Archive for the ‘Romans’ Category
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
This statement is used by many to excuse their disobedience to the words of Jesus and the Apostles – what they would call the “letter.” Anyone who insists on literal obedience to the commandments of God Almighty is accused of making too much of the “letter” which “kills.” The accusers, in their disobedience, are supposedly enjoying “freedom” of the “Spirit” and think they have spiritual life which their “legalist” friend lacks.
What are we to make of such arguments? They may sound intimidating and credible when they are put forward. After all, why be concerned about actually obeying Christ if you do not have to – or if obedience can actually tend to spiritual death? We certainly do not want that! But are our “spiritual” friends using the Scriptures correctly?
There is only one Scripture which uses an expression similar to that at the head of this article. In II Corinthians 3:6, the Apostle Paul writes that God “also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” A similar expression is found in Romans 7:6: “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (cf. Romans 2:27, 29).
What is “the Letter”?
The question should immediately rise in our minds, “what letter is Paul referring to?” An examination of the contexts of the above references will reveal the answer.
Notice what Paul is referring to in the first part of II Corinthians 3:6: He is pointing out that he and his coworkers had been made “able ministers of the new testament.” The context, then, is the distinction between the two covenants – the New Covenant of Christ and the Old Covenant under Moses. The “letter” being referred to, then, is the old letter of the Mosaic Covenant.
That this is so is confirmed by a look at the broader context.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious (II Corinthians 3:5-11).
Notice what is being contrasted throughout this passage – the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. (To emphasize this, I have bolded that which refers to the New Covenant and underlined what refers to the Old Covenant.) Notice the back and forth contrast between the two which Paul is making – it goes all throughout this passage. Notice also that he later uses the spirit to refer to the New Covenant – “shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?”
Thus we see that in II Corinthians 3, the “letter” does not refer to the New Testament commands of Jesus and the Apostles, but to the Old Testament commands of Moses. What about the other passages where “letter” is used?
Here is the context for the quotation from Romans 7:
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet (Romans 7:1-7).
Notice again that the context is “the law.” Paul points out that we have died to the Law so that we are no longer under its dominion; instead, we can be married to Christ and bring forth fruit unto God. In verse 6, he restates this principle, saying that we are delivered from the Law, so that we could serve in the “newness of spirit” and not in “the oldness of the letter.” How do we know the “law” in this passage is referring to Moses’ law? Throughout Romans, this has been the predominant usage of the term “law,” although there are exceptions – even later on in this very chapter. However, notice in verse 7 how Paul reveals how he is using the term “law.” It was “the law” which said, “Thou shalt not covet.” What law is this? The Law of Moses (Exodus 20:17).
There is one more passage of Scripture in which “letter” is used in this context, and that is in Romans 2.
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law…For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God (Romans 2:17-18, 25-29).
Notice again the context of the reference to the “letter.” The Law of Moses is that which instructs the Jews. Circumcision, an ordinance of the Law of Moses, is included in the context. The “letter,” then, appears to mean a literal fulfillment or obedience to the details of the Law of Moses. For instance, in verse 29, Paul points out that the true circumcision is that which is in heart and spirit – “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11b) – not the actual operation on the body, i.e., “not in the letter.”
What is the Death which the Letter Brings?
We have noticed from the context of Paul’s usages of the theological term “letter” that it refers to the Mosaic Law. In our search to understand Paul’s meaning, we must now investigate what the death is which this “letter” brings. The answer to this question is clearly given in Romans 7.
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful (Romans 7:7-13).
Romans 7 is a controversial chapter, but it appears that Paul is explaining the nature of the Law of Moses and its work in a man’s heart – that is, bringing the sinner to Christ – by his own experience before his conversion. This is particularly clear in this section of the chapter. Paul points out first that the Law is not sin; rather, it reveals sin, such as covetousness. Sin, however, takes the opportunity afforded by a commandment to take action in a man’s heart and life. It is human nature to want that which is forbidden. A preacher who is also a painter said that he used to put up “Wet Paint” signs when he would paint in restaurants. People who came through would inevitably touch the walls, just to see if it really was wet – and of course, would find that it was. When he stopped putting up “Wet Paint” signs, the wall-touching stopped. People want what is forbidden. The Law, rather than restraining sin, actually stirs it up and causes it to increase in strength.
