JUSTIFICATION: By Faith or Works?

By Wayne Jackson

Is justification from sin by faith or works? Does it result from neither, one as opposed to the other, or both? One would expect that such a fundamental question could be answered clearly and confidently, with a united declaration, by those who profess a devout regard for the testimony of the Scriptures. Sadly, such is not the case.

The more strict disciples of Calvin, for example, contend that there are no conditions at all in the plan of salvation. In 1957, G.E. Griffin, a cleric for the Primitive Baptist Church, affirmed, in debate with Guy N. Woods:

“The Scriptures teach that the alien sinner comes into possession of Spiritual or Eternal life, without any condition on his, the sinner’s part” (p. 6).

These folks do not even acknowledge that faith is a condition of salvation. Sarrels, a Primitive Baptist writer, stated:

“[W]e believe that there is no warrant whatever for the view that John 1:16 lays down faith as a condition to be performed by the lost person in order to attain spiritual or eternal life” (p. 444).

At the opposite extreme, there are those who contend, at least by implication, that works effect salvation apart from faith. Every group that practices infant baptism must concede that whatever advantage the baptism of a baby is alleged to have, it is not associated with faith, since no infant can personally believe. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that baptism may be administered to those who are unconscious or insane (Attwater, pp. 44,45). Clearly, some endorse the idea that works save — and that without faith.

Then, there is the common claim of many Protestants that faith alone saves. The Discipline of the Methodist Church states:

“Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort” (p. 40).

But elsewhere in the same volume, it is argued that the “benefits of the atonement” are “unconditional” (p. 55) — a clear contradiction. The doctrine of salvation by “faith only” is not wholesome, and the comfort is deceptive.

Again, another sectarian body contends that justification is “solely through faith in Christ” (Hiscox, p. 62). It is hardly necessary to point out that if salvation is “solely” through faith, then repentance is excluded from heaven’s plan of redemption — if the word “solely” is assigned its legitimate meaning.

On the other hand, the same writer later contends that both repentance and faith are

“inseparable graces, wrought in the soul by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger, and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God . . .” (p. 64).

Which is it? Is salvation “solely” by faith? Or are both faith and repentance requisites for turning to God? The statements are not consistent.

Martin Luther was so adamant regarding the doctrine of “faith only” that he smuggled the word “only” into the text of his German translation in Romans 3:28. Lenski, a Lutheran commentator, attempted to defend Luther’s addition to the Word (cf. Rev. 22:18) by suggesting that although the term “only” is not found in the original text, the “sense” is (1961, p. 271).

Shall we conclude that Luther was more adept at rendering the “sense” than Paul was?

The Role of Works in the Divine Plan

It is frequently asserted that whereas “works” are the result of salvation, they do not play any role in the securing of one’s redemption. There is simply no truth to this allegation. Faith, repentance, and immersion are all conditions preliminary to the reception of salvation (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38).

Jesus affirmed that the one who has believed, and who has been immersed, shall be saved (Mk. 16:16). The construction of the Greek grammar makes it certain that both belief and baptism precede salvation. The Lord did not suggest that one may be saved in the absence of both faith and baptism. He did not contend that he who is baptized is saved, and that without faith. He did not state that he who believes is saved, and may optionally submit to baptism. The more complete picture involves faith, immersion, and salvation — in that order.

It is utterly incredible that some, professing an acquaintance with the New Testament, deny the role of works (obedience) in the sacred scheme of redemption. Jesus plainly taught that one must “work” for that spiritual sustenance which abides unto eternal life (Jn. 6:27), and that even faith itself is a divinely appointed “work” (Jn. 6:29).

Elsewhere the inspired apostle admonished Christians to be careful that they “lose not” the things which they had “wrought” [worked for] (2 Jn. 1:8). Christians have a faith that works (Gal. 5:6); indeed, they are to “work out” their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), abounding in good works (2 Cor. 9:8; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10), being constantly aware of the fact that they will be judged by their deeds (Mt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17).

There has been much controversy over the instruction within the book of James regarding faith and works. Clearly, James taught that justification is as much by works as it is by faith (2:21) — a concept which Luther found so obnoxious that he rejected the inspiration of the document, called it a “right strawy epistle,” and suggested that the book was not even authored by James (Lenski, 1966, p. 515).

But the divine writer unequivocally affirmed that faith without works cannot save (2:14). Is he speaking of the alien sinner, or the Christian? The question is academic — James is discussing the principle of faithful obedience — to whomever it applies; whether an Abraham, or a Rahab.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Attwater, Donald (1961), A Catholic Dictionary (New York: Macmillan Co.).
  • Discipline of the Methodist Church (New York: Methodist Publishing House, 1939).
  • Griffin, G.E. (1983), Griffin-Woods Debate (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
  • Hiscox, Edward (1890), The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches (Philadelphia: American Baptist Pub. Society).
  • Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
  • Lenski, R.C.H. (1966), The Epistles to the Hebrews and to James (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
  • Sarrels, R.V. (1978), Systematic Theology (Azle, TX: Harmony Hill — A Primitive Baptist Foundation).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.