Is Obeying God the Same as Trusting God? Justification by Faith Alone in Romans 4:1-6

What does Paul mean when he writes in Romans 4:6 that "God reckons righteousness apart from works" and in Romans 3:28 that "Öa man is justified by faith apart from works of the law"? Is he teaching, as many great saints such as Luther and Calvin have affirmed, that God accepts us into eternal life (that is, justifies us) through faith alone totally apart from obedience of any kind? Or is Paulís teaching in this verse less shocking (and less hopeful)?

If Paul really is teaching here what Luther, Calvin, and the traditional Protestant church have believed that he is, then a crucial implication comes to light: faith is not obedience. For it would be a contradiction for Paul to argue that we are justified by faith and not obedience if obedience and faith were in fact the same thing.

Consequently, I wish to briefly demonstrate that the traditional Protestant understanding of Romans 3:28 and 4:6 is correct and then explore the implications this has for the nature of faith and obedience. It seems that the most helpful way to accomplish these objectives is by examining a popular way of thinking which seems to deny this very distinction between faith and obedience--and, therefore, compromises the traditional doctrine of justification by faith alone. I will henceforth refer to this way of thinking as "continuist theology." My desire is not to name names or accuse any specific individuals of denying justification by faith alone, but to examine this way of thinking to mark off some boundaries that are relevant to all of us, whether we fall into the "continuist theology" camp or not.

The position of continuist theology

In Romans 3:28 we read that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law." According to this verse, "works of the law" must be something other than faith. For otherwise Paul could not say that we are justified by one but not the other. In recognizing this, continuist theologians are in perfect agreement with most Protestant theologians.

But their view diverges from traditional Protestant orthodoxy when they incorporate into this their understanding of faith. On their view, all virtue can be boiled down to one thing: faith. Faith is the essence of all true obedience. Obedience might involve more than faith, but those things are only virtuous and obedient in so far as they have faith at their essence. Therefore, to the extent that something is not faith, to that extent it is not virtuous (i.e., obedient). Some, though not all, would cite Romans 14:23 in support: "whatever is not of faith is sin."

Since works of the law are not faith (Romans 3:28) and whatever is not faith is sin (since faith is the substance of all virtue on this position), continuist theologians generally conclude that works of the law are therefore sin. Further, many continuist theologians argue that "works of the law" refers not just to sin in general, but rather to a specific kind of sin--the sin of trying to earn from God. Towards this end, they often point to Romans 4:6: "to the one who works his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due." Like traditional Protestant theology, continuist theologians see Paul's term "works" to be roughly synonymous with his phrase "works of the law." Thus, what the Bible tells us about "works of the law" informs our understanding of the simple term "works" and what the Bible says about "works" informs our understanding of the phrase "works of the law."

And so from this passage in Romans 4:6 they infer that "works"--and thus "works of the law"--are things that are done in our own strength rather than Godís with a view to earning merit from God in the sense of doing Him a favor such that he is obligated to return the favor. This is the height of blasphemy, for no one has ever first given to God that God must repay Him (Romans 11:33-36) and God is not served by human hands as though He needed anything (Acts 17:24).

What we see, then, is that there are in essence only two categories of human disposition towards God on the continuist position: Faith and sin. Where does obedience fit in? Continuist theologians must answer that obedience is faith. For since the only human activity that pleases God is faith, obedience must consist in faith--for otherwise it is displeasing to God and thus not obedience. The result, then, is that continuist theologians must define faith much more broadly than traditional Protestants.

The implications of continuist theology

The implications of this understanding of "works of the law," "works" and "faith" are enormous. First, it means that when Paul tells us that we are not justified by "works" or "works of the law," he is not teaching that we are justified by faith apart from virtue (that is, obedience in the sense that Protestants have traditionally maintained). For on the view of continuist theologians, as we have seen, the "works of the law" are sinful human deeds--not virtuous things. And so Paul is simply saying that we are justified by faith apart from legalistic obedience--sinful human attempts to bribe God. He is not, however, saying that we are justified apart from virtuous or obedient things that we do by a humble faith and in Godís power. The door is open, then, for arguing that obedience (such as loving oneís neighbor) done in the right way brings justification.

