God, but not as conditions to stay saved, according to the Neo-Calvinist theory. Their argumentation regarding “salvation by works” is identical with that of the Baptists and Calvinists, with the modification that they draw their lines in different places.

Paul’s Definition Of Salvation By Works

In both Romans and Galatians Paul argued that man could not be justified by works. He wrote, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight. . .” (Rom. 3:20). “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

What did Paul mean by “deeds of the law” and “works of the law”? Every author has the right to define his own terms and use these terms in a peculiar way. I must understand the usage of these terms by the Holy Spirit in order to understand in what sense man is not saved by the “deeds of the law” and the “works of the law.” To understand this, it is necessary for one to understand the error which Paul was fighting and the context in which these terms were used.

Paul was dealing with a specific kind of error in the first century when he wrote these two books. We refer to that error as the teaching of the Judaizers. The Judaizers were a group of Jewish Christians who had reached the conclusion that one had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. In essence, this doctrine asserts that Jesus is not an allsufficient Savior because obedience to Christ must be supplemented by keeping the law of Moses. It is a rejection of the atonement as the allsufficient grounds of one’s salvation.

If one states that Jesus Christ is not all-sufficient to save, he has rejected the only grounds of salvation. With what is he left? The law of Moses could not wash away sins with the blood of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:4). The Judaizers had already rejected the blood of Jesus as being sufficient to save. So, what was left? The only means left for men to be saved was through perfect obedience to law or, “salvation by works” in the truest sense! The one and only all-sufficient sacrifice for sin was rejected as inadequate by the Judaizers so all that they were left with for salvation was perfect obedience to the law under which they lived.

The kind of works under consideration in these two books is not conditions which must be met by man to receive the grace of God. The kind of works discussed in these books is meritorious works by which one earns his salvation. “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Rom. 4:4). It is a salvation which results in man boasting in his own attainments. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). If one could be saved by perfect obedience to law, he would be able to glory and boast in his own attainments. His salvation would be something which he had earned, not a free gift from God. Salvation by works, as used by Paul, is salvation without grace. “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). “Salvation by works” does not involve the grace of God which forgives our sins and remembers our iniquities against us no more, because “salvation by works” is perfect obedience to law, a salvation in which no sin has been committed and there is no need of grace.

Man Has Never Been Saved By Works

Sometimes men act as if man under the Old Law was justified by works (as used by Paul in the books of Romans and Galatians) but that men under the New Law are justified by grace. Brethren, no man has ever been justified by works as used by Paul in Romans and Galatians. No man can stand before God and say, “God, I deserve to be saved because I perfectly obeyed every commandment which you gave to me. I have never sinned. God, you owe me salvation!” The reason that this is true is because man is guilty of sin.

Paul developed this theme in both books. In Romans 1, Paul showed that the Gentiles were separated from God by sin. In Romans 2-3, he demonstrated that the Jews were also separated from God by sin. He wrote, “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as haved sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). “Now we know that what things so ever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). Every man is separated from God and under the curse of God’s law because he has sinned. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is, every one that continued not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10).

Because every accountable person has chosen to defy the will of God, thus becoming guilty of sin, no man can be justified by works. No man can stand acceptable before God, (1) boasting in his own perfect obedience (Rom. 3:27; 4:2), (2) without the grace of God (Rom. 11:6), and (3) having received his salvation as a debt that is owed to him (Rom. 11:6). This is as much true of David, Isaiah, Daniel, and every other Old Testament saint as it is of Mike Willis. None of these men were justified by works, by perfect conformity to law.

This is the reason that Paul cited the example of Abraham in Romans 4, to demonstrate that man’s salvation has never been on the condition of “works” (perfect obedience to a law), but always upon the condition of faith. Paul argued from the Scripture that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3), before and without circumcision and years before the Mosaical law was given. His second evidence that man has always been justified by grace through faith and not through perfect obedience to the law is the case of David. In Romans 4, Paul cited Psalm 32 with reference to David. Paul wrote, “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom. 4:6-8). The blessings of God are given to the man who has received God’s gracious forgiveness, not to him who has perfectly obeyed divine law. Hence, man receives righteousness on the grounds of God’s grace, not upon the grounds of perfect obedience to law.

The men in the Old Testament obviously did not understand or perceive exactly how God’s grace would be extended thru the Messiah. However, these men knew that they had to look beyond themselves to the grace of God. These men fixed their eyes upon the promise of God, promises centered in the future coming of the Messiah, and were justified because of their faith in God’s promise, not because of their perfect obedience to the law. David, the one who committed adultery with Bathsheba and subsequently murdered Uriah her husband, could never come before God in arrogance stating, “God, you owe me salvation because of my perfect obedience.” He could only come before God pleading for grace and looking to the coming Messiah for his justification. The Messiah promised by God was all that these men had to hope in.

