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.

Patience

A while ago my church was doing a series on the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23. I did the sermon on patience, and below are the notes for this. The audio can be found at my church’s website. In addition to reading the list of the fruit in Galatians, we also read James 5:7-11, upon which the sermon is based. My broader approach to patience is based off Aquinas’s discussion in ST II-II Q136.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:7-11)

Introduction

One of the clearest messages in Scripture is that the people of God need to be patient. As we just saw in Galatians, Paul lists patience alongside things like love, goodness, and joy — which seem like pretty good things for Christians to have. Scripture often tells us that God’s people need to have endurance, steadfastness, or perseverance. It tells us to not dwell in anger, and it tells us to forgive one another. And a large chunk of God’s interactions with us is through him promising something and us having to wait for it.

But why should we be patient? How does patience follow from the gospel? And what is patience, actually? These are the questions we want to try and grapple with tonight.

There’s what we might call the “lazy” answer to these questions which is easy but ultimately unhelpful. It goes something like this: nice people are patient, Christians are supposed to be nice people, and so Christians are supposed to be patient. I say this is unhelpful because it tells us nearly nothing about patience, and doesn’t help us understand how patience flows from the gospel. So, let’s put that to one side and start over afresh.

Patience in general

Let’s start by trying to understand patience in general. In our passage James illustrates patience with the example of the farmer. The farmer sows the seed so that the ground will produce food. But he knows that this will not happen immediately. He knows that in order for the plant to produce this food, it needs to take in a number of rounds of rain, and this takes time. So he waits calmly without giving up. He keeps his composure. So patience is about keeping composure.

But it’s not just this, is it? We don’t call people patient when they’re calm and life is easy. James knows this, since he goes on to talk about patience in the face of suffering. And we can see this if we think through the farmer example a bit more. Let’s say he planted the seeds and then forgot about them. Then one day he’s like, “Oh! Crops!” In this case he wouldn’t be showing patience: he would just be forgetful. On the other hand let’s say he needed food and this was his only way of getting it. Or perhaps he finds it difficult to wait through both autumn and spring rains to get these crops. It’s in these cases that he would be waiting patiently. So patience involves keeping composure in the face of difficulty, whether it be suffering, or stress, or weakness, or something else.

So far so good, but we’re still missing something: when we’re patient, what motivates our patience? The farmer doesn’t wait just because he likes waiting, and we don’t endure suffering because we enjoy suffering. More generally, we aren’t patient because we like going through difficult times. The farmer has an end in mind, he has a goal: he waits patiently for the rain because this is how he gets his crops to produce food. If he gives up waiting he gives up on this food.

And this principle scales up and down: if he only waits one day, he wouldn’t get much more than what he planted. If he waits through only the autumn rains he would see the plant’s stalk and leaves — and he’d be able to eat those, which would be good to some extent. But if he waits through both autumn and spring rains, then he gets to enjoy the what James calls the “valuable crop,” which would be a great good. His waiting pays off in that it enables he to take hold of the great good.

And this is true in general when it comes to patience: we keep our composure in the face of difficulty because we look forward to a great good that we can only get if we don’t give up. This is the last aspect of patience.

Patience is keeping composure in the face of difficulty for the sake of some great good.

We can see this definition work out everywhere in life, most clearly when we’re being impatient. When you’re driving to work and you get fed up because of the traffic, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with the other drivers. When you start ignoring someone at church because they’re irritating and you’ve given up, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with them. When you continually struggle to overcome a particular sin but it’s difficult and so you give up on it, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with yourself.

Christian patience: the great good and source of difficulty

To understand Christian patience, then, we need to talk about the difficulties we face as Christians and the great good that helps us get through them. To start off we need to understand two things: (1) to be with God is the greatest anyone could ever hope for, but (2) our sin prevents us from being with him. So let’s unpack each of these.