What I am calling "continuist theology" walks right through this door. For the second implication of its understanding of faith is that when Paul says that we are justified by faith, he is in fact saying that we are justified by what in traditional Protestant theology would be called obedience. Why? Because, as we saw above, continuist theologians believe that obedience and faith are, at essence, the same thing (for if obedience differed from faith it would not truly be obedience since only faith pleases God). But we know from the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the Bible that obedience includes things like loving our neighbor, telling the truth, being content with what we have, etc. Consequently, if all obedience is faith, then it follows that faith includes things like telling the truth, loving our neighbor, etc.

This means that to say that we are "justified by faith" on this view does not at all deny that we are justified by things such as loving our neighbor with a heart of goodness and joy (i.e., obedience in the traditional understanding of the term). Instead, it means that things such as loving our neighbor do justify us--for loving our neighbor is faith.

Consequently, there can be no justification by faith alone (in the sense that the Reformers and almost all Protestants have meant) in continuist theology. For to say that we are justified by faith alone means, in the traditional sense of the term, that we are justified by faith and not at all by the good things we do such as loving our neighbor or telling the truth. The glory of the traditional understanding of faith alone is that even those who donít love their neighbor as they ought to can be justified. But on the continuist view, to be justified by faith means that we are justified by things like loving our neighbor since loving our neighbor is faith. In the terms of traditional Protestant theology, this is justification by faith plus works, not justification by faith alone.

By merging faith and obedience such that obedient acts such as loving my neighbor can be referred to as "faith," however, continuist theologians have found a way to use the traditional language of "faith alone." But they are not upholding the traditional substance of what those words signify; instead, they are affirming the very opposite. Not only is this misleading and confusing, but we will now see that it is biblically in error.

The biblical problems with continuist theology

The error in continuist theology is in seeing only two kinds of disposition towards God: faith and sin. Contrary to such thinking, it is clear from the apostle Paul that there are actually, at the very least, three categories of human activity towards God. First, there is sin--that which breaks Godís law and thus displeases God and deserves His wrath. Second, there is gospel faith--the act of relying on Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel to save us from our sins. But, third, there is obedience--which is neither sin nor faith but is instead that which complies with Godís law of morality and thus pleases Him.

Faith can, of course, be referred to as obedience in the sense that when we believe in Christ we are doing what God tells us to. Thus is why the Scriptures sometimes speak of "obeying the gospel." But "doing what God tells us to do" is not the essence of this third category that we are calling "obedience." Obedience, the way we are defining it, does not simply mean "doing what God says" but doing what is virtuous. Love for our neighbor is the essence of what we mean by obedience since Godís law, which defines virtue, is fulfilled by love (Romans 13:8ff). When we say that faith is not obedience, then, what we basically mean is that faith is not love for our neighbor.

In other words, obedience basically means "that which accords with Godís moral law and thus has virtue." Faith, though it is something God tells us to do, is not virtuous (or, as we will see below, a command of the moral law) but rather is a resting on the virtue of another. And so it is not obedience. Obedience is being virtuous, faith is resting on anotherís virtue.

It seems to me that when Paul says that we are justified by faith apart from works and works of law, he has these categories in mind and is saying that we are justified by faith apart from our obedience. Both faith and obedience are good, please God, and exist together. But they are different things. And only faith justifies.

This can be shown from examining the meaning of "works" in Romans 4:6. There are basically two strands to my argument that "works" in 4:6 includes genuine obedience (doing what Godís moral law commands in the way that He commands it to be done). First, there are two passages in the wider context of Romans where "works" indisputably includes obedience. This by itself makes us incline towards thinking that 4:6 uses works in the same way. But what is perhaps most significant is linguistic, contextual and substantial ties indicate that Paul is using the term "works" the same way in 4:6 as he is in these other two passages. Second, even without relating the passage to these other passages the immediate context of 4:6 shows that Paul uses the term to include genuine obedience.