Paul goes on to say that “without the law sin was dead.” Just like the people walking right past un-posted wet paint, evil did not have much appeal for Paul when he had not yet heard the law forbidding evil. He then says that he was alive without the law once. It seems that he is referring to his state as a young boy, before he learned the Law. Yes, Paul was probably a naughty boy at times, but having not yet learned God’s righteous standard nor having made a conscious, mature decision to accept or reject it, he was, in a sense, spiritually alive. However, the day came when Paul learned the Law of Moses. When “the commandment came,” that is, when he learned about it and became conscious of God’s standard for life, “sin revived.” The Law actually produced sin in his life! The result? “I died.” Paul’s entrance into the state of spiritual death occurred when he became a conscious sinner, knowing the Law of God and failing to live up to it. Paul points out that God ordained the Law to be “unto life.”
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Although God ordained the Law for life, Paul in his experience found it to lead to death. Why? Sin took the opportunity which the Law gave, and it was sin which deceived and spiritually killed young Paul. Paul goes on to vindicate the Law of being evil; on the other hand, it is “holy, and just, and good.” How could something good lead to death? Paul points out that sin, so that it could be revealed for what it was, took the Law in its hands like a sword and killed Paul. Sin took the Law and did with it what it had not been intended for. In this way, the Law revealed the true nature of sin – that it was “exceeding sinful,” in that it could take that which was good and use it to produce death.
So how does this relate to “the letter” mentioned by Paul? Remember that “the letter” refers to the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. This passage reveals what kind of death “the letter” works when it “killeth.” It gives an opportunity for sin to stir itself up and revive in a man’s heart, which then uses the Law to produce spiritual death. That this is a correct understanding of Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 is confirmed by verse 5: “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” The killing which the letter performs is done by producing sin in a man’s life; this sin works in our body to “bring forth fruit unto death.”
This is all directly contrary to our friends’ understanding, who insist that the “letter” is the New Testament commands of Jesus and the Apostles, and the “death” is brought about by the “legalism” of those who insist that Christians must obey God. The “letter” does not kill by driving to obedience, but by driving to sin!
What is the “Spirit”?
What is the “spirit” referred to in these passages? This is not made explicitly clear. One meaning which fits the contexts is that it is the spirit or intention behind the Law. Remember that God ordained the Law for life, but in practical experience, it leads to death. The spirit, then, could be God’s intention for man to have life – the heavenly life of God revealed in man’s everyday, practical experience. As Paul discovered, the carnal, unregenerated man cannot possibly keep God’s Law. A practical attainment (or surpassing) of the righteousness of the Law requires an indwelling of the Holy Spirit – God Himself. “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9b). This Spirit is only given to those who obey God. “And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).
Let us return again to our friends, who insist that insistence upon obedience is bondage to the “letter” which “killeth.” We have seen that the New Covenant commands of Jesus are not what Paul had in mind when he wrote about the “letter.” Such an interpretation would contradict Jesus’ own words: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Jesus’ words are spirit, and they are life! They are not the letter which kills.
Originally published in The Witness 13(11) November 2015.
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21).
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Two authors. Two books. Two audiences. And it appears…two contradictory points of view. But is it true? Or is it an illusion?
Is it possible that all four statements are true at the same time, and that they naturally harmonize with each other when we take the time to investigate the contexts of the statements, without letting preconceived ideas get in the way of understanding?
It is not only possible, but true. If we understand the context in which these statements are made, and what each author meant by the word “works,” the solution falls neatly into place.
Let us begin with the book of James. The book of James was probably the first book of the New Testament to be written. It was not written to argue against Paul, since it was written before any of Paul’s epistles were written. In James 2:14-26, we read:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought [worked together] with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:14-26).
