BY RICH LUSK
Keeping the Law
Paul states just as emphatically as James that the doers of the law will be justified (Rom. 2:13; James 2:14ff). But who are these doers of the law? Is Paul speaking hypothetically of a class of sinless people who do not really exist? Or does he have something else in mind?
Let’s start by unpacking what it means to keep the law. The law simply did not require perfect obedience. It was not designed for the angels or sinless humans. It was given to a fallen-but-redeemed nation at Sinai, and was perfectly adapted to their maturity level and ability. God was not mocking the people when he called on them to obey the whole law (Dt. 28:1ff). He had given them grace and they had no excuse for apostasy.
Law keeping in this context is not a matter of scoring 100% on an ethics test. It is not even a matter of scoring 51%. It simply doesn’t work that way. Conformity to the law was a matter of relationship, not something mechanical. The law called for a life of faith (Hab. 2:4), a life of full-orbed loyalty to the Lawgiver. If one sinned, one did not automatically become a “law breaker,” except in a highly technical sense. After all, the Torah made provision for sin in the sacrificial system. Law keeping included rituals for law breaking. If one repented by performing the proper offering, one maintained his status as a covenant keeper. Only apostasy itself constituted covenant breaking. All other sins could be dealt with within the confines of the covenant relationship .
Thus, David, despite his flagrant sin, was regarded as having kept the law (1 Ki. 15:5). Elizabeth and Zecharias were by no means sinless but are called “blameless” and “righteous” before God. They had not measured up to an abstract standard of moral perfection but they had done what the law required (Lk. 1:6). Paul, like the psalmists before him, often appealed to his own righteousness and blamelessness. He even claimed to have a clear conscience!
An illustration may help. If I say my 5 year old son is “obedient” I do not mean he is sinlessly perfect. I do not mean he never needs discipline. I am simply describing the overall shape, or pattern, of his life. As a way life, he obeys. As a habit, he obeys. And so forth. When the Bible speaks of people having kept the law, or walking blamelessly, it is not speaking in the highly rarified language one might use in systematic theology; rather, it is speaking in the everyday language of real life. It is a Father assessing the ethical condition and direction of his children.
Justification and Law Keeping
Calvin argues that Romans 2:13 is speaking hypothetically. If someone did the law, they could justified by works . . . but of course, no one does so, so “doers of the law” is an empty set. But what happened to using Scripture to interpret Scripture? Why not plug into Rom. 2 the people that Scripture says elsewhere did (or kept) the law? That makes far more sense than filling in Paul’s terms with our own notions of what “doing the law” might entail. The justification by works envisioned in Romans 2 cannot be any more hypothetical than the condemnation spoken of. Paul is simply pointing out the “two ways” we find everywhere else in Scripture (e.g., Proverbs). (Note also that the vindication promised to the obedient in Rom. 2 cannot be reduced to mere rewards piled on top of salvation itself. The whole context has to do with eternal salvation vs. eternal destruction.)
Several other texts bear on Romans 2. In James 1:22, James speaks in non-hypothetical terms of doing the law. Jesus is not kidding or messing around when he speaks of a future justification according to our words (Mt. 12:37; 25:31ff). When Jesus describes two paths — one leading to life, the other to death — he isn’t propounding a hypothetical way of salvation by walking the narrow path of obedience (Mt. 7:24). Rather, he is demanding obedience as a non-negotiable condition of salvation. When Hebrews says that without holiness, no man will see the Lord, it is not proposing holiness as a hypothetical plan of salvation by merit (Heb. 12:14). When Jesus requires cross bearing and life-losing as a condition of eternal life in the gospels (e.g., Lk. 9:23, Jn. 12:25), he means exactly what he says. And on and on we could go.
The White Robes of Righteousness
The symbolism of Revelation has a bearing on our theology of justification that often goes unnoticed. Revelation 3:4 and 19:8, 14 employ the image of a white robe given to the saints. But what is this white robe? Clearly, it links back to the priestly garments of the Levitical order. We find the priestly robes described in great detail in Ex. 28. In the New Covenant, all believers receive these clothes so they can minister in the Lord’s house as palace servants (cf. Gal. 3:27-8).
