The Scriptures make it clear that Christ is the only ground whereby we can be justified. He is the source of our justification and the only instrument of our salvation, Jesus alone has the power to redeem us. Yet the question remains – to whom does He justify? Does He justify those who merely profess His name yet willfully continue in sin, obeying the lust of the flesh and remaining in all manners of disobedience and impurity? It is true that faith in Christ is the channel by which all men are justified; for apart from the redemptive work on the cross salvation would not be attainable, it is only through His shed blood that we are made alive. However, the scriptures make it clear that a profession of faith in of its self cannot save us unless it’s followed by a repenting and turning away from sin (Acts 20:21). Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that if we have a faith that can move mountains but do not have the love of God then our faith will profit us nothing. Standing on the work of the cross we must also crucify our flesh and be born again in the Spirit, for the love of God is the fruit of the Spirit.
In Romans 8:4 Paul says that God sent His Son that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in those who walk according to the Spirit,” It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t simply say that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in those who believe, the word walk denotes action and implies that we abide in the Holy Spirit, being transformed and reborn into the Image of Christ over the course of our life time. Romans 8:13 says “if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the flesh you will live.” In order to be born again we must be putting to death the carnal man with all his desires and passions; In the hope of the promise to come we must purify ourselves through the power of the Holy Spirit, casting off the works of the flesh that so easily entangle us. For we know that those who go on willfully practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5). To the apostles this kind of obedience was implicit with respect to the Christian walk, the idea of a Christianity whereby one professed faith in Christ yet continued walking in the lusts of the world was apostasy. In Revelations 3:15 we hear the word of the Lord to the church of Laodicea declaring, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.. so then, because you are lukewarm I will vomit you out of my mouth.” Though the church believed in the Gospel they remained complacent in their earthly riches, neglecting their salvation they lived apathetically toward the will of God, unconcerned with righteousness.
God requires that we actively pursue Him. The Christian life is not a casual affair whereby we seek the Lord at our own leisure; He requires that we surrender our entire life to Him. In the parable of the hidden treasure the kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man that sells all he has and buys that land where the treasure is buried, this is to be the depiction of the Christian life. Likewise Jesus tells the young rich ruler, “sell all your possession and give your wealth to the poor then come follow Me.” God doesn’t require all believers to sacrifice their belongings as a precondition to obtaining His favor. Jesus knew that the ruler idolized his wealth and worshiped his riches, esteeming his earthly treasures above obedience to the will of God. The Lord commands that we have no other gods before Him; He will not tolerate lukewarm believers clothed in idolatry who profess His name yet put their earthly aspirations before the kingdom of heaven. Luke 13:46 “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” If we profess the name of Jesus yet neglect to obey His word, then our profession will count for nothing when we stand before Him on the day of judgment. “not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven.. Then I will declare to *some, ‘ I never knew you; depart from Me you who practice lawlessness!’” Many will come before the Lord wearing garments still defiled by the flesh, again these are the ones who neglected their salvation, failing to purify themselves through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit; though professing faith in the Lord they remained carnal and did not abide in Him.
We are to understand that Christ did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it, not that lawlessness would abound but that all those who put their faith in the Lord and walk accordingly would be sanctified by His blood. Romans 2:13 tells us that “not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” If we read on here we see Paul is not speaking in context to the strict tenets of the Mosaic law, but the word of God written on the hearts of all men, our conscious bearing witness and testifying to His divine nature and His righteous character, an inherent moral law woven in the very fabric of our soul. However, Paul doesn’t say the doers of the law are justified, rather he says that the doers of the shall be justified. Paul would have us understand that those who actively practice the word of God based on the revelation revealed to them shall be justified by Christ. For it is Christ who justifies those who diligently seek after him in accordance to the faith allotted to them.
Paul opens up the book of Romans by stating he had received “grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations (vv 5 KJV).” We see that Paul identifies the purpose of His apostleship as bringing about an obedient faith. However, it’s important to mention again that while obedience is an essential element establishing our faith, Paul never implies that our obedience makes us righteous, for we know that all our righteous works are like filthy rags. Instead we are to understand that obedience to the faith brings us into Gods righteousness. The scriptures make it clear that if we sow into the flesh according to the lusts thereof then we shall surely die, but if by our obedience we sow into the Spirit we will be made righteous. Romans 6:12-13 “Do not let sin reign in your body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death or obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart.” Paul explains that saved by grace does not mean we can go on willfully entertaining the lusts of the flesh and think that God will still impute His righteousness unto us. In order to become a beneficiary of Christ’s redeeming grace we must actively partake in our salvation through an obedience led by faith. Hebrews 11:8 says “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed..” Faith doesn’t act independent of our obedience, but by faith we now serve the Lord in Spirit.