James here teaches that Abraham was justified by works, and that we are not justified by faith only, but by works. But what kind of works was he talking about?
Looking carefully in the passage, we notice that he is talking about good works. Specifically, there are two kinds of good works which he is talking about: 1) Works of obedience, such as Abraham offering up Isaac, and 2) philanthropic works of kindness, such as Rahab saving the spies from certain death. Abraham and Rahab were justified by these works. They obeyed God. They did good to their fellowman, motivated by faith.
We, also, cannot be justified without the good works of obedience to God’s commands and goodness to others. (Justified or justification usually means “to make righteous or just.” It can mean “to prove something as correct, righteous, or just.” A discussion of the meaning of justification is beyond the scope of this article.)
What about Paul? What kind of works was he talking about when he said Abraham was not justified by works, and that we are justified by faith? Was he talking about good works, dead works, works of faith, evil works, works of the law, or any and all types of works?
What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God…What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin…Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law (Romans 3:1-2, 9, 19-31).
What kind of works is Paul talking about in this passage? Notice who he is talking about at the beginning of the chapter – the Jews, the people of circumcision (verse 1). Unto them were committed the oracles of God (verse 2) – the Old Testament, the Law of Moses. Notice that he continues talking about the Jews throughout the passage, and the Law. This is the Law of Moses, the “oracles of God” from verse 2. It is not just any set of rules or a code of morality. It is a specific law, the Law of Moses. The “works” which he is speaking about in this passage are the works of that Law. So when he says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds [same Greek word as that which is translated “works”] of the law,” he is talking about the works of the Law of Moses – Sabbaths, feasts, new moons, dietary laws, and especially circumcision. This is further confirmed as we move into the next chapter, and see what he says about Abraham.
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were (Romans 4:1-17).
Abraham – the father of the Jewish nation – was going to need to be addressed by Paul if he was going to get the Jews to pay attention to his argument. If circumcision was not necessary for salvation, as he argued in chapter 3, he is going to have to address the case of Abraham, to whom circumcision was first given. Paul does so by pointing out that Abraham was justified and his faith was counted to him as righteousness before he was circumcised. So when Paul says, “if Abraham were justified by works,” he is talking about the works of the Law of Moses – specifically circumcision. And he proves that Abraham was not justified by such works, because he was justified before being circumcised. Therefore, circumcision is not necessary for justification.
Therefore, to take verse 5 (“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness”) out of context as support for a faith-alone view of salvation is wresting the Scriptures. In its original context, this was intended as a repudiation of the works of the Law of Moses, not of obedience to Christ’s commandments, basic morality, or of the authority of the church.
To fully grasp these teachings of the Apostle Paul, we need to understand the historical background in which he was working. We are first introduced to the Judaizers in Acts 15. “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). These were Jews from Judaea who were coming to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28). Antioch was a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:19-20; 13:1). It had been a stretching experience for Jewish Christians to accept the fact that God had accepted the Gentiles into the fold of faith (Acts 11:1-18). Some of them got the idea that the Gentiles could come to faith in Christ and be accepted, but that they still must observe the Old Testament/Mosaic ceremonies, such as circumcision.
Antioch was Paul’s home church. It was the church which had commissioned his first missionary journey. And it was Ground Zero for the teaching of the Judaizers. Paul was right on the scene when the trouble began, and he encountered it head on: “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, where the Jerusalem Council discussed and settled the question. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James all spoke in favor of the point of view eventually adopted by the Council under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – namely, that the Gentiles who converted to Christianity did not need to keep the Mosaic Law; the only items from the Law which would be enjoined upon the Gentiles were the necessity to abstain from things offered to idols, from fornication, and from eating meat with blood in it and animals that had been strangled (Acts 15:20, 29; cf. 21:25). When this decision was made known to the Gentiles who had been converted, “they rejoiced for the consolation” (Acts 15:31).
