What's Wrong with Justification by Works?

Contributing Writer
What's Wrong with Justification by Works?

One of the core principals of the Protestant Reformation was justification by grace alone – that works play no part in our justification. There is nothing I can do that will help me to earn my salvation. But why is that significant? What is wrong with works playing at least some part in our justification?

Our Fallen Human Condition

Any discussion of justification needs to start with the human condition and why we have any need of being justified. Most of us think that we are pretty good, maybe a few rough edges. But I haven’t killed anyone. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I obey the law and pay all my bills. And I get along with most people. But that attitude misses out on the real human condition.

According to the Bible, we are all sinful. Romans 3:10-18 paints a pretty bleak picture of the human condition. You might read that description and think that it does not fairly represent you, that you are not nearly as bad as that. And indeed, few of us are as bad as we could possibly be. But how bad do we need to be to fall short of God’s holiness? Anything less than perfection, which we are not capable of, falls short. All of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23).

What Is Justification?

The Greek word dikaiosis is translated as justification in Romans 4:25 and Romans 5:18. According to Vines Complete Expository Dictionary, this word means “the act of pronouncing righteous.” The related verb, dikaioō, is variously translated as justified, justify, considered righteous, justifies, proved right, declared righteous and several other related expressions.

Justification is essentially a legal term used to pronounce a person as having right standing. It does not itself mean that the person who has experienced legal justification has become guiltless. But, as far as the legal authority is concerned, they are considered to be guiltless.

In Christianity, justification means that God has declared an individual to be guiltless in his sight. And being guiltless, they now have right standing with God. We understand justification to be possible because of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. And it is applied to any individual who responds to God in faith.

Justification does not mean that I am now without sin. That is clearly not the case. Those of us who have been justified by God are still instructed to pursue personal holiness. We are to work to bring our lives into conformity with the judicial declaration of guiltlessness represented by justification.

Justification by Works

Works relate to salvation-oriented deeds that we perform. And there are two ways of looking at them. On the one hand, some see works as being something that helps a person, either in whole or in part, to earn or deserve their salvation. In this scenario, salvation is essentially a reward given to a person because of their own accomplishments. This is what is often called justification by works.

The other perspective of works is that they are done as a result of salvation. I don’t work to earn salvation, rather, I work because I have salvation. My salvation was a gift, freely given to me by God. And my work is a natural outgrowth of that salvation. This is called salvation by grace and is discussed below.

Justification by works seems quite reasonable, at least from a human perspective. We reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. That seems to be built into our social consciousness. And we naturally expect it to apply in our dealings with God. If I am good enough, I will be rewarded. If not, then I expect to be punished. And that is at the heart of most of the world’s religions.  

And Christianity is no exception to that, at least in many people’s view. There are many commandments found in the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments give us many instructions for how we should live. So, it is only natural that we would tend to view obedience to these commands as a prerequisite for our salvation.

And unfortunately, that sometimes becomes institutionalized within the church itself. A number of the controversies in the history of the church have been over this issue of justification that depended, at least to some extent, on works. The conflict between Augustine and Pelagius in the late 4th and early 5th centuries as well as the Protestant Reformation were, at least in part, concerned with the nature of justification. What do I need to do to be saved?

And still today there are many churches that require a certain level of conduct or appearance in order to be a part of that body. They do not generally claim that one’s salvation is based on these requirements, but they do seem to imply that they are necessary for right standing with God.

What Is Wrong with This Approach?

Even though justification by works has a real appeal for us as humans, it will never get us into a right standing before God. There is just no way that any of us could ever measure up to God’s holiness. How good do we have to be in order to be accepted by a perfect God?

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in large part to address this issue. Some men had been teaching in the churches of Galatia that it was necessary to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses to be saved. But Paul was adamant that salvation was in no way dependent on either circumcision or obedience to the Law. In Galatians 2:21 he makes clear that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” No matter how good a person might be, they will never be considered righteous before God.

There is another significant issue with justification by works. If I was somehow able to follow the Law sufficiently enough to be justified, then I could easily be proud of my standing. After all, I worked hard to earn that righteous standing. And I might well come to believe that I deserved an eternal reward in heaven.

Justification by Grace: God’s Plan

But God leaves no place for us to have pride in our salvation. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, Salvation is a freely given gift from God. He offers it to us as a gracious gift that we receive through faith. There is nothing that we can do to earn this gift.

It does not matter how good you were; you cannot earn it. And regardless of how bad you might have been, you are not disqualified from receiving God’s gift of salvation. Your ethnic background, the color of your skin, your gender, or your social standing – none of that matters. God’s grace is freely offered to all.

The Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved. I am sure that he was expecting a list of things that he would have to do. After all, the gods he would have been familiar with would have required something from him. But Paul’s response was simple. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31).

But Grace Alone?

Why has God chosen for salvation to be by grace alone, rather than also requiring us to do something to earn our standing? Surely, he could have done that had he wanted to. But it is clear that he has left no room for us to earn, even a little bit, of our salvation.

I do believe that 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, especially verse 29 answers this question, at least in part. God has chosen the way he did so that no one could boast before him, taking pride in earning their salvation. God has given us a tremendous gift. And nothing should detract from the joy and gratefulness we have in that gift, including any thought of deserving it. He has done it all. And nothing I can do, or not do, will detract from his all-sufficient grace.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden

Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.