God is the greatest good

I say God is good, but on the face of it referring God “a good” — or even “a great good” — can actually be slightly misleading, because he’s not just some good thing among the other good things we are familiar in everyday life. Good ice-cream, good paintings, good dogs, and good people are each is good and desirable, but only in a limited and qualified way. God, on the other hand, is good in an unlimited way. When I’m eating a good ice-cream, part of my desire is satisfied, but some part is left unsatisfied, since an ice-cream is not a painting, or a dog, or a good time with friends, or anything else I could want. This is because the ice-cream is limited — it’s just ice-cream. It would be different, though, if I could somehow experience God, since he is unlimited. There would be no part of me left unsatisfied. CS Lewis summarized this when he said,

He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Now, God is so good, so holy, and so beautiful that no-one can experience him all at once, at least not in this life. When we see goodness and beauty the various things throughout creation — when we see impressive animals, incredible plants, beautiful landscapes and valleys, when we amazed by the vastness of space, and when we’re occasionally pleased with ourselves — all we’re doing is looking through windows into this or that aspect of God’s infinite glory. And even then, these windows can be difficult to see through because of things like disease, and decay, and cruelty, and death. We never get to experience God’s glory all at once, but only bit-by-bit.

This idea that God’s beauty and goodness and holiness are expressed bit-by-bit throughout creation is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. So for example, David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), and the angels sang to Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:3).

Wouldn’t it be cool, though, if instead of having God’s beauty just a little bit at a time, we somehow were able to have all of it at once? It would be like all the good times in life now, minus all the bad, but scaled up infinitely. We know it would be awesome, but don’t know exactly what that would be like, since we’ve never experienced anything like it before. We don’t get it, we can’t at the moment. As finite creatures with finite experience of reality, we have no way of picturing the true awesomeness of an infinite God. And that’s actually where the problem starts.

Sin prevents us from accessing God

You see, we’re so familiar with the finite things here in our everyday life and so unfamiliar with the infiniteness of God, that we find it easy to replace the one for the other — to focus on limited goodness rather than unlimited goodness.

Sometimes you’ll hear sin being spoken about in terms of “giving into desire,” as if the one who has the strongest desire is the one most likely sin. But in some sense it’s because our desires aren’t strong enough that we give up wanting to be with God and settle the lesser things we’re familiar. Again, CS Lewis summarizes this well when he says,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

This giving up of God for some finite good is at the heart of we call sin. And sin always spirals into more sin. The more we choose finite goods over God, the more used it we become. It becomes easier to do again next time, and harder and harder to choose God. Sins we might’ve at one point thought unimaginable now become plausible, or even desirable. And so we spiral further and further away from God, alienating ourselves from him, and cutting ourselves off from ever seeing him face-to-face. This infinite goodness that is beyond our wildest dreams is now beyond our reach.

Again, the idea that our sin prevents us from accessing God is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. With Moses, for example, God said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) And as Isaiah cried out when he saw God, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Is 6:5)

Christian patience: the gospel

It’s against this backdrop of us being cut off from infinite joy that the gospel shows us what Christian patience is all about. Because of Jesus the possibility of being with God in all his glory is once again brought within reach, so that anyone who wants it can have it. So, the greatest possible good we could hope for returns as something we can look forward to.

But we don’t get all of it right now, and this is where the difficulty comes in. When we turn to God our sin no longer alienates us from him, for sure, but we’re still people who find it easy to sin. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom 7:21-24)

As we are now, we’re caught in what we might call “the twilight of sin,” the time between when Christ first came — when he fixed our relationship with God — and when he will return again — when he will fix us and we will get to be with God. And it’s this second day — which James refers to as “the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7a, 8c) — that we are to look forward to.

It’s because we’re in this twilight that we need to show patience. Right now we are weak and still find it so easy to choose lesser goods over God. But, if we keep our composure, if we endure through these difficulties, then one day we will get to be with him.

Christian patience: our weakness

Now, maybe there’s a particular sin you’re struggling with at the moment, and which you keep lapsing back into. In this case, there are two ways to give up. Either (1) you’ll find a way to justify or ignore the sin, by convincing yourself it’s not really that bad or (2) you’ll distance yourself from God because you’ve failed him. In a way, these two responses are opposites of one another: the one says your failure is so big that God won’t want anything to do with you, and the other tries to underplay the failure so that it’s not really a failure in the end.

