Faith, Works, and Grace: Understanding the Pauline Synthesis

One of the most contentious– and critical– doctrinal disputations over the past five hundred years in “Christendom” has been the relationship between faith, works, and grace. Does faith only save? Do we need works? Where does grace fit in? This discussion, unfortunately, is rarely profitable; many Protestants will emphasize Ephesians 2:8-10 and Romans 3:22-24 and will not hear of James 2:14-26, and on the other hand it often does sound like the other side seems to believe that works themselves save. In the midst of all of these disputes and confusion, can we understand the truth regarding these matters? If we diligently study the text of the New Testament, especially in Romans 1-4 and Galatians 3:10-14, and recognize Paul’s audience and their history, I believe we can understand the relationship between faith, works, and grace. Let us examine these things now.

In Romans 1, Paul introduces his letter to the Romans and lays the foundation upon which all of his arguments will be based in Romans 1:5 and Romans 1:16-17:

through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for His name’s sake.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.

We see in these verses that Paul is attempting to foster within the Roman brethren not only faith but an obedient faith, and this concept will become clearer later. In verses 16 and 17 Paul establishes the truths that will guide us throughout the rest of the discussion: the Gospel is the power of salvation to all men, both to Jew and to Gentile, and that it will reveal to the faithful the righteousness of God since the righteous person will live by faith.

Paul then immediately begins his demonstration of this truth in Romans 1:18-32:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due. And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.

Paul’s argumentation begins by establishing that men need to be saved; after all, what good is a Gospel with the power of salvation if no one needs to be saved? Paul begins with the Gentiles, and explains their descent into idolatry: even though they were given manifold proofs of God’s sovereignty in the creation, they still rebelled against Him and worshiped the created over the Creator. For this reason God gave them over to their natural lusts, to do that which is unholy and profane in God’s sight as proof of their depravity. Paul thus demonstrates that the Gentiles in this depravity require salvation from God.

To understand the nature of the Gentiles better, let us spend some time discussing their history. Most of the Gentiles– especially in the Roman Empire in the first century CE– were polytheistic, in some way generally following the cults of the gods of the Greeks and Romans and perhaps a few local divinities. This system of religion can be considered orthopraxic, that is, “right practice.” In the Greek/Roman religious system, it did not matter what you believed about the gods, for all that mattered was making the proper sacrifices at the proper times. As a professor I had put it, “you can believe that Zeus is a complete jerk, but as long as you make the requisite sacrifices, you can secure his good favor.” The Gentiles who converted to Christ in Rome, therefore, were used to a system wherein what you did secured the favor of the gods. Let us remember this as we continue through Paul’s letter.

Paul continues in Romans 2:1-5:

Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judges another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practise the same things. And we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against them that practise such things. And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practise such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

This judgment refers back to those Gentiles in Romans 1:18-32 and their ungodly behavior; Paul is chastising those who stand in judgment against such persons while themselves engaging in many of the same behaviors. Is this a veiled reference to the Jews?

Paul speaks regarding the basis of judgment in Romans 2:6-8:

who will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life: but unto them that are factious, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation.

Paul here confirms what Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37 and Matthew 16:27:

“And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”

“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he render unto every man according to his deeds.”

Thus we see that the judgment will be made on the basis of our works. Paul here alludes to that which he explains more clearly later, that the emphasis of the judgment is not only on the works done but on the attitude and the reason for the works. Those who in perseverance in doing good work for honor, glory, and immortality will gain eternal life; those who in selfish ambition are disobedient to God will be given over to condemnation. Here again we see that obedience to God is emphasized.

Paul continues with an extraordinary statement in Romans 2:9-11:

tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God.

The same language used in a universal sense in verses 6-8 are now used specifically to the Jew and the “Greek” (metonymy for all the Gentiles): those who do evil, both Jew and Greek, will be in tribulation and distress, while those who do good, both Jew and Greek, will be blessed. The fact that there is no partiality with God as stated in Romans 2:11 defies 1,500 years of history. Ever since at Sinai the Israelites prided themselves on being a separated people, distinct from the Gentiles, and the Gentiles looked with condescension upon the Jews with their one invisible God, yet now in Christ all men are equal. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, man and woman, master and slave, as Paul explicates further in Galatians 3:28. The universality of the judgment further demonstrates the need for the universality of the Gospel: as the judgment will come to all men, so must the Gospel be the power of salvation to all men.

Regarding this judgment, Paul continues in Romans 2:12-16:

For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified: (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them); in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.