But how do they come to possess these robes? Do the robes signify the imputed righteous status of Christ? Or do they symbolize the righteousness of the saints? The lexical data does not solve the dilemma so we have to look to the broader teaching of Scripture. In Zechariah 3, we have a prophetic narrative of Joshua being clothed in white so he can stand in the Lord’s presence. On the one hand, the white robe is a gift of grace. Joshua is stripped of his filthy garments, symbolizing his sin, and given the clothes of another (3:1-5). On the other hand, this gift is not given apart from the requirement of obedience. Joshua can only continue to stand in the Lord’s presence if he obeys the Lord (3:6).
The initial clothing in white is received by faith alone. This is the beginning of Joshua’s justification. But if Joshua is to remain justified — that is, if the garments he has received are not to become re-soiled with his iniquity — he must be faithful. Thus, initial justification is by faith alone; subsequent justifications include obedience.
The plot thickens if we return to Revelation 3 and 19. Both these passages depict eschatological scenes. In Revelation 3 the final reward of the righteous is in view. The believers in Sardis already have their garments (3:4a), given presumably at conversion/baptism (initial justification). Those who have walked in faith have not defiled their garments. Therefore they shall go on living in the Lord’s presence because they are loyal to him. This is the same pattern we found in Zechariah 3: initial reception of the white garment is by faith alone; ongoing possession of the garment is maintained by faithful obedience. The Sardis saints are even said to become worthy of the white robes. Worth does not indicate merit, of course, but it does reveal God’s fatherly pleasure with their good works of charity and service in the face of intense suffering. Obedience is intrinsic to saving faith in this passage.
Revelation 19 does not develop the imagery with as much theological detail or precision, but nevertheless echoes the same pattern. The bride of the Lamb is robed in white linen, again, the garments of a priest. This white linen stands for the righteousness of the saints who compose the bride — righteousness received by virtue of her union with her husband, but also a righteousness worked out as she follows her Lord into battle.
The fluidity of these symbols suggests a certain fluidity in our doctrine of justification. The white robes stand first and foremost for Christ’s free gift to his people. Just as he is clothed in white (cf. Rev. 1, 19), so he clothes his people in white. Their “whiteness” before the Father’s throne is due solely to his death and resurrection. In this sense, the robes stand for initial justification. But this forensic justification cannot be separated from the good works that make the saints worthy of their new apparel. In other words, the poetic imagery points in the same direction as the theological prose of Paul (Rom. 2:13) and James (2:14ff): those who will be vindicated in the end are those who have been faithfully obedient. There is no hint of a merit theology in these passages, but there is no escaping the close nexus formed between priestly investiture, justification, and obedience. To the question, “Are the saints robed in Christ’s righteousness or their own obedience?”, the imagery of Revelation answers, “YES!” In other words, the word pictures drawn in this book do not support a rigid separation of justification from holy living. Justification and sanctification are of a piece, both symbolized by the same white robes.
Justification Now and Then
The Bible is clear: obedience is necessary to receive eternal life. There is no justification apart from good works. But more needs to be said about final judgment. What role will faith play? What role will works play?
Again, we find the Bible teaching that future justification is according to works. Final justification is to the (faithful) doers of the law (Rom. 2:1ff) and by those good works which make faith complete (Jas. 2:14ff). Justification will not be fully realized until the resurrection. In fact, the main reason justification comes up at all in the Scriptures is because someday we will all stand before God’s judgment seat and answer for our deeds done in the body. This makes the question of justification the most practical question of all.
In James 2, “justification” cannot be referring to a demonstration of justification, e.g., justification does and cannot mean something like “show to be justified.” Rather, James has in view the same kind of justification as Paul — forensic, soteric justification. Good works justify persons in James 2, not faith or one’s status as a justified sinner. James is not telling his readers how to “justify their justification” or how to “give evidence of a true and lively faith” . Instead he says their persons will not be justified by faith alone, but also by good works of obedience they have done. The use of the preposition “by” is important since it indicates a sort of dual instrumentality in justification. In other words, in some sense, James is speaking of a justification in which faith and works combine together to justify . Future justification is according to one’s life pattern. No one dare claim these works to be meritorious, but they are necessary. There is congruence between the life we live and the destiny we will receive.
