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The Grace of Justification

Norman Shepherd

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology

Westminster Theological Seminary

Philadelphia, Pa. 19118

February 8, 1979

HTML code by Rev. Mark Horne, August 2001

See also “Justifying Faith: A Prima Facie Vindication of Norman Shepherd According to Reformed Orthodoxy” (PDF)

Copyright © 2002

Since the time of the Reformation the doctrine of justification has been a central doctrine of Protestantism. This doctrine is set forth especially in the Epistles of Paul to the Romans and the Galatians and has been summarized as the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Epistle of James, however, has proved to be a problem for Protestantism because James says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. Martin Luther encountered the problem and responded to it by denying to James full canonical authority among the books of the New Testament. We must admire Luther’s candor and integrity in dealing with James. It is a manifestation of his steadfast commitment to his basic Reformational insight. But we cannot follow his example. Fidelity to the attainments of the Protestant Reformation requires fidelity to the principle of Scripture alone as well as to the principle of justification by faith alone, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) requires obedience to the whole of Scripture (tota Scriptura). We are not faithful to the Reformation if we by-pass the basic truth the Epistle of James is concerned to enunciate.

The message of James is not unique to his Epistle. It carries forward the work of the Prophets under the Old Covenant and has its parallels in the ministries of the other Apostles. Moreover, James is an Epistle, which is faithful to the gospel proclaimed by our Lord himself during his earthly ministry. Our task, therefore, is to appreciate the way in which the message of James is integrated with the message of the New Testament as a whole, and to grasp the structure in terms of which James and related passages are to be understood not as subversive of the gospel but as furthering the gospel. In pursuit of this task we shall look first at the teaching of James and the consonance of his teaching with Paul (1). James will then be placed in the broader context of the Epistle to the Hebrews (2), the teaching of Paul (3), and the ministry of our Lord (4) in order to observe how the specific concern of James has its parallels in the literature of the New Testament.

1. In the second chapter of his Epistle at vs. 21, James says that Abraham our father was justified by works, and in vs. 24, he draws the conclusion that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. How is this to be reconciled with Paul who says that justification is by faith apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16)?

With respect to the meaning of justification in James there are basically two options open to the interpreter. First, justification can be understood in a forensic sense. This is the sense in which Paul uses it and it means that in the judgment of God a man is declared to be just. This forensic sense in James would, however, appear to leave us with a flat contradiction between James and Paul. For this reason other interpreters have suggested that James uses justification in a demonstrative sense. If the references to justification were purely demonstrative in force, James would be saying that Abraham by his works showed himself to be an inherently just, upright, or righteous man. He showed himself to be a good man.

There are at least two problems with such an understanding, however, and these constitute decisive objections to it. First, if “justify” were understood in a purely demonstrative sense there would still remain a contradiction between Paul and James. In Romans 4, Paul puts forward Abraham as the model of an ungodly man to whom righteousness is imputed for justification. James, however, would put forward Abraham as the model of one who is inherently a godly or righteous man. Both authors appeal to the same text, Gen. 15:6, but in order to establish two utterly diverse conceptions. If James were right in his interpretation of Gen. 15:6, this verse would contradict the very purpose for which Paul appealed to it. Conversely, if Paul were right, James could not use the verse to establish an inherent righteousness.

The second objection to the demonstrative sense is that this sense does not naturally arise out of the context. It interrupts the flow of the argument in James. It says something which may be true but which is irrelevant for his main purpose. This will become clearer as we consider the central thrust of the passage further.

A popular understanding of James’ use of “justify” has been developed which is usually thought to be the demonstrative sense but which is really a hybrid of the demonstrative and forensic senses. In this view, Abraham by his works showed himself, not to be just (i.e., the purely demonstrative sense), but to be justified. He showed himself to have been declared just. This view is attractive because it maintains the flow of the argument and does not contradict Paul. The decisive argument against it is simply that it is linguistically highly improbable. The Greek word translated as “justify” does not bear this meaning elsewhere. Justify can mean “declare to be just” or “show to be just,” but it cannot mean “show to be declared just.” Therefore this third option must be dismissed as unacceptable.

The key to the interpretation of James 2:14-26 is to be found in vs. 14, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” The answer must be an emphatic “No!”

The meaning of salvation in vs. 14 is established by reference to vs. 13. It is salvation from the judgment of God. If one is not saved from this judgment he is under condemnation. If he is under condemnation he is not justified because justification is the opposite of condemnation. Vs. 14 states the theme of the passage as a whole and the theme is illustrated by hypothetical examples (vss. 15-18) and by examples drawn from the history of redemption (vss. 21-26). The use of “justify” in the latter part of the passage corresponds to the use of “save” in the earlier part. “Justify” is used in a forensic sense as in Paul. James is saying that a man is saved or justified by works and not by faith alone. James expressly relates good works to justification and it is this fact that appears to bring James into conflict with Paul.

The proper method for reconciling the two apostolic authors is the one advocated by J. Gresham Machen when he addressed himself specifically to this question. Machen did not distinguish between two different senses of “justify,” assigning one to James and the other to Paul. Rather, he writes: “The solution of the whole problem is provided by Paul himself in a single phrase. In Gal. 5:6, he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.’ ‘Faith working through love’ is the key to an understanding both of Paul and James” (“Faith and Works” in Machen’s Notes on Galatians, ed. John H. Skilton [Phil.: Pres. & Ref., 1972], p. 220).

In Gal. 5:6 Paul is talking about justification. Circumcision or uncircumcision do not avail for justification. That is to say, the works of the law are of no avail. What does avail? Faith avails, namely, faith working by love. Gal. 5:6 introduces a fundamental distinction which runs through the Pauline letters and, indeed, throughout the whole Bible between “works of the law,” an external and formal adherence to selected legal prescriptions apart from faith, and the working of faith wrought by the sanctifying activity of the Spirit which is the fulfillment of the law through love (Gal. 5:14).

But if Paul says that the faith which avails for justification is faith working through love, does he mean that faith derives its power to justify from love so that it is after all love or works that justify and not faith? Not at all! This is the Roman Catholic interpretation of Gal. 5:6,which affirms precisely what Paul denies in the very same verse as well as in the Epistle as a whole. Faith alone justifies – that is Paul’s doctrine. Faith looks neither to itself nor to its own working for justification. Faith lays hold of Jesus Christ and his righteousness and the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the one who believes. This is the distinctive function of faith in justification, which it shares with no other grace or virtue. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the sinner the moment he believes. He believes and is justified. But Paul nevertheless specifically says in Gal. 5:6 that this faith which lays hold of Christ for justification is not alone, it is a faith that works through love. Hence Calvin says of Gal. 5:6, “Indeed, we confess with Paul that no other faith justifies ‘but faith working through love.’ But it does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ” (Institutes III, 11, 20).