Unfortunately, although the issue had been officially settled, the Judaizers continued to make trouble for the church, and would continue to do so for the next few centuries. Paul’s letters had much material intended to refute the claims of the Judaizers about circumcision, as well as about Sabbaths, new moons, feast days, etc. When Paul talks about “works” and “law,” as opposed to faith and the grace of God, this is the type of works and law which he is talking about – that promoted by the Judaizers as necessary for salvation, i.e., the Law of Moses.
We know that Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” and in the earliest years of the church (i.e., those covered in the Book of Acts), he was more involved with evangelization to the Gentiles than the other apostles were. Of course, it was Gentile converts who were being targeted by the Judaizers. Thus, it makes sense that his writings would contain more on this topic than those of the other Apostles.
This we will now demonstrate by a careful examination of the letters of Paul.
The book of Romans is Paul’s longest surviving letter, and it has much to say regarding the subject of the Law of Moses and its relationship to salvation today. Paul’s statements in the book of Romans about works and law have been taken out of context by those preaching a “faith alone” salvation. However, in the second chapter of the book, we have a very surprising statement which is usually ignored by those preaching “faith alone”:
[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God (Romans 2:6-11).
Every man – Jew and Gentile – will be judged according to his deeds. Those who seek for glory and honor and immortality by patient continuance in good works will be rewarded by God with eternal life. Those who do not obey the truth, but rather practice unrighteousness, will be given tribulation and anguish. Thus, what can we conclude about Romans 3:28?
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).
Paul had already said that we will be judged according to our deeds in chapter 2, and defined those deeds as “patient continuance in well doing,” as opposed to “do not obey the truth…obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath”. Therefore, we know for a fact that when Paul says we are justified by faith “without…deeds” in chapter 3, he is not talking about those deeds mentioned in chapter 2. Reading the rest of the sentence, and seeing it in context, tells us exactly what kind of “deeds” he is talking about: “justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” It is the deeds of the Law which are irrelevant to our justification – particularly circumcision. As we have seen above, this theme is continued into chapter 4 regarding the circumcision of Abraham.
The book of Galatians has also been a stronghold for those who teach “faith alone.” However, even a cursory reading of the book will show that the specific works and law which Paul is arguing against in this book are those of the Law of Moses.
Paul quickly gets to his main point in the sixth verse of the book. “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (Galatians 1:6). What this other gospel was, we are not told immediately. Rather, the rest of chapter 1 and most of chapter 2 consist of an autobiographical account of Paul’s conversion and ministry, in which he defends the gospel which he had preached to the Galatians. However, we get an idea of what the problem was in the account of his confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2:11-16.
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
With this passage, Paul is getting to his main point about works and law. Peter, a Jew himself, had overcome his prejudice against Gentiles and had come to the point where he could eat with the Gentiles – even though “it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation” (Acts 10:28), as Peter himself had told Cornelius. However, when other Jewish Christians came to Peter in Antioch, he was embarrassed to be seen eating with the Gentiles, and withdrew himself. This poor example was too much like the Judaizers for Paul, and he asked Peter “why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” – which was the main issue at stake in the controversy with the Judaizers. Three times in the ensuing context, Paul names “works of the law” as that which cannot justify. Again, it is the works of the Law of Moses which are the issue.
In chapter 3, Paul gets to the meat of his argument in trying to persuade the Galatians. They had not received the Spirit by the works of the law (3:2). Miracles are done in faith, not by the works of the law (3:5). Being subject to the works of the law brings the curse of the law – which Paul proves by quoting the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26). Throughout chapter 3, it is very clear that the “law” is not a theological abstraction, but a specific reality grounded in history. This is demonstrated by the thoroughly historical approach which Paul takes in proving the superiority of the promise – the specific promise given to Abraham, “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (verse 8) – to the law, which came later.
Paul’s specific description of the error which the Galatians were falling into is given in 4:9-10:
But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.