The wider context of Romans
In Romans 2:6-8 we read that God "[6] will render to every man according to his works [kata ta erga]: [7] to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; [8] but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation." It is generally admitted by most Pauline scholars that "works" here cannot be restricted to mean something like legalistic obedience but instead includes genuine obedience. I see at least two reasons supporting this understanding.

First, God is going to render to us according to everything we have done, not simply according to certain kinds of behavior. All the good and all the bad that we do will be judged. And so it wouldn't make sense for "works" here to have a restricted sense such as "legalistic obedience." For example, it wouldn't make sense for Paul to be saying, "God will render to every man according to the deeds he has done in a spirit of legalism (but not according to the deeds he has done in faith)"--especially when he goes on to explain himself by saying "to those who do goodÖ" and "to those who do evilÖ"

Second, in verses 7 and 8 Paul explains how the principle of verse 6 works itself out, saying "there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil...but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good." And so Paul illustrates his statement that "God will render to each according to his works" by explaining that those who do good will receive eternal life and that those who do evil will be condemned. Therefore, "works" here must mean human behavior that relates to the law of God such that it is either good (obedient) or bad (disobedient). It consequently includes genuine obedience.

Romans 9:11-12 is another crucial text: "[11] ...for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that Godís purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, [12] it was said to her, Ďthe older will serve the younger.í" In this passage, "not because of works" is parallel with "had not done anything good or bad"--just as "in order that Godís purpose according to election might stand" corresponds to "because of Him who calls."

What this means, then, is that "anything good or bad" explains the term "works." Consequently, "works" are "anything we do, whether good or bad." They are not simply things one does without faith or to put God in oneís debt; rather, "works" is a term used to refer to human behavior in general. This behavior can then be classified as either true obedience or disobedience.

Does 4:6 use "works" the same way as 2:6 and 9:11?
I think that most would agree with what we have seen in these verses--that works means human behavior which is either obedient or disobedient. But does Paul use the term this way in Romans 4:6? There are several reasons for thinking that he does.

First, since the significant and clear uses of the term elsewhere include "obedience" in the meaning of the term "works," there would have to be significant reasons in the context for thinking that "works" is being used differently in 4:6. Such a view of "works" in 4:6 and the surrounding context cannot simply be asserted, but must bear the burden of the proof. And the necessary evidence appears to be lacking. There is simply no reason to give "works" a meaning in chapter 4 different from the meaning it has in 2:6 and 9:11. The best I can see is that such an interpretation is a result of a theological framework being imposed on the text. If one says that the statement in 4:4 implies that "works" is used to mean legalistic obedience because it speaks of receiving ones due, I have to ask why. It is not at all evident that such a statement could not apply to real obedience. Why couldnít Paul, for example, simply be repeating what he had already said in 2:6ówhich is clearly the same idea: "God will render to every man according to his deeds"? To say that "God will render to each according to his deeds" sounds an awful lot like "to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due." Psalm 18:23-24 is another example of the common biblical theme that 4:4 seems to be restating: "I was also blameless with Him, and I kept myself from my iniquity. Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes." The one who "works" receives "what is due" (Romans 4:4) because God repays each according to his deeds (Psalm 18:23-24; Romans 2:6).

Second, it would be most natural for Paul to be using "works" in the same way because the themes treated in 4:6 are very similar to the themes treated in 2:6 and 9:11. It would indeed be strange to argue that when speaking of judgment and justice Paul uses the term "works" to refer human deeds in general (Romans 2:6), when speaking of election and grace Paul uses works to refer to human deeds in general (Romans 9:11f.), but when speaking of the very related theme of justification and grace Paul uses works to mean legalism. Instead, it is most natural to understand Paul to be saying that election is apart from human deeds (9:11), judgment is according to our deeds (2:6), and justification is apart from our deeds (4:6).

Another reason to think that Paul is using "works" in a general sense in Romans 4:6 is what seems to be the deliberate contrast he is making with Romans 2:6. The contrast is striking:

Romans 2:6 [God] will render to every man according to his works.
Romans 4:6 God reckons righteousness apart from works.