Calvin makes a similar point in his Commentary on James (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen [Rpt. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948], pp. 316, 317). At the end of Chapter 2 James intended to show “what sort of faith that was which justified Abraham; that is, that it was not idle or evanescent, but rendered him obedient to God, as also we find in Heb. XI. 8.” Calvin concludes, “Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, that it, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.” Calvin then distinguishes his position from Roman Catholicism as he had done in commenting on Gal. 5:6:

James, according to his manner of speaking, declares that Rahab was justified by works; and the Sophists hence conclude that we obtain righteousness by the merits of works. But we deny that the dispute here is concerning the mode of obtaining righteousness. We, indeed, allow that good works are required for righteousness: we only take away from them the power of conferring righteousness, because they cannot stand before the tribunal of God.

Here Calvin expressly asserts that good works are necessary for righteousness. There is no justification without them. But they do not confer righteousness. They are not the ground of acceptance as Romanism insisted because they cannot withstand the severity of God’s judgment. They are the necessary manifestation of the faith that leads the sinner into fellowship with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Gal. 5:6 makes clear that the doctrine of Paul and the doctrine of James are the same. James does not deny that faith justifies, but he does deny that inactive faith justifies. Faith without works is dead (2:26). Dead faith does not save (vs. 14) and dead faith does not justify (vs. 24). This is what James has in view when he says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. Both James and Paul denounce dead works and dead faith. They both commend a living and active faith. The teaching of James and Paul is nowhere better summarized than by John Murray at the conclusion of his chapter on Justification in Redemption – Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 161: “Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (cf. Gal. 5:6). And faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:17-20). It is living faith that justifies and living faith unites to Christ both in the virtue of his death and in the power of his resurrection.” Noteworthy is the fact that Murray relates both James 2 and Gal. 5:6 to the doctrine of forensic justification. Living faith is not to be defined simply as a faith wrought through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Just because it is wrought by the Spirit it is a faith that works.

It is precisely this doctrine that finds expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XI, Sect. 2. Faith receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness is the alone instrument of justification. It is faith alone that receives and rests upon Christ. The Confession is rightly concerned to accent the distinctive office of faith as the Larger Catechism also does in Qu. 70, 71, and 73. But the Confession goes on to say that this faith is never alone. It is ever accompanied with all other saving graces. Specifically it is not a dead faith but works by love. The proof-texts offered by the Westminster Assembly of Divines are James 2:17, 22, 26, and Gal. 5:6.

In commenting on this section of the Confession Robert Shaw writes, “The faith that justifies is a living and active principle, which works by love, purifies the heart, and excites to universal obedience. It is accompanied with every Christian grace, and productive of good works” (An Exposition of the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly of Divines [9th ed.; London: Blakie & Son, 1861], p. 133). Similarly A. A. Hodge comments, “Consequently orthodox theologians have always acknowledged that while faith alone justifies, a faith which is alone, or unassociated with other graces and fruitless in good works, will not justify” (A Commentary on the Confession of Faith [Phil.: Pres. Bd. Of Pub. 1869], p. 253). Hodge’s observation is of value not only for what it says of the Confession but also for its testimony to what is the commonly held view of orthodox theologians.

Francis Turretin is a leading exponent of classical Reformed orthodoxy in the latter part of the seventeenth century. In answer to the question whether faith alone justifies, Turretin observes: “The question is not whether solitary faith [fides solitaria], that is, separated from the other virtues, justifies, which we grant could not easily be the case since it is not even true and living faith; but whether it alone concurs to the act of justification, which we assert: as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body. Thus the particle alone does not modify the subject but the predicate, that is, faith alone does not justify, but only faith justifies; the coexistence of love with faith in him who is justified is not denied, but its coefficiency or co-operation in justification [Ita particula sola non determinat subjectum, sed praedicatum, id est, sola fides non justficat, sed fides justificat sola: non negatur coextistentia charitatis in eo qui justificatur, sed coefficientia vel cooperatio in justificatione].

Turretin is saying that “alone” must not be understood as an adjective modifying “faith” so that justifying faith would have to be viewed as “solitary,” or in isolation from its working or from its manifestation in obedience to Christ. Rather, “alone” is to be understood adverbially as pointing to the distinctive role played by faith in relation to the other gifts and graces with which it is invariably associated. Only faith justifies. Only faith to receive, accept, and rest upon Christ for justification and salvation from eternal condemnation. This is what Turretin means when he says that faith alone concurs to the act of justification.

But this faith which alone concurs to the act of justification is not, in fact, alone. It is not solitary. A solitary faith is not a true and living faith and therefore cannot be a justifying faith. Turretin does not deny the coexistence of love with faith; for faith without love would be a dead faith just as love without faith would be a dead work. But he does deny the coefficiency of love with faith in justification. Turretin is here insisting that although justifying faith must be true and living – otherwise it could not justify – the ground or cause of justification is in no sense to be found in the believer himself. The ground and cause of justification is Jesus Christ and his righteousness. To be justified one must abandon all personal resources and lean wholly upon Christ. This is what is done in faith. Faith is wholehearted trust in Christ and by this faith the believer receives, accepts, and rests upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone for justification.

The analogy of the eye which Turretin uses is one that is frequently found in Reformed authors to accent the distinctive office of faith in relation to justification while preserving what must be said about the vitality of this faith. The eye alone sees. The ear or the nose or the arm do not see. There is no other instrument of vision but the eye alone. However, there is no such thing as a seeing eye in isolation from the body. The eye sees only as it is organically joined to the body. Similarly, justification is by faith alone, but a faith, which is alone, does not justify. This is the teaching of James and Paul and it has been characteristic of Reformed theology.

2. Hebrews 10:36-39 together with chapter 11 of which it forms the preface is closely related to James 2:14-26. Vs. 36 says that you have need of endurance or perseverance. This is perseverance in the face of opposition. Specifically it is perseverance in doing the will of God. It is perseverance in obedience to God. Why is this perseverance in obedience necessary? The answer given is that you may receive what is promised. Perseverance in doing the will of God is the way in which the believer comes into possession of what is promised.

Vs. 38 specifies what is promised as life, the fullness of redemptive blessing and privilege. The path of obedience is the way into eternal life. Our Lord taught the same truth in Matt. 7:14. “For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.”

