Paul Contra Final Salvation Through Works (Romans 5:9–10)

For many evangelicals and for some ostensibly Reformed folk it has been fashionable for the last several years to teach that we are justified now by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), based on Christ’s righteousness imputed, but that because salvation includes sanctification and sanctification entails works, we shall finally be saved, as they say, “through good works.” One prominent evangelical organization published the thesis: “You are not saved by faith alone. Be killing sin.” Thus, what this two-stage approach to salvation gives with the right hand (initial justification sola fide) it takes away with the left (final salvation through works).

Most of the Federal Visionists are explicit about their rejection of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and about their rejection of imputation on the basis of justification. Some of them, however, cleverly affirm initial justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and one of them even affirms the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. Remember, however, for them, there is a second stage. Others, who style themselves opponents of antinomianism but who do not identify as Federal Visionists, also teach a two-stage doctrine of salvation and final salvation through works.

Make no mistake about it. This is an intentional revision of the Reformation doctrine of salvation. Their goal is that Christians should be more sanctified and produce more good works, but they are dissatisfied with the Reformation doctrine of justification, sanctification, and glorification by grace alone, through faith alone. They do not believe that good works are nothing but the fruit and evidence of justification and sanctification. They do not accept the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. They reject the notion that sanctification is, as Walter Marshal wrote, a “gospel mystery,” and that there is not a straight line to sanctification. They reject the notion that progressive sanctification is the fruit of justification and that good works are the fruit of progressive sanctification. For more on these various revisions and rejections of the Reformation doctrine of salvation see the resources below.

Justification And Salvation in Romans 5:9–10

Considering the proposed revisions let us consider briefly how Paul thinks about the nature of both justification and salvation and how he relates the two in Romans 5:9–10. Paul writes,

Since we have now been justified by his blood how much more shall we be saved from wrath through him? Because if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, by how much more shall we be saved by his life? 1

The two-stage view depends 1) upon the notion that there is an initial justification and a final salvation; 2) that initial justification is through faith alone but final salvation, because it involves our sanctification and sanctification is by grace and cooperation with grace (i.e., by grace and works), is through works.

The first premise is manifestly contrary to the Pauline doctrine of justification and salvation in several places including this one. We have been saved (Eph 2:8) by grace alone, through faith alone. In this passage Paul is teaching us that the future aspect of our salvation, (i.e., the consummation of our salvation), is also by grace alone, through faith alone. Works are never instrumental in our justification, our sanctification, or our salvation taken as a whole.

It is true that salvation is or can be a comprehensive category. It is also true that the Westminster Divines were aware of this when they said justification “is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC, 33) and sanctification “he work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC, 35). The divines never mention our works in connection with or as instrumental to our justification or sanctification.

The Divines spoke this way because this is what Paul teaches us. We have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from the works of the law (Rom 3:24, 28; 4:1; 5:1; 8:1). Sanctification is being worked in us. It results in a change in us. We do good works because we have been freely justified and because we are being freely sanctified (Rom 7:4; Eph 2:10; 5:9; Col 1:10; Phil 1:11; 2:13; Gal 5:22; James 2:14; 3:13). We are being conformed to the image of Christ. Mortification (putting to death of the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man) is being worked in us by the gracious, gradual work of the Spirit.

According to Paul in Romans 5:9 we have already been justified. There is and can be no future justification. That we were already justified will be declared at the judgment. The Reformed describe that as vindication. We are not out on bail in this life. There will be no future justification or re-adjudication beforehand for believers. God has already issued his declaration for all who are in Christ.

The means of our justification is the blood of Christ, which is a synecdoche, i.e., a figure of speech in which the part (Christ’s blood) stands for the whole namely, Christ’s substitutionary, actively suffering obedience in our place. That much is clear enough from what Paul says here in these two verses.

This is why Paul says, in both verses, “shall be saved.” Note well the passive voice. It is something that is done for us by God. We are not saving ourselves. We are being saved and were we to think about how God saved Noah and family or the Israelites at the Red Sea, two paradigmatic examples of salvation, we understand right away why Paul uses the passive voice. Noah and family were saved. They did not save themselves not even in the littlest bit. The Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. “For it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:8).

According to v. 9, the instrument of our salvation is Christ. Paul says we were saved from wrath “through him.” Christ saved us. Notice too how Paul moves from the past tense, (i.e., from something that has already been accomplished), to the future tense. It too is in the passive voice. We were saved. We shall be saved. In both tenses we are the recipients not the agents of salvation.

