Sharing God's Truth in Holland, MI

Justification and Good Works

Speech #2 of Justification: The Heart of the Gospel

Prof. David J. Engelsma


What a grand gospel truth is justification by faith alone.  What a blessed gift of God to us is justification by faith alone.  And what a blessed work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in our consciousness is justification by faith alone.

Justification is the strictly legal act of God as judge in which He forgives the sins of the one who believes in Jesus Christ and reckons him righteous on the basis alone of the obedience of Jesus Christ in the stead of this sinner.  This is how David describes justification in Psalm 32:1-2, where he proclaims the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness without works.  “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”  And this is how the apostle Paul describes justification, with appeal to this passage in the Psalms, in Romans 4:5.  “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted [or imputed, or reckoned] for righteousness.”

The sole basis of this act of God the judge pronouncing the ungodly but believing sinner righteous is the obedience of Jesus Christ in the sinner’s stead.  The basis is both Christ’s lifelong obedience to the law of God, and Christ’s death as complete and perfect satisfaction of God’s justice regarding the elect sinner’s guilt.  Paul writes in Romans 5:19 that it is by the obedience of one, that is, Jesus Christ, that many are “constituted” (not, “made,” as is the translation of the Authorized Version there) righteous, just as all of us were constituted guilty by “one man’s disobedience.”  The only righteousness that avails in the heavenly courtroom with God the judge, Who is awesome in His holiness, is the righteousness worked out by God Himself in the obedient life and death of His own incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.

This righteousness, is God’s own righteousness, as Paul teaches in Romans 3:25:  Especially in the propitiation of the cross, God declared His righteousness.  In Romans 10:3, the charge of the apostle against the Jews, and against all who in any way whatever make their own obedience in whole or in part, their righteousness with God, is that they are “ignorant of God’s righteousness” and go about to “establish their own righteousness;” their sin is that they do not submit themselves to the righteousness of God.

This righteousness, which is God’s own, and the only righteousness that avails with God so as to obtain the verdict, “innocent,” and so as to throw the doors to eternal life open to the sinner, this righteousness, I say, is granted to the sinner by means of faith, and by means of faith only.  This is the teaching of the apostle in Romans 3:28: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law.”  Faith in Jesus Christ is the means, the instrument, by which the sinner receives righteousness by imputation, so that his standing with God the judge is that it is as if he had never sinned, as if he had himself perfectly obeyed the law of God, and as if he himself had completely paid for all his sins and merited eternal life.  Inasmuch as Romans 3:28 contrasts faith with “the deeds of the law,” the apostle in fact teaches that justification is by faith alone.

When Martin Luther translated Romans 3:28 by the word “allein” in German, that is the word “alone,” rendering the text, “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law,” he captured the meaning of the Holy Spirit and translated the text correctly.

This understanding of Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, and other texts, namely, that these texts teach that we are justified by faith alone, is confessional with all Reformed people.  Q&A 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, answers the question “How art thou righteous before God?” this way: “Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ.”

What a grand gospel truth this is.  It is the heart of the biblical gospel, declared Luther and the entire Protestant Reformation.  Calvin agreed, calling justification by faith alone, in his Institutes, “the hinge on which all religion turns.”

As a purely gracious act of God, justification by faith alone glorifies God.  The righteousness of a sinner, upon which all blessing and salvation depend, is God’s free gift.  The righteousness of the sinner before God is God’s own righteousness worked out by God in the incarnation and atoning death of His Son.  Inasmuch as the act of justifying, the obedience that is the basis of the justifying, and even the faith itself of the sinner by which he receives righteousness, are God’s free gift in sovereign grace, justification points to God’s eternal election in grace as the source of justification, and magnifies the grace of God.

As a purely gracious act of God, justification by faith alone affords peace to the believer.  “Though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil,” I am confident that I am righteous before God on the basis of the obedience of Christ.  This is the testimony of the Heidelberg Catechism in Q&A 60.  Without justification by faith alone, depending on even one good work of our own, “we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, with our poor consciences continually vexed,” we confess in Article 24 of the Belgic Confession.