Hebrews 11 illustrates this basic principle with example after example drawn from redemptive history. Here are men and women who have persevered in doing the will of God and who have received what was promised. In a deeper sense, of course, the promise of life was not attained under the Old Covenant (11:39,40). But the principle established at the end of Chap. 10 is not invalidated. Chap. 11 is written for our instruction, for those who live under the provisions of the New Covenant. The application is made in Chap. 12. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith” (vss. 1,2). Particularly pointed is the exhortation of vs. 14, “Pursue after peace with all men, and after the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”

The question may well be raised, however, whether Heb. 10:36-39 and Chap. 11 are relevant for the doctrine of justification. Their relevance may be seen from a number of different angles.

First, the promise held out is the promise of life, and justification gives the title to eternal life (Rom. 5:17, 18, 21). Where there is no life there is death. Death stems from condemnation, and condemnation is the opposite of justification. Justification is unto life.

Second, the author to the Hebrews establishes the principle enunciated in vs. 36 by reference to Hab. 2:4 in vs. 38, “My righteous one shall live by faith.” This is precisely the text used by Paul to establish the doctrine of justification by faith. We are unavoidably drawn into the sphere of justification.

Third, some of the examples in Chapter 11 illustrate the principle of 10:36 in terms of the language of justification. The example of Noah in vs. 7 is especially significant. According to Gen. 6:9, Noah was a just man, a righteous man, and a man blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. In the face of opposition and ridicule Noah believed and obeyed God. He built the ark. His faith was the kind of faith that built an ark in the middle of a dry wasteland with not a cloud in the sky, simply because his Lord and God told him to do so. He is a man who endured, doing the will of God, and he received the life promised to him when the wicked and perverse men around him were destroyed in God’s judgment. Vs. 7 says that he became an heir of the righteousness, which comes by faith. He was justified by faith.

Fourth, Hebrews 11 uses the examples of Abraham and Rahab, the one a male, a Jew, and born of the covenant people of God, the other a female, a Gentile, and a stranger to the covenant of promise. The same examples are used by James to illustrate the doctrine of justification and its universal applicability.

Paul also uses the example of Abraham in Romans and Galatians, and is especially concerned to show its relevance to both Jews and Gentiles (e.g., Rom. 1:5, 16; 2:9, 10, 14-24; 3:29, etc.).

We are compelled to conclude that the principle enunciated in Heb. 10:36 has to do with justification. The thrust of Hebrews is identical with that of James. Faith justifies, but faith without works is dead. Dead faith does not save and it does not justify. Living and active faith justifies and saves.

Are we to conclude, then, that Heb. 10:36-39 contradicts Paul? Does Heb. 10:36-39 teach a justification or a salvation by “works of the law”? This is no more the case than it is was with James. There are especially two considerations that make this conclusion unavoidably clear.

First, according to Heb. 10:36, those who persevere in doing the will of God receive what is promised. If what is received is what is promised, it is not received by the “works of the law.” The reason for this is simply that the works of the law make the promise null and void (Rom. 4:13, 14; Gal. 3:17, 18). Paul says, “if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise” (Gal. 3:18). Again, it is absolutely essential to distinguish between doing the will of God as the New Testament everywhere commends it (cf. Titus 2:14), and doing “works of the law” which are everywhere condemned.

Noah persevered in doing the will of God, and “became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Noah received the promised inheritance — not by law, or by the works of the law, not by self-righteousness, or by his merit. He received the promised inheritance by faith — faith, which persevered in doing the will of God, faith by which he built the ark. If he had not obeyed God in building the ark he would not have survived the flood.

At the same time, Noah did not receive the promise because he built the ark. The promise is a free and unmerited gift of grace. Noah merited nothing by building the ark. What Heb. 10:36 says is fully consonant with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Heb. 10:36 does not establish a legalistic, works/merit principle but continues to inculcate a gospel, faith/promise principle. Those who endure, doing the will of God, do not receive just wages; they receive what is promised.

A second consideration, which shows the correlation of Heb. 10:36-39 with the doctrine of Paul is simply the explicit assertion in vs. 39 that the promise is received by faith. We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed. We are not of those who do not persevere in doing the will of God and come into condemnation. Rather, we are of those who have faith unto the salvation of their souls. We are of those who live by faith. We are of those who persevere in doing the will of God and live by faith. We are the just who live by faith (vs. 38).

Faith is opposed to all doing of the “works of the law.” It is opposed to all doing that is self-affirming and self-congratulatory. It is opposed to all doing that finds the cause or ground of acceptance with God in that doing. It is opposed to all merit. But faith is not opposed to doing the will of God. It is consonant with doing the will of God. As Paul says, faith works through love (Gal. 5:6), and love is the fulfilling of the law (Gal. 5:14). Peter proclaims on the day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit is given as a gift to all who repent and believe (Acts 2:38). He also proclaims that the Spirit is given to all who obey God (Acts 5:32). At the same time Paul makes quite plain that the Holy Spirit is not given to those who do “works of the law;” the Spirit is given to those who believe (Gal. 3:2). Those who believe do not rely on their repentance or obedience; nor do they rely on the works of the law. They rely on Christ and his righteousness with a faith that yields obedience to the commands of Christ. As the definition of saving faith in the Westminster Confession of Faith states it (Chap. XIV, Sect. 2), “the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.” These acts are described as “principal” in relation to other acts, which the principal acts are invariably associated, and these associated acts are said to include “yielding obedience to the commands” of Scripture.

An unbridgeable chasm separates the works of the law from the working of faith. It is the chasm between the meritorious works of self-righteousness produced in the strength of the flesh which Paul everywhere condemns, and the good works of God’s believing children for which they have been created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10) and which are the manifestation and criteria of their faith. Therefore Paul sets over against the works of the law (circumcision), not only faith working in love (Gal. 5:6), but also the new creation (Gal. 6:15), and most significantly, “the keeping of the commandments of God” (I Cor. 7:19). Machen described this chasm when he wrote in developing further his reconciliation of the teaching of James and Paul:

Moreover, as the faith that James condemns is different from the faith, which Paul commends, so also the works, which James commends, are different from the works, which Paul condemns. Paul is speaking about “works of the law” — that is, works which are intended to earn salvation by fulfilling the law through human effort. James says nothing in chapter 2:14-26 about works of the law. The works of which he is speaking are works that spring from faith and are the expression of faith. Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice only because he believed God. His works were merely an evidence that his faith was real. Such works as that are insisted upon by Paul in every epistle. Without them no man can inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). Only — and here again James would have been perfectly agreed — such works as that can spring only from faith. They can be accomplished not by human effort, but only by the reception of the power of God (Op. cit., p. 221).

