In both the epistle to the Romans and the epistle to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul speaks of justification. To be justified is to be declared not guilty or to be declared righteous. There must be both a justifier and one who needs to be justified. God is the justifier. Every accountable man or woman is the one in need of justification. Obviously, the justifier is the one who has the right to declare one righteous and to set the means of justification for the one who wants to be declared righteous. And the lesser looks to the greater, the justifier, for what he is in need of – justification.
In both epistles, the apostle presents two ways to be justified before God. One way is to be justified through the works of the law, and more specifically, the law of Moses. The other way is to be justified through a system of faith in Christ.
The ground of justification through the works of the law is perfect obedience to the law. “Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘The man who does them shall live by them’” (Galatians 3:12). This means of justification would be for the sinless: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Galatians 3:10). Justification by works of the law is justification without pardon; it would be a debt owed by the justifier, without grace: “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Romans 4:4). It is a justification without faith: “For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect” (Romans 4:14). It is a system of justification without Christ: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21). This system of justification trusts in man’s ability to perfectly obey, and results in boasting: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Romans 3:27).
This first means of justification – justification through the works of the law – is not possible. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Jew so proud of the law of Moses needed to hear this loud and clear, for his contending for the law of Moses was to contend for that which could never justify him.
The only way to be justified is through the system of faith in Christ Jesus. The ground of justification through faith in Christ is the shed blood of Christ: “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Romans 3:24-25). This justification is for the sinner: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). While justification through works of the law is without pardon, justification through faith in Christ is with pardon: “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.’” (Romans 4:6-8). It is a justification by grace, where the reward is a gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). It is through Christ, by faith: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:24, 28). Truly, this is the only way any man or woman will be justified and declared righteous.
To say that justification by faith in Christ is a justification by faith-only, or faith apart from obedience, is to totally misapply the teaching of the apostle Paul. Paul was not contrasting justification by faith and works of obedience in Christ with justification by faith-only in Christ. He was contrasting justification by perfect keeping of the works of the law of Moses, which could not be attained, with justification by faith in Christ Jesus, a system of faith that includes not only forgiveness of sins but obedience! And James’ teaching cannot be ignored; some religionists throw out his letter or explain away his teaching in order to fit their theology of faith-only justification. But his writing is just as inspired as Paul’s. The Holy Spirit spoke through James in this way: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). The works James speaks of in that context is obedience.
The fact that justification is conditioned upon faith AND obedience to the commands of God does not imply that justification is merited or earned, nor that it is owed by the justifier. Who thinks that way?
Let us recognize Paul’s message: Justification can only be by the system of faith in Christ. It cannot be by works of the law of Moses, for no man could keep it perfectly. Only Jesus, both God and man, kept it perfectly, and in doing so He could be the sacrifice that can forgive our sins.