Today it is common for preachers to assert the doctrine that working out our salvation in obedience to the will of God is simply an inherent byproduct of faith. Thus if we have faith we will inevitably have works, and if we don’t have works well it simply means that we never had faith to begin with. While this doctrine seems like a safe reconciliation of seemingly contradictory passages, it simply isn’t scriptural. James explicitly says that “faith by itself if it doesn’t have works, is dead (vv.17)” clearly indicating that one can have faith and not have works. James never indicates that works will involuntarily flow from our faith, on the contrary he says “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (vv.26).” Rather than our works inherently flowing from our faith, James makes the case that just as the spirit gives life to the body so works give life to our faith. Thus we are to understand that instead of true faith producing obedience, it is active obedience that gives life to our faith and makes it true.
James is clear “That a man is justified by works, and not by faith only (vv.24)”. For some this might seem inconsistent and difficult to reconcile with other passages throughout the Scripture. it’s important to distinguish that James is not talking about ceremonial or sacrificial works that many religions subscribe to. The work that James refers to is the work whereby we exercise the love of God toward those around us. James 2: 8 & 12 “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted as a transgressor (vv 8).. so speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy (vv 12)”. We see James is speaking in regards to works of the law of liberty. The scriptures tell us that when we are joined to Christ the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. Because many were professing the gospel yet exhibiting favoritism toward those of stature and wealth, James clarified that if our actions and lifestyle contradict our faith then such profession is meaningless. Thus if we claim to be a Christian yet neglect to walk in the love God i.e. the Holy Spirit, then we effectively nullify the grace of God and become a transgressor of the law. Romans 13: 8-10 “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law, for this, “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law”. Now that we are under grace and not the Law, the only work that is required of us is that we put our trust in Jesus Christ and walk by the Spirit, demonstrating the same love that Jesus had toward us when He went to the cross. 1 John 4:23 “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us.” While the Lord commands us to love, it’s important to remember that it is the Lord that equips us with His Spirit to love in the first place. The Lord commands us knowing that only through Him can we walk obediently.
But how do we reconcile scripture found in Romans chapter 3 and 4 where Paul clearly rejects works? Reading in context here is very important for understanding the kind of works in which Paul is referring to. In contrast to James, who was speaking in regards to the works of the law of liberty whereby we are to actively demonstrate the love of God toward those around us, Paul here is speaking specifically of the ceremonial and sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law, also known as the Torah. Consisting of 612 commandments, the Torah was given exclusively to Israel in order to separate them from all the other nations, creating a barrier between them and the Gentiles. Having governed Jewish practice since the beginning, many Jews were still clinging to the traditions of the Torah as the source of their justification. Paul effectively refutes the works of the Mosaic Law and establishes faith in Christ Jesus as the common ground by which all men now have access to God. Romans 3: 28-29 “we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. Or is He the God of the Jew only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles?” We are to understand that when Paul speaks of faith apart from works here, he is specifically speaking to the Jews in context to the works of the Torah, opposing sacrificial traditions and rituals such as circumcision which excluded gentiles from entering the fold of Gods family. 21st century Christian doctrine tends to leave us with the impression that working, in all senses of the word, is mutually exclusive to living in God’s grace; this false dichotomy couldn’t be further from the truth. The scriptures tell us that it is in fact God’s grace that empowers us to work out our salvation.
