A Clay Jar

Encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:12 NIV)

What’s Wrong with Justification by Works?

One of the core principles of the Protestant Reformation was justification by grace alone. That works play no part in our justification. There is nothing I can do that will help me to earn my salvation. But why is that significant? What is wrong with works playing at least some part in our justification?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Our Fallen Human Condition

Any discussion of justification needs to start with the human condition and why we have any need to be justified. Most of us think that we are pretty good. Maybe a few rough edges. But I haven’t killed anyone. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I obey the law and pay all my bills. And I get along with most people. But that attitude misses out on the real human condition.

According to the Bible, we are all sinful. Romans 3:10-18 paints a pretty bleak picture of the human condition. You might read that description and think that it does not represent you fairly. That you are not nearly as bad as that. And indeed, few of us are as bad as we could possibly be. But how bad do we need to be to fall short of God’s holiness? Anything less than perfection, which we are not capable of, falls short. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23).

What Is Justification?

The Greek word dikaiosis is translated as justification in Romans 4:25 and Romans 5:18. According to Vines Complete Expository Dictionary, this word means “the act of pronouncing righteous.” The related verb, dikaioō, is variously translated as justified, justify, considered righteous, justifies, proved right, declared righteous, and several other related expressions.

Justification is essentially a legal term used to pronounce a person as having right standing. It does not itself mean that the person who has experienced legal justification has become guiltless. But, as far as the legal authority is concerned, they are considered to be guiltless.

In Christianity, justification means that God has declared an individual to be guiltless in his sight. And being guiltless, they now have right standing with God. We understand justification to be possible because of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. And it is applied to any individual who responds to God in faith.

Justification does not mean that I am now without sin. That is clearly not the case. Those of us who have been justified by God are still instructed to pursue personal holiness. We are to work to bring our lives into conformity with the judicial declaration of guiltlessness represented by justification.

Justification By Works

Works relate to salvation-oriented deeds that we perform. And there are two ways of looking at them. On the one hand, some see works as being something that helps a person, either in whole or in part, to earn or deserve their salvation. And in this scenario, salvation is essentially a reward given to a person because of their own accomplishments. This is what is often called justification by works.

The other perspective of works is that they are done as a result of salvation. I don’t work to earn salvation. Rather, I work because I have salvation. A salvation that was a gift, freely given to me by God. And my work is a natural outgrowth of that salvation. This is called salvation by grace and is discussed below.

A Reasonable Approach?

Justification by works seems quite reasonable, at least from a human perspective. We reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. That seems to be built into our social consciousness. And we naturally expect it to apply in our dealings with God. If I am good enough, I will be rewarded. If not, then I expect to be punished. And that is at the heart of most of the world’s religions.  

And Christianity is no exception to that. At least in many people’s view. There are many commandments found in the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments give us many instructions for how we should live. So, it is only natural that we would tend to view obedience to these commands as a prerequisite for our salvation.

Creeping into the Church

And, unfortunately, that sometimes becomes institutionalized within the church itself. A number of controversies in the history of the church have been over this issue of justification that depended, at least to some extent, on works. The conflict between Augustine and Pelagius in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, as well as the Protestant Reformation, were, at least in part, concerned with the nature of justification. What do I need to do to be saved?

And still today, there are many churches that require a certain level of conduct or appearance in order to be a part of that body. They do not generally claim that one’s salvation is based on these requirements. But they do seem to imply that they are necessary for a right standing with God.

What Is Wrong with This Approach?

Even though justification by works has a real appeal for us as humans, it will never get us into a right standing before God. There is just no way that any of us could ever measure up to God’s holiness. How good do we have to be in order to be accepted by a perfect God?

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in large part to address this issue. Some men had been teaching in the churches of Galatia that it was necessary to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses to be saved. But Paul was adamant that salvation was in no way dependent on either circumcision or obedience to the Law. In Galatians 2:21, he made it clear that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” No matter how good a person might be, they will never be considered righteous before God.

There is another significant issue with justification by works. If I was somehow able to follow the Law sufficiently enough to be justified, then I could easily be proud of my standing. After all, I worked hard to earn that righteous standing. And I might well come to believe that I deserved an eternal reward in heaven.

Justification by Grace: God’s Plan

But God leaves no place for us to have pride in our salvation. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, Salvation is a freely given gift from God. He offers it to us as a gracious gift that we receive through faith. There is nothing that we can do to earn this gift.

It does not matter how good you were. You cannot earn it. And regardless of how bad you might have been, you are not disqualified from receiving God’s gift of salvation. Your ethnic background, the color of your skin, your gender, or your social standing, none of that matters. God’s grace is freely offered to all.

The Philippian Jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved. I am sure that he was expecting a list of things that he would have to do. After all, the gods he would have been familiar with would have required something from him. But Paul’s response was simple. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31).