But please don’t give up! I know it’s difficult, but remember that this life and this difficulty are temporary, and that one day this burden will be lifted from you. Recognize sin as the failure it is, and remember that God’s love is big enough to overcome it! Hate your sin, and keep your eyes facing forward to the day it will be gone. As Paul reminds us, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:24) So be patient with yourself.

Christian patience: their weakness

But maybe it’s not your sin that you’re struggling with. As a community of people each weakened by sin in different ways, it’s inevitable that we’re going to fail each other sometimes. And as James says, we’ll be tempted to give up on one another, to grumble against each other. Either we’ll get angry at each other, or we’ll try avoid each other, or something in between, but it always results in more disunity than when we started.

When you’re tempted to give up on a fellow brother or sister the key thing to remember is this: the day that you look forward to — when your sin is removed and you are with God — is the same day that their sin is removed and they are with God. In other words, the day we long for is the day that we are all together in perfect unity. Now, if the day I look forward more than anything else involves me being with you in perfect unity, how could I not endure your failures now, and how could I not work for unity between us? Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct each other, or rebuke each another, or things like that; what it means is that when we do these things that we should do them patiently.

Christian patience: the synthesis

Ultimately, if we are able to acknowledge our own sin without giving up on ourselves and if as a community we are able to bear with one another’s sins, then we will have created an environment in which we can help each other in our weakness. In the end this is part of the reason why God let’s us face these difficulties in the first place. As James says earlier in his letter,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas 1:2-4)

Christian patience: some perspective

As I close I want to ask a more general question. So far I’ve been speaking about how the gospel relates to patience in the Christian life: patience with ourselves in our struggle against sin, and patience with our fellow Christians in their struggles against sin. I focused on the Christian life because this is what the New Testament focuses on. But what about the everyday stuff, like when I get angry in traffic on my way to work, or when I get fed up with my parents or my children?

I think the gospel has something to say about these too, but with a difference. When it comes to our struggle with sin, we should never give up, because an infinite God is always worth enduring through a finite difficulty. But in everyday life many of the goods we look forward to are finite, and so giving up can sometimes be the right thing to do. For example, if at work we come up with a plan to meet a certain goal, but halfway through we realize it’s not worth it, then the right thing to do is to give up and try something else. So, however the gospel applies in these cases, it cannot be in the same way as it applies to the struggle with sin.

So, how does is apply? The thought that I keep coming back to is this: on a normal day small things like stubbing my toe easily irritate me. But if I was fighting in a war and I stubbed my toe, I doubt it would irritate me at all!

The point is that it’s all about perspective: we’re more prone to get impatient in cases we think are more important. But when we have an eye on the bigger picture, the struggles that once seemed so big tend to fall away.

This is where the gospel comes in: it says that the everyday things we see and do are not the whole story. That behind the scenes there’s a war going, between eternal life with God and eternal death without him. And that each of us are soldiers — of a kind — in this war. As Pauls says in his letter to the Ephesians,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph 6:10-13)

We would do well to remember all of this on our way to work tomorrow; when a driver in front of us forgets to indicate and we’re tempted to be impatient.

By grace through faith

Have you noticed that theological discussions about grace almost always tend to include questions about conversion? What I mean is that they often center around the process by which someone moves from hostility towards God to desiring him. In particular, the Christian understands this as coming to faith in God and his gospel.

In Protestant circles the debate about the “doctrines of grace” is about the extent and nature of man’s inability to turn to God by himself, God’s supernatural act to overcome this inability, and the relation all of this has to free will and predestination.[1] In Roman Catholic circles we see something similar, albeit with slightly different distinctions and approaches. St. Aquinas, for instance, speaks of grace as that by which God supernaturally moves man inwardly to the assent of faith.[2] Naturally, such language raises questions of man’s free will in the matter which led to much debate — most notably between the Banezians and the Molinists — and which continues to be discussed today.[3] We can take it back even further: St. Augustine also discusses grace and free will in these terms, and he was around all the way back in the 4th century.[4]

Why do I raise this? Well, because it seems to me that when St. Paul talks about grace he is rather indifferent to questions about conversion. Now technically, there’s nothing wrong with certain debates throughout the centuries using slightly different vocabulary to Paul in the first century; so long as we make the necessary distinctions it won’t get in the way of our understanding of Scripture. The problem, however, is that we don’t make these distinctions, and so it does get in the way of our understanding.