Paul establishes that men will be judged in the condition they were in: if they sinned without the Law they will perish without the Law; those who sin with the Law will perish with the Law. The Gentiles, who are without the Law, yet who do the Law, demonstrate the Law written on their hearts and thus become a “law to themselves.” Paul affirms that those who do the Law and not merely hear it only are the ones who will be justified.

Paul now turns to the Jews beginning in Romans 2:17-24:

But if thou bearest the name of a Jew, and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth; thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou rob temples? thou who gloriest in the law, through thy transgression of the law dishonorest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, even as it is written.

Paul here attacks the predominant attitude of the Jews regarding themselves and the Law, notably, that the fact that God gave them the Law and that they are His people means that they must be sanctified. The Jews prided themselves about having the Law while the Gentiles were in darkness, and felt superior to them. Paul– armed with the Gospel truth that the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been torn down in Christ and that all men will be judged for their deeds– chastises the Jews for their hypocrisy, adhering perhaps to some commandments while violating others. By demonstrating that they have in truth fallen short of the Law, Paul demonstrates that the Jews also are in need of salvation.

Paul then speaks regarding the nature of circumcision in Romans 2:25-29:

For circumcision indeed profiteth, if thou be a doer of the law: but if thou be a transgressor of the law, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision. If therefore the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision? and shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

Circumcision was, and is, one of the most significant signs of one’s Judaism, and was considered the mark that separated the Jew from the Gentile. He confirms that if one holds to the whole Law then physical circumcision is of value, but if one transgresses the Law, the physical circumcision “becomes” uncircumcision, in the sense that the sanctification of that person has been lost since he has succumbed to sin. Paul then asserts that the one who is not physically circumcised yet keeps the Law is to be regarded as circumcised. Expecting his audience to be somewhat confused by this, Paul explains that he is speaking about circumcision on a physical and spiritual level, and confirms that it is really “spiritual circumcision–” the man who obeys God– that has value and is the true circumcision. Therefore physical circumcision is of no value, and only issue at the judgment will be whether one is “spiritually circumcised,” having sanctified Jesus Christ in one’s heart. Thus Paul declares that Christians are the new Israel.

Let us now examine briefly some facts about the history of the Jews that will clarify what we have seen above. We have already mentioned a few times that the Jews believed in their own sanctification (“set-apartness”); after all, God had chosen them from among all the peoples and they were His possession and inheritance. Yet while God had established that they would be His people on the basis of their obedience to His Law, the Jews often believed that their sanctification existed even without obedience, as we can see in the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16:3 and the belief that the presence of the Temple of the LORD would spare Jerusalem as seen in Jeremiah 7:3-4:

and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, are these.”

Many of the Jews, therefore, believed that their religious and ethnic heritage would save them. Let us also remember this as we continue with our examination.

Paul, as if expecting the question about the value of being a Jew, continues in Romans 3:1-8:

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what is the profit of circumcision? Much every way: first of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. For what if some were without faith? shall their want of faith make of none effect the faithfulness of God? God forbid: yea, let God be found true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy words, And mightest prevail when thou comest into judgment. But if our righteousness commendeth the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who visiteth with wrath? (I speak after the manner of men.) God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? But if the truth of God through my lie abounded unto his glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? and why not (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), Let us do evil, that good may come? whose condemnation is just.

Paul first says that the Jews do have the advantage of having received the Law, yet he then questions the nature of the advantage since none of the Jews (save Christ, who has not yet entered the discussion) have been able to keep it. Again, as if expecting a retort asserting that God is therefore unjust or unfaithful, Paul demonstrates that no action of man alters or changes the sovereignty, justice, and faithfulness of God.

Paul then provides the summation of the discussion so far in Romans 3:9-20:

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin; as it is written,
“There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not, so much as one: Their throat is an open sepulchre; With their tongues they have used deceit: The poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin.

Paul here, using Psalms 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, 10:7, Proverbs 1:16, 3:15-17, Isaiah 59:7-8, and Psalm 36:1 as evidence, powerfully demonstrates that all men have sinned and not one has obeyed God fully. Since all men have thus sinned and none can stand as righteous in the sight of God based on his own merits, the conclusion inevitably must be that all men require salvation by the hand of God.

Paul then begins to provide the solution for mankind in Romans 3:21-26:

But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; 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 the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.