Where now does this truth of justification by faith alone leave the good works of the justified believer?  Is there still a place at all for good works?  Is this place of good works an important place, even a necessary place?  Or are good works, and the call to perform good works, excluded, or perhaps minimized?  The question is this: What is the relation between justification by faith alone and good works?

This, my friends, is an important question in itself, apart from any controversy over the issue.  The same gospel that excludes good works from justification includes good works in the salvation of us by the Spirit.  The same gospel that warns us against bringing good works into justification warns against leaving good works out of our lives.

Adding to the urgency of a right understanding of the relation between justification and good works is the attack on justification by faith alone by determined foes of that truth.  This attack on justification by faith alone is raised, allegedly, on behalf of good works.  The urgency is heightened today in the community of Reformed churches by an attack on justification by faith alone in the name of an emphasis on good works from within the Reformed churches themselves.  Indeed this attack on justification by faith alone is raised by prominent, influential, Reformed theologians, seminary professors, and ministers of the gospel.  These men are spokesmen for a movement known as the “federal vision,” that is literally “covenant vision,” because it is the development of a certain doctrine of the covenant.  Basic to this covenant doctrine is an attack on justification by faith alone.  This attack is defended as a promotion of good works in the life of the Christian.

This attack on justification by faith alone is found today in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the United Reformed Churches, and the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches.  Not only is the attack on justification by faith alone found in these churches, but it is also tolerated by these churches.  Not only is it tolerated by these churches, but in the case of at least three of these churches the attack on justification by faith alone has been upheld by the major assemblies – by classes, presbyteries, and synods.

The Attack on Justification on behalf of Good Works

The main attack on the gospel truth of justification by faith alone by its foes in every age is the argument that justification by faith alone weakens, if it does not destroy altogether, zeal for a holy life of good works.

At the outset, we should recognize the seeming validity of this charge.  Justification by faith alone asserts that the works of the sinner who is justified do not at all enter into the justification of the sinner.  Not all the good works he may do, and not one of the sinful works he has done, be that sinful work never so gross, enter into his justification by God.  On the basis of this doctrine, the carnal mind, the fleshly thought, the natural man says, “This inevitably results in carelessness of life on the part of those who embrace this doctrine.”

Up to the present hour, three notable champions of good works, as they like to have us believe, have arisen, who oppose justification by faith alone, because the doctrine is harmful to good works.

The first of these foes of justification by faith alone is the Roman Catholic church.  At the Reformation, and ever after, Rome has condemned the truth of justification by faith alone as destructive of zeal for holiness of life.  It is to this charge by Rome that the Heidelberg Catechism is responding in Q. 64: “But doth not this doctrine (that is, the doctrine of justification by faith alone) make men careless and profane?”  I do not take Rome’s pretended concern for holiness of life and for good works seriously.  Nor should anyone take Rome’s pretended concern for good works seriously.  When Rome puts on her pious face and displays concern lest Reformed Protestants come short of holiness, I laugh, out loud.  That that foul church at the time of the Reformation should have criticized Protestantism for unholiness was a joke.  That that church of widespread sodomy and buggery, who covered up the iniquity at the highest levels, until the secular press blew the whistle on their perversions, should censure Reformed Christians for carelessness is ludicrous.  That the church that accepts Ted Kennedy and most of the mafia as members in good standing, and who will give those men fine funeral masses when they die and perish eternally, should even utter a peep about justification and good works is sheer hypocrisy.  But we are interested in Rome’s charges, because they are the very same charges that are always raised also by the other enemies of justification by faith alone.  Indeed, Rome’s charges are the very same as those that were raised against the apostle Paul himself when he was proclaiming the doctrine of justification in the epistle to the Romans.