3. It is striking that Hebrews and James appeal to the two principal texts from the Old Testament on the basis of which Paul established his doctrine of justification by faith: Hab. 2:4, “the righteous man will live by his faith;” and Gen. 15:6, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Both texts are used by Hebrews and James to show that a living and active faith justifies. We have seen this to be consonant with the teaching of Paul in Gal. 5:6. The faith that justifies is a faith that works by love. But Gal. 5:6 is not an isolated phenomenon in Paul. The same thrust comes out elsewhere in various ways. An example of this is Rom. 2:13, “for not the hearers of the law are justified before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”

The knowledge that the doers of the law will be justified is not, by itself, of much comfort to guilty sinners. In fact it is bad news, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). All are under condemnation, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). There are no men who by nature are “doers of the law” in the sense of Rom. 2:13. This is the burden of Paul’s universal condemnation of sinners especially in Rom. 3:9-20.

There are, however, those who come forward with the boast that they, unlike Gentile sinners, are in possession of the law of God and that they do the works of the law. These are the Jews whose hope and reliance are founded upon their meritorious accomplishment and who therefore give thanks that they are not like other men (Luke 8:11).

Such men cannot, however, take comfort from Rom. 2:13. Such men stand condemned by Paul because, though their boast is the works of the law even to the point that they consider themselves “blameless as to the righteousness which is in the law” (Phil. 3:6), they do not in fact keep the law. This is the point of his condemnation of them in Rom. 2:17-24. It is just because of the actions of these men that the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles (Rom. 2:24). Their boast is the law, but they do not keep the law (Gal. 6:13). This charge, which Paul lodges against the Judaizers in Rome and Galatia he first heard directed against himself from the lips of Stephen to whose death he consented (Acts 7:53). Paul claimed blamelessness as to the righteousness which is in the law, but this blamelessness was perfectly compatible with the persecution of Christ and his church (Phil. 3:6; Acts 9:4). Nothing illustrates more forcefully than this fact the utter opposition and contradiction between “works of the law” and the working of faith. Those who do the works of the law cannot be justified. By their own standard they are condemned (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). As Jesus said, “the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope” (John 5:45).

Paul does not count such persons to be “doers of the law” in the sense of Rom. 2:13; they are rather the “hearers of the law” who are not just before God and who will not be justified. They do the “works of the law” but they do not manifest the righteousness of the law (Rom. 8:4). It was precisely against such persons that Christ hurled his anathemas: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23. Cf. all of Chap. 23). Such preaching is deeply rooted in the Prophets of the Old Covenant (e.g., Is. 1:10-15; Micah 6:6-8).

In Rom. 2:13, Paul gives no comfort to those who do the works of the law. Rather, he calls all men, both Jew and Gentile to repentance (Acts 17:30). In vs. 4 he says that the kindness, forbearance, and patience of God in holding back a justly deserved judgment are designed to lead you to repentance. Though it is perfectly true that no men are repentant by nature and none are doers of the law by nature, there are those who through the gospel do receive the gift of repentance. There are those who do repent. When they repent they cease being evildoers — mere hearers of the law — and they become doers of the will of God. They begin to fulfill the law through love (Gal. 5:13, 14). They become faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Much sin still clings to them from the old, pre-conversion life, but a radical change has been wrought so that they are no longer classified among the godless and the sinners, but among the righteous (1 Peter 4:18). It is just a manifestation of their righteousness to have daily recourse to Christ in prayer pleading for the forgiveness of sin, which remains in them marring their Christian testimony. As they are instructed in the way of truth and righteousness (II Peter 2:2, 21), they are numbered among “those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom. 2:7, 10). The language of Paul here is similar to that found in Heb. 10:36, 38, which speaks of perseverance in doing the will of God and obtaining the promised life. By way of repentance men become doers of the law who will be justified and enter into eternal life (Rom. 2:7).

“Doers of the law” is a category to which no one belongs by nature for all have sinned and are under condemnation; but that sinners can become “doers of the law” in the sense of Rom. 2:13 by grace is made abundantly evident in the Scriptures. Jesus speaks of such persons when he says, “My mother and My brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). They are not mere hearers, but doers. He calls upon his listeners to become such when He says that those who hear his words and act upon them are like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock (Matt. 7:24). James echoes the proclamation of the Sermon on the Mount when he calls upon his readers to prove themselves to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves (1:22). It is on this background that he warns those who lay claim to faith but have not works that they cannot be saved (2:14). To say that there cannot be any who fall into the category of “doers of the law” is to say that none can be saved, even by grace.

Does Paul’s teaching in Rom. 2:13, then, deny what he asserts in virtually the same context, that justification is by faith apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28)? It is already apparent that this is not the case. Just as the author to the Hebrews in Heb. 10:38, Paul in Rom. 1:17 affirms that the righteous man shall live by faith. In terms of Rom. 2:13 this righteous man is the doer of the law and not merely a hearer. How does this righteous man live? This question is tantamount to asking, how is this righteous man justified, for justification is unto life (Rom. 5:17, 18, 21). He lives, not by the merit of his works, not by self-righteousness, not by a righteousness, which no longer needs the imputed righteousness of Christ. He does not live out of himself but out of Christ upon whom he rests by faith. Faith lays hold of Christ and his righteousness, but the faith, which does this, is not a dead faith. It is a faith that lays hold of Christ and in doing so turns away from sin in order to follow Christ (Cf. Zech. 8:23). Anything less than this is dead faith and does not justify or save. That is why Paul can say that the doers of the law will be justified.

The doer of the law in Rom. 2:13 is by no means a man who is entirely without sin. If his doing were, in fact, the ground of his reliance he could not be justified. His doing would have been transformed into works of the law, and the law itself would condemn him as a sinner. But this doer of the law who will be justified is a man of faith. The question is, therefore, not whether his doing is perfect, anymore than it is whether his faith is perfect. The question is whether he believes with a true and genuine faith, however weak it may be, but a faith, nevertheless, that rests upon Christ alone. The foundation of justification, salvation, hope, and assurance ever remains, also in Rom. 2:13 for the doers of the law, Jesus Christ and his righteousness.

