In Romans Chapters 3-5, Paul discusses how justification is by faith rather than works. The concept of salvation by faith is mentioned many times in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s writing and the Gospel of John. But the question which arises from this concept is, are works or obedience still required of us? Are we free to do whatever we want to?
As much as different Christian sects have tried to streamline answers to this question, I actually find that the New Testament gives at least two different perspectives. First, let’s look at how the Apostle James approaches this dilemma.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works” (James 2:14-22).
I think James is saying that faith can only exist when you are acting in obedience to God. He uses the obedience of Abraham to illustrate this. The point is not that you can “earn” your salvation by doing certain works. Rather, the idea is that you are saved by faith, but you have to follow God’s commandments in order for that faith to be genuine faith. But it is important to consider exactly what the faith that James speaks of entails. In James’s epistle, the only references to Christ are on two occasions when James refers to Jesus as Lord. Thus, the “faith” that James refers to, which is dead without works, seems to simply be a claim of faith in the Divinity of Christ. Contrast that with Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which the whole epistle is centered on what Christ accomplished for humanity through His death and resurrection. Thus, Paul’s references to “faith” encompass a lot more than James’s references to faith alone.
Getting back to the question of, if we’re justified by faith, does it matter what we do, take a look at Paul’s answer to that question in Romans.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1-11).
This is quite a different perspective from what James wrote. James’s answer had a very practical nature, highlighting the obedience of Abraham and Rahab to show that in order to have true faith you must do works in obedience to God.
In contrast to that practical explanation, Paul’s explanation is rather mystical, speaking of being joined with Christ in His death and resurrection and thus dying to sin and being raised to a new life where sin cannot dominate us. It is a very transformative message, and what Paul says is that we should consider ourselves to be vivified with Christ and free from sin’s dominion. What Paul implies in Chapters 7 and 8 is that believing in this transformation, rather than self-motivation to change one’s ways, is necessary to truly experiencing freedom from sin’s power. The next article takes a look at this in more detail.