The second noteworthy attack on justification, supposedly because the doctrine is hurtful to holiness of life and good works, comes from the Arminians.  This is not so well known among us because we concentrate on their denial of election, efficacious atonement for the elect alone, sovereign grace, and the perseverance of the saints.  But the Arminians denied justification by faith alone also.  And they denied it, as they said, because they saw it as detrimental to human responsibility and the life of holiness.  The Canons of Dordt refer to this aspect of the Arminian heresy in Head II, Rejection of Errors #4, where they condemn the error that “regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace.”  John Wesley was a true son of James Arminius and Simon Episcopius in his denial of justification by faith alone as destructive of John Wesley’s idea of holiness.

The third notable assault on justification by faith alone has been launched in the past thirty years or so from within the Reformed churches themselves, indeed, from within Reformed and Presbyterian churches that are widely reputed to be the most conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  I refer to the movement that promotes a theology known as the “federal vision,” a movement that is influenced by an understanding of Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, that differs from the understanding of Paul that Luther had, that Calvin had, that the whole Reformed tradition has had, and especially that the Reformed confessions have.  This is called the new perspective on Paul.  Because this denial of justification by faith alone has risen within, and is nourished in the bosom of, reputedly conservative Reformed churches, and because it bases itself upon a popular, indeed the prevailing, doctrine of the covenant, this attack on justification by faith alone is the most dangerous to professing, Reformed Christians today.  Indeed, I regard this heresy as the gravest threat to the Reformed faith since the Synod of Dordt.

The attack on justification by faith alone, on behalf of good works, as they say, always takes the same form, and always uses the same arguments.  Whether it is coming out of the mouth of the Roman Catholic theologian, out of the mouth of the Arminian theologian, or out of the mouth of the spokesman in conservative Reformed churches for the “federal vision,” the argument is always the same.

The fundamental argument against justification by faith alone is this, that a believer will be motivated to be zealous for good works only if he supposes that his justification depends on those good works, or is earned by those good works, or if he is driven by the terrifying conviction that his good works make him worthy of God’s justification of him.  This is the fundamental argument.  The only motivation for zeal in doing good works is the supposition that those good works are the basis or ground of righteousness, that these good works are the condition of salvation, that these good works make one worthy of eternal life.  If this argument is wrong (and the gospel of Scripture says it is dead wrong), the whole argument against justification by faith alone collapses.

Related to this fundamental argument are several other perennial arguments against justification by faith alone.  For one thing, so the argument runs, when Paul teaches justification by faith without the deeds of the law, or apart from the law, he is only excluding certain kinds of works – ceremonial works (such as circumcision), or works that are done in order to merit, or works that are done by unregenerated people.  According to those who raise this argument, Paul does not intend to exclude from justification truly good works, works done out of love for God by the believing Christian.

Another argument goes like this.  When God promises, as He certainly does, to reward our good works, the meaning is that our good works earn salvation, or make us worthy of salvation, or are the basis of our salvation in part, so that our justification is partly, at least, by good works, and not only by faith.

Then there is this argument.  When the Bible teaches in II Corinthians 5:10, and other places, that our final judgment will take place “according to” our works, it means that the final judgment, which decides our eternal destiny, will be based in part on the works that we have performed.  And because the final judgment will only be the public version of the justification that we experience today, inasmuch as the final judgment will be based on our works, so also is our justification today, in our own experience, justification on the basis of works.

Of special interest to us, is the argument against justification by faith alone by the men of the “federal vision.”  Their argument against justification by faith alone is an argument from a certain doctrine of the covenant.  It is the argument that since God’s covenant with His people is conditional, that is, a covenant that depends upon the baptized child’s own faith and obedience, also justification in the covenant is conditional.  That is, God’s justification of the baptized children depends on the child’s act of believing, and on the child’s lifelong obedience to God in the covenant.
Now this is not entirely new, since the notion of a conditional covenant and conditional salvation in the covenant has been found and has been defended in Reformed churches for a long time.  This is the doctrine against which the Protestant Reformed Churches battled hard in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  It is this doctrine of the covenant that now is being developed into a full-blown denial of justification by faith alone, and with this central gospel truth, a denial of all of the so-called “5 points of Calvinism.”  What is new is that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is now applied to the truth of justification with the result that men boldly deny justification by faith alone.