Before we proceed I should make the following disclaimer: I’m in no way discrediting the topics mentioned above as legitimate and important avenues of theological discussion. I myself have drawn much value from them. I’m just interested in the exegetical question.

Some context

It should not be forgotten that Paul was a Jew and so his theology was informed generally by Jewish thought, and particularly by the Old Testament. There is sometimes a tendency to separate New Testament from Old, but unless we have some principled reason for doing so I see no reason why we should. Jesus and the apostles did not understand Jesus’ ministry to have overthrown the old covenants, but rather as something that fulfilled them.

Now, in the Old Testament God’s sovereignty — his guidance of human actions and history — is taken for granted and considered as something obvious and foundational, without much need for exposition. God’s actions are primarily depicted in more “external” terms, such as judging Israel or the other nations, and attempting to convince Israel to return to him. Generally the Old Testament authors focus on human motivations and responsibility for their actions, and only every now and then do they add a throw-away comment about God’s sovereign activity in the background.[5] And only a handful of these could be construed as God’s sovereign role in Israel’s turning to him from their sinful rejection of him. These just aren’t considered pressing questions for these authors.

What is a pressing question — and one which comes up all the time — is whether God will accept them back if they choose to repent.[6] Whether, after rejecting him and returning, he will accept them again and forgive their earlier offense. There’s nothing saying he must forgive them, of course: just as someone who commits a crime is not absolved of it merely by choosing to act like a respectable citizen from that moment onwards, so neither is someone who turns to seek God thereby absolved of their previous sin.

With this we’ve stumbled across an important distinction, the blurring of which is at the heart of our tendency to include questions about conversion with questions about grace: on the one hand someone turns to seek God, and on the other God forgives and accepts them. It seems to me that when Paul discusses grace and related topics he follows the Old Testament in being primarily interested in the second of these issues. We, on the other hand, are often interested in the first. In this sense, then, it seems we’ve gotten things backwards.

A clarification

Before we continue, let’s try get more clear on what we’re talking about. Grace is the solution to a problem, and we’re trying to get at what the authors of Scripture thought this problem was. On the one hand there’s the problem of how someone converts, that is how they turn from rejecting God to desiring him. On the other hand there’s the problem, even once someone has turned to God, of how they become reconciled to him. Let’s call these the inability problem and the alienation problem respectively.

Now we restate everything I’ve been saying with the help of this clarification. For a long time now discussions about grace have had the problem of inability at a fairly central place, while the authors of Scripture seem to be more interested in the problem of alienation.

Romans

We can begin to see all of this from a number of interconnected perspectives. Grace is closely related to a number of important notions at the center of Christian theology, like justification and the work of the Holy Spirit, and so a complete discussion would need to include something on these other notions. Here we will confine ourselves to what Paul says more or less directly about grace, with the hopes of looking at the other notions in more depth some other time. We’ll focus our attention here closely on what Paul says in two of his letters: Romans and Ephesians.

Starting with Romans, a brief summary is in order. In the opening chapters Paul seeks to establish that everyone is under sin and thereby alienated from God. By itself this wouldn’t have been surprising to his Jewish audience, who were familiar with the notion that the nations were alienated from God. They were the exception to this, however, because they were God’s chosen people: God had made a covenant with them (the sign of which was circumcision), and given them the law by which they could know and do his will. To their surprise, though, Paul goes on to include the Jews in his indictment. It is indeed to their advantage that they had all these things (3:1ff), but the law and circumcision themselves are not sufficient. Paul here echoes the prophets (cf. Micah 3, Isaiah 58) in criticizing the tendency to presume upon these Jewish sacraments without actually following through on them in their actions.[7] The fundamental thing needed is a change of heart — returning to God — which we trust will be graciously accepted by God (cf. Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 51, Hosea 14). The law and circumcision are not unrelated to this, of course: circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and the law gives the expression and end of this changed heart. But neither of these things in themselves are the grounds for their right-standing. Indeed, of itself, the law does not solve the problem of sin but only casts it in clearer light. (3:19-20)

