Faith That Works: On the Meaning of “Justification”

As shown by the preceding post, “works” refers to far more than works of the Law of Moses — indeed, to anything that is claimed to be a path to justification other than faith in Jesus. Therefore, passages such as Galatians 2:16 do not allow us to create a New Testament version of the Law of Moses as a path to justification.

(Gal 2:15-16 ESV) 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;  16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

The usual conservative Church of Christ response to this is to assert that “justification” is only our initial salvation and so Paul is only talking about how saved we are the moment we arise from the baptistry. After that, we’re dealing with “sanctification,” and the rules get tougher!

“Justified” is a legal term, meaning “not guilty” — not in the American sense of “not proved” but in the Roman sense of “found guiltless.” It’s God’s decree that we are free from the accusation of sin.

You can hear the law court language clearly in such passages as,

(Rom 8:33-34)  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

“It is God who justifies” means “It is God who renders the verdict of not guilty.” And in this passage, “justifies” is a present, active participle, indicating continuous action. After all, how often might a charge be brought against us? Well, for me, pretty much continuously. How often do I need God to find me not guilty?

Hence, we see that Jesus “is … interceding” (present, indicative active, meaning that it’s happening right now) not “has interceded” for us.

Of course, there are plenty of verses where Paul speaks of our having been justified when we were first saved. But there are also verses where God’s justification is spoken of as continuous. For example,

(Rom 3:22-24)  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

“Are justified” is a present, passive participle, indicating continuous action — we are continuously justified freely by his grace!

Which brings us to Galatians. In chapter 5, Paul condemns those who seek justification by law –

(Gal 5:4-5)  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

“Justified” is present, indicative middle — indicating action taking place right now. And “await” is the same tense. Those who are seeking a works justification are presently lost, while we are presently awaiting righteousness by faith. Neither sentence looks to a past saving event but both speak to how we expect to make it to be with God right now.

(Gal 2:15-16)  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Not surprisingly, the first “justified” is also present, indicative middle (present action), showing how the brilliant Paul brings his argument full circle from the first to last mention of the word in Galatians. A man is “not justified right now by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Again, he’s not looking back to a past saving event.

(Gal 3:11)  Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”

“Justified” is present, indicative passive, meaning action taking place right now: presently justified.

Thus, the idea of being “justified” by faith is not a reference to a special, better, more gracious forgiveness we get only when baptized, but to the nature of the forgiveness we receive from beginning to end.

All doubt is removed by —

(Rom 5:7-8 ESV)  7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Before we were saved, we were “sinners,” not good and not righteous. In Rom 5:10, he says we were “enemies.” In v. 9, he says we were subject to God’s wrath.

And yet, despite being God’s enemies, Christ died for us.

(Rom 5:9 ESV)  9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

And when he died for us, we were “justified” (aorist, participle) by his blood and saved. The aorist participle is not continuous and refers to action prior to the main verb (shall be saved). “Justified” isn’t redefined by Paul but rather Paul uses the form of the verb appropriate to refer to initially becoming justified.

Paul’s point is that we — having been initially justified — are “much more” saved because we are no longer God’s enemies.

(Rom 5:10 ESV) 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.

It’s so important that Paul says it again! In a Hebraic parallelism, “reconciled to God” parallels “justified by his blood” and “saved … from the wrath of God” parallels “saved by his life.”

Paul makes clear that the salvation of those who’ve already been saved/justified/reconciled is “much more” than the salvation of those who’ve just arisen from the baptistry.

Therefore, the notion that the rules change after our initial justification is entirely correct. But it’s exactly wrong to assert that the standard becomes tougher. Rather, now that we’re part of God’s family, adopted children, and part of the bride of Christ, we are much more saved.

And 20th Century Church of Christ theology cannot cope with this — even though Paul not only says it, he repeats it for emphasis. You see, if you get this wrong, you’ve missed Romans, grace, and salvation by faith.