I have demonstrated that the “federal vision’s” denial of justification by faith alone is the development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant in my book, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers. (RFPA, 2005)

The view of justification defended by all those who attack justification by faith alone is this: justification is not strictly a legal act of God, but also a renewing, sanctifying work, actually making the sinner good.  Justification, in this case, does not depend entirely upon Christ’s obedience for us and outside us, but it depends also in part upon us ourselves, upon our own obedience, and upon our own good works.  And, on this view, justification does not consist only of the obedience and righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect righteousness of Christ made up of His lifelong obedience and His atoning death in our place; rather, the righteousness that is recognized by God in justification is also partly our own – our own imperfect righteousness, made up of our own imperfect good works.

What is the response of the orthodox Reformed faith to this attack on justification by faith alone on behalf of good works, whether by the Roman Catholic Church, by the Arminians (who are 90 % or more of those professing Christians in North America who call themselves evangelicals and fundamentalists), or by the defenders of a conditional covenant?

In the first place, we respond that the attack itself upon us and our doctrine of justification confirms that we are holding the same gospel truth of justification that the apostle Paul held and confessed, especially in Romans and Galatians.  Paul’s teaching on justification drew the same attack, the very same attack.  “Paul,” charged his opponents, “you make void the law through faith” (Romans 3:31).  “Paul,” they exclaimed, “you are preaching that we may and that we will continue in sin, that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1).  Speaking for myself, and for the Protestant Reformed Churches, we rejoice that our confession of justification is still drawing this attack.  If our confession of justification did not draw this attack, I would be worried that there is something wrong with our doctrine of justification.  The confession and preaching of very few Reformed churches today concerning justification draw this attack.  Very few Reformed churches are so clearly and sharply preaching and confessing justification by faith alone and salvation by free, sovereign, unconditional grace, that opponents charge them with teaching a doctrine that results in carelessness of life.

In the second place, our response to the attack is Paul’s own: “God forbid!”  We do not disparage a life of good works in obedience to the law of God.  On the contrary, by the teaching of justification by faith alone we establish such a life of zeal for good works.

In the third place, we do not respond to these attacks by compromising the doctrine of justification by faith alone – not in the slightest.  But we defend the doctrine against the attacks.  Justification is by faith alone.  All our works are excluded, including our truly good works, the works that we do in the power of the Spirit of Christ.  The sole basis of our righteousness with God is the obedience of Christ, and not our own obedience, not whatsoever.  The only work that is our righteousness with God is the work for us of another, even Jesus Christ.

With regard to the specific arguments that are raised against justification by faith alone, we respond that when Paul excludes the deeds of the law, and the law, from justification, he is referring to all our works.  Galatians 3:10, 12 prove this, for in these passages the law, about which he says in verse 11 that it has no place in the justification of the sinner, obviously refers to the entire law of God, including the ten commandments.  In verse 10, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”  The “book of the law” includes all the commandments, not merely ceremonial commandments.  Accordingly, when, in verse 11, the apostle denies that anyone is justified “by the law,” he refers to the entire law.

Regarding the promised reward, we respond that the Bible does indeed promise us a reward for our good works.  But this reward is a reward of grace, not a reward that we earn, not a reward that we deserve, and not wages that God pays us for our labors.  The reward is of grace because God in His grace eternally ordained the good works that we should walk in. (Ephesians 2:10)  The reward is of grace because by His death Jesus Christ earned for us the right to do good works. (Titus 2:14)  It is a privilege to do good works in the service of God.  The reward is a reward of grace because the Spirit of Christ Himself works these works in us and through us (Philippians 2:13).  The reward is a reward of grace because when God accepts them of us He first justifies, or forgives, all those good works with regard to the corruption and sin that stain every one of them.  And the reward is a reward of grace because when God gives us the reward, which is eternal life and the place that we have in glory, He does that, not because He owes it to us, but in free favor. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 63)