To unpack this a bit further, we can reconcile Paul and James by taking into account the factor of time (something systematic theology, with its abstract methodology, tends to leave out). Initial justification — the pole the Reformers focused on in their disputes with Rome — is by faith alone. Hence sola fide must stand unchallenged. Final justification, however, is according to works. This pole of justification takes into account the entirety of our lives — the obedience we’ve performed, the sins we’ve committed, the confession and repentance we’ve done. At the last day, our works will not have any meritorious value. In that sense, even before the great white judgment throne, we will plead nothing but the blood and resurrection of Jesus. We will place no confidence in anything we have accomplished — even what God has done in us and through us! Nevertheless, God’s verdict over us will be in accord with, and therefore in some sense based upon, the life we have lived. Those who have done well (as a life pattern) and those who have done evil (as a life pattern) will be judged accordingly at the resurrection (cf. Jn. 5:29-30). Our profession of faith and our life’s work must match.
A Gracious Justice
The Bible clearly teaches that future judgment will be according to works. This was a common presupposition among Paul and his Jewish opponents. But how is this final judgment to be understood? What else can we say about it? Why would Paul insist that this future event is part of his gospel presentation (Rom. 2:16)?
Clearly, our works can never have any meritorious value. If God were to judge us according to strict justice, everyone would be condemned.
But the Bible nowhere says God will apply absolute justice at the last day. So why do we make that assumption? The only places where God enforces strict justice are the cross and hell. For the covenant people, at least, it seems God will use “fatherly justice” in the final judgment, not “absolute justice.” He will judge us the way parents evaluate their child’s art work, or the way a new husband assesses the dinner his beloved wife has made. The standard will be soft and generous because God is merciful. Our works will not have merit before God, but they will have worth precisely because of the covenant relationship we are in. (Again, compare this notion to those passages in Scripture which claim a particular saint is righteous, or has kept the law, or has done good, e.g., Jn. 5:29, Lk. 1:6, Ps. 7:8, Acts 13:22,etc. These examples show the kind of “soft” evaluation God makes of his people — and the kind of evaluation they should make of themselves and other covenant members. Remember, even David, for all his sin and folly, is regarded as a doer of the law in the Rom. 2:13 sense; cf. 1 Ki. 15:5.)
This is why judgment according to works is not something that undermines Christian confidence. We can have assurance because we are in Christ, and the Father will not evaluate us apart from him. Union with Christ and familial love form the lens through which the Father looks upon us and our works. We are appraised as sons and daughters, not as servants or slaves.
We can also rest assured that God will not judge us apart from our faith. Judgment according to works includes an evaluation of our faith. Good works, after all, are just the heart and soul of genuine faith. A judgment about works is really a judgment about faith, and vice versa. For example, it is not eisegesis to assume that the doers of the law in Romans 2 are those who have demonstrated the “obedience of faith,” rather tan those who have scored 100% on a moral exam. For Paul, as for James and the entire Old Testament, there is no sharp divide between faith and its fruit. Faith and obedience are integrated into a holistic response to God’s covenant grace. God is not looking for perfection from his people; rather he desires a core commitment of loyalty that overshadows everything else we do, no matter how badly we may fail from time to time.
We have a number of false presuppositions that keep us from dealing with this issue the way we ought. These mistaken assumptions make rather simple texts (e.g., Rom. 2 and Jas. 2) very opaque. Our framework of “absolute justice” rather than “familial love” taints our reading of key passages. We need to clear up our thinking and get back to the Bible.
Back to Biel?
I have claimed above that God’s judgment of us at the last day will be “soft.” That is, God will judge us as a Father and Husband, not as a cold, aloof Sovereign. Some might wonder: How does this not slide right back in the late medieval Pelagianism of Biel and others who, essentially, argued that Jesus had lowered God’s standards and made it possible for us to save ourselves by works?
