Works According to Paul and James #2

It was shown in an earlier article that in Romans 1-3 the gospel reveals a way for salvation from sin for all men (Rom. 1:16). In the gospel is revealed a “righteousness of God,” a way by which men can be regarded as just in God’s sight. Jew and Gentile both were sinners, and despite the fact that Jews had the law, the righteousness of God by which men are justified is not from or by the law (Rom. 3:21) for “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Rom. 3:20). When Paul spoke of the “works of the law,” he referred to the law of Moses and not, as some believe and teach, to law in general. We are under law, the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). There was a deficiency in the law of Moses; no person could be justified by the works of it because there was something it did not have: it did not have a sacrifice that would permanently remove sin.

Righteousness through the gospel, apart from the law, comes through faith and was witnessed (prophesied) by both the law and the prophets. This righteousness was contained in the promise God made Abraham: “In thee and thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Peter identified this blessing as forgiveness of sins. “Ye are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying unto Abraham, and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Servant, sent him to bless you in turning away everyone of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:25).

Paul wrote in Romans 3:24-27, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of sins done aforetime in the forbearance of God for the showing I say, of his righteousness at the present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus Christ.” What a wonderful, thrilling passage! God set forth His Son to be a propitiation (sin offering) for us. The sacrifice of Jesus showed God to be righteous: the phrase “passing over of sins done aforetime” is inserted to show why God’s sacrifice of His Son showed Him to be righteous because in times past, in the case of some men, God had not meted to them the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) and Satan, ever the accuser of man, would have said to God, “Ye are not just. You have allowed some men to be ‘saved’ yet their sin still remains.” The offering of Jesus was, is, a sufficient sacrifice to cover all the sins of man and God was righteous to “pass over” the sins of some because He knew that His Son’s sacrifice was sufficient to cover those forgiven sins and though not given as yet, it was certain to be. On the basis of that certainty, God passed over sin in light of the sacrifice that was certain to be made. The Hebrew writer said, “And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant …” (Heb. 9:15). The sacrifice of Christ made possible that the Father could be just: an atonement had been made sufficient to remove the guilt of the sin and not only made just, made justifier of them that hath faith: the Father was able, because of the sacrifice of Christ, to show mercy and forgiveness to those laden with sin.

Romans 3:27 poses an all-important question: “Where then is the glorying?” Paul later wrote in Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not toward God” and then also in Eph. 2:8-9, “By grace ye have been saved, through faith, and that not of your own selves, it is a gift of God. Not of works that no man should glory.” In both these passages (Rom. 4:2; Eph. 2:8) Paul wrote of the same kind of works he wrote of in Romans 4:2: works that when done would allow a man to glory or boast. When Paul asked, “Where then is the glorying?” he immediately wrote, “It is excluded.” There is no room for glorying in our salvation of our own selves. How, or in what way is “glorying” excluded? That is the apostle’s next question: “By what manner of law, of works? Nay but by a law of faith.” We cannot boast of ourselves when God has justified us, but a “law of works” (which the old law was) would not exclude boasting, glorying; rather it would allow boasting (Phil. 3:9). And it was that law Paul has in mind. When he had asked the question, “Where is the glorying?” and then answered, “It is excluded,” he followed with another question, “By what manner of law, of works?” “Nay,” said he, “but by a law of faith.”   Now notice what follows: “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” See? And when he said “law” it was the law of Moses he had in mind, for he hastened to ask, “Or is God the God of the Jews only?  Is he not the God of the Gentiles also?” (Rom. 3:27-29). A law of faith would not allow personal boasting, it would exclude such. Paul wrote further, “Now to him that worketh the reward is not reckoned of grace but as of debt” (Rom. 4:4). So, another fact in the kind of works we cannot be justified by are works which when done the person could expect a reward (wages) for what he did. God’s reward (forgiveness) is not bestowed on man because man earned it, that God owed it to him. Nothing is further from the truth.

It is at this point (between Romans 3 and 4) that Abraham appears in the text. This is significant for in the first three chapters Paul had written of Jews and Gentiles and declared that the Greek was not alone in his need for the gospel, both had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Both, if saved, would be by God’s grace. Neither could be saved by works which would allow either glorying or receiving salvation because God owed such to him. To drive home that point Paul introduces Abraham, whom every Jew would acknowledge to be the epitome of one who pleased God and whom God had saved.

Like all other men, Abraham had sinned and needed salvation (Gen. 12:13; Rom. 3:23). How was he saved — through the works of the law? When Romans was written no greater issue troubled brethren more than the question of what obligation did the Gentiles who obeyed the gospel have to the law? To circumcision? Many churches were disturbed by Jews who insisted that such men must be circumcised and keep the law (Acts 15:1-6). In face of that issue and questions, Paul asked, “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather hath found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not toward God. Howbeit what saith the scriptures; and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:1-3). Abraham was introduced into the text to show that he was pronounced righteous before he received the commandment of circumcision (Gen. 17:9-11) and 430 years before the law was given (Gal. 3:17). So, it was possible for one to be justified and keep neither circumcision nor the law, for Abraham was.

Abraham was not justified by works he could boast of. Yet, he was justified by works (James 2:21). The kind of works Abraham was justified by was the obedience which was his response to a command from God. God commanded Abraham to leave home and family, to go to a land God would show him (Gen. 12:1-4). He did and of this obedience it was said, “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a place he would receive for an inheritance and he went …” (Heb. 11:8). God commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac (Gen. 22:1-3) and it was in obedience to this command that once more the Hebrew letter said, “By faith Abraham being tried offered up Isaac” (Heb. 11:17). It was of this act of obedience that James said, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works and by works was faith made perfect; and the scripture was fulfilled which said and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness” (James 2:21-23).

Paul wrote, “Neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). God commanded Abraham to leave his home. His obedience, coupled with his faith, was the means through which it was imputed to him for righteousness. God commands us, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16); “Repent ye and be baptized everyone of you … for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38); “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). And it is that obedience in response to a command from God that makes faith perfect, by which we are saved. How dare anyone thumb his nose at the word of God and say, “Baptism does not save”?

Jim McDonald