With regard to the argument against free justification that appeals to the final judgment and to the fact that we will be judged according to our works, it is certainly true that the judgment of us on the world’s last day will be the justification of us who believe in Jesus Christ.  It will be a public justification.  Today, when I believe in Jesus Christ, I am justified privately.  God and I know that I am justified by faith in Christ.  There comes a day when I will stand before God the judge in the presence of the whole world, elect and reprobate, devils and angels, and then God will make public the justification that now is private.  That justification of the final judgment will be a strictly legal act of God.  It will not occur, nor does Scripture ever say so, because of our works, or on the basis of our works.  But it will take place according to our works as a kind of standard.  In that final judgment, the sole basis of our justification will be what it is today, namely, the obedience of Jesus Christ in our stead.  Thank God for that!  If this is not true, we have no hope.  But in that day, the good works that we have done by the grace of God will be displayed by God, forgiven of all the corruption that tainted them, so that those works display and demonstrate the reality of God’s gracious judgment and salvation of us to the praise of God.

To the attack on justification that arises from the doctrine of a conditional covenant, we reply, first, that on the basis of a conditional covenant the denial of justification by faith alone, and of all the doctrines of grace, follows.  If the covenant is conditional, justification is by faith and works.  And if the covenant is conditional, so is election conditional, the atonement conditional, the salvation of a sinner conditional, and eternal life conditional.

But, second, our response is that the very fact that a conditional covenant implies justification by faith and works proves that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is false doctrine.  It is the introduction into the Reformed churches of a gospel of salvation by man’s own willing and working.

Third, our response is that the covenant is unconditional.  God promises the covenant to, and fulfils the covenant with Jesus Christ and all the elect in Jesus Christ out of mere grace, as Galatians 3:16 and Galatians 3:29 teach.  Galatians 3:16 teaches that the covenant promise to Abraham’s seed was a promise to Christ, who is the seed of Abraham.  The covenant promise never was directed to all the physical offspring of Abraham.  According to Galatians 3:29, those, and only those, who belong to Christ by divine election are included in the seed of Abraham and are objects of the promise.  Today the entire conservative Reformed and Presbyterian church world is put on guard by God, through the theology of the “federal vision,” that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is the rejection of the gospel of salvation by grace.  And the whole Reformed church world is being tested regarding the fundamental confession of the Reformed churches down through the ages, that salvation is by grace alone.

Our response to the attack on justification by faith alone, in the fourth place, is this, that we on our part charge those who teach justification by faith and works that they destroy the peace and the certainty of salvation of the child of God, that they rob God of His glory, and that they are, as Calvin accuses everyone who teaches justification by faith and works, Pharisees.  Everyone who teaches and believes justification by works in any form is a Pharisee.  According to our Lord, in Luke 18:14, Pharisees are not justified.  How can one be justified who depends on his own sin-tainted works and dares, as Robert Trail put it, to make his own pitiful holiness sit on the throne of judgment with the precious blood of the lamb of God.

The Truth of James 2

I have so far deliberately bypassed the chief argument always used for justification by faith and works, and against justification by faith alone.  This is a biblical argument.  It is the appeal to James 2:14ff.  I now want to consider the attack on justification by faith alone consisting of an appeal to James 2, and in connection with this appeal,  the truth of James 2 concerning justification.

James 2, teaches that both Abraham, in offering up Isaac at God’s command, and Rahab, in receiving and saving the Israelite spies, were justified by works (vss. 21, 25).  James 2 teaches that from these important events in Old Testament history, explained as justification by works, we see “how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only” (vs. 24).   Apparently, James 2 teaches that justification is by works, and not by faith only.  And, seemingly, in chapter 2 James teaches a doctrine that is clean contrary to the teaching of the apostle Paul, who, in Romans 3 and 4, in Galatians 2, and in other places, teaches that justification is not by works, but by faith alone.