In passing from Rom. 1:17 to vs. 18, Paul contrasts the righteous man who lives by faith with the unrighteous man who dies in his sin. The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness of men. But does not God justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)? Yes, He does. He justifies the sinner who has nothing to offer God by way of meritorious accomplishment. He justifies the sinner who prays with Daniel, “We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but in the ground of thy great mercy” (Dan. 9:18, cf. Deut. 9:3-6; Luke 18:13). But in his mercy, God grants not only faith but also repentance (Acts 5:31). The two are inseparable. Therefore those who believe and repent of sin are received and accepted as righteous on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. God justifies the ungodly, but He does not leave the ungodly in their ungodliness. He makes them disciples of Jesus Christ, and they abide in Jesus by keeping his commandments (John 15:10). This constitutes no abandonment of the way of faith but is a manifestation of the way of faith. “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him” (1 John 3:23, 24). Those that are in Christ Jesus are not under condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

Romans is one of the great epistles of justification by faith and Rom. 2:13 shows us that justifying faith is a living and active faith. Galatians is the other great epistle of justification by faith and Gal. 5:6 shows us that justifying faith is a faith that works through love. From this perspective we can understand that Paul is getting at in Gal. 6:7-10.

Paul says, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked” (vs. 7). It is striking that just on the background of his development of justification by faith, Paul feels compelled to issue this stern warning against self-deception. A similar warning had already appeared in the Epistle, and Paul testifies that previous to this he had given his readers the same warning (Gal. 5:21). They who sow to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption. These are the ungodly men of Rom. 1:18. Why do they reap the corruption of death? Because they stand condemned. If they are condemned they are not justified because condemnation is the opposite of justification.

The one who sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap eternal life. Why? Is it because he merits life by his works as a reward for having sown to the Spirit? Not at all! Such persons belong to the household of faith (vs. 10). Their hope is in Jesus Christ in whom they believe, but their faith is such that they sow to the spirit rather than to the flesh. They are not among those who are deceived. For them the path of submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ that is the path of faith, leads to the full possession of eternal life.

In Gal. 6:7-10 consequences of the most profound kind – nothing short of eternal weal or woe – are suspended upon the presence or absence of obedience. This is repeatedly the case throughout Scripture. In the gospels Jesus teaches that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven, and what Jesus means by righteousness is illustrated in detail as the discourse unfolds (Matt. 5:20). Jesus urges the excision of the eye or the hand that causes the believer to sin, for it is better to enter the kingdom maimed than for the whole body to perish in hell (Matt. 5:7; 6:14,15; 18:23-35; James 2:13). The broad road leads to destruction and the narrow way leads to life (Matt. 7:13, 14). At the consummation the lawless will be cast into the furnace of fire, but the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:40-43, 49, 50). The one who wants to confess Christ must count the cost (Luke 14:28-33). The branches must abide in Christ and bear fruit, or else they will be cut off and cast into the fire (John 15:1-14).

Several times Paul makes the point that the unrighteous – adulterers, thieves, drunkards, and the like – will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5). The destruction of Israel in the wilderness because of disobedience serves as an example to us not to desire evil things and so perish as the fathers did (1 Cor. 10:1-13). Those who do not love the truth but delight in wickedness are not saved. The elect are chosen for salvation “through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (II Thess. 2:10-14). “Godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (I Tim. 4:8). Those who are rich in good works are “storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (I Tim. 6:18, 19).

Peter quotes Ps. 34:12-16, including the words, “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (I Peter 3:10-14). The truth of the Psalm is demonstrated from the examples of the flood in the days of Noah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Righteous Lot, however, is rescued. Peter draws the conclusion, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (II Peter 2:4-10). In view of the destruction of the wicked that is sure to come, Peter asks rhetorically, “what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?” (II Peter 3:11).

John affirms quite simply, “the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17). He says that the distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil is obvious. The children of God practice righteousness. They who practice sin, who do not love one another, are not of God; they abide in death. The one who keeps the commandments of Christ abides in Christ (I John 3). He exhorts the believers, “do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God” (III John 11). The Revelation of John to the churches concludes with the solemn reminder that at the resurrection of the just and the unjust all must appear before the great white throne to be judged according to their deeds (Rev. 20:12, 13; 22:12, 14, 15). This teaching is by no means novel (Ps. 62:12; Matt. 12:36, 37; 16:27; 25:31-46; Rom. 2:6; 14:12; II Cor. 5:10; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:25; Rev. 2:23). The issue of this final judgment shows that more is contemplated than degrees of reward within the sphere of redemption. There is an ultimate and definitive separation between those who have done good and those who have done evil (John 5:28, 29).

Other passages of similar import have already been dealt with or will be taken up in what follows. There are many more that could be cited. A careful study of the New Testament would show that there is not a book in it, with the possible exception of Philemon, that does not in some fashion or other suspend consequences of eternal weal or woe upon the presence or absence of obedience.

From one perspective we could say that the language found in these passages is very dangerous, for one might conclude from it that he must save himself by his works or that his works must become the ground of his justification. The opponents of Paul in his own day succumbed to this danger, and the history of the church subsequent to the apostolic age and prior to the Reformation demonstrates that those who claim to follow Christ in a later day were by no means immune to it. Even today there are multitudes both inside and outside of the professing church who understand Christianity as a religion of salvation by works rather than of salvation by grace through faith. In every age there are those who distort Scripture to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16).

But the language of exhortation and warning is biblical and it is there to serve a purpose. The danger is averted not by disregarding such language or by depriving it of its intended force. There are also multitudes who think that because they have been saved by grace through faith, it is a matter of indifference as far as their final destiny is concerned whether obedience to Christ is forthcoming or not. This, too, is a destructive distortion of Scripture because those who profess the Lordship of Christ without yielding obedience to the Lord will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Biblical language must be understood in the context of the total biblical message, the whole counsel of God. The biblical language of exhortation and warning must be allowed to function in the proclamation of the whole counsel of God in a way that does not jeopardize the doctrine of justification by faith on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. At the same time, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith may not function so as to blunt the cutting edge of the exhortations and warnings. The faith to which sinners are called and by which alone they are justified entails total surrender to Christ and the abandonment of sin – including the works of the law, which are dead works (Heb. 6:1; 9:14) – as a way of life. Such faith justifies and saves. There is a world of difference between the works of the flesh done in order to merit justification and works rooted in a faith that looks to Christ and his righteousness for justification. Having stated that justification is by faith apart from the works of the law, Paul urges, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”

It can be argued that those who truly believe in Jesus Christ will inevitably manifest this faith in obedience. This is true; but it does not yet explain why Jesus and the Apostles go on to exhort men in the way of obedience that leads to eternal life and to warn them against disobedience that leads to destruction. Why should such exhortations and warning be necessary if obedience follows inevitably?

