Works in the Book of Romans

by Irvin Himmel
via Truth Magazine XXIII: 2, pp. 43-45, January 11, 1979

Frequently Paul mentions works or deeds in his epistle to the saints at Rome. Whatever he means by "works," the term expresses something opposed to grace and faith. He insists that justification does not find its source in works.

Let us take a look at some of his statements in chapters 3, 4, 9, and 11 in this connection.

"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).

This remark comes at the conclusion of a series of Old Testament quotations designed to show the Jew that he stood convicted of sin by the law in which he took so much pride. He could not keep the law without sin. When he sinned, the blood of bulls and goats could not take away his sins (Hebrews 10:4), so he became guilty before God. Consequently, no one could be justified in God's sight by the deeds or works of the law. For this reason, the righteousness or justification offered by God, witnessed by the law and the prophets, is manifested apart from the law.

Works and Boasting

"Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:27,28).

If a Jew had lived sinlessly under the law, he could have boasted of his accomplishment. He would have been justified by his human perfection, therefore by the law of works (his own spotless deeds) boasting would follow logically. However, no Jew attained such sinless perfection. The law made its subjects keenly conscious of guilt by pronouncing a curse on them. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them" (Galatians 3:10).

Justification comes through the channel of submissive faith, not by works of merit. This forever excludes human boasting about one's salvation. The law of faith rules out glorying. Justification by faith shuts out the deeds of the law.

Abraham's Justification

"For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scriptures? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (Romans 4:2,3).

The case of Abraham illustrates Paul's point. The Jews took pride in being the fleshly offspring of Abraham. Whatever facts about Abraham might be recited, the interest of the Jewish reader would be aroused. Abraham was not justified by the law of works. God did not count him righteous on the basis of human accomplishments or deeds of merit. The great patriarch's faith in God, demonstrated in obedience, was the foundation of his righteousness.

"Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:4,5).

Anyone who relies on his own labors to recommend him to God is expecting reward from God as a matter of debt. But we frail humans can no more earn salvation than a cowboy can lift himself off the ground by pulling on his own bootstraps. We need help from heaven. God provides that assistance through grace. Our reward is based, therefore, on divine grace, not on divine indebtedness to mankind.

The expression "to him that worketh not" must be kept in its context. The working under consideration is that which is apart from grace and faith. Paul is not saying, "to him that obeyeth not." He is describing the person who attempts to be saved by the law of works rather than the principle of faith. The one who "worketh not" in this passage is the individual who does not rely on his own deeds as if they could save without his showing faith in God, but recognizing his inability to merit God's favor, he exercises faith which is counted for righteousness.

Human Perfection vs. Forgiveness

"Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered" (Romans 4:6,7).

There are two possibilities relating to how man might be accepted before God: (1) by sinless deeds; (2) by forgiveness. The first of these possibilities would make grace needless and would allow human boasting. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul showed the universal need for salvation by demonstrating the sinfulness of both Gentiles and Jews. This leaves the second possibility as man's only hope. The quotation from David confirms what Paul has said already. Righteousness is imputed without works (apart from our trying to work or merit our way into acceptance) through the forgiveness of iniquities. The phrase "without works" does not mean without obedience to God. The contrast is not between faith (in the sense of mental assent) and obedience; the contrast is between faith (in the sense of submission) and works (in the sense of spotless deeds that would leave one without guilt).

God's Purpose Not Built on Human Merit

In the Old Testament, it is clear that God made certain choices in working out the plan of redemption. He chose Isaac, not Ishmael, as the heir. He chose Jacob, not Esau. The choice was made before Jacob and Esau were born, "...that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth" (Romans 9:11).

Abraham and Sarah worked up a plan to try to help God. Ishmael was born. God was not impressed with their little scheme. His purpose does not rest on such works. He made a determination relating to Jacob and Esau before they were born. The eternal purpose of God reflects His own will. Human works or actions are not the source of the scheme of redemption.

Jews Relied on Works

God's gracious plan includes both Jews and Gentiles. Although the Jews had the law of Moses to tutor them in preparation for the gospel, the Gentiles proved to be more receptive to the offer of forgiveness.

"But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law" (Romans 9:31,32).

Moses' law was "the law of righteousness." At the same time it was "the ministration of death" (II Corinthians 3:7). It brought death and condemnation by pronouncing a curse on all who fell short. It was righteous within itself, and it was designed to bring true righteousness by pointing the Jews to Christ (Romans 10:4). But they tried to attain justification by the deeds of the law (which they could not keep) apart from Christ. So they were seeking righteousness, not by faith in Christ, the fulfillment of the law, but by the works of the law, which works could have commended them to God only if they had kept them to perfection.

The vast majority of the Jews were lost because they were relying on the rites and ceremonies of the law of Moses. A remnant remained "according to the election of grace." This refers to the relatively few Jews who were willing to follow the Messiah.

"And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Romans 11:6).

The "election" is the way of salvation: This is by grace, not by works. Again, the word "works" does not refer to obedience to the Messiah, but rather the deeds of the law, or such works as provide room for boasting. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Paul Upholds Obedience

Having surveyed "works" in the book of Romans, let it be noted that all these deeds which Paul excludes from our justification stand opposed to grace and faith. In this same epistle Paul acknowledges that "obedience to the faith among all nations" (Romans 1:5) was the grand object of his receiving grace and apostleship. Obedience is the companion of grace and faith. It is through faith expressed in humble obedience to Jesus Christ that we receive what is made possible by grace.

The apostle taught in Romans 10:9, "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." Confessing with the mouth is essential to salvation. It is an action required of man. It is a part of justification by the principle of faith.

In the same letter the apostle taught that we are "baptized into Jesus Christ." We are buried in baptism then raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-5). This is included in our obeying from the heart to be made free from sin (Romans 6:17). Baptism, like confessing with the mouth, is a part of justification by faith. It is something that man must do, but it leaves no room for boasting. No one earns forgiveness by believing, confessing Jesus, and being baptized. The law of faith demands submission through these acts to receive what is freely provided by grace.

Confession and baptism do not belong to the "law of works." Paul never referred to the requirements of the gospel as works of which we could boast, nor did he put confession and baptism in the category of deeds opposed to grace and faith. The "works" excluded from the plan of salvation are not to be confused with faith which works (Galatians 5:6) in response to the grace of God.

Paul and James

Some imagine that James contradicts Paul on the subject of works. This is not the case at all. James speaks of "works" in a different sense. He refers to "works" as they express faith, whereas Paul speaks of "works" that stand in opposition to the law of faith. James asks, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" He proceeds to give a number of illustrations to show that faith without works is dead (James 2:17-26).

Just as Paul used Abraham to demonstrate man's inability to be justified by his own deeds without faith, James used the case of Abraham to show how faith blesses through works. He concludes, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."

Paul showed that human deeds, works of merit, are not the ground of justification; he affirmed that we are saved by grace through faith apart from accomplishments that would earn favor with God. James showed that saving faith is an active faith. We are justified by faith, but not a dead faith. Faith must work to avail. Therefore, we are justified by works in the sense of obedience.

Paul wrote about "works" in one category; James, about "works" in a different category. The teaching of one is in perfect harmony with the teaching of the other. Men have problems because they take their statements out of context, or else they attempt to make these statements crutches for some humanly-devised system of theology.