It is not surprising that the enemies of justification by faith alone make much of James 2.  James 2 is the decisive passage for them all.  Rome quoted James 2 to Martin Luther endlessly, until at one point, in exasperation, the Reformer dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle” – an epistle of straw (a charge he did not maintain).  Similarly, the contemporary defenders of justification by works in the Reformed churches sit in James 2.  This all by itself is highly significant.  These defenders of justification by works in the Reformed churches line up with Rome against the gospel of the Reformation.

The explanation of James 2 by the enemies of justification by faith alone is as follows.  James teaches that justification, as an act of God by which the sinner becomes righteous, is very really by the good works of the sinner, so that the righteousness of the sinner is partly his own obedience to the law of God.  According to these defenders of justification by faith and works, God takes the sinner’s works into account in the act of justification.  James is to be harmonized with Paul in this way, that, although both of them are speaking of justification in the same sense, they have different works in view.  The works that Paul excludes from justification in Romans 3:28 are only ceremonial works, and works that are done to merit salvation.  On the other hand, they say, the works that James has in view are the truly good works that proceed from faith.

This was the explanation of James 2 that Rome has always given.  This is the explanation of James 2 that the advocates of the “federal vision” are now giving.  Our righteousness with God is partly Christ’s obedience, and partly our own.  Our justification today and in the day of judgment depends partly on Christ’s work for us and partly on our own good works.  In the justifying act of God by which we become righteous, our own works enter in.  His holy eye falls on them, not as sins to be pardoned, but as deeds that must be acceptable to God, to make us worthy of eternal life.  And we stroll into the judgment, now and on the world’s last day, with our good works in our hands, pleading these works as deeds upon which our eternal destiny shall depend.

Is this not too terrifying to contemplate?  Will you and I face the last judgment in this way?  Must I die with this terrifying thought in my soul: my eternal destiny rests upon something I have done, upon myself?  Is this not gross insult – the insult of self-righteous unbelief – to the perfect righteousness God has worked out in Christ?

This is not the teaching of James 2.

First of all, whatever James teaches in chapter 2, it is in harmony with what Paul teaches, because the Spirit cannot contradict Himself in the Bible.  Paul is teaching about justification in the sense of a legal act of God acquitting us of guilt and reckoning us righteous.  This is plain from Paul’s language in Romans 3 and 4: “imputes;” “forgives;” “to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly;” Abraham our father was not “justified by works.” (Romans 4:1-8)

Second, James is speaking of justification in a different sense from Paul.  James refers to the believer’s proof and demonstration of his free justification by faith alone.  The man who has been justified by faith alone will show that justification.  He will show it to other men.  He will prove that justification to himself.  And he will show that justification to God his judge.  He will show his justification by the good works that always are the fruit of justification.

This has always been the explanation of James 2 by the Reformed fathers.  In his commentary on James 2:14ff, John Calvin wrote that justification by works in James 2 refers to the “proof [Abraham] gave of his justification.”  Justification by works in James 2 means “that righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.”

That this is indeed James’ meaning the passage itself shows.  James is contending with church members who, although they profess faith, in fact have a “dead” faith, a faith that produces no good works at all, but is content to live impenitently in sin.  James challenges this kind of church member: “show me thy faith without thy works,” and adds, “I will show thee my faith by my works” (vs. 18).

James himself calls attention to the fact that Abraham was justified by God’s legal act of forgiving sins, and imputing righteousness by faith alone, long before Abraham offered up his son Isaac on the mountain.  Right in the middle of his doctrine of justification, James quotes Genesis 15:6: “and the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.”  This happened many years before Isaac was born.  Abraham believed the promise of God.  And Abraham’s faith, apart from any works at all, including the sacrifice of Isaac, was imputed unto Abraham for righteousness.