The Galatians were falling into bondage to the requirements of the Law of Moses, and were observing “days, and months, and times, and years.” Paul encourages them in 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” This “yoke of bondage” which Paul is talking about is not any law, or any requirement, or any restraint, or any authority. The liberty he is speaking of is not the liberty to do whatever one pleases. It is the liberty of Christ from the Law of Moses; the yoke of bondage is the requirements of the Law of Moses.
The next verses specifically name circumcision as the heart of the issue:
Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love…And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased (Galatians 5:2-6, 11).
The “works salvation” argued against in the book of Galatians is the teaching that obedience to the Law of Moses is necessary for salvation, specifically the salvation of the Gentiles. This idea is thoroughly refuted in the book of Galatians. However, the book has nothing to say against the good works of obedience to God, helping the poor, prayer, baptism, or any of the other New Covenant works. To believe in and practice them does not fall under the condemnation of Paul nor of God.
The book of Ephesians is the home of the famous verses, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But what kind of works is Paul talking about that salvation does not come from? From the context of his other writings, concluding that he meant “works of the law” is reasonable. However, the following context helps:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace (Ephesians 2:10-15).
Paul is not speaking against good works; rather, in the very next verse he declares that we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works! The ensuing verses ground the context in the subject of the Gentiles coming to be accepted, with Jews, in the new community of Christian faith. Paul declares that it is the blood of Christ which brings the Gentiles close to God, and that the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” had been abolished by Christ. These statements, made in the context of the ongoing controversy with the Judaizers, help to ground Ephesians 2:8-9 in its historical context. It is not by the works of the Mosaic Law that we are saved. Circumcision, sabbaths, new moons, dietary regulations, etc. have nothing to do with Gentiles coming to Christ.
Paul declared in fervent love for Christ, “I count all things but loss…that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Wait a minute – something is wrong with that quotation. Did you catch it?
If you guessed that a phrase was missing, you were right. What Paul actually said was, “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith…” etc. What law? Verses 2-3 say, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” He is again addressing the issue of the Judaizers, warning the Philippians against them. The “concision” are the Judaizers. Paul declares that Christians are the true circumcision (cf. Colossians 2:11). Paul’s own righteousness, which he rejected, was that “of the law” which gave him the list of reasons why he “might trust in the flesh” given in verses 5-6: He was circumcised the eighth day, was a genetic Jew, he was a Pharisee, had persecuted the church, and followed the righteousness of the law.
Paul’s letter to Titus was one giving instruction and guidance to his younger associate, who had been left on the island of Crete to care for the church there. Titus’s assignment was to ordain elders for the churches in Crete and to give them a good, solid spiritual footing for life in God’s kingdom. Paul was giving Titus instructions on things which he needed to teach the Christians in Crete. In Titus 3:4-5, he told Titus: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done [not: which we are doing], but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:4-5). Again, faith-alone teachers have taken these verses as proof for their position, but we must ask: What kind of works is Paul talking about? What is the context of these words?
Earlier in the book, Paul had told Titus that there were false teachers to combat:
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake…Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth (Titus 1:10-11, 14).
We see in this passage that part of Paul’s concern was that Titus effectively combat the errors of “they of the circumcision.” We are not specifically told if it was Judaizers or unbelieving Jews that Paul was concerned about; he had combated both throughout his ministry. It is quite reasonable to conclude, therefore, that when Paul says that “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” in 3:4-5, he is talking again about the works of the Law of Moses. That he is not here discouraging the performance of good works is proven by the fact that only a few verses later, he says:
This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain (Titus 3:8-9).
Paul was not teaching that we are saved by the mercy of God apart from living righteously. Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers continually make clear that it is necessary to live a righteous life (see, for instance, I John 3:3-10).
What About Today?
We have seen that when Paul puts law or works in opposition to grace or faith, he is speaking of the works of the Law of Moses – specifically, circumcision. But do these passages have any relevance for us today? Do they teach us anything, other than to not be deceived into believing that circumcision is necessary for our salvation?
