Zachariah Carter

The Obedience of Faith: Saved Not Without, But Not With Works

Faithful soteriology should maintain the inherent tension between justification and obedience. That tension guards the Church from falling away from the truth on either side of this issue. While not effectual unto justification, obedience is a simultaneous effect and proof of justification and necessary for salvation.

Since the inclusion of Gentiles into the fold of God, defining what makes a Christian has divided Christians. Jewish Christians insisted that their Gentile brethren had to be circumcised to be authentic Christ-followers. Paul insisted that Gentile inclusion was on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ and not the works of the law; he, though born Jewish, placed himself as one equally justified – without respect to the law – by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). A millennium and a half later, a fissure erupted when a young monk posted a thesis on the church doors in Wittenberg. While Luther’s thesis made no direct mention to justification by faith apart from works, the proceeding discussion would give rise to sola fide. A Lutheran consensus solidified the doctrine of justification by faith alone with The Formula of Concord of 1576. For the last half millennium, the Protestant tradition has understood that justification is by faith alone, but has at times struggled to understand the relationship between justification and obedience.

This essay takes its title from the Reformer John Calvin’s response to the charge that iustitia sola fide — justification by faith alone — diminishes good works or obedience to God’s command.[1] Within the Protestant tradition’s modern history, there have been two divergent understandings of justification that assault the doctrine of sola fide. The first suggests that a caricature of rabbinic Judaism polluted the Reformers’ understanding of justification. This view was first postulated by Krister Stendahl and advanced by E.P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and later, N. T. Wright. This “New Perspective on Paul” rejects the notion that justification is a legal declaration in exchange for an understanding of the atoning work of Christ as primarily eschatological; for them, justification “is not about getting in, but about staying in.”[2] Implied is that justification is contingent upon the eschatological position of the believer; in-or-out of the community; good works serve as the membership tokens in this community. Regrettably, the limitations of this research paper will prohibit full consideration of this variant but will benefit from its work. Instead, this paper will interact with the second variant from hyper-dispensationalism, “free-grace” justification. More commonly, this variant of iustitia sola fide pejoratively labels the orthodox Protestant position as “Lordship salvation.”

A misbalanced soteriology, “free-grace” justification dissects the ordo salutis – order of salvation – to correctly assert that saving faith is apart from works but incorrectly divorces repentance and submission to Christ from justification. A “free-grace” individual would be completely comfortable asserting “the Christ’s lordship is strictly a matter of Christian discipleship, i.e., of instruction and growth. One can become a Christian without being Christ’s disciple.”[3] While “free-grace” proponents assert that what they bill as “Lordship salvation” is a departure from sola fide, the departure from repentance and submission to Christ improperly divides the offices of Christ and only accepts Christ as priest but not the whole person. Faithful soteriology should maintain the inherent tension between justification and obedience. That tension guards the Church from falling away from the truth on either side of this issue. While not effectual unto justification, obedience is a simultaneous effect and proof of justification and necessary for salvation.

Iustitia Sola Fide Apart from Obedience for Salvation

Justification refers to a believer’s standing before a holy God and is based on the merits of Christ apart from any works of a believer. Demarest identified and defined the doctrine of justification in three traditions: Pelagianism, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism. He noted that Augustine interacted with Pelagius who saw justification as “the process of moral improvement.” Contemporarily, modern liberals and Universalists — in step with Pelagius — assert the inherent goodness of the human soul means that justification cannot be forensic but must mean “divine approval of positive human responses.” He then explained that the Roman Catholic church understands justification to be a two-part process: first, the infusing of a righteous, justified nature through baptism into the Church, and second, the life-long process of growth in the life of the believer. At the end of this age, the Catholic will trust in both the infused righteousness of Christ and the good works that infusion enables. Demarest continued on to explain how the Arminian view asserts that justification is not a forensic declaration of a believer’s present reality and verdict but does enable righteousness. By contrast, these views do not reflect the position of Protestant Reformers. Demarest wrote,

The Reformation interpreted justification as God’s judicial declaration whereby, for the sake of Christ, he freely pardons sins and reckons believers as righteous and worthy of eternal life…Justification, moreover, is an instantaneous event rather than a lifelong process of moral and spiritual renewal. According to Reformation theology, the ground of justification is Christ’s righteousness imputed to the believer.[4]

An instantaneously imputed righteousness is contingent on faith in Jesus Christ but merited by grace alone even apart from the believer’s participation or cooperation. Against the notion of a believer’s participation with grace for justification, Luther wrote, “The righteous are not wholly perfect in themselves, but God accounts them righteous and forgives them because of their faith in his Son Jesus Christ.”[5] Later, Calvin protested the Roman charge that iustitia sola fide minimized the necessity of good works and wrote,

Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him. These blessings are conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie…Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works, since in the participation of Christ, by which we are justified, is contained not less sanctification than justification.[6]

Calvin upheld sola fide apart from obedience completely without setting up a false dichotomy between faith and obedience as if they operate independent for salvation. Contemporarily John Frame offered a few thoughts that can summarize justification’s relationship to obedience while preserving its distinction. Justification is totally independent of sanctification, but salvation is dependent on submission to Christ as Lord. Repentance and faith are necessary for salvation, but are two words that describe the “same heart-attitude.” Sanctification, adoption, and justification are not the same and confounding them is unorthodox.[7] Instead, Frame suggested, “The best language, perhaps, that [they] are inseparable. They are not synonymous, nor is one the ground of the other. But they are never found apart, and each proves the presence of the other.”[8] Therefore, obedience is an inseparable companion of justification. If obedience is not present, it is unlikely that justification is either.

Textual Basis for the Obedience of Faith

By this point, the foundation for iustitia sola fide has been proved, but lest the thesis of this paper be misread at any point, justification is the forensic present reality of every believer who has placed his or her faith – repentance, per Frame – in the Lord Jesus Christ. Inseparable from this judicial reality is the obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ. Gaffin wrote, “In the lives of those justified by faith there is a positive or synthetic relationship between faith and works, a constructive bond between faith and what faith does.” He also helpfully referenced what he calls the “bookends of Romans [which] bracket its teaching as a whole.” Gaffin wrote that Paul captures that aforementioned bond with the phrase “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5-16:26). For Paul, according to Gaffin, the end of the gospel is “the obedience of faith.”[9]

Ephesians 2:8-10

Gaffin also noted that the “most instructive single passage in Paul in this respect is one just alluded to, Ephesians 2:8–9, together with verse 10.” He aptly noted that within the discourse unit the root ἑργον is used in two antithetical ways. “On the one hand (vv. 8–9), saving grace, through faith, stands implacably opposed to ‘works’.” That same grace, however, “functions as the power to produce ‘good works’.” It is instructive that Paul uses the root ἑργον in two different senses. The first case condemns the works of the flesh that one trusts in over and above faith in Christ for justification alone. The second usage refers to the works that flow out of a justified heart. Note, also, that the good works had already been planned – presumably as a compliment to the believer’s election unto salvation.[10]

Galatians 2:15-16

It is with this text that this thesis must wrestle most concisely. Frankly, the redemptive context and historical context is too great to give this text the attention it needs in such short of a paper. Within this passage is woven the history of the Reformation and the development of the New Perspective. A superficial survey will have to suffice. Of course, Timothy George provided an excellent survey of the interpretive theories. First, George commented that some have theorized that this passage reference strict legalism and adherence to the Mosaic law; he, however, argued that Paul’s condemnation was of the notion that works can achieve justification. George also mentioned and noted the limitations of the New Perspective argument. He explained that Dunn understood Paul “was protesting Jewish exclusivism by denouncing the way such “identity markers”. [11] In doing so, Jews were excluding Gentiles from the covenantal nomism that would precipitate their justification. Ironically, covenantal nomism is actually a form of works-rightousness that Paul condemns here. Persevering as a part of the community for future justification is not iustitia sola fide. Instead, George proposed, Paul’s ἔργων νόμου referenced the Mosaic legislation, which Paul would later explain could only serve as a guardian and never give life.[12] In Galatians, obedience flows from walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Romans 3:23 features almost parallel formulations; in this context, Paul was arguing that the ἔργων νόμου still could not bring about imputed righteousness. Paul was consistent across Galatians and Romans for asserting that justification was by faith alone, but genuine justification was inseparable from an “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5, 16:26).

James 2:24

This text often gets brought up often in discussions about sola fide. This text, however, is so important to understanding that genuine justification is inseparable from obedience. Gaffin wrote that he could not improve upon J. Gresham Machen’s statement, “as the faith which James condemns is different than the faith that Paul commends, so also the works which James commends are different than the works which Paul condemns.”[13] This is a perfect reconciliation of Paul and James. Paul condemns those who looked to their works for justification, and James condemns those who look to their justification because of their good works, or as Moo highlighted “[good works as] charity”.[14] Although it’s not immediately evident within the epistle, the gospel is very much in view even when James writes καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον. Moo showed how James has a very clear understanding that Christians are brought about by the “word of truth” by the will of God; he continued by showing that James sees “the implanted word” as able to save. Moo saw James appealing to the free nature of this implanted word, which is able to save souls and sees him urging his readers to “humbly accept the word” and demonstrates that “accepting the word requires doing it.” Further, Moo noted that it is in 1:15 James shifts from λόγος to νόμος to “underscore the demand that God’s word makes upon his people (v.25). Finally, Moo wrote that James 1:19-2:26 are actually united by common theme.[15] Obedience as evidence that one has humbly received the word, which can save souls. Concurringly, Martin wrote,

