The Controversy Over Faith And Works Continues

By Mike Willis

The relationship between faith and works has been debated through the years by those who study the Bible. Some such as the Pharisees have understood man to be saved through perfect obedience to the commandments of God (called “works” by Paul in Romans and Galatians), some have understood man to be saved without obeying the commands of God (Jas. 2), and some have understood that one must obey the commandments of God as conditions for salvation by grace. Many debates were held with Presbyterians and Baptists during the early years of the restoration movement in which brethren demonstrated that one cannot be saved from sin by the grace of God without meeting the conditions which God has laid down for salvation. Brethren should have studied these materials sufficiently to understand that conditional salvation is not salvation by works.

However, a new generation has been reared who has not been exposed to the oral debates and evidently has not taken the time to read the written debates enough to understand the relationship between obedience and salvation. At any rate, some are writing with reference to works under the same terminology as the Baptists have been using of baptism in the new birth and of the life of obedient faith which abides in God’s grace. The Baptists have been saying, “Man is not baptized in order to be saved from past sins but because he is saved, nor must he continue in the obedience of faith to receive the inheritance of eternal life but because he already has obtained it. ” One brother recently wrote, “We work (obey God) because we are saved, not in order to get saved” (Mark Nitz, “Paul and James on Faith and Works,” Firm Foundation, 8 February 1983, p. 6, and Sentry, Vol. 9, No. 2, 28 February 1983, pp. 9-12. This entire article is reproduced elsewhere in this issue.) Because statements such as this are being made, I think it will benefit us to study some more regarding faith and works.

Two Incompatible Systems

The books of Romans and Galatians are generally quoted rather frequently in the discussions regarding faith and works. This is sometimes done without taking the time to carefully explain the meaning of these words in the particular text. That “faith” and “works” are used to refer to two incompatible systems of justification is apparent from these texts: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).

And if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect (Rom. 4:14).

A person cannot be saved by works and by faith at the same time, according to Paul. Yet, this can be understood only insofar as we understand what he means by “faith” and “works.”

When Paul speaks of being saved by “works,” he is speaking of meritorious works – works by which one earns his salvation. The “works” of Romans leads to boasting (Rom. 3:27; 4:2), makes salvation a debt instead-of a grace (Rom. 4:4), voids faith and the promise of God (Rom. 4:13), makes Christ’s death unnecessary (Gal. 2:21), and frustrates the grace of God (Gal. 2:21). By “works” Paul means a system of justification by which a man earns his salvation because he has never disobeyed the commandments of God; it is a system of perfect obedience. The reason why men cannot be saved by “works” is that man commits sin (Rom. 3:23) and falls under the curse of the law. The law said, “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Deut. 27:26; quoted in Gal. 3:10). The man who violated the law in any point fell under the curse of the law. Only the man who perfectly obeyed the law could earn his salvation and be saved by “law-keeping.”’

When Paul spoke of being saved :by “faith,” he was speaking of another system of justification. [Men have misunderstood “faith” when they define it to mean “accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior.” The word “faith” refers to that which has three elements: (1) conviction that something is true; (2) trust in that which one believes; (3) obedience (see Thayer, p. 511). One is saved by faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) by being baptized. And he continues in grace by walking in the steps of the faithful Abraham (Rom. 4:12).] In Romans and Galatians, `faith” refers to a system whereby one who is ungodly because he is a sinner is reconciled to God through forgiveness which forgiveness is based or grounded upon the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Hence, in Romans and Galatians, these two systems of ‘justification are discussed which might be charted as below:

Two Systems of Justification

Works of Law Faith in Christ
1. Grounds: Perfect Obedience to Law (Rom. 4:4; Gal. 3:12). 1. Grounds: Shed blood of Christ (Rom. 3:24, 25)
2. Salvation to the sinless (Gal. 3:10). 2. Salvation for the sinner (Rom. 4:5).
3. This salvation is:

a. Without pardon (Rom. 4:4).

b. Without grace, a debt (Rom. 4:4).

c. Without Christ (Gal. 2:21).

d. Without faith (Rom. 4:14).

3. This salvation is:


a. Through pardon (Rom. 4:6-8).

b. By grace, reward is a gift (Rom. 3:24; 6:23; Eph. 2:8).

c. Through Christ (Rom. 3:24).

d. By Faith (Rom. 3:28).

4. This salvation results in:


a. Trust in man’s ability to perfectly obey.

b. Boasting in man (Rom. 3:27; 4:2, 4).

4. This salvation results in:


a. Trust in Christ’s shed blood.

b. Boasting in Christ (1 Cor. 1:29-31).

Is Obedience A Condition Of Salvation?