Yes, they do. We must be careful not to take these words out of their historical contexts, and any application we make must honor them in their correct contexts. However, we can learn from passages like Titus 3:4-5 that no works we do can provide our salvation. These provisional works – works which create or provide our salvation – have all been done by God through Christ. Provisional works include Jesus’ death on the cross, sending the Holy Spirit, etc., which created our salvation or made it available. However, God has enjoined on man conditional works. These works include repentance, faith, baptism, obedience, and good works. God has made our salvation conditional upon our response to Him in these types of works. Unless we obey Him, we cannot expect Him to give us salvation. These works do not earn our salvation, but unless we do them, we cannot have salvation.
Shocking Statements by Paul
In light of the discussion above regarding Paul’s use of the words “works” and “law,” it is worth noting that there are several passages in his writings which should be quite shocking to those who use his writings to “prove” a “faith alone” gospel.
Sin is not tolerated in the kingdom of God; repentance from these sins is necessary for salvation:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:9-11; compare with II Corinthians 5:9-10, 11:15).
Our salvation is conditional upon our separation from the world:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
Salvation requires cooperation between God and man:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
The grace of God is a teacher:
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world (Titus 2:11-12).
Faith is active:
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love (Galatians 5:6).
We must live in a way worthy of God:
Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2:10-12).
Christ is the author of salvation only for those who obey Him:
And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him (Hebrews 5:9).
Holiness is necessary if we wish to see the Lord:
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled (Hebrews 12:14-15).
Finally, if Paul had to summarize his entire message in just one sentence, what would you expect him to say? We do not have to guess, for he did just that for King Agrippa:
Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance (Acts 26:20).
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21).
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
We now come back to the two pairs of verses with which we started, and we conclude that they are in fact in harmony, not contradiction to each other. Abraham was justified (became a righteous person) by his good works of obedience to God in offering Isaac on the altar, but not by his work of circumcision. We are justified by our conditional works of repentance, faith, obedience to God, baptism, etc., but not by the deeds of the Law of Moses, such as circumcision.
James and Paul agreed with each other completely on the subject of salvation and of the Law. However, they used words – specifically, the word “works” – differently from each other in their writings, which can be confusing for the modern reader. A careful reading, however, reveals the source of the difficulty and makes the solution plain and obvious.
 Furthermore, due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts, Moses allowed bondage to various evils to continue under his system. For instance, divorce and remarriage was permitted, whereas Christ’s teachings free us from that bondage. Moses allowed war and the hating of enemies; Christ’s teachings free us from this bondage, etc.
 This point is admirably explained in the highly recommended book by Aaron M. Shank, Faith and Works in Salvation, 2011.
Originally published in The Witness 13(4) (April 2015):3-10.
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
If I asked you, “What is the message of the book of Romans?” what would you say? My guess is most people would answer, “We are saved by grace through faith, not of works.”
Let me ask another question: in Revelation 1:6 and 5:10, we are told that Jesus Christ has made the saints “kings and priests” to God. What does it mean that Jesus made us kings? I would guess that most people would say “we are going to reign on Earth with Jesus during the millennium.”
I am not saying that these answers are completely wrong, but I do believe that there are deeper, more significant answers to these questions. In addition, I believe the book of Romans gives valuable insight into what Revelation means when it says that Jesus “has made us kings.”
Let us go back to the typical answer for the first question. It is true that we are born again by grace by means of faith, not by doing the works of the Mosaic law (Ep. 2:8,9), but what does it mean to be saved “by grace”? What does grace do to save us?
Let us examine Romans 5:12-21:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.
What can we learn from this passage? First, we notice that sin and death once reigned over the entire human race. Who was king of my life before I was born again? Sin and death had co-regency over me. Sin reigned over me, forcing me to do its will. Death reigned over me, so that whenever my spirit rebelled against the sin I found in me, death held fast onto me so that I would not have the strength (life) to be able to carry on warfare against sin. Together, they made a powerful tyrannical government that would have dragged me right to hell.
We often talk about the “gospel,” and many people know that the word gospel means “good news.” What is the “good news” for people ruled by the cruel tyrants sin and death? It is found in verse 17: “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ!”
