The role of works in salvation

An important piece of Protestant theology is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In my experience, this doctrine is often taken to imply that works play no role in salvation, which is not what scripture actually teaches. Part of the problem is that we blur the lines between justification and salvation, to the point that the claim that “justification is by faith alone” seems to contradict the claim that “salvation is by works as well.” Another part of the problem is that we conflate the question of rewards after salvation with the question of salvation itself, which leads to us passing over passages talking about the latter as if they were talking about the former.

All of this prevents us from fully appreciating the way scripture talks justification and salvation, as well as the interconnected roles played by faith and works. In this post I hope to briefly address these issues, by considering how justification by faith alone can be squared with works playing an important role in salvation. Before we get there, however, we need to take a few steps back to define our terms and summarize some relevant scriptural data on this question.

Defining justification, salvation, and works

While it will be subject to more nuance later, throughout this discussion justification is the forensic and external declaration of right-standing before God within the community of his people. Justification, therefore, reconciles us to God and his people. In keeping with Protestant tradition, I agree that this is the primary sense of the idea in Paul’s theology.

These days, we tend to speak of salvation primarily as a past (“I was saved”) or present (“I am saved”) reality, in which case it is scarcely distinguishable from justification. However, in the New Testament salvation is often spoken of as a future reality, referring to the outcome of the judgement of God’s people on the day of the Lord. On this day, Christ will judge all people for what they’ve done and will find God’s people to be innocent and obedient, resulting in their being saved from the wrath that is due to those who are guilty and disobedient. In this post we will speak of salvation in exclusively this future sense. Some Christians think that there is no future judgement for God’s people in this sense, but as we will see shortly it is something clearly taught in scripture.

In Romans, Paul connects these two ideas when he explains that our present justification is the basis of our confidence in our future salvation from wrath:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5:6–10)

We should also clarify what we mean by works, since this can mean different things. We do not mean the restricted sense of “works of the law,” which refers to the specific ceremonial actions unique to the Levitical system, such as sacrifices, cleansing processes, and dedications. Rather, we mean the more general sense of “good works,” which refers good and virtuous actions that constitute our flourishing as the kind of creatures God made us to be. We hasten to add, though, that we are using the idea of works as a proxy for what we’re actually interested in, namely a heart obedient to our Lord. Since our Lord is also our creator this obedience will result in the good works we just mentioned, but since someone might have works without an obedient heart we must clarify that we are interested in works insofar as they are the fruit and evidence of obedience.

The practice of talking about an inward reality in terms of its outward expression (“fruit”) can be seen in John the Baptist’s criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:7–10)

Though at the end he talks about the fruit, his earlier statement makes clear that his focus is really on the repentance that produces the fruit.

This raises a final point we must make before moving on, namely that obedience does not always go by the same name. Sometimes an obedient heart is referred to as a repentant heart. And Paul is fond of speaking about love, since this is the fulfillment of God’s law (Gal 5:14, cf. Mark 12:28–34) and is the virtue that binds all others together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14).

Passages on the importance of works

Because there is a tendency to drive a wedge between the role of works in the Old and New Testaments, we will restrict ourselves to the teaching of the latter. Now, the importance of works is repeatedly and various affirmed in the New Testament. Sometimes it comes in an explicit statement that God’s people will also be judged on the basis of our works in the course of determining whether we will get to be with him or have to face his wrath. Other times it comes in the form of a statement to the effect that eternal life (or the benefits leading to salvation) are the result of works.

Matthew 6:14–15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

This statement comes as an explanation of the final line of the Lord’s prayer, and draws a connection between our being forgiven and our action of forgiving others.

Matthew 7:21–23

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Here we have people who declare Jesus as Lord and even work in his name, but who are rejected from the kingdom of heaven on account of the fact that they did not do the will of God.

Matthew 16:27

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Here Jesus does not make a distinction, but says that everyone will be repaid by their actions.

Matthew 25:31–46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Both groups of people refer to Jesus as Lord, and in both cases the basis of their acceptance or rejection is there actions.

John 5:27–29

And [the Father] has given [the Son] authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement.

There is symmetry here between whether your resurrection is to life (salvation) or to judgment (wrath) in that both are on the basis of what you have done in your life.

2 Corinthians 5:9–10

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

The future judgment is a motivation for Paul’s aiming to please Christ. In the context of 5:1–7:1, as well as the fact that evil is included in the above quote, it is clear that Paul is not talking about judgement for rewards, but judgment for whether we will enter eternal life or not. This is meant to be a motivator to the Corinthian church to get their act together.

2 Corinthians 7:1

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

The promises he is referring were just stated in the preceding context (2 Cor 6:16–18), and refer to God’s promise that he will welcome his people if they separate themselves from uncleanness. From this it is clear that complete (or perfect) holiness refers to being with God most fully, which is the result salvation on the day of the Lord. In this case, then, it is noteworthy that this is brought about — at least in part — by our cleansing ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit. See studies 2 and 3 of my Leviticus notes for a detailed discussion on the interplay between holiness and uncleanness that underlies this line of reasoning from Paul.

Galatians 6:7–9

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

At first we might try to interpret “sowing to the Spirit” as something else, but together with the following sentence it is clear that it involves doing good and that what it reaps is eternal life.

Philippians 2:12–13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but 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 work for his good pleasure.

We must not let the fact that God works in us to distract us from the fact that we are to understand salvation as something we can work out.

Hebrews 12:12–15

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.

Here seeing the Lord is a result, at least in part, of our straightening the paths of our feet, an action which involves works. Thus, he can happily speak of obtaining the grace of God.

1 John 2:1–6

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

John here seems to be echoing the teaching of Jesus we saw before, that not everyone who calls him Lord will be saved, but only those who do the will of the Father, which John summarizes here as love.

1 John 3:14

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Revelation 20:12–15

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Both those in the book of life and those in Death and Hades are judged on the basis of what they had done. Again, we see an explicit statement of symmetry.

Revelation 22:10–13

And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Given the the prior sentence spoke of both the evil and the righteous, the statement that he will repay each for what he has done clearly refers to both groups.

We could add to this list other related New Testament passages (eg. Rom 2:6–11, 13:11, 1 Cor 9:24–27, 13:1–3, Phil 1:8–11, 2 Tim 2:1–7), examples from the Old Testament (eg. Gen 26:4–5), and parallels drawn between the two in the New Testament (eg. Heb 10:26–31), but the above is sufficient for our purposes.

How (not) to harmonize the scriptural data

Now, when faced with texts that are in tension with something we believe, we have two options: either we double-down on what we believe and do our best to reinterpret those texts in light of it, or we seek a broader theory that incorporates what we believe together with these texts. I have no doubt that if we were to engage in “interpretative gymnastics” for long enough we could come up with interpretations of each of these texts that would allow us to hold on to the belief that works play no role in salvation. But, besides a collection of contrived or otherwise unmotivated interpretations, what would we gain by this? It would certainly not be a better understanding of the framework underlying the biblical authors’ statements that allows them to talk so easily about works playing a role in salvation.

Someone might try to defend such gymnastics by reminding us that a good interpretative practice is to interpret obscure texts in light of clearer ones. But this response is flawed for at least two reasons. First, the texts we cited above are not obscure. They very clearly state that works play a role in salvation, and do so in various ways from the mouths of various people. Second, the problem isn’t that these texts are in tension with other texts that teach justification by faith alone, but that they are in tension with conclusions we prematurely draw from those texts. We must recognize the possibility that the tension lies not between the texts, but between some texts and our systemization of other texts. It is a recipe for disaster to start with texts on “justification by faith alone” only to later consider texts on “salvation by works as well.” Such an approach will only obscure the theological framework of scripture which enables its authors to speak so comfortably about both.

Instead of the favoring some teachings of scripture to the exclusion of others, we should seek a harmonization that allows us to affirm “justification by faith alone” together with “salvation by works as well.”

Three models of harmonization

Before we get there, however, we must note that the importance of works is something the Reformed tradition has emphasized since its beginning. As Richard Gaffin notes, Calvin himself cautioned that faith justifies alone only if “alone” is understood adverbially, and is not the case if it is understood adjectivally. That is, faith alone justifies, but faith does not justify when alone. Faith is the thing that justifies, but it only does so when works is beside it “holding its hand,” so that if works were not around then faith would be powerless to do anything. Mark Jones makes a similar point when he notes a distinction arising from Reformed theologians between the right to salvation — which is attained by faith alone — and the possession of salvation — which is attained through works as well. And John Piper cautions that “we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.”

All of this amounts to the necessary realization that there is an important role for works, but it doesn’t yet tell us why this is the case. Why does faith not justify when alone? Why are works needed to take possession of salvation? We will consider three models that attempt to gives answers to such questions.

Model 1: Works as the fruit of justifying faith

This first model comes from Piper in the article just mentioned. On this model, the faith that justifies you is a living faith that of its very nature produces works as its fruit. At the last judgment, then, you are judged on your works as proof of your justifying faith. If you do not bear the fruit, then you do not have justifying faith, but something else. This is very similar to what we were saying earlier about how works are the fruit of an inner reality, and on this model that inner reality is justifying faith. As Piper explains the view elsewhere as follows:

…works play no role whatsoever in justification, but are the necessary fruit of justifying faith, which confirm our faith and our union with Christ at the last judgment. God can make a public pronouncement with a view to these works confirming the faith, which alone unites us to Christ, who is alone the foundation of our acceptance as perfect in God’s sight.

Model 2: Justification as the removal of sin

The second model is inconsistent with certain claims of Reformed theology, but is consistent with broader Protestant theology. At its heart is the commitment that justification consists solely in the removal of sin, which is at odds with the Reformed position that says it also includes the transmission of a foreign righteousness from Christ (or God) to the believer. With the former, righteousness is still something imputed in the sense of being counted to us, and is still something foreign in the sense of not arising from ourselves; but this imputation of foreign righteousness just is the gratuitous removal of sin by God through Christ, without the need of a further transmission of foreign righteousness.

Now, at the last judgement, only those who have lived perfectly obedient lives will be saved from God’s wrath. However, because everyone sins, we can at best live an imperfectly obedient life. Even though we desire God and seek him with an obedient heart, we cannot escape punishment ourselves because we cannot undo our previous failures. This is akin to a murderer who has since repented of his crimes, but still awaits punishment: it doesn’t matter how many people he saves, he is still guilty of murder and deserving of punishment.

Combining these two ideas together, we see that justification can turn an imperfectly obedient life into a perfectly obedient one, since it can remove the sinful aspects of that life which make it imperfect. But if justification is simply the removal of sin, it cannot turn a disobedient life into an obedient one, since after the removal of sin there will still only be a disobedient heart left to find underneath it all. In the end, everyone will be judged on their obedience, but some of those who would otherwise have had merely imperfect obedience will instead have perfect obedience on account of the removal of their sin through justification by faith.

Model 3: Obedience as a precondition for faith

If we shuffle things around slightly in model 2, then we can produce a third model that differs from the first two, and which still allows for the Reformed account of justification. Where model 1 made obedience the fruit of faith and model 2 made the two stand side-by-side, this third model makes obedience prior to faith in some sense.

The idea is as follows. Like the murderer we discussed in model 2, a sinner might come to see that life with God is something good and worthy of pursuit, but realize that their sin has alienated them from him with no hope of reconciliation. This person might seek to live with God with all their might — which is obedience — but never close the relational chasm that exists between them and God because of their sin. It is in this situation that faith and justification come in. God’s gracious offer of reconciliation is that if you seek him out and have faith in the King that he has sent, then the chasm between you and him will be closed by means of justification.

But notice that if this is how faith and justification are supposed to work, then their application presupposes an obedient heart, without which you would not be seeking God out in the first place. On this model, what enables faith to justify is that it is the faith of a seeker. It therefore presupposes a heart from which good works would already naturally flow, to which the faith brings the justification that closes the relational chasm between the seeker and God. If someone had the same faith but without the obedient heart, then that faith would be meaningless. They would be like someone who acknowledges the existence and power of a king without the desire to live under him. Such a person cannot expect the favor of that king.

Notice that we have said nothing about the nature of justification, but only its role in the broader series. This allows us to say that when faith justifies, it does so both by the removal of sin and transmission of righteousness. Thus, unlike model 2, this model is consistent with the Reformed account of justification.

Evaluating the models

Each of these models gives a coherent account of the importance of works to salvation without sacrificing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To that extent, I’m happy for people to believe any of them. Nevertheless, my own preference is for model 2, and in what follows I’d like to briefly explain why. The long and short of it is that I think models 2 and 3 make more sense of how scripture speaks about faith, works, and judgement, and I think the primary reason for preferring model 3 over the simpler model 2 is unmotivated.

Evaluating model 1

When evaluating model 1, we must recognize that there are different ways of thinking about justifying vs non-justifying faith. On models 2 and 3, the same faith could at some time be justifying and at another time be non-justifying. The difference here would not be in the kind of faith held or the object of the faith, but in the presence of absence of an obedient heart. By contrast, on model 1 we need to accept that there are different kinds of faith, one of which is justifying and the others not. Now, of course we can have different kinds of faith in the sense that we can have faith in different things, but in this case the different kinds of faith are all in Jesus, for otherwise there would be little reason for the authors of scripture to compare them like they do. Model 1 therefore requires that there be different kinds of faith in King Jesus without this difference being found in the presence of absence of an obedient heart, since this heart is meant to be the fruit of the right kind of faith. Someone might point us to James 2:14–26 as an example of different kinds of faith, but even this passage doesn’t require that the difference between saving and non-saving faith be found in the kind of faith so understood. It could easily be found in whether works are there alongside the faith. Indeed, it is noteworthy that he explains the effectiveness of Abraham’s faith by saying that, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (v22).

There are other cases in the New Testament when the faith in view seems to be the right kind of faith, but is still called worthless in the absence of obedience. In 1 Corinthians 13, for instance, Paul speaks of a faith that can remove mountains — an idiom used for proper faith — but says that it is still nothing without love (v2). That true faith is in view here is confirmed by the fact that he concludes the discussion by noting that for now faith, hope, and love remain (v13), which is clearly referring to Christian faith, hope, and love. In addition to this it is noteworthy that, in Matthew 7:21–23 and 25:31–46 quoted in our list above, people call Jesus Lord — and even do things in his name — and he responds not by questioning whether they really think of him as Lord, but whether they did the will of the Father.

It also seems possible that you can have an obedient heart without the necessary faith that reconciles you to God. One of the clearest examples of this comes in Romans 9:30–10:4, where Paul recognizes that his fellow Israelites have a zeal for God, but notes that they are lacking the key element of faith, thinking instead that they can close the chasm between them and God through the works of the law. This situation is at least in tension with (if not contradictory to) model 1, which would require faith before obedience (or zeal) could follow, but it fits easily with models 2 and 3 since it is analogous to the murderer scenario we used as a motivating example for both of those.

In addition to this, model 1 doesn’t do as much justice to the symmetry that is sometimes emphasized for the basis of judgement of those saved and those punished (Matt 16:27, 25:31–46, 2 Cor 5:9–10, Gal 6:7–9, Rev 20:12–15, 22:10–13). After all, on model 1 works are a proxy for faith, which is the basis for salvation, but for those punished the basis for this is not their lack of faith but their disobedience. The Galatians 6 passage is particularly instructive here, since Paul explicitly states that the same principle applies to both, but on model 1 the application of this principle is somewhat strained by the fact that sowing to the Spirit would have to be indicative of faith (rather than perfected obedience) while sowing to the flesh is surely indicative of active disobedience (rather than lack of faith).

Evaluating model 3

So much for model 1. Comparing models 2 and 3 is a little more tricky, since we used the same motivating example to get to them, and in many ways model 3 is just a generalization of model 2. The main thing that model 3 has in its favor is that it enables us to affirm a doctrine of justification in terms of the transmission of righteousness from God (or Christ) to us, and its in terms of this reason for preferring it that we will evaluate it.

For one thing, the emphasis of symmetry in judgement that we raised against model 1 can also be raised against model 3. It’s difficult to see why, if we were ultimately judged based on the works of God or Christ (since it is their righteousness that is transferred to us), the authors of scripture would emphasize the symmetry of everyone being judged on the basis of their own works. And it is noteworthy that when we are given examples of the basis for judgment (eg. Matt 6:14–15, 25:31–46, and 1 John 2:1–6) it is the actions of the people themselves that is in focus, not the actions of God or Christ.

Of course, people don’t typically believe in justification in terms of transmission of righteousness because they’re trying to make sense of these passages, but because they think it is explicitly taught in scripture. For instance, in Romans, Paul says that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (1:17), that through Jesus the righteousness of God has been manifested for all who believe (3:21–22), and that his fellow Israelites who did not believe sought to establish a righteousness of their own rather than submit to the righteousness of God (10:3). In Philippians he speaks of a righteousness from God (3:9). And in 2 Corinthians he says that we have become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

Reading these passages in terms of transmission, however, amounts to something of a category error, resulting from a failure to appreciate the two important senses God’s righteousness takes on in the Old Testament, namely in terms of covenantal faithfulness and just judgment.1 Once we appreciate these two senses, we can see that God showing his righteousness is not about giving it to us, but about revealing his solution to a problem through us.

On the first sense, God’s righteousness is connected with his faithfulness to promises, most notably his covenant promises to Abraham and Israel. We see this way of thinking expressed, for example, in Nehemiah’s prayer to him:

You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. (Neh 7:7–8)

We can also express our righteousness through faithfulness (eg. 1 Sam 26:23), but it doesn’t make sense for God to transmit his righteousness in this sense to us.

On the second sense, God’s righteousness is the righteousness of the judge of the world, which is expressed in his judging perfectly and impartially (cf. Rom 2:5–11). For example, this understanding forms the basis of Abraham’s plea for those in Sodom:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Gen 18:25)

Now, whereas God’s righteousness is that of a judge, our righteousness is that of a defendant, and is expressed in our being declared innocent by the perfect judge (eg. Ps 7:8, 35:24). Notice that these are not interchangeable things. It makes little sense to speak of God acquitting us by giving us his righteousness, since his righteousness is about right judgment and not about making the guilty innocent.

In the New Testament — and particularly the early Romans passages mentioned above — these two ways of thinking about God’s righteousness become wound together, forming a problem to be solved: if God is to be faithful to his promises to Abraham (righteousness in the first sense) he will need to overlook the sin of his people, but how could he do this without failing to be the perfect and impartial judge of the world (righteousness in the second sense)? One way or another, God’s righteousness can’t stand.

This is the tension that Paul is dealing with in Romans 3:21–26, where he explains that God has revealed his solution to this problem through his King, Jesus, by justifying his people by Jesus’ blood. The result is that we can now see how God could overlook the sins of his people in the past without giving up his title as the righteous judge of the world (3:25).2 As Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (3:26) That is, God’s showing his righteousness is not about him transmitting it us, but about him showing how he can be a just (righteous) judge while still being true to his covenant promises. Furthermore, we now stand as living proof of this righteousness, which is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians when he says that we have “become God’s righteousness” — not that we have somehow had it transmitted to us. And his claim that we have a righteousness from God (Rom 10:3, Phil 3:9) is true but is just meant to emphasize that our status is a result of God’s work and not ours — not that it is somehow the result of him transmitting his righteousness to us.

Not only is there little reason for thinking about justification in terms of transmission, but there is positive reason for thinking about it just in terms the removal of sin. Consider what Paul’s usage of Psalm 32 in the following passage:

David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:6–8)

This is as close as we come to Paul giving an explicit definition of justification. He tells us that he’s about to quote David talking about justification, and then he quotes David talking only about the removal of sins. Another passage from 2 Corinthians suggests the same thing. Given that justification is the means by which God reconciles us to himself (cf. Rom 5:1–11), Paul tells us how God achieves this:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18–19)

Once we recognize that scripture does not commit us to the understanding of justification as transmission, we are then free to take these statements from Paul as the explanations they were intended to be.

The superiority of model 2

None of my complaints against model 1 were meant as decisive, and many intelligent people disagree with the points I made in my evaluation of model 3. As I’ve already said, I’m happy for people to go with any of the models, or indeed any other model that highlights the importance of works for salvation without sacrificing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, my comments above incline me to prefer model 2, and that’s the one I recommend. It is simple and, in the course of discussing each of the views, we have seen that it has sufficient explanatory power.

Questions

When discussing the role of works in salvation with others, I have noticed that once people get over the initial (and understandable) shock, they will almost without fail ask the same questions. These questions are important and the result of carefully grappling with the relevant issues. Not only this, but in answering them I find that we come to a deeper understanding of what is and isn’t being claimed. Thus, to such questions we now turn.

Does this make doing good works a mercenary affair?

If part of the reason we do good works is for our salvation (cf. 2 Cor 5:9–10), then does this mean that they are done out of selfish motives, where we treat salvation as if it were a cold transaction between us and God? Or, as CS Lewis phrases it, does it turn doing good works into a mercenary affair? In answering the question CS Lewis draws an important distinction that will serve our own answer:

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

He goes on to note that the picture is in reality slightly more complicated, but this initially distinction is sufficient for our purposes.3

The point is this: we were created for life with God in obedience to him, since he is our Lord and our creator and this corresponds with our flourishing as his creatures. Our sin has corrupted this relationship, but God has established a way for imperfect obedience to be sufficient for us to be with him like this. When working imperfectly toward our salvation, alongside faith, we are not looking forward to it in a self-serving way. Rather, we are doing our best to be obedient amidst our imperfections, so that we will be able to take hold of obedience cleansed from these imperfections, so as to live with our Lord and creator without any hindrance. We love God now as best we can, looking forward to the day when we will be able to love him even better.

What if every act is mixed with sin?

This is a question specifically aimed at model 2, since we’ve said that justification is the removal of sin. If you’re sufficiently reflective on your actions, you’ll realize that often (if not always) even if you have good motives they are mixed with sinful motives. But if justification will remove the sins in my life, and if all actions are mixed with sin, then will this not mean that no good works will be counted to me?

A more helpful way to think of justification is that it removes the sinful aspects of every act, rather than removing every act that has sinful aspects. It’s tricky to find passages that say this explicitly, since the biblical authors typically focus on the outward actions rather than the motivations that are mixed up within them. But we’ve already said that the actions are used as proxies to the obedience of which they are the fruit, and so it seems right to say that an action is good to the extent it flows from obedience, and whatever else is mixed up with that will be cleansed by justification leaving only the good behind. This is presumably why the authors do sometimes talk about the source of the works (obedience or love) rather than its effects.

Though uncommon, an example of disentangling the aspects mixed together in particular actions might be seen in Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans. His aim is to emphasize the importance of Abraham’s faith as the basis of his righteousness, and in the course of this he says the following:

In hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness”. (Rom 4:18–22)

What’s interesting about this line of reasoning is that two chapters after Abraham’s faith is counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6) he laughs at the prospect of Sarah bearing him a child at their age (17:17). Nevertheless, he is fully convinced that God will follow through on his plan, which is why he proposes that God does so through Ishmael (17:18), to which God responds with a resounding no and reiterates his plan to give Abraham and Sarah their own child (17:19–21). With Abraham, then, we have actions that are a mixture of good and bad, but Paul is happy to focus on just the good aspects when making his point, since it is the presence of these good aspects that is relevant.

What about the person who dies moments after being justified?

I think this is an important question because of the implied question behind it: how many good works are necessary for salvation, and what if someone hasn’t done that many? Now, we must emphatically and without qualification say that this is not how works contribute to salvation. As we were at pains to explain right at the beginning, works are not there to be tallied up until you’re above some threshold, but are the fruit and evidence (proxies) of an obedient heart. It is ultimately the presence of this obedient heart — together with justification through faith — that is the basis for your salvation. The biblical authors tend to speak in terms of the “typical” case, which involves someone continuing to live a while after their conversion. But the fate of the thief on the cross (Lk 29:39–43) makes it clear that an obedient heart is sufficient, even if it hasn’t been given the opportunity to express itself in good works due to time constraints.

Indeed, there may even be constraints other than time, such as an incomplete knowledge of what God desires, or an inability to understand what he requires. The former is discussed by Paul in Romans 1:18–32, and it is noteworthy that nowhere does he hold the non-Israelite up to the standard of the law given to Israel. And a bit later he will say the following:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law [given to Israel], by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:14–16)

When we speak of the role of works in salvation, then, we must recognize that we are following the language of the New Testament authors and speaking primarily in terms of the “typical” case. Accordingly, we must be cognizant of the additional nuance needed to speak correctly to edge cases.

Will someone be saved if they live a mostly obedient life?

Since we’ve concluded that works have an important role in salvation, a natural question someone may ask is whether this makes salvation some sort of a balancing game, where good works could outweigh sinful works. Our discussion thus far should make clear that this is not the right way to think about salvation. What you need is perfect obedience, and if you’ve sinned once you are in the same situation as the murderer who has repented but not yet been sentenced. “Mostly obedient” just won’t cut it. God offers the only way through justification by faith alone.

Why does faith produce good works?

In a number of places in the New Testament, faith is said to produce or work through love or obedience (Gal 5:6, Jas 2:18), or be a precondition to it (1 Cor 15:17–19, 32, 58). Paul also speaks of “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5, 16:26). For model 1 this language is easily explained by the fact that works are the fruit of faith. For models 2 and 3 the question is how we account for such language.

We must realize that good works can be the effect of faith without being the fruit of faith, since the source-fruit relation is a special case of the more general cause-effect relation. The person who wishes to be with God, but is cognizant of the relational chasm their sin has caused, might despair of any hope of being with him, and therefore give up on trying to be obedient to him. Without the hope of reconciliation there is no reason to continue trying to be obedient, especially when doing so can be difficult. This is effectively Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 15, and explains why when the possibility of reconciliation through faith is introduced, it would produce in us the desire to seek God in obedience once again. Thus, Paul urges the Corinthians to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

Paul uses similar reasoning towards the end of the letter to the Romans, when he urges them to live obedient lives because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (Rom 13:11b) The connection here is obvious: keep up your obedience until the end in order take hold of the salvation on offer. And again, this kind of reasoning comes up in the 2 Corinthians 7:1 quote from our earlier list: after reiterating the promises that God would live with his people so long as they cleansed themselves from uncleanness, Paul urges them to continue to do so in order to bring holiness (God’s presence) to completion.

Regarding “the obedience of faith,” it might just be another way of talking about this causal relation between faith and obedience. However, on models 2 and 3 it could also be a way of speaking of an obedience made perfect through faith. Either way, we have a ready explanation for it.

How does this affect doctrines of perseverance?

If someone holds to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, or some other doctrine similar to this, does the role works plays in salvation affect this in any way? I see no reason why it should, since such doctrines are usually more focused on you making it to the end, rather than on what “making it” consists in. God, in his sovereignty, will ensure that you persevere in an obedient heart perfected by justification through faith.

Is this not a dangerous teaching?

Some might wonder if the claim that works play a part in salvation could lead to forms of legalism or some other related false teaching. Should we therefore silently acknowledge it and never speak of it in polite company? Is it less dangerous just to ignore it and focus on justification by faith alone?

No. What is dangerous is treating a part of the picture as if it were the whole of the picture. We must do our best to uphold all of the teaching of scripture without unnecessarily sacrificing parts of it because they make us uncomfortable, lest we fall subject to the same kind of criticism lodged by God against his people through Isaiah: they had presumed upon their security because they had the God-given Levitical system, but God explained that their offerings and ceremonies were worthless if they ignored injustice and oppression (Is 1:11–20). So too we, if we ignore the importance of obedience, will be tempted to presume upon our faith and forget the poor and the oppressed. This is precisely the kind of thinking that James was trying to correct in his epistle.

So what should we do? If a passage teaches justification by faith alone, then preach that. If it teaches the importance of work to salvation, then preach that. If someone is so conscious of their sin that they despair the hope of salvation, then remind them that God reconciled himself to sinners. If they are confident in their salvation simply because they have faith, then remind them that they will be judged on their works. When people ask how both are possible, explain it to them. Ultimately, we should be no less comfortable talking about these things than the biblical authors were. And to the extent that our thinking makes us less comfortable, our thinking needs to change.

Conclusion

These days many people find it controversial or uncomfortable to talk about works playing a role in salvation. But neither scripture nor the earliest reformers has any problem with doing so, which suggests we need to make space in the way we think about salvation. In the course of this post we have summarized some relevant biblical data, proposed three models for how “justification by faith alone” can co-exist with “salvation by works as well,” evaluated them, and addressed common questions. In the end, a proper appreciation of this teaching will motivate us to live godly lives while we walk to the salvation God has made possible through justification by faith in his King.


  1. For a nice discussion of this, see NT Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (ch 6)
  2. It’s important for us to remember that the Levitical system did not actually deal with sin. The sacrifices worked at a symbolic level, not a real one (cf. Heb 10:4). See chapter 4 of my study in Leviticus for an more detailed discussion.
  3. He outlines a third case in which we transition from motivations of the first kind to those of the second kind, which more accurately describes the growth of Christian motivations as they learn to desire God more fully for who he is. We are talking, however, about the ideal case, and so do not need the descriptive nuance that this third case provides. Nevertheless, I highly recommend that every Christian read this essay once a year, for there are just so many nuggets of wisdom in it to be fully internalized in one reading.

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