(Scriptures are from the NRSV)
The Protestant Reformation will celebrate its 500th anniversary this fall. German, Roman Catholic priest Martin Luther started it by nailing his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Wittenburg Church. That document was mostly a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s indulgences. But Luther’s clarion call was for the Church to return to the biblical admonition called “justification by faith” as found mostly in two passages in the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters. Paul declares, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2.16). Paul also writes, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3.28).
The Church disagreed with many things that Luther protested against it, including justification by faith as Luther conceived of it. One of the biblical texts the Church cited to support its argument, that faith must be accompanied with works, was what Jesus’ brother James had written in his New Testament letter, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2.24). In fact, Luther questioned if that letter of James should have been accepted into the New Testament, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” When Luther later translated the Greek New Testament into German, at Romans 3.28 he added the German equivalent of the word “alone,” which was not in the Greek text, to the expression “justified by faith.”
Through the centuries, there was some confusion among Christians as to whether or not a person could merely claim to believe in Jesus and thereby receive God’s salvation or if it was necessary to also do some works. James also had explained, “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’ … faith apart from works is barren” (James 2.17-18, 20). Did Paul and James disagree?
In the past twenty years or more, several distinguished New Testament scholars have claimed Paul did not mean good works in Romans 2.28 and Galatians 2.16 which are righteousnesses accomplished by God’s Spirit in his people, as many had assumed Paul meant. This somewhat new view of Paul’s teaching on “works of the law” is called The New Perspective on Paul (coined by James D.G. Dunn). These scholars have said Paul means in those texts such works or regulations of the law of Moses that applied only to Jews, such as males being circumcised, keeping kosher, and observing feast days.
I think this makes sense because to interpret Paul’s “works of the law” in Romans 2.28 and Galatians 2.16 as righteousness, such as obedience to God’s moral commandments such as being loving, merciful, etc., would conflict with much of the Bible. For the New Testament has many exhorting believers to continue in faith and obedience in order to finally inherit eternal salvation in the afterlife as the following texts indicate.
The Necessity of Continuing in Christian Faith for Salvation
Matthew 10.22: Jesus said to his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (cf. 24.13).
John 8.31: “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’”
Romans 11.22: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.”1 Corinthians 15.1-2: “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.”
2 Corinthians 13.5: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!”
Colossians 1.23: God “has now reconciled” you to himself, “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith.”
Hebrews 2.2-3: “How can we escape” God’s judgment “if we neglect so great salvation.”
Hebrews 3.6: “we are of his [God’s] house if we hold firm the confidence”
Hebrews 3.14: “We have become partners with Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.”
Hebrews 12.25: “How much less will we escape [judgment] if we reject the one who warns from heaven?”
1 John 5.11-13: “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
The Necessity of Obedience for Salvation
Matthew 7.21: Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
John 3.36: Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”
John 10.27-28: Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
John 14.15: Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
John 14.21: Jesus said, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’”
John 15.1-2, 6: Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit…. such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Titus 1.16: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”
Hebrews 5.9: “He [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Hebrews 10.26-27: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury that will consume.”
1 John 2.3: “We may be sure that we know him [Jesus], if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist.”
1 John 2.24-25: “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised, eternal life.