James is teaching exactly what Jesus had taught in Luke 7:47 about the sinful woman who loved Him, because He had forgiven all her sins, and who anointed His feet with the precious ointment.  “Her sins, which are many are forgiven; for she loved much.”  He did not mean that her love was the ground of her forgiveness.  But He meant that her love was proof and evidence of the forgiveness of her many sins.  That this was Jesus meaning is put beyond doubt by the second part of Luke 7:47: “but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”

This is the teaching of James 2.  Good works, which have no part in the sinner’s being accounted righteous before God (for this is by faith alone), are the necessary fruit and demonstration of justification.  By the good works of loving gratitude to Him who has graciously forgiven their sins, Abraham, Rahab, and every true believer are justified demonstratively.

James 2, therefore, is an important passage, to teach us the right relation between justification by faith alone and a life of good works.

The Relation Between Justification and Works

Good works, indeed an entire, consistent life of good works – good works in personal life, good works in high school, good works in dating, good works in marriage, good works in the home and family, good works on the job, good works at church, good works in the midst of and over against the godless, depraved culture and society in which we are privileged to shine as light in the darkness – I say, good works are the fruits of justification by faith alone.  They are fruits and evidences of our justification by faith alone.  Our good works are not the conditions for justification, nor the basis of justification, nor the content of justification, but the fruits of it.

Good works are the fruits of justification in two ways.

First, the faith by which we are justified is a true and living faith.  As a true and living faith, it unites us to the resurrected, living, Jesus Christ so that by this faith we also receive the cleansing, empowering grace of Christ to live godly lives.  Whomever He justifies, them He also sanctifies.  Although we are justified by faith without any works, the faith that justifies is never without its works.

Second, good works are the fruit of justification in this way, that the forgiven sinner, freed from the guilt and shame of sin, and freed therefore from death and hell, and to whom now heaven is opened up, and upon whom the smiling face of God now shines, will love his gracious Savior.  And this thankful love for God is the motive of a life of good works.  Oh, it is a mighty motive for zeal for good works.  This was Jesus’ teaching about the relation between justification and good works in the parable of the two debtors in Luke 7:42: “and when they had nothing to pay, he freely forgave them both.  Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”  If we are forgiven, we will love.  And if we are forgiven much, we will love much.  Without love for God for gracious justification, no good work is possible at all.  We must hear Him say to our soul: “My son, My daughter, adopted in the cross, I freely forgive all your sins.  I impute to you the righteousness of My Son.”  Then we will be zealous for good works – we cannot but be zealous for good works.

Fact is, and let the advocates of justification by works hear it, every work that is done out of the motive of earning, out of the motive of repaying, out of the motive of fulfilling a condition, out of the motive to make ourselves worthy, out of the motive of grounding our salvation, in order to make a universal gracious promise effective for oneself, every such work is evil, is sin.  Love works in the only way pleasing to God.  And love confesses the truth of salvation by grace alone.  Love obeys the law.  Love heeds the precepts and follows the example of Jesus in the gospel.

The preacher has no reason to fear that if he preaches justification by faith alone, the doctrine will breed carelessness in his congregation.

This is not to say that there will not be those who abuse the doctrine by showing themselves careless in their life.  That some will do this explains the presence in the Bible of James 2.

It may not be overlooked that James 2 is a necessary warning concerning justification and good works.  There were in the church at that time those who were loudly confessing gracious salvation, but were failing to live in good works, especially by cruelty toward their fellow church members.  There still are such people in the church.  I myself have contended with these people, and those were some of the fiercest conflicts in all of my ministry.  Oh, how loudly they spoke of sovereign grace.  But then in their lives showed no fruits of good works.  The preacher and consistory must admonish them in strong language: “Do you make an orthodox confession while living wickedly?  So does Satan.  Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

By this very admonition, written on the pages of inspired Scripture, which comes to us all, we who have a living faith are stirred up the more to a life of good works, to show our faith.  This glorifies God, Who saves, not only from the punishment of sin, but also from sin’s pollution and slavery.  And He saves from sin’s pollution and power in the same way He saves from sin’s guilt: by the gospel of grace, not by the law.

This lecture was hosted by the Evangelism Committee of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Holland. For an audio copy, please contact us.

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    Vicky Silvers

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