“A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
The material principle of any theology has to do with the central idea that shapes that theology, giving it its form and unity. Because justification by faith is central to God’s plan of salvation, it is central to Evangelical theology. And, because the Bible clearly tells us that we are justified through faith in Christ, no theology that denies, or in any way compromises, what the Bible says about justification by faith can honestly be called Biblical (Romans 3:21-28 and 5:8-9).
To justify someone is to absolve them of guilt, to vindicate them of any wrongdoing, to free them from blame, or pronounce them innocent. Therefore, spiritually speaking, a just person is someone who is innocent, righteous, or blameless before God. We emphasize the fact that we are justified by faith “alone,” because so many people miss the fact that faith “without the deeds of the law” is FAITH ALONE.
Now, it is important to understand that faith is not the reason we are forgiven! We are forgiven because Christ died for our sins. Faith is simply the hand that receives what Christ obtained for us (Romans 5:2). Faith is not a work. It is not something we do. It is our God-given assurance that forgiveness and salvation are ours in Christ.
The Proper Relationship of Law to Gospel
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul begins his presentation of the doctrine of Justification by Faith by making it perfectly clear that the law cannot make anyone righteous. In chapter one, he mentions sins common among the gentiles. In chapter two he points out sins common among the Jews. And, in chapter three, he uses quotes from the Old Testament to drive home his point, that, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans ). He then explains that the law cannot make anyone righteous, because it was given to condemn us (Romans -20). However, he then tells us that because the law cannot make us righteous, God has provided another way for us to be made righteous. Or as he put it, “Now the righteousness of God without the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all who believe:” (Romans 3:21-22).
Now these two facts:
1- that the law cannot make us righteous (Romans 3:9-20), and
2- that righteousness is only imputed to those who trust in Christ (Romans -28), are of key importance in understanding the proper relationship of law to gospel.
Since the law was not given to make us righteous, and cannot make us righteous, those who try to make themselves righteous through the law are only hardening themselves in unrepentance (Romans -32). In contrast, because the law was given to show us our need of Christ’s forgiveness, only those who acknowledge their sin and look to Christ for forgiveness are doing what the law requires (Romans 10:3-4).
Therefore, the only people who truly “Keep” God’s law, are those who do not try to make themselves righteous, but instead trust in Christ (Romans 9:30-32). Likewise, the only people who truly “obey” the law, are those who acknowledge their sin and look to Christ for forgiveness (Romans 10:3-4). Those who actively try to make themselves “obedient” are simply refusing to hear what the law says, because it condemns them.
It is only as we understand why the law was given, and realize that its purpose is to point us to Christ, that we can understand what true repentance is. True repentance comes only as the law convicts us of sin, showing us our need for forgiveness. And, as we turn to God, desiring assurance of his mercy, we find that assurance in His promise of forgiveness in Christ (1John 2:9, Galatians 3:6-8). Faith is believing that promise of forgiveness (Galatians 3:6). Furthermore, because all who repent and turn to Christ are sorry for their sin, they do not want to sin (1Corinthians 5:3, Psalm 51:17).
Living Righteously Apart From the Law
As long as someone is trusting in the law to make them righteous, God pleasing, or obedient they are not trusting in Christ. They may have a weak faith, but they are not relying on Him alone. They cling to the law because they do not understand how we can be righteous apart from the law. And, they will never be able to understand it as long as they think that the law is what makes them righteous. In fact, as long as they think that the law can make them righteous, or even partially righteous, they will think that freedom from the law is freedom to sin, and nothing could be further from the truth.
In order to fully understand the gospel, and the freedom that is ours in Christ, you need to understand that the law not only does not make you righteous, the law is what keeps you from being righteous. Because God’s standard of righteousness is so much higher than ours, no matter how hard you try to keep the law it will condemn you. Even your most sincere efforts at being righteous will be condemned as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Instead of making you partly righteous, the matters on which you fall short will bring the full condemnation of the law down on your head (James ). Therefore, the only way we can possibly be righteous in the sight of God is to be freed from the law. Now, to be freed from the law is to be freed from condemnation. And, to be freed from condemnation is to be freed to be a good citizen, a responsible parent, and a faithful spouse. We are freed from the law so that we can live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty,” without being condemned by the law (1Timothy 2:2). As it is written, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes” (Romans 10:4).
Those who fail to understand this point, are continually trying to find some way around what the Bible says about Justification by faith. Therefore, as soon as they learn that James said, “a man is justified by works and not by faith only,” they assume that the words of James negate what Paul said (Romans , James ). In their blindness they then feel free to ignore Paul’s warnings against trusting in works. However, a careful examination of what James said makes it clear that Paul and James were talking about two different things. When Paul spoke of faith he was referring to faith in Christ. In contrast, the words, “You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe and tremble,” make it clear that the faith James regarded as “dead” was not faith in Christ at all. Likewise, when Paul spoke of works he was referring to works of righteousness, or obedience to the law. In contrast, the words, “Was not Rahab the Harlot justified by works, when she received the messengers, and sent them out another way,” make it perfectly clear that the works James had in mind were not works of obedience, or righteousness, but what we would call the fruits of faith (James 2:19, 20, 25). Therefore, James was not saying that we need works of righteousness in addition to faith. Instead he was saying that if a person truly has faith in Christ it will make a difference in their life.
One reason justification by faith is central to Biblical theology, is because once we understand the proper relationship of law to gospel, and realize that it is faith, not the law, that makes us righteous, it affects our entire understanding of God’s Word.
For example: Deuteronomy 15:4-18 promises a number of blessings to those who keep God’s commandments. When those who do not understand the proper relationship of law to gospel read those promises, they assume that works determine who receives those blessings. However, once we understand that it is faith alone that makes us righteous in the sight of God, we can see that the only people who truly keep God’s commandments are those who trust in Christ. As it is written, “If the inheritance comes by the law, it is not given by promise… But scripture has concluded all under sin, so that the promise might be given to those who believe, through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians and 22). In short, all of the promises are ours through faith in Christ (2Corinthians ).
Likewise, when those who believe that righteousness comes by the law read the words of 1Kings 15:5, “David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and did not turn aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite,” they assume that David did not sin, except in the matter of Uriah. However, once we understand that the law cannot make us righteous, we can see that David only “did that which was right” because as long as he trusted in Christ no sin was imputed to him (Psalm 32:2). However, in the matter of Uriah, sin was imputed to him because he sinned willfully (Hebrews ).
When Abraham believed God, his faith was “imputed to him for righteousness,” not because faith is a work, but because he was trusting in Christ. That is what the Bible is telling us when it tells us that Abraham believed the gospel (Galatians 3:8). It then clarifies that by telling us that the gospel is the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection (1Corinthians 15:1-4), and that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he believed God’s promise to raise his “seed” from the dead (Hebrews -19).
The words, “he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has PROMISED to them that love him,” are not telling us that we can gain a “crown” through works. On the contrary, that passage refers to God’s promise. And, what God has PROMISED to us only comes to us through faith in Christ (Galatians , 2Corinthians ). Works play no part in it.
While the truth is simple, the carnal mind does not want to rely on Christ. On the contrary, men are constantly trying to find some way to make God’s favor depend on works. Therefore, let me make it perfectly clear that we are not saved by “choosing Christ,” “accepting Christ,” or “asking Him into our heart”. We are saved by believing that He died for our sins. From our point of view it may sometimes look like we are making a choice, but the words, “no one can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost,” tell us that apart from God’s grace we would never make the right choice (1Corinthians 12:3, John ).