The hard question is why it’s true.

Next, understanding Romans 4:5.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Faith That Works, Grace, Romans, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Faith That Works: On the Meaning of “Justification”

  1. Barry says:

    All I can “do” is trust in God’s saving grace!

    But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11:6 ESV)

  2. aBasnar says:

    Laymond is to the point, Skip. Christ’s words are the foundation for Paul (not vice versa). Since Luther elevated Paul over Christ Protestants have a flawed understanding of the Gospel. Why? Because the grace/works discission, that has its background in the Jew/Gentile issue, has been torn out of its context and generalized in a way it was never meant to be understood. It’s no use to play that down (Let#s take 2Pe 3:16 as a warning when quoting Paul). The background for “works” is the Mosaic Law – and it’s not only the churches of Christ who see that. It has its roots in the ECF. And they are VERY balanced on this!

    Clement of Rome (a companion of Paul!) is to the point when he speaks on justification by faith (all quotes from his 1st epistle to the Corinthians):

    Chap. XXXII. — We Are Justified Not by Our Own Works, but by Faith.

    Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. (Comp. Rom 4:5) From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” (Gen 22:17, Gen 28:4) All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

    Yet, Clement is equally clear when he speaks of works (and see how he sounds like James here!):

    Chap. XXX. — Let Us Do Those Things That Please God, and Flee from Those He Hates, That We May Be Blessed.

    Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. “For God,” saith [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” (Pro 3:34; Jam 4:6; 1Pe 5:5) Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words. For [the Scripture] saith, “He that speaketh much, shall also hear much in answer. And does he that is ready in speech deem himself righteous? Blessed is he that is born of woman, who liveth but a short time: be not given to much speaking.” Let our praise be in God, and not of ourselves; for God hateth those that commend themselves. Let testimony to our good deeds be borne by others, as it was in the case of our righteous forefathers. Boldness, and arrogance, and audacity belong to those that are accursed of God; but moderation, humility, and meekness to such as are blessed by Him.

    So what? Are we justified by faith or by works? Both and! Not either or!

    Justification is not only a change in our legal standing. Justification is a process of transformatrion that makes us truly righteous people, doing and striving for what is pleasing to God!

    Therefore: NO! It is not a passive thing! Justification turns our lives rightside up again. Therefore: The righteous one will live by faith, but the unrighteous ones will not inherit the Kingdom – Righteousness in this context is always active and never (obly) imputed.


  3. Jerry says:

    (Gal 5:4-5) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

    “Justified” is present, indicative middle — indicating action taking place right now. And “await” is the same tense. Those who are seeking a works justification are presently lost, while we are presently awaiting righteousness by faith. Neither sentence looks to a past saving event but both speak to how we expect to make it to be with God right now.

    Unlike the English language’s two voices (active and passive) used to show whether the subject of the verb is the actor or the receiver of the action of the verb, Greek has three voices – active, middle, and passive. The active voice shows that the subject is the actor; the passive voice shows that the subject receives the action – and there is a difference! The active says “I hit him;” the passive says “I was hit by him.” The Greek middle voice is between the active and the passive; the subject acts upon himself, as in “I hit myself.”

    In the passage quoted, with the verb being in the middle voice, the meaning is, “You who are trying to justify yourselves by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” When we trust self-justification by works of law instead of trusting Jesus by faith in His blood for our justification and sanctification, we turn away from Christ and fall away from grace.

    Does this mean we do not “work”? Paul certainly speaks of obedience – but it is the obedience of faith (i.e., trust) in Christ. He contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. When you look closely at the fruit of the Spirit, Laymond, you find that these are closely related to the attitudinal things that Jesus taught. There are not two different “gospels,” one taught by Jesus and the other taught by Paul as you seem to assume. While Jesus may not have used the word “grace,” He brought “grace and truth” to light in His life and in His teachings. After all, it was He who said, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” Giving is the essence of grace. This “giving” of Jesus by the Father and of Jesus to those who would come to Him is what grace is all about.