One cannot help but think that Paul is intending to state a remarkable truth through this contrast: justification is the one exception to the rule that what we do returns back upon our heads. One would fully expect, in light of 2:6, that justification is given according to our works. But 4:6 tells us that it is not. It is hard to deny that this indicates that Paul is intending to draw a contrast between 2:6 and 4:6. And, if so, it follows that "works" is used the same way in both contexts.

This illustrates the glory of the gospel! If God rendered to us precisely according to our deeds, we would be condemned because we have all sinned and even our faith and obedience are imperfect. And so God sets aside this rule to deal with us in grace and therefore apart from our deeds so that we can be justified. That is what grace is!

Fourth, notice that 4:6 uses the term "works" in the same way as 4:4. But we saw above that 4:4 is restating 2:6--and thus using "works" in the same way. This would mean that the term "works" has the same meaning, then, in 4:6 as it does in 2:6. This means, then, that when God "reckons righteousness apart from works" (4:6) is apart from the good or evil that we have done.

The immediate context of Romans 4:5-6
We do not merely have to compare Romans 4:6 with the wider context of the epistle to see what is meant by "works" in this passage. The immediate context is by itself decisive. To get what Paul is saying in context, we need to read verses 5 and 6 together:

[5a] But to the one who does not work, but
[b] believes in Him who justifies the ungodly,
[c] his faith is reckoned as righteousness,
[6a] just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom
[b] God reckons righteousness apart from works...

5b is a shocking verse, for it tells us that God "justifies the ungodly." Ungodly people lack genuine obedience--for if they were genuinely obedient, they would not be ungodly. And so 5b is a clear statement that when God justifies us, He does so with no view to anything good about us. In fact, he must justify us without a view to anything that we have done, whether good or bad. For he cannot justify us through our disobedience, for disobedience brings condemnation--not justification. But he cannot justify us through our obedience, either, for we donít have any. We are ungodly.

Further, if obedience was a factor in our justification Paul could not say that God justifies us as ungodly. Edwards argues very well on this point:

When it is said that God justifies the ungodly, it is absurd to suppose that our godliness, taken as some goodness in us, is the ground of our justification; as, when it is said that Christ gave sight to the blind, to suppose that sight was prior to, and the ground of, the act of mercy in Christ; or as, if it should be said that such an one by his bounty has made a poor man rich, to suppose that it was the wealth of this poor man that was the ground of this bounty towards him, and was the price by which it was procured ("Justification by Faith Alone" in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume I, 622).

Notice how Edwardís argument is just as forceful against those who want to make our future obedience a means or basis of justification as it is against those who want to make obedience possessed at the time of justification (which in reality doesnít exist) the condition of justification.

And so we learn from 5b--a phrase where the disputed term "works" isnít even used--that God justifies us without regard to any moral goodness we possess or will possess. And if our justification is by faith (Romans 3:28; 4:3; etc.) and yet apart from any moral goodness we possess (4:5), then faith and obedience are different and our justification is by faith and not our moral godliness (i.e., obedience).

In addition to establishing justification by faith alone independently of the term "works," this teaching in 5b that God "justifies the ungodly" provides a key to understanding the term "works" in 6b where we are taught that God "reckons righteousness apart from works." Towards this end, notice that after telling us that "to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness" (v. 5), verse 6 immediately begins with the words "just as": "just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works." This means that Paul is speaking of the same sort of thing in verse 6 as he was in verse 5. In other words, to support the point of verse 5 (namely, that God justifies the ungodly), Paul brings to our attention in verse 6 the very similar case of David. The "just as" in 6a which introduces the case of David is saying "an example of what I am talking about is found in the words of David, for he speaks of the same thing that I am." Consequently, those whom David speaks of as having righteousness reckoned to them "apart from works" (v. 6) are an example of those who are justified as "ungodly" (v. 5). This means, then, that when God "justifies the ungodly" (5b) he "reckons righteousness apart from works" (6b).