The answer is that the Lord God deals covenantally with his people, and in the covenant of grace according to the unique genius of its biblical representation, human responsibility is not absolutized as a meritorious ground of salvation, but neither is it swallowed up in a fatalistic determinism. The Bible does not discount the possibility of apostasy among believers by reference to sovereign election. Rather, it counters the danger of apostasy by urging believers precisely as the elect of God to persevere in the way of faith and obedience (e.g., Heb. 10:36-39). The Lord saves whom He wills, not because of, or on the ground of what men do, but also not irrespective of what they do. God deals with men as image-bearers of himself made to sustain a covenant relation with their Creator. Redemption through Jesus Christ, therefore, does not bypass the covenant which God from of old established with his people according to his electing purpose, but brings the covenant to fulfillment (Gal. 3:14; cf. Acts 2:38; 5:32 and Gen. 18:17-19; 26:4-5).

Just as the truth that salvation is wholly of God’s grace cancels out neither the need to exhort men to faith in order to be saved nor the need to warn men against the disastrous consequences of unbelief, so also the fact that this grace is realized experientially by faith which will inevitably bear fruit in the life of the believer, cancels out neither the need to exhort believers to obedience which issues in eternal life nor the need to warn them against disobedience whose consequence is death (Rom. 6:4, 12, 16, 22; and Rom. 8:1, 4, 12, 13). Gospel proclamation that calls upon men to accept Jesus Christ as Savior without either expressly or by implication calling upon them to submit to him as Lord, is a gospel that calls men to dead faith. Gospel proclamation that calls men to obedience of life as anything other than a manifestation of faith in Jesus Christ, is a gospel that calls men to dead works. Dead faith and dead words are equally soul-destroying, and the gospel that urges either is an anti-gospel. Jesus calls upon men to believe in him and to become his disciples.

The redemption wrought by Jesus Christ has in view the salvation of his elect people from the penalty of sin, which is everlasting condemnation and death. This redemption is grounded in the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ whose obedience and satisfaction for sin is imputed to those who believe.

But redemption does not deal simply with the penalty of sin. It is sin that is the offense against God, and therefore it is sin that is condemned and the work of the devil that is destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 8:3; I John 3:5, 8). Jesus gave himself upon the cross in order to redeem his people from every lawless deed, in order that he might have a people for his own possession zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14).

There is a radical distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act of God’s free grace with respect to his people whereby he pardons their sin and accepts them as righteous on the ground of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to them and received by faith alone. Sanctification is a work of God’s free grace in them whereby He transforms them progressively into the image of his Son. But there is not justification without sanctification as there is not sanctification without justification. These graces are given together in Jesus who is both the imputed righteousness and the in-wrought holiness of his people (I Cor. 1:30). Not a dead faith, but a living and active faith is the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and through faith, the believer’s receiving, accepting, and resting upon Christ alone, the elect of God are justified.

4. Toward the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns, “Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father, who is in heaven” (vs. 21). Why is it that these men who confess that Jesus is Lord will not enter the kingdom of heaven? The reason given is that though they say that Jesus is Lord they do not do what the Lord asks of them. The Lord calls them “evildoers” (vs. 23). As such they are under condemnation and therefore they are not justified because justification is the opposite of condemnation. They have heard — they know enough to say “Lord, Lord.” But they have not acted in line with their confession. They are like the people in James 2:14 who say they have faith but have no works. In Matt. 7 the claim to have faith is even reinforced by pointing to prophesyings, exorcisms, and miracles, all done in the name of the Lord. But both in James 2:14 and in Matt. 7:21-23 it is clear, that there is not the requisite obedience to the Lord. The Lord responds to their claim by saying, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (vs. 23).

Our Lord’s teaching is reinforced by the parable recorded in vss. 24-27. Those who hear the words of Christ and do them are like the wise man that builds on a rock. His house is not destroyed by the floodwaters of judgment. Those who hear the words of Christ and do not do them are like the foolish man who builds on the sand. His house will not stand in the judgment. The foolish man who does not do the will of God is condemned in the Day of Judgment. The relevance of our Lord’s teaching to the doctrine of justification is readily apparent. Justification derives its meaning as a verdict rendered in the judgment of God. If a man is condemned in this judgment he is not justified because justification is the opposite of condemnation. But if a man is not condemned, he is justified in the judgment of God. The flood waters remind us of what happened in the days of Noah and of how Noah became an heir of the righteousness which is by faith (Heb. 11:7). The teaching of Jesus not only underlies the Epistle to the Hebrews, but also the gospel of James, and no less the gospel of Paul.

But again, the teaching of Jesus does not contradict the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law. The denunciation of the works of the law is a significant feature of his public ministry (cf. Matt. 23) and led directly to his demise. Jesus’ message was like that of Paul because Paul learned his gospel from Jesus (Gal. 1:12), and Jesus’ gospel is the good news of salvation through faith in himself. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life . . . He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16,18).

Jesus calls men to faith in himself, for by faith, and not by selected acts of formal obedience to certain legal requirements (works of the law), men are saved. Jesus calls men to be his disciples, not “whitewashed tombs,” outwardly appearing righteous to men, but inwardly full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt. 23:27, 28).

Jesus calls men to a living and active faith in himself, not to a dead faith (James 2:26) which issues in the dead works (Heb. 6:1; 9:14) that are appropriate to whitewashed tombs.

The call to repentance with which Jesus began his ministry (Matt. 4:17) and which is reinforced by the demands of the gospel of the kingdom exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 4:23), is not at some later point supplanted by another gospel calling for faith in isolation from obedience. The gospel with which Jesus began his ministry has relevance up to the Day of Judgment. In reference to this judgment Jesus says, “An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds, to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28, 29). In all of his preaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, like his forerunner John the Baptist, is seeking to prepare men for the day of judgment (cf. Matt. 7:21). This teaching of Jesus that those who have done good will be raised to life and those who have done evil will be raised unto condemnation, must, therefore, not be heard merely as information, but must be heeded as exhortation and warning. As Paul says, not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified. The fundamental truth that Jesus is the foundation and the Holy Spirit is the source of all sanctifying activity in the believer does not relieve the believer of the responsibility to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. He is rather encouraged and stimulated by the knowledge that God is at work in him to will and to do the divine good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13).

Again, John 5:28, 29 does not cancel out the gospel of salvation by faith. This is evident in the fact that these words appear immediately after Jesus had said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (vs. 24). The one who hears and believes has eternal life. Salvation is by faith. But without the least sense of awkwardness or disjunction Jesus goes on to speak of doing good deeds. Vss. 24-29 make plain that salvation from the judgment of death is through Christ and therefore through faith in him, but not through a dead faith. The faith that saves from the judgment of condemnation is faith that yields obedience to the commands of Christ.