Thus while Paul boldly rejects the works of the Mosaic law and declares faith as the vessel by which all men can come to God, Paul does not reject the good works whereby we diligently and actively espouse ourselves to obeying the word of God, for we know whoever has His commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Him (John 14:21). Paul prefaces chapter 3 and 4 with Romans 2: 6-10 making this decidedly clear, stating that God “will render to each one according to the his works: Eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek. But glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God”. Paul never seeks to denounce the necessity of obedience or indicate that we can be justified regardless of how we decide to live our lives as long as we profess faith in Jesus. We will recall Paul explicitly speaks of being slaves to the ones whom we obey, either sin resulting in death or obedience resulting in righteousness. As mentioned, Paul indicates the purpose of his apostleship was to bring about obedience to the faith. Paul never permits lawlessness or indicates that faith can exist independently of our obedience to it. On the contrary Paul urges believers to eagerly devote themselves to obedience, only now he urges that we ought to “serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” – Romans 7:6.
When the people asked what work they must to do the work of God, Jesus replied “this is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” – John 6: 29. So why didn’t Jesus command them to walk in the Spirit, crucifying their flesh and loving their neighbor in fulfillment of the royal law? at this point the full mystery of the gospel had not yet been revealed, the suffering on the cross and the impartation of the Holy Spirit were still hidden from mankind and the time had not yet come for Jesus to speak of them. It’s not until the night of His betrayal when Jesus begins disclosing to His disciples the full mystery of the Gospel and the power of the Spirit to come that He issues His final commandment. John 13: 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The Christian faith isn’t merely a belief, it’s a process of regeneration whereby we surrender to the Lord and submit to His will in all aspects of life, being reborn into the image of Christ. Jesus never indicated that we could maintain a lasting and sanctifying relationship with Him apart from walking in obedience to His word. In 1 John 1: 6 we are reminded that, “if we say we have fellowship with Him and walk in the darkness we lie and do not practice the truth. but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
It is by faith that we receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and it is by walking in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we effectively love God and love one another, thus fulfilling the royal commandment. Because love is a fruit of walking in the Holy Spirit, true love can never be manufactured by man. While the world can imitate the works of love, unless we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit fashioning the love of God inside of us such imitation will avail nothing. 1 Corinthians 13: 3 “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” Because God is love, the focus of love will always be leading others back to Him. Exercising human compassion and self-sacrifice apart from truth is ultimately meaningless. Thus the way in which we truly love one another is abiding in the Lord and allowing His love to flow out of us; and while love is a fruit of abiding, abiding in its self is a daily commitment to picking up one’s cross and crucifying the flesh. Every day we must give attention to renewing our mind and training our body into submission. In John 15: 10 Jesus tells us that “If you keep my Commandments, you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” It’s not that if we love God we will inevitably walk obediently, rather if we walk by the Spirit in obedience to the word of God then His love will flow from us. Just as trees need water and sunlight in order to produce fruit so we need to water ourselves daily with His word and abide in Him in order to bear fruit. Every day we must examine our faith, for long as we are in this physical body sin will always be crouching at our door step waiting to ensnare us and carry us away if given the opportunity.
The scriptures fervently warn the believer against drifting away, reminding us that in order to receive the prize we must finish the race laid before us. While it’s true that we enter into His salvation the moment we confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that Jesus rose from the dead, it’s also true that if we neglect our salvation and drift away from the faith then we will not inherit the kingdom of God (Hebrews 2:1-3). Colossians 1:22-23 “Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” Paul tells us that Abraham was made righteous by His faith, yet James elaborates that Abraham was justified by His obedience when he offered up Isaac, that through his works faith was made perfect. Paul and James do not contradict each other, rather we are to understand that while justification comes by way of faith the moment we believe, a belief in of it self can’t be sustained unless it’s followed by obedience. In order to receive the prize we must continue in the faith, steadfast and not moved away. The biblical portrayal of faith is trusting in God and acting on what He has revealed; thus to answer the question posed be James, “can faith apart from works save us?” we would respond, certainly not. Revelation 14:12 “Here is the perseverance of the saint who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.”
While obedience is a choice, we must also always recognize that “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13. In us nothing good exists, we all have turned unto our own way; there are none who seek after Him. We are to be reminded that even when we are laboring it is still by His grace that we are being empowered to do so; 1 Corinthians 15: 10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” It is God who puts the desire in our hearts to walk obediently and it is God who equips us to carry it out, apart from Him we can do nothing. So then, through the power of the Spirit let us put to death our fleshly desires and remain steadfast in the faith, bearing the fruit of the Spirit which is love; for this is His commandment committed to us in fulfillment of the Law.
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world –our faith.”
1 John 5: 2-4