    A long time ago, a wise teacher told me this about the Sermon on the Mount. It is not couched in commands, but in promises. “You shall not kill” is a future tense; while the Greek grammars say that the future tense can be used for commands, I wonder. Is this a command – or is it a promise? Jesus went on to show that not killing is not merely refraining from murder – but also includes having the right attitude toward your brother or neighbor.

    How do I achieve that happy estate? It is only through God’s gift of grace through pouring His love into my heart through His Spirit. This, my friend, is grace.

    Can I resist this grace? Of course I can – but if I am trusting Jesus, I will not resist but will welcome God’s gracious gift through faith.

  4. Jerry says:

    Alexander said,

    Justification is not only a change in our legal standing. Justification is a process of transformatrion that makes us truly righteous people, doing and striving for what is pleasing to God!

    Exactly! But we do not transform ourselves. It is not we who renew our minds – but the Spirit of grace that He has given to us (unless, of course, we resist and grieve the Spirit to the point that we quench the Spirit).

    It was not until I began to understand Titus 2:11ff that I was really ready to accept that we are saved by grace, not by our works of obedience. Earlier in Titus 2, Paul had spoken of how each of several different groups of people are to behave: the older men, the older women, younger women, young men, and slaves. To each of them he adds that this behavior is to be theirs,

    For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. – Titus 2:11-14 (NIV)

    Note that the grace of God teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness. Law can teach us we ought to say ‘No’; grace actually teaches us to say, “No” to sin in a way that law never can do (see Romans 7).

    When I finally realized that grace actually teaches us how to live in this present age, I began to learn how to follow Jesus instead of a set of rules. That comes as I walk by faith in Jesus instead of faith in a “plan of salvation.” The “plan” gives we works that I must do; Jesus walks with me as I follow him while going up to (the new) Jerusalem (cf. Mark 10:32).

  5. Jay Guin says:

    I’ve deleted Laymond’s comment arguing against the inspiration of Paul and those written in response. It’s been a while, but I’ve frequently said that I’m not interested in comments that challenge the authority of scripture — and Laymond has made his arguments here many times before, and they’ve been responded to many times before.

    We are judged by God’s word; we do not stand in judgment over God’s word. Proper exegesis is to understand the text, not to dismiss the text. If we find Paul and the Gospels in contradiction, then the fault lies with us — and we should study harder. And the question of how to fit the Gospels together with Paul has been the subject of some recent excellent books — Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel and N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus and How God Became King.

    The apparent inconsistencies are well reconciled when we approach both the Gospels and Paul through a Jewish worldview, premised on the Old Testament.

    The question of how to reconcile the different parts of the Bible is legitimate and useful. But to ask whether to reconcile the two is place ourselves in judgment over men who knew God and Christ far better than we do.

  6. laymond says:

    Laymond wrote,

    “Jay, I didn’t instigate the discussion about “Paul’s letters”, but I thought it only fair that I be allowed to respond to those who did, I guess not ;)”

    That’s the theory behind deleting the replies as well. Once a conversation starts, there’s no good place to end it — unless, of course, the participants were to actually come to agreement.

  7. Skip says:

    Jay, Thanks for drawing lines.

  8. Skip says:

    Alexander, Paul’s words were Christ’s words. See II Corinthians 13:3

  9. Ray Downen says:

    A blog is intended for free discussion as I understand it. I have a web site. I put on that site what I want others to read. No one else has a voice there unless I allow it. I thought blogs were different. I want to speak up to defend apostolic truth. No apostle, including Paul, ever taught that salvation was by faith alone. That’s what some are now teaching and claiming apostolic authority for the teaching. But it seems to be implied that even though the apostles knew the word for alone and chose to not use it, they really MEANT that salvation was by faith ALONE. Well, it’s more than implied. It’s taught. For shame!