By way of contrast, the Judaizers, who lived after the Messiah or Christ had come, rejected Christ as being an all-sufficient Savior and were necessarily and logically compelled to look to their own perfect obedience as the grounds of their salvation. Their system of salvation grounded upon perfect conformity to the law of God could not justify anyone.

Application To Today

There are several points which we can learn from this which should have application to some of the issues which we are facing today. Please consider each of the following:

1. Some among us have an improper understanding of “salvation by works. ” Those who teach that making salvation conditional upon faithful obedience from the heart to the law of Jesus Christ is salvation by works misunderstand “salvation by works.” I know of no man among us who is teaching (a) that salvation is based on perfect conformity to law, (b) that one is saved without grace, (c) that one has reason to boast in his own accomplishments. But I do know that some men are trying to find a theological basis for believing that those who disobey one or more of the Lord’s commandments can be saved while continuing to practice their sin and without repentance. This is presently being applied to such sins as usage of instrumental music in worship, church support of human institutions (hospitals, orphan homes, colleges, missionary societies), church sponsored recreation, and other doctrinal apostasies. I would like to request two things from these people: (a) Bible passages which authorize us to have fellowship with those who introduce unscriptural activities in the worship and work of the church and (b) documented evidence that anyone among us is teaching salvation conditioned upon perfect conformity to God’s word.

2. To teach that one must adhere faithfully to God’s word to maintain fellowship with God is not teaching salvation by works. John wrote, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:3-4). For a man to teach what John wrote does not conflict with what the apostle Paul wrote regarding salvation by works. When one ends up in a doctrinal position which makes it impossible to teach what John wrote, he needs to reconsider his understanding of God’s word. Those who are stating that one can maintain the fellowship of God while practicing the sins of introducing and using mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions, and the sponsoring church arrangements stand in opposition to the plain statements made by the Holy Spirit through John in 1 John 1:6 and 2:3-4. Certainly John was not teaching that man earns his salvation by perfectly obeying God’s word; rather, he made the maintaining of a relationship with God conditional upon faithfulness to His word.

3. To teach that a Christian’s sins are forgiven upon the condition of repentance and confession is not “salvation ‘condition works. ” When a person teaches that a Christian who sins cannot obtain forgiveness of that sin without repentance and confession, he is sometimes accused of teaching “salvation by works.” Any system of forgiveness is not salvation by works, as used by Paul in Romans and Galatians. Too, there is much resemblance between the charge made by the Baptists that to teach water baptism as a condition for salvation is to teach salvation by works and that made by some brethren to the effect that to teach repentance and confession as conditions for forgiveness is to teach salvation by works.

Those among our brethren who teach forgiveness without repentance and confession (i.e., constant cleansing, before and without prayer for pardon) are careful to state that this only applies to sins of ignorance or inadvertence, not to high-handed sins of rebellion. Hence, they hold out the hope of eternal salvation to those in liberal churches of Christ who are practicing church support of human institutions, the sponsoring church pattern of organization, and church supported recreation – in ignorance – and those in Christian Churches who use instrumental music in worship – in ignorance. Of course the same argument will justify those who are ignorant of what the Lord said about divorce and remarriage but who are living in adulterous marriages and other immoralities (e.g. those homosexuals who think that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality). This teaching leads to doctrinal and moral compromise; it takes a loose view of the consequences of sin.


Brethren, there are some among us who are not content to limit themselves to fellowship with those who are walking in the light. They are wanting to pussy foot with those who sinfully divided the Lord’s church regarding church support of missionary societies and the use of instruments music in worship. They want to hob nob with those why divided the church over church support of human institutions (orphan homes, colleges, missionary societies, old folks home, etc.), church supported recreational activities and the sponsoring church arrangement. They have become so uncertain in the gospel which they preach that they cannot “judge” one guilty of these things to be under condemnation of God and separated from Him by their sin, in spite of Romans 6:23 and 2 John 9-11. Consequently they argue, “If God will accept me in all of my sins of ignorance and imperfection, he will surely accept those brethren who differ from me on these matters in their ignorances and imperfections. Salvation does not depend upon me being right upon every brotherhood issue concocted by brethren, but upon my faith in God.” Such statements (1) equate “sin” with every imperfection in the growth process of a Christian (2 Pet. 1:5-11), (2) blur the Bible distinction between matters of “the faith” bound upon us all and matters of personal “faith” or individual determination (cf. 2 Jn. 9-11 and Rom. 14:1-23), and (3) minimize the seriousness of sinful violations of the Bible pattern for the local church’s work, worship, and organization.

These loose brethren will soon be fellowshipping liberal brethren and Christian Church men. Some already are They will soon quit preaching sermons which condemn the practices of those who have departed from us. Some already have. They will soon establish “detente” with these false teachers and begin to participate with them it those areas in which there is agreement and agree to disagree in other areas. Some already are. As these thing; occur, compromise with false teachers will result. It is already happening.

Let us beware of the devices of Satan!

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 5, pp. 130-132, 147-148
March 3, 1983