Grace, Faith, and Works

Grace, Faith, and Works

by Rubel Shelly

A speech presented at the annual "Preachers Forum" of Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee on April 14, 1992

Grace / Faith / Works

In my attempt to make a contribution to our time together, I wish to proceed in three moves. First, I will articulate the theology of salvation I believe and teach from the New Testament. Second, I will offer an exposition of Romans 4 and, third, of James 2:14-26 as primary texts to which one would appeal to legitimate that theology. Then I will close with some personal observations about the theme.

Bad News / Good News

The bad news is written on the pages of both Scripture and human history: No one can live a life so pleasing to God that he or she will be declared righteous in his sight. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:20a, 23).

The Good News is written on the billboard that is the cross of Jesus Christ: All those who trust God's work on their behalf will be judged righteous in him. "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known . . . This righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Rom. 3:21-22).

Have you heard the story of the judge whose son appeared before him on a drunk-driving charge? Because he was sworn to uphold justice, the man behind the bench had to find him guilty; then he imposed the heaviest fine allowed under the law. But he immediately stepped down from his chair and paid the fine from his own pocket.

That is a tiny glimpse of what God has done for us. Unable to declare us innocent under the law and knowing we could not set right the wrongs we had done, he pronounced us "Guilty!" and imposed the law's full penalty -- death. Then Jesus Christ went to the cross and paid the penalty for us.

So what is left for us to do to establish the basis for righteousness before God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! If there were anything for us to add, salvation would not be God's work. If we contributed anything at all to our justification as sinners, the glory for salvation would not be God's alone. The blood of Christ has paid for our redemption in full, and we do not even pay the sales tax on the purchase! Salvation arises from the grace of God, not at the end of our attainments or on the basis of our ability to obey law, accumulate "brownie points," or otherwise prove ourselves "worthy" of salvation. To teach that redemption is grounded in human wisdom or performance is false doctrine of the most unworthy sort.

Yet there are requirements we must meet in order to accept the free, undeserved, and unmerited gift offered in Christ. Our "access . . . into this grace in which we now stand" is "by faith" (Rom. 5:2a). This access-faith is more than the mental assent that demons -- on some points, at least -- give to certain tenets of Christian theology (Jas. 2:19). Access to grace is by a faith that is submissive and obedient, for "faith without deeds is dead" (Jas. 2:26). This faith that I have just characterized as "submissive and obedient" is not, however, an element of legalistic theology that holds the cross to be "God's part" of redemption and obedience to divine commandments "man's part." It is instead a biblical theology that proclaims God's work at the cross as the sum total of meritorious activity associated with salvation and that our obedient faith is nothing more than open-handed acceptance of the free gift purchased by the blood of Christ. The grace of God will not be forced on unwilling recipients. Thus the entailments of faith are not "options" to our salvation; they are essentials.

First, we must see ourselves as we really are. That is, we must accept the judgment of God against humankind that we are guilty of sin, justly condemned under divine law, and unable to set right our broken relationship with God. Remember the parable of the two men praying at the temple? (Luke 18:9-14). Only one of them went home justified that day.

Second, we must be willing to abandon the deeds -- and their underlying attitudes -- that have set us against God. We must turn away from sin, for it is absurd to expect God to forgive things we intend to keep doing. The biblical term for this requirement is "repentance." Since old habits die hard, repentance is best thought of as a willingness to abandon sin rather than a one-time spiritual occurrence. Anyone following Jesus must "deny himself and take up his cross daily" (Luke 9:23).

Third, having given up on self-justification and self-righteousness, we turn for salvation to the "righteousness from God [that] comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." That we have died to self so as to live in Christ is symbolized in baptism -- the reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though a symbol of a greater reality, baptism is no mere symbol. It is essential to the objective reality of a sinner's turn from darkness to light, from death to life, from judgment to redemption (Rom. 6:3-4).

The God of grace makes sinners righteous in Christ Jesus. With nothing in our hands to bring, we are saved on condition of trust in him (i.e., faith) that shows itself in genuine repentance and Christ-affirming baptism (Acts 2:36-38). Thus has our God been both just in honoring the condemnation of sinners under the stipulations of law and the Justifier of all who would trust his method of paying the penalty sin required. For a work so great that only God could achieve it, we must praise him as Savior and give him all the glory. We must abandon our pretenses, swallow our pride, and trust him for the right-standing we want but cannot attain by our flawed obedience to law.