To hear the word without believing it will not result in salvation. Nor will hearing the word without doing it. Faith and obedience are not opposed to one another as contradictory responses to the gospel of sovereign grace founded upon the sole sufficiency of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Rather, both are involved in a true hearing of the word. What is in view may be illustrated by reference to Israel’s confession of faith, “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4). This is preceded by the exhortation, “Hear, O Israel!” The Hebrew word for “hear” means not only to “listen” but also to “obey.” Israel has not really heard her Lord unless Israel yields obedience to her Lord, the obedience of believing and the obedience of action appropriate to that faith. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart . . .” (Deut. 6:4-5; cf. the vss. ff.). When Israel stumbled and fell in the wilderness under the judgment of God, the reason given for this is Israel’s disobedience, her unbelief. “And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:18, 19; cf. I Cor. 10:1-13).

The opposition Jesus encountered in his own public ministry was the opposition of unbelief and disobedience. Those, whose boast was the works of the law, have heard the Law of Moses but they have not believed Moses. It is not that they believed Moses but not Christ. They did not believe Moses and therefore did not believe Christ (John 5:46, 47). These same persons whose boast is the works of the law have heard Moses but they have not done what Moses commanded. The weightier provisions of the law have been neglected (Matt. 23:23). These teachers do the very things they teach others out of the law not to do (Rom. 2:17-24).

These opponents cannot hope to mask their unbelief and disobedience by doing some “works of the law,” for such works only serve to compound their criminality. Selected acts of external conformity to some legal prescriptions, even those given by divine inspiration, can never serve as a substitute for, or a supplement to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ by which alone a man is justified, nor are they the manifestation of a faith which trusts wholeheartedly and unreservedly in Jesus Christ and his righteousness. There is no justification by the works of the law; justification is by grace through faith (Rom. 4:16). Jesus alone is the righteousness of his people, and his people rest in his righteousness with a true and living faith that forsakes sin and ungodliness.

At one point in his ministry Jesus placed before his hearers two alternatives: Repent or perish! “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). These same alternatives had been laid before Israel from of old by the prophets. In the language of Ezekiel, “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back; turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezek. 33:11). Again, “’Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions, which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore repent and live’” (Ezek. 11:30-32). Here the alternatives are life and death. Those who repent of sin will live; those who do not will die.

John the Baptist was the last of the line of Old Testament prophets prior to the advent of Jesus Christ and his message was also the proclamation of repentance unto the remission of sins (Mark 1:4) in view of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). Like Ezekiel, John the Baptist set forth before his hearers the ultimate alternatives of life and death with a plea for repentance. Jesus began his ministry (Matt. 4:17) and continued to conduct his ministry with the same theme: Repent or perish! The apostles whom Jesus commissioned to proclaim the gospel in his name did not do otherwise. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). Paul laid the alternatives before the Athenians: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is not declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30, 31). In the judgment of that day the unrepentant ones will perish, but those who repent will live. John the Apostle conveys the same message to the churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2:5, 22).

Repentance at its core is, as the word itself indicates, a turning, not simply in the sense of an aversion to sin; though grief for and hatred of sin are indispensable for repentance. Repentance brings with it a transformation of life and is therefore inseparable from what the Scripture calls the “fruits in keeping with your repentance” (Luke 3:8) or the “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance in a broad sense means ceasing to do evil and learning to do good (Is. 1:16, 17). Repentance issuing in obedience to Christ is necessary if the children of God are to enter eternal life. As Ezekiel says, “When a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life” (Ezek. 18:27); or as John the Baptist warns, “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). Sorrow for sin belongs to the essence of repentance, but sorrow alone is not yet repentance in the full biblical sense. Godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation (II Cor. 7:10) and to life (Acts 11:18).

Because repentance is unto the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life; the proclamation of repentance is good news (Acts 14:15). The good news of the gospel is not that God forgives unrepentant sinners, or that whereas the prophets of the Old Covenant required repentance the ministers of the New Covenant now no longer require it. The good news of the gospel is that God forgives repentant sinners; and more than that, that God grants repentance to Israel through the One whom God has exalted to his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, even Jesus Christ (Acts 5:31). Though the prophets up to and including John the Baptist — and we may even say Jesus Christ himself in his public ministry prior to his death and resurrection — called for repentance unto life, Israel did not repent and therefore perished. But Jesus has secured repentance for Israel by his mediatorial accomplishment, by his death and resurrection, and not only for Israel, but for the Gentiles as well. God grants to Gentiles as well as Jews the repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18). Therefore Rom. 11 speaks of a restoration of Israel and an inclusion of the Gentiles through the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The biblical stress upon the indispensable necessity of repentance is reflected in the language and teaching of the Westminster standards. The Shorter Catechism, Qu. 85, asks “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin.” Virtually the same question is asked in the Larger Catechism, Qu. 153. The answer given is that to escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin God “requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.” The expanded answer of the Larger Catechism is the same in content except that repentance is placed before faith. The Shorter Catechism defines what is meant by “repentance unto life” in Qu. 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” This is the repentance expressly said to be required for sinners if they are to escape the wrath and curse of God due to them for sin. The Confession of Faith defines “repentance unto life” in the same terms as the Catechisms (XV, 2), and immediately goes on to say that this repentance is indispensably necessary for the forgiveness of sins. “Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (XV, 3).

Forgiveness of sins and escape from the wrath and curse of God inevitably bring us into the sphere of justification. The alternatives are condemnation and justification (cf. Matt. 12:37). To be under the wrath and curse of God is to be subject to condemnation. To escape the wrath and curse of God is to be no longer under condemnation, but to be forgiven and accepted by God. It is to be justified. In justification the obedience and satisfaction of Christ are imputed to believers so that they are no longer under the wrath and condemnation of God. Justification includes forgiveness (Rom. 4:7) and the one who is justified has peace, for the wrath and curse of God no longer threaten him (Rom. 5:1). There is no condemnation for the justified man (Rom. 8:1). The Confessions and Catechisms speak of repentance as “repentance unto life,” and it is justification that gives title to eternal life (Rom. 5:17, 18, 21).

The demand for repentance is not a demand that men save themselves by the merit of their own accomplishment of self-righteousness. The Westminster Confession makes this very clear in the very same sentence where the indispensable necessity of repentance is affirmed. Repentance is not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, nor is it any cause of the pardon of sin. Pardon is the act of God’s free grace (XV, 3). Therefore the proclamation of repentance is not the introduction of a doctrine of salvation or justification by the “works of the law.” Repentance is rather the necessary implicate of coming to Christ in faith. The Shorter Catechism, Qu. 85 (cf. Qu. 86, 87), and the Larger Catechism, Qu. 153, immediately join repentance to faith. The one is not required without the other. Neither repentance nor the works appropriate to repentance (Acts 26:20) constitute satisfaction for sin or the ground of pardon because these benefits are found in Jesus Christ and his mediatorial accomplishment. The faith invariably intertwined with repentance rests upon Christ alone for justification of life.