The significant thing is that we have seen that 5b teaches that justification is apart from all forms of obedience. Since 6b is a description of what happens in 5b, and 5b makes it clear that genuine obedience is excluded in our justification, then 6b must also be saying that genuine obedience is excluded from our justification. When Paul says, therefore, that God "reckons righteousness apart from works," he must in other words be saying that God reckons righteousness apart from whatever virtue we might ever possess. And so "works" must include genuine obedience. Otherwise, the term "reckons righteousness apart from works" would not carry this meaning and, thus, would not be a description of what Paul stated in verse 5.

This is so important, yet somewhat hard to grasp at first. So let me restate it in other words. Verse 5 tells us that God justifies the ungodly and the "just as" at the beginning of 6 shows us that verse 6 describes what God is doing when He justifies the ungodly (i.e., he is "reckoning righteousness apart from works"). Since the ungodly, by definition, lack godliness (i.e., genuine obedience), 5b is teaching us that God justifies them without any view to their genuine obedience (for they donít have any). And so the phrase in 6b which describes 5b must also include the fact that God justifies apart from moral godliness. And this can only be the case if "works" in 6b includes genuine obedience.

In a similar vein, Edwards argues on the basis of the correlative terms "him that does not work" and "ungodly" in verse 5 against those who want to make "works" in this context restricted to simply the ceremonial law. His argument, it should be evident, work just as well against those who want to restrict "works" to mean anything less than true, genuine obedience to the moral law of God.

It appears, that by him that worketh not, in this verse, is not meant one who merely does not conform to the ceremonial law; because he that worketh not and the ungodly, are evidently synonymous expressions, or what signify the same, as appears by the manner of their connection; if not, to what purpose is the latter expression, the ungodly, brought in? The context gives no other occasion for it, but to show, that by the grace of the gospel, God in justification has no regard to any godliness of ours. The foregoing verse is, ĎNow to him that worketh, is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.í In that verse, it is evident, gospel grace consists in the reward being given without works; and in this verse, which immediately follows it, and in sense is connected with it, gospel-grace consists in a manís being justified as ungodly. By which it is most plain, that by him that worketh not, and him that is ungodly, are meant the same thing; and that therefore not only works of the ceremonial law are excluded in this business of justification, but works of morality and godliness (Works Vol I, p. 622).

From all these things we see that verse 5 teaches justification by faith alone and that Paulís declaration that "God reckons righteousness apart from works" in verse 6 likewise means that He justifies us without regard to anything we do--such as godly obedience. He does not justify us because we are obedient, for otherwise Paul could not say that in justification God "reckons righteousness apart from works." Justification, then, is by faith alone.

Of course, someone might say that these verses are only teaching that we are ungodly at the time we are justified but are not denying that God justifies us on the basis of future godliness and obedience that He has ordained to create in us. The problem with this objection is that it is inconsistent with verse 6. In verse 5 Paul is indeed speaking of our moral condition at the time of conversion, but the conclusion that he draws from the fact that we are justified as ungodly sinners is that justification is "apart from works" (6b; remember we have already established that "works" here includes genuine obedience). But if God justifies us because He has foreordained that we will become godly, then he is not reckoning righteousness to us "apart from works." And so Paul not only is teaching that genuine obedience is lacking in us at the time of our justification (5b), but that justification is, therefore, apart from obedience entirely (6b).

Furthermore, the claim that we are justified with a view to future obedience contradicts Paulís reasoning in verses 9-11. In verse 9, Paul asks whether one needs to be circumcised to be justified. "Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised?" He then proceeds to argue that circumcision is unnecessary for justification because Abraham was not circumcised at the time he was justified: "For we say, Ďfaith was reckoned as righteousness.í How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised."

In order for Paulís argument to work, he must be presupposing that if you lack something at the time of justification, then that thing which you are lacking is not a condition of justification. For without this presupposition behind Paulís reasoning in 9ff, one could successfully object that even though Abraham was not circumcised at the point of his justification, circumcision is still essential because God justified Abraham with a view to his future circumcision. Paulís argument can only stand against this objection if he is presupposing that if you lack something at the time of justification, then it is not a condition of justification.