Romans 4

Romans is Paul's deliberate and thoughtful examination of the gospel. The heart of the epistle is 1:18--8:39. The entire section might be headed "Justification By Faith" and divided the following way: The universal need for salvation (1:18--3:20), the source of salvation in the redemptive work of Christ (3:21-26), the reception of salvation (3:27--4:25), and the results of salvation (5:1--8:39).

Although the whole world -- pagan, moralist, and Jew -- is in need of redemption, no one can be saved by keeping law. "What law?" someone asks. Any law. Law of Moses, Code of Hammurabi, gospel preached as a law code, or law written on the heart -- nobody will be justified by a system of law-keeping. Justification by law-keeping demands perfect compliance with law, and no one will ever be justified by this means. Thus Paul affirms: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Rom. 3:21-22a).

There are at least three critical moves in this statement. First is the use of the word "righteousness" (Gk, dikaiosune). It may have either of two meanings in Scripture when used in relation to human beings. It sometimes stands for an ethical concept which denotes virtue, integrity, and upright conduct. At other times, it is used as a soteriological concept to denote a status of rightness, freedom from sin, and right standing before God. When used as an ethical concept, righteousness is something to be performed or carried out in one's life; it has to do with conduct. Used as a soteriological concept, however, the word has nothing to do with what humans accomplish by our effort. It has not to do with performance but position. It is a status of right standing with God that is bestowed on people as a free gift from God. It is undeserved and unearned. It is God's act of accepting ungodly persons as if they were godly.

Second, the apostle's statement is that the righteousness of God is "apart from law." Right-standing with God cannot come by fulfilling the requirements of law, for we are not and never have been successful law-keepers. Oh, we do better on some days than on others and with some commandments than with others. But since law is a single fabric, "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking it all" (Jas. 2:10). If any one among us is saved, then, it will have to be by some means other than keeping law.

Third, the righteousness of God that cannot come to us through law comes instead "through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." When one realizes he is a sinner and lost, he can either try to be righteous in his own strength through law-keeping and good works or accept the fact that all his attempts at setting things right with God are doomed to failure and trust God to offer us something we cannot deserve. Thus the affirmation of Paul is constantly to the effect that salvation is not by our good works but is only and always by faith. Yet the faith that saves is never dead or disobedient faith. It is the faith of submission and obedience already characterized in this presentation.

Paul knew it would be difficult for some of his original readers to accept the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This would be so especially for Jews who had come to trust in their law-keeping. Like the Pharisee praying with the tax collector, some of them liked to remind God and one another of their committed obedience and personal piety. Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, the apostle chose to put the issue to a test case. If Abraham was justified by his works under law, Paul's opponents were correct; if he was justified instead by faith, Paul was right (Rom. 4:1-3).

Abraham's case related to two points Paul had made in Romans 3. First, those who had lived even before Christ's day served God acceptably through faith rather than by perfect rule-keeping. Second, faith upholds divine law rather than repudiates it. Referring back to Genesis 15, Paul reminded his readers of God's promise of a great reward for Abraham. Yet Abraham complained that he was childless and without an heir to perpetuate his line. Yahweh brought the patriarch outside his tent, told him to look toward heaven, and said that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. The Bible says: "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).

In spite of the unlikeliness of this promise being fulfilled, Abraham trusted God for its legitimation. At times his faith grew weak and was compromised by sinful actions on his part (e.g., the Ishmael episode, Gen. 16). But his faith was properly placed in God, and God vindicated his faith by giving him the promised son, Isaac. It was neither Abraham's understanding of biology nor his upright behavior that produced the fulfillment of the promise. It was God's knowledge and activity that brought about a happy conclusion. Abraham's faith in that divine power is what justified him in the episode. Had it been otherwise, he would have been justified by works and would have received his reward as the payment of a divine debt to him (Rom. 4:4-5).

It reminds me of an episode in my own life from 25 years ago. My father knew about my need for a new car. He knew the automobile I wanted and arranged with the man who owned a certain dealership for me to have it. He told me to go to the dealer, deliver my car, put an envelope he gave me in the dealer's hand, and pick up the one he knew I had been wanting. I believed him that the arrangements were made and acted on that faith by traveling 16 miles, finding the dealer, giving him the envelope, and claiming by faith what he had promised me. I didn't drive that new car home and boast to people of my ability to work hard, save money, and buy nice things. My boasting was -- and continues to be -- about the generosity of my father. It was by grace through faith and not of myself. That is the same way our dealings with God go.

