Category Archives: doctrine of Justifcation

Justification By Works?

I was talking to a friend about salvation and he advanced the argument that the evangelical claim to justification (God’s declaration of our right standing before Him) by faith alone (sola fide or faith alone is basis of the believers good standing before a righteous God) is something of a misnomer. The reason he gave is that the mere action of placing one’s faith in something is a work. Therefore he concludes that our justification is by faith and work of the believer.

On the surface this sounds like it has merit. After all, when I have faith in something it is me putting forth the effort to generate that faith. And if I have to do that to be saved is it not what we commonly refer to as a “work”? My answer to this friend was no and to make such a claim is called a categorical error.

What is a categorical error (CE)? A CE happens when when we ascribe something to a category from which it doesn’t belong. For example, the argument if all things require a creator then God requires a creator, and if God requires a creator then He is not a supreme being because His creator would be more supreme. To say that a supreme creator requires a creator is an example of a CE. The error comes in when it attempts to ask something of God for which is not possible.

This is the same thing that is happening with the argument that faith is a work. In the first place it assumes that all faith is the same. So the faith that I have in Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the same faith that this chair will not collapse under the weight of my 250 pound body? Once again on the surface it might seem so but it isn’t. Saving faith is much different.

Paul explains it this way:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the bodya and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.b 4Butc God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Quite obviously there is so much here we can talk about. However, for the purpose of the argument that is used quite frequently by Roman Catholics and others, that faith is a work, Paul has a very significant response. First he says that we are dead in trespasses and sins. That kind of spiritual death leaves us in a situation that we cannot, will not, and desire not to put faith in God. But none the less we are saved. How so? It is through faith and not of something we generated in ourselves. So how do we get it? Paul says it is a gift of God.

From this perspective, saving faith is much more different than the faith I have that this chair will hold me up. In the first place my sin doesn’t keep me from having faith that this chair will hold me up. Second, saving faith is not self generated but has to originate with God which is the reason it is not a work of our own or produced in ourselves which is the basis for boasting.

In closing, I understand the reason why some want to make human merit the basis for salvation. The fear of anti-nomianism (no lawism) is a concern because it sounds like salvation by faith alone is license to sin. That isn’t what the Bible teaches and its not what Paul teaches above. In fact the way Paul explains it above we were created for good works but those works are not without the prior saving faith. The problem as I see it is many people have trouble distinguishing justification from sanctification and hence the reason for works based salvation.

Anyway, I have said enough. Now I want your thoughts.

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