It’s important for Paul in these opening chapters that everyone be found in the same boat. The Christians in Rome were divided over the place of the law and circumcision in the Christian life, since up until recently these had been defining features of God’s people. Paul’s point is that they of themselves do nothing to make one part of God’s people.

This sets the stage, then, for Paul’s proposal. While the law is not the solution to universal human alienation from God through sin, it does point to the solution: the person and work of Jesus the Christ. As he goes on to say, both Jew and Gentile “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:23-25)

The first thing to notice is that the grace Paul has in mind is received by faith, as opposed to being the cause of faith. Second, it would miss the overall thrust of Paul’s argument to think of this grace as that which causes some kind of desire for God. The Jew who mistakenly boasts in God on the basis of the law (2:17) desires God; his problem is his basis for boasting in God. Paul’s point is that because the law (and circumcision) does not form such a basis, it should also not be causing these divisions in the Roman church. Both Christian Jew and Gentile are right with God for the same reason: not because the Gentile has been circumcised and started following the distinctively Jewish laws (which would the just make him a Jew), but because both are justified through faith. Thus he continues, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (3:28-29) To cast this in terms of conversion just misses the point. His point is that if a Gentile seeks God he needn’t become a Jew, for this would make God the God of only the Jews. By grace, God overcomes the alienation of both Jew and Gentile through faith. That the person seeks God is assumed; it’s not taken to be the result of anything (at least not here).[8]

The interpretation of these verses ripples through the remainder of the letter to the Romans. This is natural since Paul is starting in these early chapters the line of thought he will carry on through to the end. For our current purposes, perhaps one of the most interesting passages to look at in chapter 7:

Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (7:13-25)

There is much discussion about how best to interpret the perspective Paul is taking here. One option is that he’s talking about the Christian experience of the struggle with sin. It’s unclear, however, why sin would still produce death in a believer. Another option is that Paul is talking from the perspective of a Jew prior to the coming of Christ. It’s unclear, however, why Paul would speak in the present tense and why only now he takes this perspective (presumably he’s been speaking from the Christian perspective since at least 6:1).

I think both of these options are getting at something, but missing it slightly because each assumes the grace in question involves something like conversion. If we apply the correction we were talking about earlier, a nice third option becomes available: Paul is speaking from the perspective of the person who desires God — and who sees his law as good — but who is nonetheless alienated from God because of their sin. At this point he’s bracketing out the grace he’s mentioned before so that he can situate it as the solution he sees it as: the way a person who has turned to God but remains stained by sin, can be reconciled with God.

Put another way, we might say that Paul is considering two logically distinct stages in someone being made righteous through faith: the stage at which the person turns to God but is still under sin, and the stage at which God graciously accepts him and forgives his sin. The former stage takes up most of the space, and is summarized with the exasperated question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The latter stage let’s loose the solution Paul has been discussing for the past few chapters whereby he is able to exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

This passage is pivotal in Paul’s argument in chapters 5-8. In it he comes to the end of a dialectic he’s been following since the beginning of chapter 5, getting ever and ever more detailed about the relationship between notions like the law, grace, sin, death, and life. In chapter 8 he’ll address all of these in reverse order, “redressing” them appropriately in his account of God’s work at the cross. Take, for example, 8:31-39. Sometimes v35 is read in terms of inability, and so taken to be talking about Christians persevering in their faith. But if we consider the surrounding context as well as the context of the quote in v36, it becomes clear that it should be read in terms of alienation. The love of Christ, here, is expressed in his interceding for us, and Paul’s point is that nothing will get in the way of his doing this. This section “redresses” 5:1-2, in which Paul explains that through Christ our faith is enough to be right with God.

