Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Justification by Faith Alone - Galatians

Justification by faith alone is a doctrine that most Protestants (at least those who think about theological things) love. It is the primary doctrine that the Reformation was all about. It is a doctrine that rejects all works-based theories of salvation.

But is this doctrine really all that important? Is it something worth fighting for? Is it something we should divide over? Is it simply fine to "agree to disagree" about this doctrine?

The key is whether or not justification by faith alone is a core aspect of the gospel message itself. If it is, then we should argue strongly for it. If it is not, then we can surely discuss it, but it should not be a point of contention.

As always, we must look to the bible for answers. We will first look to Paul's letter to the Galatians because this is the primary issue discussed. In Galatians, Paul is writing to churches in Galatia that he probably planted. The apostle's concern is that false teachers had crept into these churches and began teaching a false gospel based upon works of the law. Basically, they were teaching that Gentiles had to become law-abiding Jews in order to be saved.

Paul's letter is a stern rebuke of these false teachings. Right from the beginning of the epistle, Paul writes the following:

Galatians 1:6-9, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."

Paul makes it clear in the above verses that his concern is that the Galatian Christians were beginning to follow a false gospel.

In light of this, we must know what this false gospel was really all about. Paul tells us in several places in chapters two and three. The issue itself is one of justification. Paul writes:

Galatians 2:16, "...yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."

Galatians 3:6, "...just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'."

Galatians 3:11, "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"

In 2:16 we see what is probably Paul's clearest teaching on the issue. He offers us a stark contrast. Justification is based on faith in Christ. It is not based on works of the law. Although the apostle does not write "by faith alone," it is clear that this is what he means. We know this because he discounts any works.

In 3:6, Paul reminds us that Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith - long before the law even existed.

In 3:11, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, showing that even in post-Sinai-OT justification came through faith as opposed to the law.

Why is all this so important? In this epistle, Paul ties together the very truth of the gospel with justification by faith alone. In chapter one he blasts that Galatians for turning from the gospel. In chapters two and three he explains that we are justified (declared righteous before holy God) because of faith and not works. We must not ignore this connection. Justification is at the heart of the gospel itself.

In light of this, we must come to the conclusion that justification by faith alone is a core aspect of the gospel itself. Therefore, it is worth fighting for.


Jonathan said...

Hi Eric,

I think all Christians would agree with those verses you quoted. We are justified by faith, not by our works.

However I think the divisions come when we add the word "alone". Scripture does not say "faith alone" (except in James where he says "not by faith alone). I think during the reformation the line was drawn, and we are stuck maintaining the division.

There are other verses that don't fit so well with the faith alone thinking. I think we should acknowledge the tension and try to work with all of scripture.

James 2:24

"You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone."

James 2:17-18

"In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do."

Matt 7:21

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.".

Matt 25:34-35
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'"

I find it interesting that the Lutherns and Catholics have now put together a joint statement on this issue.

Another way to look at something like baptism would be to view it as not just a work, but an action of faith. Just like a prayer is an action of faith.

Yes, if someone gets baptized, but has no faith... it likely doesn't mean much. Just like if we tell a child to say this prayer after me. If it's not an outward expression of their faith, it is empty works. And I think that is how the Catholics and Lutherans are thinking.

Anyways, I hope some of that makes sense.

God bless!

Eric said...


Thanks for your comment.

Regarding the Galatians passage, I believe "alone" is strongly implied. Paul contrasts faith and works. I don't see him leaving any room for faith plus ______.

As for James, he certainly emphasizes works as being important. But important for what? The works show that the faith is genuine. But do the works justify (in the sense that Paul means)? If so, which works? Where do we stop with this? How is it then grace-based and not grace-plus-works?

As per baptism, I do think some folks baptize with the idea that it is an act of faith. They can believe that all they want, but it certainly doesn't have any justifying merit.

In the end, is salvation all of God or is it God plus man? If we say that both faith and works together are required for justification, then this is God plus man. I just don't see the gospel that way.

Let me emphasize again: I do believe works are important (and far too often ignored by evangelicals). I just don't believe they justify in the sense Paul is talking about.

Aussie John said...


Brother! What a great and God glorifying truth!

The fact that justification of a believer is solely a work of God through the ministry of Jesus Christ, escapes many people. Works accompany justification, and are a result of justification, but never a partner.

A claim to faith separated from the accompanying works (James 2:17-18) is not justifying faith, but a dead, humanistic faith. The one is true saving faith, the other is no more than intellectual assent.

Paul very well explains the fact of justification by faith alone, "What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Eric said...


You took the words out of my mouth (or next post). I'm going to look at that wonderful Romans 4 passage next.

I can understand folks wanting to emphasize the importance of works. Sadly, they so often confuse works as the cause of justification instead of seeing the works as a result. This is no small issue. Paul understands it to be at the heart of the gospel itself.

Faith alone!!

Jonathan said...

Hi Eric,

Just to clarify. In no way am I suggesting I believe we are justified by works. I am only engaging in this because I think on this issue we often get hung up on debating how we word things... but both sides in reality are not that far apart.

Protestants may think Catholics believe their works save them, and there may be some Catholics who are confused about this themselves (just like some Protestants may wrongly think that if they said a prayer when they were a kid, they can live however they want.) But if so, they don't understand what their tradition teaches.

Here is some from the joint declaration between the Lutherans and Catholics:

(3.15) "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."

(37) "We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit."


To me it doesn't sound like we need to debate justification by works vs faith with them.

Or are there others who think they are justified by works.

Good discussion guys. God bless!

Jonathan said...


Another angle to consider.

I have observed protestants being skeptical of how worldly some Catholic's are. But no matter how sinful they seem to live they all get the ticket to heaven at the Catholic funerals.

In practice evangelical protestants are often the ones who seem very legalistic. Don’t smoke, drink, dance or chew, or go with those who do. And if someone does break these rules, yet said the prayer, we say they likely were not really saved before - maybe they said it but didn't mean it?

So in practice which (stereotyped) group seems to practice "once saved always saved", and that they are justified by their faith and not by their works. And which group comes across more legalistic and placing a larger emphasis on works?

My point here is that we've used words to create a division, yet in practice we all agree that faith and some actions that demonstrate that faith are essential.

God bless!

Eric said...


I appreciate what you are saying. Quite honestly, even though I know a number of Catholics, I can't speak too knowledgeably about what they actually believe. As with many Protestants, it seems that individual Catholics have pretty widely varying beliefs. I don't want to fall into the trap of stereotyping their beliefs.

As for Protestants, I've sure met many who are relying on "cheap grace" to get to heaven. Their faith is simply not real.

Regardless of denominational affiliation, if a person believes he is justified by faith that shows itself to be genuine through good works, then I think he understands this aspect of the gospel.

Words can sure be slippery things sometimes.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Eric for allowing my to try to express my concerns here.

All this talk about how to word all this... and I recognize a challenge to myself.

In this phase I'm in, I find myself doing a lot more talking than walking. Or actually more writing that living...

And from my limited experience, when it comes to unity, when we are actually out there living our faith side by side with others from different traditions... that is where we can actually recognize that we are one... when we see others following and serving our same Lord. (Not to say we are saved by works, but the actions sure help show each other who we are following)

Thanks! God bless!

Eric said...


I agree with you that when we are actually out there interacting with other people, it is much easier to be united with others who claim the name of Christ. In the real world setting, works bear witness to faith in Christ. Denominational titles matter little when we see love exhibited int he name of Jesus. This brings sweet unity.