Going further, Paul insists that God not only credits righteousness to sinners by faith but also declines to charge further sin to believers he has thus justified (Rom. 4:6-8). "The man whose sin the Lord will never count against him" is the same person John later described at 1 John 1:7. He is not the perfect man whose righteousness is that of performance (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10); it is the sinful man who walks in the light of faith and continually acknowledges his sinfulness (cf. 1 John 1:9).

The forgiveness we receive by the blood of Christ is not merely for sins of the past but for all time to come. Until a believer repudiates his or her salvation by a conscious decision to "deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth" (Heb. 10:26), he or she is secure in Christ. Even when we "mess up," we are still safe in the love and grace of God. We don't have to be spiritual neurotics who wonder from one minute to the next about our salvation, for we are those blessed persons the Lord will never charge with sin.

Art Buchwald discussed the Yiddish word chutzpa in one of his newspaper columns. He said it has no English equivalent but refers to one who has an attitude of incredible gall or presumption. "The classic case of a chutzpa," he says, "is the young man who murders his parents and then asks the court to show mercy because he is an orphan." The arrogant person who sins presumptuously will fall from grace, but the still-struggling, still-weak, and still-sinning believer need have no fear. Both his original access into Christ and his security in him are by grace.

At this juncture in his argument, Paul makes a point that would offend many Jews. He reminds his readers of the chronology of Abraham's justification. Abraham himself was still uncircumcised when the things just narrated happened (Rom. 4:9-11a). This means that he is "the father of all who believe" (Rom. 4:11b). This is an elaboration on Romans 3:29 and drives home the point that all who follow Abraham's example -- whether Jew or Gentile -- are heirs to the justification that comes by faith (Rom. 4:12-13).

The next three verses contain a line of argument that is difficult for us to follow. Many have interpreted them apart from their larger context and have missed the apostle's point. They are best understood as a recapitulation of the entire section begun at Romans 3:27. Law, works, and merit stand together on one side; grace, faith, and promise stand together on the other. Anyone who chooses to stand on the side of the former stands under condemnation, for one seeking divine favor through performance cannot but fail. Where there is law there is transgression, and where there is transgression there is wrath (Rom. 4:14-15a). Only where there is no law can there be no transgression with its accompanying wrath (4:15b). That one place of security is found by those who stand on the side of grace, faith, and promise. One becomes an heir through faith in the divine promise when he or she, following the steps of Abraham, trusts God's process of redemption rather than human counterfeits. Whether Jew or Gentile, all those who are true believers in God trace their spiritual lineage to Abraham, "the father of us all" (Rom. 4:16-17a).

The character of Abraham's faith is Paul's topic in the next six verses. Two ideas are central to the discussion.

First, Abraham's faith was fixed on the right object. He did not trust in himself, his ability to fathom mysteries, or his ability to see how things could work out as God has promised. He put his trust entirely in God and his ability to fulfill his word. He believed in a God who could give life to the dead and summon nonexisting things into being (Rom. 4:17b), who could justify hoping for an end that all human hope had already abandoned (Rom. 4:18), and who could cause two people well beyond child-bearing age to have a child of promise (Rom. 4:19). It was this attitude toward God's faithfulness that was "credited to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:20-22).

Second, Abraham's faith is held up as the model for Christian faith. The story of his trust in God is not in the Bible simply as a tribute to the patriarch (Rom. 4:23). It is there also for us to encourage us to pattern our faith after his (Rom. 4:24a). Specifically, we are called to "believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Rom. 4:24b). Abraham's God and the one who raised Jesus from the dead are two not different deities; in the latter, however, is a more fully revealed God who has shown his face in human form. We are called to believe that God acted through Jesus Christ who was "delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). It was not the death alone but the resurrection that followed on which we base the assurance of faith. We know he is the Son of God and only Savior by virtue of heaven's action in raising him from the dead with power and thereby vindicating all the fantastic claims he made for himself.