This means, however, that genuine obedience cannot be a condition (i.e., means or basis) of justification any more than circumcision can be. Why? Because Paul says that God "justifies the ungodly." If we are ungodly at the time we are justified, then we do not possess genuine obedience at the time of justification. Since verses 9ff show us that something you lack at the time of justification cannot be a condition of justification, it therefore follows that obedience is not a means or basis of justification (for we lack obedience at the time of justification). What role, then, does obedience play? It is the evidence that we are justified, just as Abrahamís circumcision was a "sign" that he was justified, "a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised" (v. 11).

Finally, justification by faith alone apart from obedience is confirmed in 5c. Notice how Paul says in this verse that in justification "faith is reckoned as righteousness." It is not our obedience, love, or the fruit of faith that is reckoned unto righteousness. It is faith. And therefore justification is by faith alone, for if it were faith and our works that led to justification, Paul could not simply say "faith is reckoned as righteousness."

Someone might object that "faith" here in 5c includes genuine obedience, and thus my argument begs the question. To this Edwards has pointed out that "the faith here spoken of, by which we are justified, is not meant the same thing as a course of obedience or righteousness, since the expression by which this faith is here denoted, is believing on him that justifies the ungodly....believing on God as a justifier, certainly is a different thing from submitting to God as a lawgiver; especially believing on him as a justifier of the ungodly, or rebels against the lawgiver" (622). "Faith" in 4:5, therefore, cannot be the same as obedience.

But "works" in 4:5 does include obedience because surely it is being used the same way as in verse 6, for otherwise we severely disrupt Paulís flow of thought. Since we have seen that "works" in Romans 4:6 includes obedient human behavior we must also, then, conclude that "work" in verse 5 also includes obedient human behavior. What is significant is that Romans 4:5 clearly shows that faith and works are different things: "Now to the one who does not work, but believesÖ" If it is possible to not work but believe, then works and faith cannot be the same thing. Since we have seen that the term "works" here includes obedience, then it follows that faith and obedience are different things.

All of these things that we have seen in our intricate exploration of Romans 4:4-6 establishes two things very firmly: justification is by faith apart from obedience (virtue), and obedience is different from faith. This means that there is something other than faith which is pleasing to God. Good works please God (Romans 2:7), and yet they are not faith (Romans 4:5). And so we cannot have merely two categories of human behavior: faith and sin. We must have three: faith, obedience, and sin. Both faith and obedience please God, but obedience is not faith. Obedience is not a sinful attempt to bribe God. Obedience simply means doing what Godís moral law says! But obedience is not faith either. It is entirely distinct from faith.

The meaning of "works of the law"
Now that the meaning of the term "works" in 4:6 is clarified, I want to briefly draw out the implications this has for the meaning of the term "works of the law" which is used in 3:20 & 28. As many scholars have pointed out, "works" and "works of the law" carry roughly the same meaning. Douglas Moo has well argued,

The essential synonymity of the word ergon [work] and the phrase ta erga tou nomou [the works of the law] is confirmed by a consideration of the way they are used in Romans 3 and 4. In 3:20-28, the phrase is used twice (vv. 20, 28); in both cases it is denied that justification can be secured on the basis of these works. But, whatever the exact relationship may be, it is clear that Romans 4 carries on the same argument with respect to Abraham: he is the prime example of one justified by faith, whose dependence on Godís grace rather than his own works excludes all possibility of boasting. The use of erga in Romans 4 instead of ta erga tou nomou is undoubtedly to be explained by recalling that Paul generally confines nomos to the Mosaic law; a law which could not therefore have had relevance to Abraham. But what is especially relevant to the present argument is that erga in the two chapters must, if Paulís argument is to possess any logical force, mean the same thing. Thus, the general usage of the two expressions, when considered in light of Romans 3-4, suggests that ta erga tou nomou should be viewed as a particular subset of erga, the difference being, of course, that the former spells out the source of the demand for the works in question (Douglas J. Moo, "Law, Works of the Law, and Legalism in Paul," Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 45, 1983, p. 95).