This is the Gospel in a nutshell! Sin and death can be defeated! When I realize that I can by no means overthrow these terrible despots by my own strength (remember, I am dead, after all), but Jesus Christ can overthrow them, then I can receive (by means of faith) “abundance of grace,” the free gift of God apart from which I cannot be saved. How wonderful! Not just a little bit of grace, not just some grace, not a whole lot, not an enormous amount, but abundance! Praise God! Strong’s Concordance defines this word as “surplusage, i.e. superabundance … superfluity.” He gives us so much grace, it is “surplusage,” more than we need!
Not only do we receive the “abundance of grace,” but we also receive “the gift of righteousness.” Grace overcomes death, reviving and resurrecting our spirits. (Did you ever wonder why being saved is called being “born again”?) The gift of righteousness overcomes sin! What is the best way to overcome fire? Usually, with water. What is the best way to overcome sin? With righteousness! In order to dethrone the tyrant sin, God gives us righteousness!
This passage mentions “justification” several times. Many people think justification means to be “declared righteous by God” (sometimes expressed as “just-as-if-I’d never sinned”). Actually, justification means “made (i.e., actually, truly transformed) from an unjust person into a righteous person by God.” The way God gives us the gift of righteousness to overthrow sin is through justification of life, the actual transforming of our dead, sinful lives into righteous ones, made alive by God’s Spirit! Notice that verse 19 tells us that by the obedience of Jesus “shall many be made righteous.” We will be transformed into righteous, holy people!I think our short little theological statements about being “saved by grace” have missed something—something extremely significant and exciting!
Once the co-regency of sin and death has been overthrown, who reigns now? Again, it is a co-regency. First of all, Jesus Christ is the Head of the church (Ep. 5:23) and should have supreme rule over our lives. If you like to think of it this way, Jesus is the Emperor, but He has appointed a co-regency of two lesser kings to reign over the lives of each believer. Who is the first of these two kings? The first is grace! Verse 21 says, “That as sin hath reigned unto death [sin used to be king …], even so might grace reign [now grace is king!] through righteousness [grace rules our lives through the instrumentality of righteousness and holiness] unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord!” Praise the LORD!
Who is the other king? As surprising as it may seem (it surprised me), the regenerated [i.e., made alive again] believer is king! You may be thinking, “What?!? I rule my own life?” No, not your fleshly, sinful nature, but the real you—the part of you which was made alive when Jesus saved you—now reigns. Yes, Jesus has ordained that the regenerated spirit of the believer is supposed to reign!
Over whom is the believer supposed to reign? Sin! The government of the believer has turned upside down—now I am ruling over sin instead of sin ruling over me. Read verse 17 again: “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ”! Did you catch that? “They” who have received God’s grace and righteousness will reign, and not just reign, but reign in life! Brothers and sisters, we do not have to wait until the second coming of Christ to start reigning! Through Jesus Christ, we reign in this life!When grace comes in, it reigns in righteousness and makes us reign in life as well over our former tyrant, sin!
Do you now catch a glimpse of how grace saves us? Surely, I do not claim to have plumbed the depths of this glorious mystery—certainly not in this brief article. Nevertheless, I think our short little theological statements about being “saved by grace” have missed something—something extremely significant and exciting! They have missed the glorious truth that when grace comes in, it reigns in righteousness and—ah, the solving of the mystery of being made a king—makes us reign in life as well over our former tyrant, sin! This reigning is not “sinless perfection” where the believer never stumbles or makes a mistake again, but it is a life of victory over sin!
Hallelujah! Brothers and sisters, are you ready to sing with the saints in heaven?
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. Re. 5:9-10
Are you reigning? If you are not reigning, you are not a king! If you find that you are not a king, put grace on the throne of your life today!
The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold,
the kingdom of God is within you.
From The Heartbeat of the Remnant (March/April 2012), 400 W. Main Street Ste. 1, Ephrata, PA 17522.