James 2

I suppose one would need no more justification for moving directly from Romans 4 to James 2 than that Abraham is central to both texts as a case study for the nature of faith. What it says on the topic of faith and deeds is certainly important to the study at hand.

James opens with the clear affirmation that faith apart from action is dead (Jas. 2:16-17). His Spirit-guided illustration of this truth concerns a brother who is destitute and hungry. One sees this brother's needs and says, "Good luck to you!" How much good has he done the man? Should he not have backed up his profession of good will with some tangible relief? James is here underscoring again the theme of this whole epistle -- Christianity must be practical in order to be real. Actions are necessary to validate faith.

James moves next to anticipate a possible objection. Someone might say, "But different people may choose to exhibit their religion in different ways -- one by faith and another by deeds." He challenges anyone who would make so naive a statement to show his faith apart from the fruit it produces in his life (Jas. 2:18-20).

There is no proof that a man has faith at all unless some fruit is borne of it in his life. Even the demons believe in the one true God; but they are lost and doomed forever because they did not, in their previous existence as angels (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4), submit to God's authority. The same sad fate will befall the chutzpa who professes faith yet lives in rebellion against God's will.

Two familiar and clear examples of faith that saves are set forth in the text. First, he raises the classic case of Abraham (Jas. 2:21-24). The Jewish Christians who first read this epistle would be familiar with the fact that Abraham was the "father of the faithful" or the "father of those who believe." Yet James reminds his readers that Abraham was justified when, by faith, he offered Isaac as a sacrifice (cf. Gen. 22:1-19; Heb. 11:17-19). Second, there is the case of Rahab (Jas. 2:25). This example of faith takes the reader back to the time of Israel's entry into Canaan. Joshua sent spies into Jericho to bring back a report concerning that city. The faith of Rahab that these men were from God would have been in vain if she had not acted on her conviction. She did act by hiding the men and later sending them out safely to rejoin the Israelites. Shortly thereafter, when her home city of Jericho was given to God's people in a terrible battle, Rahab and her family were spared destruction because of her faith (cf. Josh. 2:1-24).

The only legitimate conclusion to be drawn from these examples is this: One is saved by his faith when that faith lives and produces submission to God. Faith that refuses to obey is not saving faith. As Bonhoeffer said: "Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey." One does not truly believe God if he is not willing to follow God's directions. "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead" (Jas. 2:26).

What shall we make of the contradiction that some say exists between the teaching of James and Paul on this subject? If one understands that these two men are writing to different audiences and dealing with altogether different matters, the suspicion of contradiction vanishes.

Paul was writing to refute certain false teachers who taught that salvation depended on doing good works and accumulating merit for them. For some, those meritorious deeds would have been the works of the Law of Moses. Thus they would have attempted to bind circumcision, sabbath-keeping and certain other Old Testament ordinances on New Testament Christians. Paul asserted that the works of the Law have nothing to do with the salvation of men under the authority of Christ. More than that, no amount of rule-keeping under any system -- pagan, Jewish, or Christian -- can remedy a sinner's relationship with God.

On the other hand, James was writing to refute the false notion that faith -- understood as inner conviction and personal confidence -- was all that mattered in religion. He taught that inner conviction has to show itself in the outward deeds of the individual. Thus it is that the "contradiction" in these two passages is only imagined rather than real. Paul and James were discussing two different types of works. Paul's interest was more in the soteriological understanding of righteousness, and James was concerned in his epistle with the ethical demands of righteousness. Thus the former emphasized grace as the ground and basis of salvation, and the latter stressed good works as the outgrowth of salvation.

Just as surely as there are two types of faith discussed in the New Testament (i.e., dead faith and living faith), so are two types of works discussed (i.e., deeds of meritorious good works and what I earlier called the deeds of submissive and obedient faith).

Paul and James are in perfect harmony in their teaching on this matter. Both make it clear that faith and obedience are not in opposition to each other. They are two sides of the same coin in God's plan for the salvation of man. Man must believe in God and take him at his word. Based on that faith, he must set his heart to obey the commands God has given. At the end of all he has done, however, he gives God praise for saving him by grace; he makes no claim to be saved by his own good deeds.