Some have reached the conclusion that obedience to the commandments of God is a “result of salvation” rather than a “condition of salvation.” “We work (obey God) because we are saved, not in order to get saved” is the manner in which some express it.

The Scriptures explicitly make obedience a condition of salvation in the following passages:

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).

Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him (Heb. 5:8-9).

. . . the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 1:7-8).

I must obey the gospel in order to be saved, not just because I am saved. I defy any man to find proof in the Scriptures that a man is saved before and without obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Generally men who are writing, “We work (obey God) because we are saved, not in order to get saved,” want to limit this “work” to obedience after initial conversion. They generally mean that our salvation is not conditioned upon partaking of the Lord’s supper, good morals, scriptural worship, and following the pattern for the work and organization of the church. They want to leave the impression that a man can be saved “by faith” while worshipping with a church which uses instrumental music in its worship, supports human institutions (colleges, orphan homes, old folks’ homes, hospitals, etc.) from its treasury, perverts the organization of the church through the sponsoring church arrangement, and participates in church sponsored recreation. They write in such a way as to imply that the obedience of faith to be rendered by a Christian in the function of a local church is not rendered to God in order to stay saved but because he is saved.

First, we agree that a child of God is moved to continue in the obedience of faith because of a spirit of thanksgiving for the remission of all past sins. But false teachers, claim, implicitly or explicitly, that continued obedience to the faith by a Christian is not essential to his fellowship with God and to final redemption (I Pet. 1:9). That is where they are mistaken. A man cannot become saved or stay saved without’ obeying the Lord’s commandments. I deny that the baptized believer can stay saved while walking in immorality (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21), offering unscriptural worship (Matt. 15:8-9), or otherwise persisting in sin, whether committed in arrogant rebellion or through a weakness’of the flesh~or through ignorance.

The fact that pardon is conditional upon or received by obedience to the commandments of God does not imply that it is grounded upon or merited by obedience to the commandments. No man’s salvation can be grounded upon or merited by his own life of obedience because he does not live a life of perfect obedience. Hence, he is a sinner and separated from God by his sins. In order for this man to be saved, his sins must be forgiven. Consequently, Jesus died on Calvary in order that the ungodly man could have his sins forgiven. Nevertheless, the procurement of pardon is conditioned upon obedience to the commandments of, God. The necessity of the obedience of faith, including a plea for mercy when we err, does not stop at baptism.

A gift of God can be given conditionally upon obedience to commandments. The Lord gave the city of Jericho to Israel (“And the Lord said unto Joshua, I have given into thy hand Jericho. . .” Josh. 6:2), but Israel had to meet the conditions laid down by God to receive the city (cf. Josh. 6; Heb. 11:30). When the lives of the men on board the ship taking Paul to Rome as a prisoner were endangered by the storm, the Lord told Paul that there would be no loss of life because He “hath given thee all them that sail with thee” (Acts 27:24). Nevertheless, their preservation was conditional upon the sailors abiding in the ship (Acts 27:30-31). Our daily bread is a conditional gift (Eccl. 3:13).

Someone might object that he is not discussing the initial reception of salvation but the maintaining of salvation. He would admit that receiving the initial gift of salvation is conditional upon obedience to the gospel (faith, repentance, confession and baptism). However, good works are done as a result of being saved, not in order to be saved or stay saved, he argues. Is faith a good work? Must it continue in order to stay saved? What is the difference in constantly obeying the command to have faith and constantly obeying the command to observe the Lord’s supper? Can one be saved while disobeying either of these commands?


I would agree that salvation is not grounded upon or merited by perfect obedience. But I would deny that the good works inherent in an obedient faith are not necessary as conditions of final redemption, as implied in the statement, “We work (obey God) because we are saved, not in order to get saved.” My salvation is conditioned upon my faithfulness to God, a faithfulness which manifests itself in my continued obedience to God’s commandments. So long as I continue to persevere in faith by obeying the Lord’s commandments, I am in fellowship with God. However, when I disobey the Lord (whether through omission or commission and whether committed in ignorance, through weakness of the flesh, or flagrant rebellion), I am separated from God by my sin. To be reconciled to God, I must repent and confess my sin to Him. Hence, my salvation is conditioned upon my obedience to God’s commandments. The doctrines which imply otherwise destroy the grace of God which is revealed (Tit. 2:11) by substituting a form of grace not revealed. Too many among us are drinking at the polluted wells of denominational theology. We cannot sit idle while some are compromising the vital necessity of a strict adherence to the pattern of New Testament Christianity, which is the perfect revelation of God’s grace to a lost world. The present controversy over the ABC’s of grace, faith, and obedience reminds us of J.D. Tant’s warning, “Brethren, we are drifting!”

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 354, 356-357
June 16, 1983