Further, the demand for repentance is grounded not in the presumption that the sinner can, of himself, turn from his sins unto God, but is grounded in the promise of God to give to men by the power of the Spirit what the gospel requires of them. A gospel that comes in word only either evokes no response or at most may provoke some “works of the law,” but the gospel which comes with the power of the Spirit bears the fruit of the Spirit in faith, repentance, and new obedience. Neither faith nor repentance, nor the works, which flow from and are the manifestation of faith and repentance, become the meritorious ground upon which the sinner is justified and given the title to eternal life. They are descriptive of the way in which God sovereignly and efficaciously brings his children into the possession of all that Jesus has wrought for them. As Calvin describes it, “Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works” (Institutes III, 14, 21).

The invitation of the Redeemer is “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Coming to Christ requires nothing less than total surrender, the abandonment of opposition to Christ, and that means forsaking sin and rebellion. It is an act of faith, an act of entrustment to Christ for salvation. It is the acknowledgment that in one’s self there are not the resources that can stand one in good stead in the Day of Judgment. It is total abandonment to Christ and his mercy, to the truth of his words, and to the power of his death and resurrection. It is to lay hold of Jesus Christ alone for righteousness and life.

Clearly Jesus does not grant rest because sinners come to him, as though by their coming with all that is entailed in it they merit what Jesus freely grants as a gift of sovereign grace. Merit excludes grace (Rom. 4:4).

But it is also just as clear that Jesus will not grant rest to those who do not come to him. Those who hear the invitation must do something about it. They must believe and turn from sin to Jesus Christ. They must come unto him. The gift of salvation is not bestowed upon the sinner because he responds to the gospel, but neither is it bestowed without his response. Those who come to Christ are granted rest. Their coming is not the meritorious ground for the enjoyment of rest but the way in which they come into possession of the rest held out in the gospel invitation.

When Jesus warns that not those who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of the Father who is in heaven, He is not encouraging his hearers to think that they can by their deeds, apart from faith, merit entrance into heaven. Rather, He is pleading with sinners who are bound for destruction because of their sin to forsake sin, to repent, and to come to God in faith. God will be merciful to those who do not deserve mercy. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Sinners do not deserve mercy, not even penitent sinners; but the gospel is that God freely forgives sinners who repent, for the sake of his Son. If God were to reward men according to their just deserts, no man would survive, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23; Ps. 103:10; Ps. 143:2).

No man can outsmart God by building an ark secure enough to withstand the wind and the waves of God’s judgment flood. The captain of the doomed passenger ship, Titanic, is reported to have said before its maiden voyage that not even God himself could sink this ship. Noah made no such foolish claim of the ark. He simply believed and obeyed God who commanded him to build the ark. His life of righteousness (Gen. 6:9) culminated in entrustment of himself to the mercy of God in the face of the judgment to come. He survived the flood, not because he earned the privilege, but because God is merciful to sinners who in obedient faith and humble reliance expect their redemption from God alone.

There is no reason why the Epistle of James should be an embarrassment to the Protestant Reformation. There is no need to suppress its message by denying to James a place in the New Testament canon, or by insisting that James is not speaking about forensic justification before God as Paul does when he speaks of justification apart from the works of the law. If there is a question about the reconciliation of James with Paul, there is also a question about the reconciliation of Jesus and the other apostles with Paul. There is even a question about the reconciliation of Paul with himself.

Those questions are resolved with the recognition that when Paul opposes the “works of the law,” he is opposing the kind of working that no longer needs the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. The man who works (Rom. 4:4) may confess that he is a sinner and needs help. He may even seek for divine grace to assist him in his quest for righteousness. But he does not stand before God justified in the righteousness of God embodied in Jesus Christ and received by faith. His “justification” occurs outside of Jesus Christ. He trusts in himself that he is righteous (Luke 18:9; cf. Phil. 3:9). This man is deceived.

It is not of such a one that James speaks when he says that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” The man who, in the language of James, is justified by works is a man of faith, and therefore one who by definition does not rely upon his own righteousness or “works of the law.” Those who rely on the works of the law are not of faith (Rom. 9:32; Gal. 3:12).

Faith in Christ excludes the doing of self-righteousness, but it does not exclude the obedience to Christ, which is compatible with, and demonstrative of total reliance upon the righteousness of Christ for justification. That is why Jesus can respond to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” with the command, “Sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22; cf. Luke 10:37). This is no reversion to the “works of the law.” There was no such command in the Law of Moses; nor is everyone who would follow Christ today required to sell all that he has. What is required of everyone who would inherit eternal life is faith (John 3:16). Jesus does not lead the inquirer away from faith, even temporarily, with the hope that he will subsequently find faith after having tried the “works of the law” and failed. Jesus seeks to bring this man to faith directly, to a living and active faith, the only kind of faith that justifies and saves. To do that, Jesus deprives him of every resource in himself and says, “follow Me.” Faith that does not issue in obedience to Christ is a mockery of the grace of the New Covenant. This is what the inquirer must understand if he is to believe unto the salvation of his soul.

Similarly, the exhortations and warnings of the apostles given to believers are not intended to lead those who have begun in the Spirit back to the flesh (Gal. 3:3). They are designed to encourage the people of God to persevere in a living and active faith. Although it may not appear to the eye of man to be the case, in view of all they are called upon to suffer at the hands of the ungodly, the righteous who persevere will be vindicated in the day of judgment; the rest will pay the penalty of eternal destruction (II Thess. 1:3-10; cf. Ps. 73). “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:6). “The righteous man shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).

Copyright © 2002

Norman Shepherd has published his lecture on Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective which he gave on March 11 at the Symposium on Law and Gospel held in Warrenville, IL, under the auspices of Reformation & Revival Ministries and the Center for Cultural Leadership. To obtain a free copy send a stamped (37 cents in the US), self-addressed business envelope (#10) to the author at 436 Wave Court, Holland, MI 49424-2238. Canadians should send a dollar with a request for the pamphlet.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for having the courage and graciousness on “publishing” this classic work of soteriology. This is even more the amazing since your website looks to the classic Reformed position. Thanks again for you integrity.

    An avid inquiry.

    Comment by Scott — December 21, 2013 @ 10:17 am

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