Several comments should be made here. First, the soteriology I have offered is still thoroughly monergistic, whereas as the late medieval scholastics were moving in a decidedly semi-Pelagian and even full-Pelagian direction. They spoke of autonomous cooperation with God’s grace and so forth. I utterly reject that. Every last stitch in the garment of salvation is woven by God himself.
Second, I would insist on the utter sufficiency and uniqueness of Christ’s self-offering on the cross. He died in our place and for our sins. Nothing has to be added to that in order to secure our salvation. But the point of the cross is not just to remove sin in a legal, forensic sense. It is to destroy sin altogether. (I think this is a large subtheme in Rom. 6-8). God saves not only by removing the barrier of guilt, but also by renewing us to his image. If our salvation did not include the latter, it would be incomplete. By insisting on works for salvation, I am not saying we merit anything; rather I am claiming that God’s work of redemption is comprehensive. Ironically, those who seek to maximize grace by downplaying the requirement of obedience actually minimize grace because they truncate the wholeness of God’s saving action.
Third, the “softer” standard simply seems to be the teaching of Scripture. Pietistic Protestantism has created a sort of “holy worm” theology in which we are never allowed to “feel good” about anything we’ve done. We can never please God, no matter what Paul said we aim for (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9ff). Everything we do, no matter how noble or faithful, is tainted with sin and therefore worthy of condemnation.
However true that is in the abstract, it’s simply not the way Scripture evaluates things. The Bible repeatedly speaks of believers and their works as “good,” as “worthy,” and so forth. Calvin himself spoke quite frequently of God’s gracious forbearance and fatherly indulgence in judging believers and their works. (For quotations, see Lillback’s The Binding of God, e.g., 196, 197. Calvin focuses on God’s fatherhood when describing his evaluation of our works. That is an emphasis often missing in contemporary discussions of future justification.)
So emphasizing future justification according to a fatherly evaluation of our works does not fall back into the errors of medieval scholastic soteriology. If anything, it takes us back to Paul who proclaimed again and again that future justification by works was part of his gospel (Rom. 2:16). But how could this future judgment be good news unless it somehow includes consideration of our new status in Christ and our new relationship to God himself as our Father?
[Introductory note: Godet is not necessarily a household name in the Reformed world, but his commentary on Romans (as well as other writings) continues to be highly respected. While he had many theological shortcomings, we have found his comments on Rom 2:6 and 13 to be rather helpful in tying together Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone with his insistence that the doers of the law will be vindicated at the last day.]
Romans 2:6 – Ver. 6. “Who will render to every one according to his deeds.” — It has been asked how this maxim can be reconciled with the doctrine of justification by faith . . . Melanchthon, Tholuck, and others hold that this standard is purely hypothetical; it would be the standard which God would have applied if redemption had not intervened. But the future, “will render,” is not a conditional (would render). Besides, judgment according to the deeds done, is attested by many other passages, both from Paul (Rom. xiv. 12; 2 Cor. V. 10; Gal. vi. 6), from Jesus Himself (John v. 28, 29; Matt. xii.36, 37, etc.), and from other writings of the New Testament (Rev. xx.13). Ritschl thinks that throughout this passage it is a Pharisee whom Paul introduces as speaking, and who starts from a narrow idea of divine justice–the idea, viz., of retributive justice. But what trace is there in the text of such an accommodation on the apostle’s part to a standpoint foreign to his own? The logical tissue of the piece, and its relation to what precedes and follows, present no breach of continuity. There is only one answer to the question raised, unless we admit a flagrant contradiction in the apostle’s teaching: that justification by faith alone applies to the time of entrance into salvation through the free pardon of sin, but not to the time of judgment. When God of free grace receives the sinner at the time of his conversion, He asks nothing of him except faith; but from that moment the believer enters on a wholly new responsibility; God demands from him, as the recipient of grace, the fruits of grace. This is obvious from the parable of the talents. The Lord commits His gifts to His servants freely; but from the moment when that extraordinary grace has been shown, He expects something from their labor. Compare also the parable of the wicked debtor, where the pardoned sinner who refuses to pardon his brother is himself replaced under the rule of justice, and consequently under the burden of his debt. The reason is that faith is not the dismal prerogative of being able to sin with impunity; it is, on the contrary, the means of overcoming sin and acting holily; and if this life-fruit is not produced, it is dead, and will be declared vain. “Every barren tree will be hewn down and cast into the fire” (Matt. iii. 10). Compare the terrible warnings, 1 Cor. vi. 9, 10, Gal. vi. 7, which are addressed to believers.