By nature, after the fall, we were incapable of contributing to our salvation because, by nature, we were God’s enemies. We might say that Paul is not speaking strictly or properly here. He is speaking as though faith and the things of which faith lays hold are one thing: Christ and his death for us. That is how and why he speaks of Christ and his death as the instrument of our salvation.

By contrast, the medieval church (followed by Rome) came to postulate that though we were sick, like the man lying by the side of the road (Luke 10:29–33) we can still cooperate with God’s medicinal grace. Paul, however, says that we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1). We “were reconciled” to God. Christ did that for us, in our place. Again, we are passive recipients of the benefits of Christ’s obedience for us.

The instrument of our reconciliation is Christ’s death (“through the death of his Son”). Since we have been freely reconciled to God how much more “shall we be saved.” Again, notice how, in v. 10, the future aspect of salvation is in the passive voice. Even in future, at the judgment, it is something done for us and given freely to us. We are merely grateful recipients of God’s free salvation. We are not co-workers or partners or contributors.

How shall we be saved in future? “By his life.” Here the ground and instrument of the consummation of our salvation is not our works at all. It is Christ’s works for us. It is in no way by our life that we are saved and in every way by Christ’s life.

Christ is the last Adam (Rom 5:12–21). We are only Adam’s children and God’s adopted sons, in Christ. Christ was in the wilderness doing battle with Satan for forty days. He was crucified. He died. He was raised. He ascended. We are the beneficiaries of his active suffering obedience. Insofar as he acted for us, as our representative, we are united to him legally. By the grace of the Spirit, through faith we are mystically united to him now. We live our Christian life by faith in the Son of God who gave himself for us (Gal 2:20).

To paraphrase John Cleese (in the Monty Python “Parrot” sketch), “our works don’t enter into it.” Our good works are nothing but the natural (or perhaps better, supernatural) consequence of having been justified, having been saved, and of being graciously and gradually sanctified.

It was in April of 1521 that Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms. His stance was right. Scripture and evident reason are clear. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. Acting against a biblically-formed conscience is neither safe nor right. It may be trendy, in some circles to revise or even flatly reject the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide but do not do it. The teaching of Scripture is clear enough to repel the revisionists.

1. πολλῷ °ον μλλον δικαιωθέντες νν ν τ αματι ατο σωθησόμεθα διʼ ατο πὸ τς ργς*. ε γὰρ χθροὶ* ντες κατηλλάγημεν τ θε διὰ το θανάτου το υο ατο*, πολλ μλλον καταλλαγέντες σωθησόμεθα ν τ ζω ατο·(Romans 5:9–10; NA28). I take both vv. 9 and 10 as rhetorical questions on the basis of the dative πολλ which seems to signal an interrogative. The Christian Standard Bible recognizes the dative but does not form a question.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Is the basis for this “final salvation” teaching a fear of antinomianism, an antidote to “lazy Christians”, or a fundamental desire to somehow appropriate part of the glory for our salvation from God?

    • Bob,

      It seems fairly clear that the primary impulse behind such revisions of the doctrine of salvation is to combat antinomianism. E.g., Piper has written at some length against Robert Sandeman (Sandemanianism), a precursor to the “free grace” movement among Dispensationalists. He inherited this from Daniel Fuller, who also reacted against antinomianism. The reaction against antinomianism into (neo)nomianism goes back, through Richard Baxter, to the first half of the 16th century. There were neonomianan reactions even among some of the Lutherans in the 1550s.

    • Bob, I recently came across an excellent treatment of this topic by C. FitsSimons Allison. the Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter. In it he points out how the Reformed doctrine of justification was lost in the Anglican Church and beyond. How pragmatism gave rise to a religion of self control and not redemption. The natural man can only understand penalty for sin and reward for doing good. Only the regenerate can understand obedience as a consequence of love to God, for undeserved, free salvation in Christ. The government controlled church in England and elsewhere, wanted to use religion to control the masses, most of which were not regenerate. To these unregenerate masses, it was feared, justification by grace alone would become a licence for disobedience to the law. So the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” was replaced by the “imputation of faith.” “Faith was reconstrued to mean OUR ‘sincere endeavours’ and OUR ‘sincere endeavours, not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, eventually became that with which we are justified.” p. 204
      “Rampant fear of antinomianism, profound social and religious upheavals,” were behind the this pragmatic change in the soteriology now preached in the churches. So another gospel came to replace the true gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. Instead of the instrument that grasps Christ, by trusting only in His righteousness, faith now included obedience to the law, as a requirement, and was preached as necessary for salvation. Another gospel replaced the true one.

  2. A one-verse entry into the discussion on antinomianism and (neo)nomianism for me is Romans 3:31. We establish the Law; the Law doesn’t establish us.

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