One more example of Paul’s focus on alienation: most of the discussion in Romans involves correcting the error of some of the Jewish Christians who were saying that something in addition to faith was necessary to deal with the alienation from God. Paul’s point is that this grace from God directly connects faith to reconciliation with him, so that nothing additional is needed and so there is nothing aside from God’s mercy that we can point to as the means by which we dealt with it. In Chapter 11, however, Paul briefly addresses an erroneous thought that might enter the Gentile’s mind as a result of this. He says,

… do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (11:18-23)

It is because we continue to trust in his dealing with the alienation, as opposed to us having fixed it somehow, that we continue to be grafted in. Notice towards the end that the grafting occurs logically after the belief, which doesn’t make sense if the problem in view is one of inability. The power (and grace) of God in focus is his ability to graft those who believe back in, ie. address their alienation from him and his people.

Ephesians

Let’s turn now to consider Ephesians more briefly. The passage I have in mind is Ephesians 2:1-10. Here Paul tells us that previously we were “dead in our trespasses” but that “by grace through faith” God has saved us. Here it is common to see people interpret the phrase “dead in our trespasses” as meaning that we are like corpses, incapable of turning to God. That is, they interpret the phrase to be a statement of the inability problem. In this case, God’s saving us “by grace through faith” refers to him giving us faith.

It seems to me, however, that this way of reading the passage divorces it from the broader Pauline context to which it belongs. When Paul talks about death in relation to sin or grace he has in mind a judgment or consequence, not an inability.[9] Indeed, our quote from Romans 7 above is a clear example of this. To be sure, there are cases where Paul does use death to refer to inability — he speaks of Abraham as considering his body “as good as dead” in Romans 4 — but these cases are not discussing death in the context of sin or grace. Biologically speaking Paul understands that death is the greatest of all inabilities, but theologically speaking he uses it to refer to judgment or consequence, which is part of the problem of alienation.

On an alienation reading, then, when Paul says that we were “dead in our trespasses” he means something like we were “under the reign of death” or we were “on the track to death.” And, importantly, this is true even if we’ve turned back to God since the stain of sin still alienates us from God. But he graciously saved us from this through Jesus, a grace we receive through faith. Paul is not here interested in our conversion per se, but in our movement from being worthy of judgment to being reconciled with God.

Besides making more sense in the broader Pauline context, there are three other reasons to prefer this alienation reading to the inability reading. First, Paul uses the phrase “dead in our trespasses” interchangeably with the phrase “children of wrath,” and the latter clearly refers to judgment. Second, Paul contrasts us being dead with us being “seated in the heavenly places” (v6), which is what we’d expect on the alienation reading, but not on the inability reading. Third, when Paul uses the phrase elsewhere it clearly refers to the alienation reading. In Colossians Paul says,

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. (2:13-14a)

Notice how God made us alive in this passage: by forgiving our sins. It is not by supernaturally enabling us to turn to him or by infusing us with faith, but by forgiving the thing keeping us alienated from him.

Coming back to the Ephesians passage, we have one more thing to comment on. Paul says towards the end that,

… by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:8-9)

On the inability reading, the gift is the faith. On the preferred alienation reading, the whole process is the gift: God’s grace in Jesus is received through faith. This has the advantage of cohering well with the parallel phrase in Romans 3 we discussed earlier, as well as connecting this gift in v8 with the discussion of the preceding verses about God’s grace. Paul is explaining to these people who desire God in their faith, that God has made a way for this to be enough to overcome the alienation of their sin. Nothing they did achieved this, it is was a gift from God.

Concluding thoughts

We’ve examined two passages where Paul is talking explicitly about grace and seen that in neither case is he particularly interested in the question of conversion or the inability of us to turn to him.[10] Paul is talking to people who now desire God and, reflecting on the Old Testament reassurances, is explaining how God has overcome the stain of sin in them and thereby reconciled them to himself. Just like the criminal’s repentance does not by itself undo their crimes, so neither does the sinners repentance by itself undo their sin. This is the problem Paul sees God’s grace solving. It is only because of God’s grace shown in the cross that this barrier can be overcome, and repentant sinners can be declared sons of God.

Had God not shown this grace, people might turn to him in faith but this would be in vain since they would still stand alienated from him. Indeed, there’s nothing they could do to change this since it’s a result of past sins and no-one can change the past. God’s grace bridges this gap and undoes the alienation for those who turn to him in faith. Now he waits for us to so turn. In this way, we receive this grace in faith.

Notes

  1. Contemporary authors that jump to mind are people like Michael Horton, John Piper, Roger Olson, and Kenneth Keathley.
  2. “Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.” (ST II-II Q6 A1 corp.)
  3. See, for instance, Bernard Longeran’s incredible (and equally intense) book Grace and Freedom, Harm Goris’ Free Creatures of an Eternal God, and Alfred Fredosso’s God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes.
  4. See, for instance, his De libero arbitrio, his De natura et gratia, and his De gratia Christi et de peccato originali. See Eleonore Stump’s Augustine on Free Will for a nice contemporary discussion on all of this.
  5. See, for example, Genesis 50:20, 1 Samuel 2:25, and Isaiah 63:17.
  6. Many of us will be familiar with the promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28-29, but we forget that after all this, in chapter 30, Moses reassures the Jews that after they’ve failed God and returned to him that he will mercifully restore their fortunes: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you… return to the Lord your God… and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you…” (30:1-3) Allusions to this promise from God appear throughout the Old Testament. See, for example, Psalm 32:1-2, 51:9, Isaiah 64:9, Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Zechariah 1:3.
  7. This the same problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. An example that jumps to mind is his criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees that were established under the pretense of serving God, but ended up merely undermining this purpose (cf. Mark 7:1-13). See also, this blog post.
  8. Perhaps people think in terms of conversion because in chapter 1 we have someone hostile to God. But this ignores chapter 2, where both Jew and Gentile seek to do Gods will.
  9. See, for example, Romans 1:32, 5:12, 6:21, 7:13-25, and Colossians 2:13-14. Note that in Ephesians 4:17-18, while he doesn’t use the word “dead,” he talks about “alienation from the life of God,” which fits well with my point here and plausibly refers back to what we was talking about here in Ephesians 2.
  10. This is not to say he is never interested in the question of conversion. It’s just not as prominent as some have come to think, and he doesn’t even use the word “grace” when discussing it. For example, in 1 Corinthians he talks about how the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (2:14)

Death before the Fall

Depending on one’s view of Genesis, one might be committed to a position about death before the Fall. Typically, young earth creationists (YECs) hold that there was no animal death before the Fall and there was no human death either. Most old earth creationists (OECs) hold that there was animal death before the Fall. When it comes to human death before the Fall, OECs can go either way. Those OECs who think that (1) there was human death before the Fall and (2) Genesis 2-3 is best understood as historical narrative, typically understand God’s warning to Adam in Gen 2:16 to involve spiritual death as opposed to physical death[1]. I personally think this view is defensible, but I don’t plan on defending it here. Rather I want to propose a model which allows us to affirm (1) physical death as a consequence of the Fall, (2) the possibility of human death before the Fall and (3) the historicity of Gen 2-3. We’ll call it the potential death (PD) model.

On PD Adam and Eve were never any different from the rest of humanity[2]: in the absence of any overriding factors, they would die. They could die if they fell off a cliff, they could die of starvation, they could kill each other with sticks, and so on. However, in the garden of Eden, there was an overriding factor: the tree of life. So long as they had access to the tree, they could live indefinitely[3]. In other words, if they got expelled from the garden of Eden (for sinning, perhaps), then they would be cut off from the tree, and the death by mortality that was once merely a potential, would become a reality. Thus, if they were to disobey God, they would die. In this way, physical death was a real consequence of the Fall. This is different from the typical YEC understanding, however, since on PD this physical death is not a direct consequence, but a side-affect from being expelled from the garden.

You might think that this suggestion is somewhat ad hoc, but I actually thought of it because of Genesis 3:22, which says, “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’” Funny that.

Naturally, if PD is to stand as a plausible model it must fit in with the rest of Scripture, and it doesn’t seem to be in conflict with any passages that I’m aware of. Often Rom 5:12-21 and Rom 8:18-25 are cited as evidence that humans didn’t die before the Fall. Consider Rom 5:12-21 first. In verse 12 Paul states that, “sin came through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned…” But, (1) it’s not clear that Paul is talking about physical death here. It seems possible that he’s using death to refer to condemnation (or something along those lines), given that he uses the two terms interchangeably throughout the passage and in verse 21 this “death” is contrasted with eternal life. And (2), even if Paul were talking about physical death here, there is no problem, since on PD we affirm physical death as a consequence of Adam’s sin anyway.

What about Rom 8:18-25, then? Well, this isn’t even obviously talking about death. Perhaps we might be tempted to think it does because of the mention of “decay” (NIV) in verses 20-21, which say, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” But it’s far from obvious that this must refer to death as a consequence of the Fall. It is much more natural, given the reference to pains of childbirth in verse 22, to take this as referring to the curses that were pronounced upon mankind in Gen 3. But again, even if Paul were referring to physical death, this wouldn’t be a problem for PD.

Since PD concerns itself only with human death before the Fall, I suppose those are the only two passages of particular relevance.

Notes

  1. Usually, “spiritual death” is understood to be a disruption in one’s relationship with God, and “physical death” is the usual biological death we are accustomed to experiencing.
  2. I’m talking in terms of death here. Of course there’s the difference of being sinless at at least one point in their life, which is different from us, who are born sinful.
  3. PD is not committed to any explanation of how this works. But since God could keep a person living indefinitely, there seems to be no problem with him creating a tree to do the job too.

Enabling, not burdening

When we read the Bible we can see a pattern in the way God deals with those he saves. In the Exodus, God saves the Israelites and then gives them the law, telling them how they are to act as God’s people (Ex 20ff). Similarly, when we are saved as Christians we are called to repent from our sin and turn to God (eg. Romans 6, James 2:14ff).

Now initially I can sympathize with the person who gets the impression that God is, in some sense, “trapping” his people. Like he’s imposing these rules after they get saved.

But once we think about it a bit we realize that both Jesus and the authors of the new testament are quite clear that repentance is a central aspect of being a Christian. In fact, the definition of Christian is someone who trusts in the power of the resurrection and follows Jesus as Lord according to Paul (Romans 10:9). A Christian is someone who believes and repents and follows Jesus according to Jesus himself (Mark 1:15, Mark 8:34) and if a Christian claims to have faith without deeds then whatever that faith is is dead without deeds according to James (James 2:14ff). Also, Peter (and YHWH) sees it like this: the one who calls us is holy, so be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15-16).

So far from trapping or burdening the person once they believe, repentance is part of the belief in the first place!

Recently I’ve been thinking about this and there seem to two more things we can add by way of interpreting the whole “giving the law and expecting good works” thing:

  1. Far from burdening us, God is showing us how we were designed to live in the first place. By giving us his law, he tells us exactly how we were designed to relate to him and to our neighbor. So really, God is enabling us to reach our full potential (excuse the cliché) and lifting the burden and corruption imposed by sin (this thinking fits quite well with Paul’s thinking in Romans: we are no longer slaves to sin, but are able to honour and glorify God [as we were made to]).
  2. We read many of the 10 commandments (for example) individualistically not realizing that God is enabling not only us but a whole community to follow him and his precepts. So while we might be bleak because now we shouldn’t steal, murder, etc. God has placed a punishment for anyone who does that to us too. So we should be thanking him for imposing this order on his community so that we can feel safe. Just like in Martin Luther’s prayer on the 6th commandment (“do not murder”), where he said, “I give thanks for such ineffable love, providence, and faithfulness toward me by which he has placed this mighty shield and wall to protect my physical safety. All are obliged to care for me and protect me, and I, in turn, must behave likewise toward others.”