Why Grace Alone

Why has God chosen for salvation to be by grace alone, rather than also requiring us to do something to earn our standing? Surely, he could have done that had he wanted to. But it is clear that he has left no room for us to earn, even a little bit, our salvation.

I do believe that 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, especially verse 29, answers this question, at least in part. God has chosen the way he did so that no one could boast before him, taking pride in earning their salvation. God has given us a tremendous gift. And nothing should detract from the joy and gratefulness we have in that gift, including any thought of deserving it. He has done it all. And nothing I can do, or not do, will detract from his all-sufficient grace.


    The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

    If you have found value in this post, please consider subscribing to A Clay Jar so that you don’t miss any other posts. 

    9 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Justification by Works?”

    1. Sorry, I miss to add between John 6:44 & John 14:23, miss to add in between these two, John 8:34-36. Thank you in the name of the Son, amen.

    2. Thank you for publishing this article Ed Jarret, in the name of the Son, our Lord God, Jesus Christ, amen

      There is nothing I can do that will “help” me to earn my salvation.

      If that is the case, how can a unbeliever become a believer ? Is it not by repentance and staying on the scriptures (“a person shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God”) ? Or why did Jesus reply to the man that ask him “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus answered him” “Why do you ask me about what is good ? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17)

      By doing so, leaving according and keeping the commandments, pray for God’s grace and to eventually our Father in heaven draw us to his Son (John 6:45) and He and our Father in heaven, through the Holy Spirit, make a home in us (John 14:23).

      By leaving according and keeping the commandments, a person would be doing something to “help” to receive this grace.

      Appreciate your thoughts and comments Ed.

      Our Father in Heaven bless your new week in the name of the Son, our Lord God, Jesus Christ, amen

      • In the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22, it is not following the commandments that would earn salvation. If it was, then this man would seem to have accomplished that. But Jesus told him that there was something that he lacked. He needed to follow Jesus. And that necessitated that he first let go of what he had put his security in, his wealth. Following the commandments was not enough. Neither was giving his wealth to the poor. What was required was that he give up on his own efforts (obeying the commandments), and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus.

        It is indeed true that without the drawing of the Father, no one would come to Jesus. But that drawing does not negate our need to believe, to cease from our own labor and efforts to enter the kingdom, and simply commit our lives to Jesus. How does an unbeliever become a believer? You make a conscious choice to respond to the drawing of the Father, die to self, and surrender to him. And, when you do, you will experience the new life he came to give us.

        • Thank you for your reply brother Ed Jarret, in the name of the Son, our Lord God, Jesus Christ, amen

          And thank you for your good points and insight as well.

          But on my first message, I did not mention “earn” salvation, which to me is clear that it’s not earn, but by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). What I mention was of what a person must do to “help” to receive the grace of salvation. The drawing of the Father to the Son (John 6:45) is already the grace itself, in my understanding, which is follow by the “set you free” from the Son (John 8:34-36), which is follow by the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit make their home (John 14:23) on that individual making so the grace fulfilled.

          But again, my point is, what a individual must do to “help” to receive the grace ? Otherwise how can a unbeliever become a believer ? As you mention on your reply “You make a conscious choice to respond to the drawing of the Father, die to self, and surrender to him. And, when you do, you will experience the new life he came to give us.” So this are things that a person must do to “help” to receive the grace.

          Otherwise why would Jesus has said: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come and make our home with him (John 14.:23). And “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:10). And “you are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). So these are things we need to do to eventually receive His grace.

          Also several times in the book of Matthew, Jesus mention “repentance” (or die to self and surrender to him as you mention) and with the word “repentance” Jesus himself began preaching (Matthew 4:17).

          Appreciate your thoughts again brother Ed.

          Our Father in Heaven bless your day and all your family, in the name of the Son, our Lord God, Jesus Christ, amen

          • I suspect I don’t really understand your question to me. Let me try an illustration and see if maybe it will help.

            When I walk down the street in many large cities, there are people sitting and begging for money. I do not have to give them anything. And there is nothing they can do to earn a donation from me. But if I choose to give them something, what do they need to do in order to “help” receive my gift? They have to reach out and take it from my hand. Did reaching out and taking the gift in any way earn the gift? No! But it was something they had to do, otherwise they would not have received the gift.

            So, in our salvation, I am offered the gracious gift of salvation by God. I can do nothing to earn it. But I do need to reach out and receive it by faith.

    3. This was so well stated and supported by scripture as to make it understandable by anyone reading. I thank you for your diligence in making God’s precious word alive so others can know and believe.

      • Thanks for sharing and for your encouragement. It is my prayer that God would use this article, and everything else on this site, to further his kingdom’s work.


    Leave a Comment