  10. Skip says:

    Faith always works but works don’t save. The blood of Christ is my only source of salvation and that is from His work, not mine. Works are the consequence of our salvation, not the basis for our salvation. Many, it seems, can’t grasp motivation by grace and thus feel they must work hard to merit God’s forgiveness. This is a Catholic concept.

  11. aBasnar says:

    Faith always works but works don’t save.

    This is to say: It is not that heartbeat that gives us life, but God. But when our heart stops beating, we stop living. Or: living beings eat and drink, but eating and drinking are not life themselves. Yet, when we stop eating and drinking we will die.

    Faith works – if we don’t work, do we have faith (remain faithful)?
    Working faith saves – what role do the works then play? Don’t the works qualify our faith as saving (or alive)? If – or better: since – this is truly the case, we can also say (as James did): We are justified not only by faith, but by works.

    It is completely scriptural to say, that we are saved by our works (of faith).


  12. aBasnar says:

    Exactly! But we do not transform ourselves. It is not we who renew our minds – but the Spirit of grace that He has given to us (unless, of course, we resist and grieve the Spirit to the point that we quench the Spirit).

    That’s entirely true, Jerry. But while stressing this side of the truth – at least in discussions like these – the other side tends to be overlooked or belittled:

    Rom 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    Do not be conformed to the world is middle voice, imperative: “Don’t fashion yourself after this world!” Here is a nebative command we need to do in order to make room for the Spirit to transform us. You can say, this is another way to express repentance. Ongoing repentance. But it also is very closely linked to all the admonitions of being separated from the world.

    This is a necessary thing we need to do. Becoming a child of God is linked to separate yourself from the world! Paul says so in 2Co 6:17-18 and Peter in Acts 2:40, where he uses this interesting grammar: “Save yourselves (Aorist passive imperative – lit. “Be saved”)!” which – being addressed to the crowd – needs the “yourself” although it is not middle voice. But this “save yourselves” is not meant to save ourselves from sin into the Kingdom, but to save ourselves from this crocked generation. It has to do with separation, with “coming out from among them”. Here lies a good deal of our responsibilty in the process of salvation.

    Therefore, in the early days of the church, converts confessed at baptism: “I renounce the world, the devil and his demons!” I fear, too many of us try have “the best of both worlds”, and the repeated message “it’s not our works that save us” is a soothing message for them.


  13. Skip says:

    Alexander, Being saved by my own works is not a biblical concept. Works prove I have real faith and works demonstrate I really do love God. But in the end I am saved by the blood of Christ and His grace. You diminish the finished work of Christ by suggesting that the blood of Christ isn’t enough but that we must add our works to the blood for salvation. I think Ephesians 2 makes this abundantly clear.

    “8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

  14. Alabama John says:

    We of the COC have made works such a hard to understand requirement. So many have their own rule book and only those in that book are works that are acceptable. anything outside the local notebook regardless of the situation is error.
    We are wrong in our doing that.

    The main local notebook wrong is that good works can only be counted if they are done for other members of the COC and all others are ignored. We saw that (and so did our neighbors) demonstrated during the tornadoes.

    I know I’m very basic, but it seems so simple if thought about like this and not made so legalistic:

    We are to love Jesus and our neighbors. What does that mean?
    Well, look at it like this. I just had two operations and we all have been amazed at the calls from neighbors not of the COC to see what we may need, grass cut, animals watered and fed, eggs gathered, tomatoes fertilized, etc. No worry, all will be taken care of.

    If we just simplify and do what anyone would do that loves another, that from the heart “WORK” would be what work is meant as desired and acceptable.

    If Jesus was to come stay at your house, what would you do because you love Him?
    Do nothing but say over and over how much you love Him, or,
    wipe his feet with your hair as one woman did, or I’ll bet you would want to do all He would allow you to do with out Him asking for a thing.

    That is the works of love we should want to do and let God keep up with the amounts and keeping score, not us!

Comments are closed.