To say it another way, there is only one "because of" to the plan of salvation. God's love as shown at the cross is the one and only ground of redemption. Thus we are not saved because we pray, give money to good causes, stop beating our wives, get sober, take the Lord's Supper, get baptized, or attend church regularly. We are saved because the blood of Christ has cleansed our souls. Actions such as the ones listed above are appropriate -- and even, in some cases, essential -- deeds for one who is approaching God by faith. But, even if one does everything he is commanded to do and follows every life instruction appropriate to faith, he is still an "unprofitable servant" who has merely done his duty and must give all the glory for his salvation to God alone (Luke 17:7-10). And if he uses these commandments and instructions as a legalistic means into God's favor or teaches others the gospel as a legalism, he comes under the anathema of God and falls from grace (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:4).

In a nutshell, the biblical tension is never between faith and action. It is between faith and merit as the ground of one's salvation.

To the non-Christian, this means that he cannot afford to fall prey to the false denominational doctrine of salvation by faith alone. One cannot be saved from his sins by simply "trusting Christ as your personal Savior and receiving him into your heart." This doctrine dates back to a wrong turn in Reformation theology and contradicts the clear teaching of James 2:24 and other New Testament passages. Inquiring sinners of the first century were not told, "Only believe and do nothing more!" They were commanded, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

To the Christian, this means that his life must bear fruit daily if he is to demonstrate his new state in the Lord and avoid falling away. His faith must prompt him to faithfulness in spiritual things. Otherwise his faith is dead and utterly without value.


Salvation rests upon and arises from the grace of God. We don't deserve it. We can't be worthy of it. It will always be a free gift. Yet it remains the case that not everyone who is offered the free gift will be saved, for some remain in unbelief. Faith as trust, submission, and obedience to God is the means of access into grace. Then, justified by grace through faith, our lives are given over to the pursuit of good works that give God glory. These good works are "Thank Yous" from redeemed people and contribute nothing to the ground of our salvation. They are rather the natural outcome of a redemptive work that is being done in our hearts by the indwelling Spirit of God. As he lives within us, our lives bear the lovely fruit that testifies to his presence.

Though we could never have devised so grand a scheme of redemption, we may have its benefits freely in Christ. As with Abraham and Rahab, so with us: Not because we have worked for it but because we have trusted God's work on our behalf, we are credited with a status of righteousness (i.e., right-standing) with him and strive daily for the demonstration of righteousness (i.e., God-honoring behavior). There is no room at any point in this process for boasting. We can only praise the Lord for his grace.

As we preach the gospel, let us preach it faithfully as the message of the grace of God. Lest we be heard as preaching a legalistic message, let us put the emphasis on what God has done to provide redemption rather than on what we must do to receive it. Such an approach is faithful to the pattern of Pentecost. The sermon that day was not titled "Repent and Be Baptized!" but "Jesus is Lord and Christ!" When Christ was exalted, hearers asked the question about their responsibility and were told about repentance and baptism. I have found that the same method of preaching produces the same inquiring response.

A five-night gospel meeting with "Hear," "Believe," "Repent," "Confess Christ," and "Be Baptized" as topics doesn't look very much like the preaching pattern in Acts. It generates an issue-oriented series of confrontations and seldom results in anyone other than our own children (and increasingly few of them) being "converted." On the other hand, preaching that lifts up Jesus, explains the meaning of the cross, and focuses on the greatness of the love and mercy of God toward sinners attracts broken people, gives them hope for healing, and moves them to ask what they need to do to experience redeeming grace.

I like the story of a man who was telling of his deliverance from a life of sin. He gave God all the glory, saying nothing about what he had put away or learned to do. A rather legalistic brother had listened as long as he could and said, "You seem to indicate that God did everything when he saved you. Didn't you have to do your part before God did his?" "Oh, yes," said the new Christian. "For more than 30 years I ran away from God as fast as my sins could carry me. That was my part, but God took out after me and ran me down at the cross. That was his part."

Fruitful good works done in obedience to God are the constant goal of Christian living. They are neither the foundation of our relationship with God nor the basis on which we will stand before him justified in the Last Day. Our confidence rests on his grace witnessed most perfectly at the cross of Christ. Those men and women everywhere who have accepted the free gift of salvation through a living faith that has confessed and claimed the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in believer's baptism have had Christ's own righteousness credited to our account. We are justified not on the basis of our performance but because of his great redemptive sacrifice. Weak, struggling, and sinful still, we rejoice in "him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy" (Jude 24).

My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

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