What this means is that "works of the law" cannot take on a restricted sense because "works," which carries roughly the same meaning, does not have a restricted sense (as we have shown). Instead, "works of law" must refer to deeds which are done in accordance with the law. Consequently, we see faith alone and the difference between faith and obedience taught in Romans 3:28 as well: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law." If we are justified by faith apart from doing what the law commands, then we are justified by faith alone and not our obedience. For if we were justified by faith and obedience, Paul could not say that we are justified by faith and not obedience (i.e., "works of law"). We do not, consequently, need any virtue or obedience in order to be set right with God.

Faith in Christ is good, but it is not commanded by Godís moral law

We have seen, then, that according to Romans 3:28 and 4:5 obedience and faith are different things. But how do they differ? One of the differences is that, since faith is not a work of the law (Romans 3:28) or a work (Romans 4:2-6), faith is not something that Godís law commands us.

Godís law is basically the set of moral standards that he requires us to abide by (see Romans 7:8-10, where law and command are used interchangeably). As such, Godís law defines what is righteous and what is sinful. That which conforms to the law is righteous, that which violates the law is sinful. Since faith in Christ is not a "work of the law," it must follow that faith in Christ as Savior is not commanded in that moral standard. Rather, faith in Christ as Savior is what God brings in when we have broken that moral standard and therefore need to be rescued from its condemnation. Faith is what rescues us from the law, not a requirement of the law.

This means that faith in Christ is not a morally virtuous thing (as loving our neighbor, telling the truth, etc. are), for virtue is that which accords with Godís moral law. But gospel faith is not commanded by the law, and so is not a virtuous entity. Rather, faith in Christ is something we must do in order to be rescued from the consequences of our lack of virtue.

This does not at all deny that faith is necessary for virtue. It just denies that faith is virtue. There is a big difference! Faith is necessary for obedience (virtue) because faith is that which connects us with the power of the Holy Spirit for good works. Thus, one must have faith before he can obeyófor faith is the instrumental cause of obedience. But this does not at all require or imply that faith is a part of our virtue or obedience.

Does this mean, however, that there is no sense at all in which Godís moral law commands faith? No. Throughout this whole discussion we have been using "faith" to mean reliance on Christ for salvation from sin and eternal life. It is this kind of faith that is not part of the eternal moral law of God because it is this faith which justifies us "apart from works of the law." We can, however, affirm that Godís eternal moral law requires faith in another sense--the sense of believing that God always speaks the truth and savoring His truth as glorious. But the law does not call for faith in the more narrow sense we are speaking of here--namely, relying on Christ for justification.

Since faith in Christ for salvation is not a work of the law, it follows that although this faith is indeed a good thing and is pleasing to God, it is not such because of any inherent virtue in it, but simply because it rests upon the virtue of another. Saving faith is of no worth in itself, but is completely object-centered. No other good thing we do is like that. Obedience is good inherently because by Godís power it mirrors forth Godís virtue; faith is good in a derived sense because by Godís power it relies on the virtue of Christ. It takes its worth from its object, not its nature.


There are three objections that we have space to discuss. First, what do we make of Romans 14:23 that "whatever is not of faith is sin"? I wish I could defend this view here, but it seems best to understand Paul as using faith in a broader sense than he does in Romans 3 and 4. By faith in 14:23 Paul basically means the belief that a certain behavior is right; he is not, it seems, using faith in the sense of believing in Christ for salvation.

But even if Paul is speaking of saving faith here, it would not follow that faith and obedience are the same thing. For Paul is simply saying that what is not from faith is sin; he is not saying that anything which is not faith is sin.