James is not belittling the importance of faith in 2:24. His use of μόνον shows that faith alone is not enough…The inclusion of the adverb demonstrates that faith demonstrated – not proved or earned – by works is the essential part of salvation. James is disturbed at a faith that has no works to demonstrate its reality in the life of a believer. Paul would not accept the understanding espoused by some in James’ church situation that faith without works is acceptable to God as his epistles are full of exhortations to live a live in manner worthy of those who have been called. (Eph. 4:1, Gal. 5:6, 1 Cor. 13:2, 2 Cor. 9:8; cf. Col 3:17; see also Matt 7:15-21)[16]

It is quite clear that, while some persist in seeing a false dichotomy between Paul’s understanding of justification by faith and James’ justification by works, there, simply, is no dichotomy. James espouses a coherent, robust understanding of the inseparability of faith and works. Works cannot justify one, but one cannot be justified without works. A Christian certainly cannot be saved without total obedience to Jesus Christ.

So-Called “Free-Grace” Objections to Obedience Unto Salvation

Theologians are correct to protest any statements that erase the distinction between justifying faith (or as Frame suggested, repentance) and obedience. Perhaps “free-grace” theologians allow their zealous supererogation to maintain a confession above the biblical text. For example, Ryrie wrote, “The message of faith only and the message of faith plus commitment of life cannot both be the gospel; therefore, one of them is a false gospel and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel (Gal 1:6–9).” He also wrote that repentance – a “work” in his mind – is not necessary for salvation[17] Zane Hodge asserted “the inward conviction that what God says to us in the Gospel is true. That—and that alone—is saving faith.”[18] One must pause and ask Hodges if he believes that Jesus’s call to Simon Peter and Andrew was only existential (Matt 4:17-18). It seems clear from the text that the call to discipleship required of them the simultaneous “inward conviction” of Jesus’ trustworthiness and actually following Jesus. Could they possess a genuine inward conviction without leaving their nets? Of course not! David Anderson asserted that “lordship salvationists insist that one be a fruit inspector until ‘his last gasp’ in order to be assured of his salvation…all much persevere in good works until they die to be ensured of entrance to heaven.”[19] This overlooks the forensic reality of that justification supplies in the present. Believers persevere in obedience precisely because they have already been justified by faith (Δικαιωθέντες…ἐκ πίστεως, Rom 5:1).

Historically, the Reformers have taught that assurance of salvation is absolute because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness at the moment of justification. For example, Luther taught, “We must by all means believe for a certainty … that we are pleasing to God for the sake of Christ.” Demarest wrote, “Calvin held that believers should possess a basic assurance of present and future salvation. This is so objectively, as faith lays hold of the biblical promises concerning the Father’s elective purpose and the Son’s atoning work. And it is true subjectively through the Spirit’s ministry in the inner life.”[20] John MacArthur, helpfully, wrote on a popular level that the free-grace position proposes that a believer can “have Jesus as Savior and Friend here and now and decide later whether you really want to submit to His authority or not.”[21]


A cursory reading of many books and articles on the relationship between justification and obedience displays the complexities of this topic. While in many ways the Reformation settled the nature of biblical justification, each generation must wrestle with this issue to preserve the balance between justification and obedience. This essay has demonstrated that salvation requires both justification and obedience. It surveyed the historical context of the initial discussion, examined a few passages, and interacted with a few objections. This essay, however, has sought to do nothing more than maintain the inherent tension between justification and obedience, which protects the Church from extreme conclusions. Faithful soteriology should maintain the inherent tension between justification and obedience. While not effectual unto justification, obedience is a simultaneous effect and proof of justification and necessary for salvation.

[1] “Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works” John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 386.

[2] Tim Chester, “The Northern Training Institute Papers No 12: March 2008: Justification, Ecclesiology and the New Perspective,” Themelios: Volume 30, No. 2, Spring 2005 (2005): 6.

[3] Bruce A. Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 265.

[4] Ibid., 347-358.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 27:228 in Bruce A. Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 359.

[6] Calvin, 386.

[7] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 959-971.

[8] Ibid., 971.

[9] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Paternoster, 2006), 101.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Timothy George, Galatians, vol. 30, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 194-5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Paternoster, 2006), 104.

[14] Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 140.

[15] Moo, 79-80.

[16] Ralph P. Martin, James, vol. 48, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 96.

[17] Charles C. Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody, 1969), 170-176.

[18] Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1989), 31.

[19] David R. Anderson, Free Grace Soteriology (Xulon Press, 2010), 241-242.

[20] Bruce A. Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 359-360.

[21] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 30-31.

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