Having proved the existence of the problem of sin, Paul now gives the solution: God demonstrated His righteousness to us in the form of Jesus Christ, whose blood is the propitiation of our sin. This was the manifestation of God’s grace toward us, that He gave us His Son so that our sins could be forgiven. This sacrifice, as Paul says, allows those who have faith in Christ Jesus to be justified.

Paul then answers any objections in regards to law in Romans 3:27-31:

Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? Nay: but by a law of faith. We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yea, of Gentiles also: if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish the law.

Paul affirms that the arrival of grace in Jesus Christ and faith in Him does not negate law but in fact confirms it. The law is not a law of works but of faith; thus we now have a law of faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul, partly to answer any possible objections and also to provide an example for the Romans, then speaks regarding Abraham in Romans 4:1-8:

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. For what saith the scripture?
“And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.”
Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works, saying,
“Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin.”

Paul explains to us how Abraham was reckoned as righteous before God: Abraham was not reckoned as righteous because of his intrinsic merit but because he believed in and trusted in God and therefore God reckoned him as righteous. Paul then provides a very useful analogy for our understanding: as a man who works for wages works for his reward as his due, a man who trusts and thus works in belief is counted as righteous. Paul therefore has made a slight but critical distinction in Romans 2-4: works done to merit salvation will not save, yet works done because of redemption lead to eternal life. If Abraham were judged only on the basis of his works he would be condemned as a sinner and a transgressor of God’s will, yet because he trusted and believed in God his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. He performed the work of God– belief and trust– and it was considered righteousness. Thus Paul has demonstrated clearly his argument: the Gospel is the power of salvation for both the Jew and the Greek, containing the message which, when believed, allow the righteous to live by faith.

Paul also talks about these things in Galatians 3:10-14:

Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for,
“The righteous shall live by faith;”
and the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written,
“Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:”
that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Paul here again confirms that anyone who lives under the Law is cursed since no one (save Christ) is capable of living under it without transgressing it; since this is the case, Christ had to become the curse for us so that we might be able to live by faith and be justified and not condemned.

What, then, shall we say to these things? What can we determine regarding faith, works, and grace? We have seen that the entire discussion in Romans 1-4 is founded on the need for the Roman brethren to have obedient faith (Romans 1:5) and that the Gospel is the power of salvation to all men, the revelation of God’s righteousness to the righteous who live by faith. Paul demonstrates clearly that a man can never be justified by his works alone, since he has sinned. Since no man can be justified by his works and therefore every man would be condemned, God revealed His righteousness with the gift– grace– of His Son as the sacrifice for the remission of our sins. Through faith in Him we are able to live and be counted righteous, and our patience in works for honor, glory, and immortality will lead to eternal life. Does Paul speak of grace only or faith only salvation? Paul affirms that faith is needed along with grace, and that while faith does save that faith must have the works of patience leading to eternal life per Romans 2:6-8. Where, then, is the argument? The argument is over the nature of works– many do not recognize that Paul is not speaking of works vs. no works but between works alone vs. works in faith (otherwise called “obedient faith”). While this difference might be considered trivial to some, it was incredibly important during the time of Paul, since both the Jew and the Gentile came to faith in Christ from religious systems that emphasized the works of man. The Jew believed in his salvation by his sanctification from the Gentiles; the Gentiles were used to a system where as long as they did the right thing and sacrifice that they would secure the favor of the gods. In Christ, however, recognition must be made that salvation cannot come from the works of man alone but from obedient faith in Christ Jesus and His work on the cross.

All of these things are demonstrated in Romans 1-4 and Galatians 3:10-14 without even looking at Ephesians 2:8-10 or James 2:14-26. From this understanding gained in Romans and Galatians we see that the faith in Ephesians 2:8-10 is an obedient faith that saves thanks to the grace of God given to us, and we see in James 2:14-26 that these works that produce salvation are done in obedient faith and not done to earn salvation but because one has been redeemed. This position harmonizes all of the passages and does not require us, like some before, to attempt to discredit one passage to further an interpretation or to simply desire to ignore passages to suit our fancy. It is not difficult to understand Paul’s message in Romans 1-4, Galatians 3, and Ephesians 2:8-10 along with James in James 2:14-26. We cannot be saved on our own merit, and Jesus’ blood bridged the gap that man himself could not cross, and now if we obey Him in faith our judgment will be favorable and we shall have eternal life. Let us strive to attain this judgment.

Thanks be to God for salvation in the name of the Son!


Faith, Works, and Grace: Understanding the Pauline Synthesis

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