Second, what of Paulís statement in Romans 4:4 that "to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due"? Is this telling us that works are something done to bribe or impress God, and thus are sinful? No; that would be reading way too much into the text (as we have already seen above). Paul is not here speaking of the kind of debt which would imply that God is needy. Instead, he is simply restating the truth already revealed in 2:6 that God renders to each according to His works. God in His justice causes our works to fall back upon our heads. What a man reaps, he sows. And so the one who works receives his wage not as a favor, but as the consequence in justice of what he has done. This is not a bad kind of "debt" that obligates God to repay our works. It is simply an obligation arising from Godís perfect justice to make sure that good receives good and bad receives bad. And so how amazing it is that in justification God sets aside this principle and forgives us our sins and gives us perfect righteous not as a consequence of what we have done but in spite of what we have done!

Third, some continuist theologians might argue that the above criticisms do not apply to them. For they would not want to say that faith and obedience are the same thing; they would rather argue that faith and obedience are so closely tied together that you cannot have one without the other.

This sounds pretty good if they mean that wherever faith is, works are as well; faith and works are different, yet one never exists without the other. If they did mean this, then there would be no reason for them to continue to affirm that we are justified by faith and obedience (to use the terminology of this article). But this is not what they seem to mean. They in reality are not saying anything differently than the form of continuism we explained above and argued against. For this other brand of continuism does not mean simply that obedience always results from faith; if that is all they meant, they would not differ at all from the traditional Protestant view that they claim to be "refining." What they mean, rather, is that while obedience involves things other than faith, faith is still part of the very nature of obedience. Faith is an ingredient in obedience on the continuist view--and, in fact, it is the ingredient that makes obedience virtuous.

For example, loving my neighbor might involve the physical act of helping him across the street. The physical act could be done with or without good motives, and so is not the essence of my obedience in that case. It is not faith, though it is part of what must be done to carry out my obedience. The essence of my obedience, however, is still faith--for, on this view, it is my faith that makes the act of helping my neighbor across the street obedient. And if there are other aspects of my obedience, such as an inward delight in the person, those things are only truly obedient insofar as they have faith in them. Obedience includes more than faith, but faith is the heart of it all and that which makes obedience genuine.

This amounts, then, to basically the same thing as the form of continuism we argued against above. For, even on this view, that which makes obedience obedience is faith. Faith, then, is the essence of the obedience and consequently, by definition, is part of the obedience--the main part or core of obedience. Obedience and faith, then, are still merged together into fundamentally the same thing--for faith is of the essence of obedience. The problems and Scriptural exegesis we explored above concerning the other form of continuism apply, then, to this form as well.

How does the traditional Protestant view, however, understand obedience? Does it teach that obedience is merely an external thing that your heart doesnít need to be in? Certainly not! Our heart must certainly be in our acts of kindness if they are to be genuinely obedient. There is an inward quality that makes all of my outward actions virtuous and without which none of them would be virtuous.

But this inward quality is not faith. It is love. Love fulfills the law, not faith (Romans 13:8ff). And, therefore, love is virtuous on its own terms. It doesnít need faith to be added to it or at the essence of it for it to be virtuous. It is virtuous and reflective of Godís character in its own right. It needs faith in order to be, but not in order to be virtuous. In other words, love never comes to exist in our sinful hearts until we believe in Christ and is in fact a result of our faith in Him; but our faith in Christ is nonetheless not the principle of virtue in love. Love is virtuous in its own right. Faith is the necessary condition of love to exist, but is not a part of love for my neighbor.

Love, then, is the inward essence of all virtue. Our external motions of obedience, such as the act of helping someone across the street, are therefore virtuous and obedient not insofar as faith is in them, but insofar as love is in them. Faith is necessary because it "opens the floodgates" for love to flow into my heart, but faith is not love.


In summary, what we have seen shows us what Paul means when he declares that God "reckons righteousness apart from works" (Romans 4:6) and that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28). He means that we are justified by faith, not our obedience, and thus indicates that faith is different from obedience--even at its essence. Justification is given to us apart from good deeds such as loving our neighbor, telling the truth, etc. It is by faith apart from our obedience or, in other words, it is by faith alone. Praise God, for this is the only way the ungodly can ever be justified (Romans 4:5).

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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