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The Doers of the Law are Justified

Question: The apostle Paul speaks of judgement according to our works (Romans 2). The person who has endeavored after good will receive eternal life. Furthermore, the apostle Paul states that ‘the doers of the law are justified’. Does that mean that we are saved by works?

Answer: No, it does not mean that we are saved by the merits of our works, but it does mean that those who are saved abound in good works by which they are identified, distinguished from the lost, and for which they are rewarded on that Day.

Let take a closer look at Paul’s argument of the first chapters of Romans. In chapter 1, Paul begins his presentation of the gospel by showing that the Gentiles are sinners and therefore are under God’s wrath. In chapter 2, Paul focuses on the Jews. He shows that they too are sinners despite their many privileges (including their knowledge of the Law of Moses and circumcision). In chapter 3, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat as far as sin and guilt is concerned, and offers a single solution to the universal sinful condition of humanity - the righteousness of God through faith in Christ.

Immediately after reading Romans 1, a Jew might have responded, ‘Yes, the Gentiles deserve God’s wrath because they are sinners!’ Anticipating this attitude, Paul responds: ‘Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things’ (Romans 2:1). He exposes the hypocrisy of the religious Jew, warning him that the true character of man will be exposed on the Day of Judgement.

As the Scriptures teach elsewhere (e.g. John 5:28, 29), Paul states that those who habitually do good will enter into the joys of heaven, whereas those who habitually do evil will be cast into hell (Romans 2:6-11). This is in perfect agreement with the doctrine of justification by faith – for the living faith of true believers is always manifest in godliness and good works. They are not saved because they are morally perfect (the most godly saints confess their sins every day) – yet, though imperfect, their holiness is genuine and true, the fruit of a regenerate heart and a living faith, and it is their distinguishing mark on that Day.

As an aside, let us note that the Protestant sola fide - justification by faith alone - has nothing to do with antinomianism or ‘easy believism’ of many contemporary ‘evangelicals’. We have no intention to defend this damnable perversion of the Gospel when we deal with the errors of Catholicism. Historically, Protestants taught that faith alone is the instrument of justification, while emphasizing that the genuine faith is never alone in the Christian but is always accompanied by repentance, good works, obedience and holiness.

Continuing in Romans 2, the Jew may have rested on the fact that he, unlike the Gentile, had the Law of God. The apostle reminds him that the Law cannot help him. The Law will justify him only if he obeys it; but it will condemn him if he does not. ‘For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.’

What does the apostle Paul mean when he writes that ‘the doers of the law will be justified’ (Romans 2:13)? Is he preaching salvation by human works? Does the apostle Paul mean that some people will be justified because they have obeyed the law? Most certainly not, for he cannot contradict what he explicitly states elsewhere: ‘Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law’ (Romans 3:28); ‘By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified’ (Galatians 2:16).

Nor does he propose two methods of justification, the first by obeying the law, the second by faith in Christ! There is one Gospel, one way of justification, and that is by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law – ‘knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law’ (Galatians 2:16).

Paul sets the principle of strict justice – those who obey the law perfectly will be declared righteous. But that is no comfort for any of Adam’s children. Honestly facing the Law of God will convict the Jews and the rest of us of our guilt and the dire need for grace. In fact Paul goes on to accuse the Jews that they did not keep the law even though they boasted so much about it. He concludes that Jew and Gentile are all law-breakers (Romans 3:9-20).

Sadly some continue to take Romans 2:13 out of context to teach justification by works. They contradict the very conclusion the apostle Paul reaches, namely, ‘Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin’ (3:20).

Paul’s argument in Romans is analogous to Galatians 3:10-13: ‘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.’ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’ Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).’

Paul states that ‘the man who does them (i.e. the precepts of the law) will live by them.’ Taken in isolation, this sentence gives the impression that one could be saved through the law. Yet it is clear from the context that Paul is setting forth this principle to demonstrate that no one is actually saved on this basis! ‘But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident.’ Moreover, he would not allow law-keeping as an adjunct to faith for justification. It’s either faith or works of the law: ‘the law,’ he states, ‘is not of faith.’

So, in summary, justification is by faith in Christ and not on account of personal obedience to the Law. Indeed we must be justified by faith because we have failed to keep the law perfectly, and therefore we would otherwise be condemned by the same law. On the other hand, true believers, the justified, are characterized by a life of godliness and holiness, and therefore the Bible also teaches that those who do good will receive eternal life. The balance of biblical truths is beautiful.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi