In scripture, our salvation lies in whom we believe not in what we do. Deeds are not meritorious. Faith is the focus. Deeds are a consequence of faith not the source of our faith. Jesus saves because we first believe.
Romans 4:5 “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
To have faith in God is all but sitting around, because saving faith works. Paul speaks about obedience of faith from beginning to end (Rom 1:5 and Rom 16:26). So this “who does not work” cannot possibly mean “Who just sits around” or “who does absolutely nothing”, but the works refer to the Mosaic Law. THIS was the big issue as soon as gentiles were added to the church. The background to this discussion is Acts 15 and Gal 2).
I want to first address the theory that “works” in Romans and Galatians refers exclusively — and in principle — to works of the Law of Moses. Then I’ll come back to the interpretation of Romans 4:5 in a future post.
Many Church of Christ expositors have argued that “works” refers exclusively to the Law of Moses — so much so that if you grew up and were trained in a Church of Christ school of preaching, you might be unaware that this is even a controversial question, whereas the overwhelming majority of Protestant commentators take “works” to be much broader.
Ironically enough, it’s the New Perspective commentators — who’ve been almost entirely ignored by the conservative Churches of Christ — who argue for a narrower meaning of “works” than is found in most interpretations going back to the Reformation. But even they wouldn’t limit the concept — in principle — to only obedience to Mosaic commands.
Obviously, of course, Paul’s primary reference in using “works” in Galatians is to circumcision as well as celebration of Jewish days and festivals (Gal 4:10). But is Paul’s argument only applicable to just those things — making Galatians largely irrelevant today — or does the principle he argues apply more broadly?
In Romans, Paul is not targeting a specific false teaching, but is speaking more abstractly. However, as Romans 9 – 11 demonstrates, he was dealing with Christianity through the lens of the unity of Gentiles and Jews, which inevitably raises the question of obedience to the Law of Moses.
But, again, do the principles he argues apply solely to those 613 command (as the Jews have traditionally counted)? Again, is Romans almost entirely about an issue that no longer matters?
We start in Galatians. Paul begins his major discussion in chapter 2. I use the NET Bible translation, because it reflects the latest scholarship on how 2:16 should be translated (See The Cruciform God: Chapter 2, The Faith of Jesus and following posts)* —
(Gal 2:15-16 NET) 15 We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Notice Paul’s logic. We are justified by the work of Jesus (which we receive by faith — as he says in the middle of the verse and will explain in detail in chapter 3), not by works of the law. Notice that he doesn’t just say “not by works of the law” — which certainly would justify the traditional Church of Christ interpretation — but he also says “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”
If I tell my son not to lie to his mother, he could rationalize and argue a day later than it’s okay to lie to his brother or even to me, because I only told him it’s wrong to lie to his mother. Neither I nor any reader would find his rationalization persuasive. But he could make the argument.
But if I told him that it’s wrong to lie to his mother because he must always be honest, then all rationalizations disappear. Plainly, that argument does not apply solely to mothers.
Paul gives the narrow but negative answer — not by law — which addresses the issue at hand, and then gives the broader and positive answer — by the faithfulness of Jesus. He does not say “by the faithfulness of Jesus plus our works of the law of Christ” or some such.
Both forms of the answer are inspired and true. Yes, it’s not by works of the Law of Moses! But, yes, it is by the faithfulness of Jesus. The reason it’s not by works is because it’s by the faithfulness of Jesus (which we attain by faith in Jesus).
Now, why does Paul say “by the faithfulness of Jesus” when so many in the Churches of Christ want him to say “by our own faithfulness”? And why say that when, in fact, we’re supposed to be faithful? Because our faithfulness does not justify. Yes, we are to be faithful, but our justification is because of the faithfulness of Jesus — not ours — which is the plain and obvious implication.
You see, Jesus’ faithfulness is perfect, complete, finished, and entirely sufficient. And only perfect, complete, finished, and entirely sufficient faithfulness is good enough to be justified. Therefore, it cannot be based on our faithfulness.
This quite naturally leads to the accusation that Paul is approving license, that is, Christians who continue to live as non-Christians, in sin. He summarized his response to this charge by saying —
(Gal 2:17-20 NET) 17 But if while seeking to be justified in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! 18 But if I build up again those things I once destroyed, I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
He’ll say more on the subject, especially in chapter 5, but let’s consider his argument.
In v. 18 he says he “once destroyed” his lawlessness. In v. 19 he says he “died to the law so that I may live to God.” Clearly, he’s referring at least to his repentance, indeed, his submission to Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9).
In v. 20, he declares himself “co-crucified” (literal Greek) with Christ — he died on the cross with Jesus (remember the meaning of baptism in Romans 6!) so that his old self is dead and Christ lives in him.
This has to be a reference to the Holy Spirit — who is received when we are first justified at baptism and who transforms the Christian into the image of Christ. Otherwise, without some divine involvement, Paul is only saying that he’s trying harder now — which in Romans 7 he declares to be futility, a futility resolved in Romans 8 by the power of the Spirit.
There is also an element of gratitude to Jesus for his sacrifice: “who loved me and gave himself for me.” And gratitude is a powerful motivator, especially when empowered by the Spirit.
Finally, Paul recapitulates his argument —
(Gal 2:21 NET) 21 I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!
Why can’t righteousness come through the law? Because we are incapable of obeying it well enough to merit justification. Well, what about someone’s version of the New Testament Law? Can we seriously argue that there is any law that truly comes from the hand of God that we are capable of obeying well enough to merit salvation?
Obviously not. Well, then, the same argument applies to whatever legal system you want to talk about. And, yet, of course, there are laws that still apply to Christians today — and, no, of course, we cannot obey them well enough to be justified. Therefore, the principle is plenty broad enough to apply to whatever law you want to discuss.
Indeed, as Adam and Eve illustrate, if we had but one law to obey, we’d surely disobey it!
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, then we’re dealing with “sanctification,” and the rules get tougher!
We’ll deal with “justification” in the next post. You see, justification begins at baptism but it continues so long as we are in Christ. More to come …
* The NET Bible translators explain —
Though traditionally translated “faith in Jesus Christ,” an increasing number of NT scholars are arguing that πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis Christou) and similar phrases in Paul (here and in v. Gal 2:20; Rom 3:22, Rom 3:26; Gal 3:22; Eph 3:12; Phi 3:9) involve a subjective genitive and mean “Christ’s faith” or “Christ’s faithfulness” (cf., e.g., G. Howard, “The ‘Faith of Christ’,” ExpTim 85 : 212-15; R. B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ [SBLDS]; Morna D. Hooker, “Πίστις Χριστοῦ,” NTS 35 : 321-42). Noteworthy among the arguments for the subjective genitive view is that when πίστις takes a personal genitive it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Mat 9:2, Mat 9:22, Mat 9:29; Mar 2:5; Mar 5:34; Mar 10:52; Luk 5:20; Luk 7:50; Luk 8:25, Luk 8:48; Luk 17:19; Luk 18:42; Luk 22:32; Rom 1:8; Rom 1:12; Rom 3:3; Rom 4:5, Rom 4:12, Rom 4:16; 1Co 2:5; 1Co 15:14, 1Co 15:17; 2Co 10:15; Phi 2:17; Col 1:4; Col 2:5; 1Th 1:8; 1Th 3:2, 1Th 3:5, 1Th 3:10; 2Th 1:3; Tit 1:1; Phm 6; 1Pe 1:9, 1Pe 1:21; 2Pe 1:5).