Ver. 13. “For not the hearers of the law are just before God; but the doers of the law, they shall be justified.” — The judicial force of . . . “to be justified,” in Paul’s writings, comes out forcibly in this passage, since in the day of judgment no one is made righteous morally speaking, and can only be recognized and declared such. This declarative sense appears likewise in the use of the preposition “before” God, which necessarily refers to an act of God as judge. No doubt it is the Mosaic law which is referred to, but as law, and not as Mosaic. Some think that this idea of justification by the fulfillment of the law is enunciated here in a purely hypothetical manner, and can never be realized (iii. 19, 20). Paul, it is said, is indicating the abstract standard of judgment, which, in consequence of man’s sin, will never admit of rigorous application. But how in this case explain the future “shall be justified”? Comp. also the phrase of ver. 27: “uncircumcision when it fulfills the law,” words which certainly refer to concrete cases, and the passage viii. 4, in which the apostle asserts that . . . what the law declares righteous, is fulfilled in the believer’s life. It will certainly, therefore, be required of us that we be righteous in the day of judgment if God is to recognize and declare us to be such; imputed righteousness is the beginning of the work of salvation, the means of entrance into the state of grace. But this initial justification, by restoring communion between God and man, should guide the latter to the actual possession of righteousness–that is to say, to the fulfillment of the law; otherwise, this first justification would not stand in the judgment (see on ver. 6). And hence it is in keeping with Paul’s views, whatever may be said by an antinomian and unsound tendency, to distinguish two justifications, the one initial, founded exclusively on faith, the other final, founded on faith and its fruits. Divine imputation beforehand, in order to be true, must necessarily become true–that is to say, be converted into the recognition of a real righteousness. But if the maxim of ver. 13 is the rule of the divine judgment, this rule threatens again to overturn the principle of divine impartiality; for how can the Gentiles fulfill the law which they do not possess? Vv. 14 and 15 contain the answer to this objection . . .
1. An analogy with marriage might be helpful. A husband may sin against his wife in a myriad of ways (e.g., forgetting to take the garbage out, watching the game on t.v. when he should reading to the kids, etc.) without breaking covenant. The wife does not actually have grounds for divorce unless he “apostatizes” from the relationship by adultery or desertion. We have to distinguish the sin of covenant breaking itself from sins that do not rupture the covenant.
2. Granted, in James 2:18-21, he speaks of the evidential value of works — they show or prove the reality of our faith. But when James actually speaks of justification, he has persons in view (e.g, Abraham, Rahab), not their faith.
3. This is not a denial of sola fide or WCF 11.2 (“faith is the alone instrument . . . “). For one thing, when Paul points to faith as the unique receptor of justifying righteousness, he is speaking of initial justification. But it is indisputable that the biblical data on final justification brings works into the picture. Faith is always the sole instrument of justification in that faith alone lays hold of Christ. Works cannot lay hold of anything. But faith’s unique role in justification does not exclude other instruments functioning in other senses. Thus, works can become instrumental means (or “inferior causes”) in a different sense, as Calvin pointed out. Similarly, in some sense, baptism is an instrument of justification since in the sacraments Christ is applied to the believer and the believer is not justified until that application takes place (cf. WCF 11.4 and WSC 92). Frankly, we just don’t have the theological vocabulary at this point to do full justice to the richness of Scripture’s teaching, so some sloppiness is unavoidable.