Of Justification by Faith and Works

I believe that we are saved by grace through faith and that our works as Christians come as a natural result of our faith being lived in our daily interactions. I recently read Of Justification by Faith and Works by William Law and was challenged to think harder about the relationship between faith and works.

Of Justification by Faith and Works: A Dialogue between a Methodist and a Churchman was written by William Law in 1760. You can find the complete text at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library with this link. Law’s best known work is A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which was a deep influence on John Wesley and others in the Evangelical revival. (Wikipedia contributors, “William Law,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=William_Law&oldid=227402439 (accessed August 11, 2008).

Of Justification by Faith and Works is written in a dialogue format with a Methodist providing questions and a churchman replying with lengthy responses. The content is primarily around the relationship of faith and works in the doctrine of salvation. The Methodist accuses the churchman of preaching “soul-destroying doctrine” of “salvation partly by faith, and partly by works; or justification by faith and works.” The churchman uses several lines of thought in response to the Methodist including:

  • Faith is the whole gospel system, including the call to works.
  • “It is true of the savior to say, that he is freely given of God, to be the savior of all men; but it is not true to say of salvation, that it is freely given to all men.”
  • Repentance and faith are works.
  • Christ’s work within us allow us to do any good works at all.

I appreciated the dialogue in which Law chose to write this content. It helped provide a small but important counterpoint to the assertions that he was making. This technique also increased the effetiveness of his argument. In the end, I disagree with several of the conclusions that Law draws in this dialogue, but it made me think harder about justification, faith and works than I have in a long time. I recommend this text to someone interested in thinking seriously about justification and how it relates to faith and / or works. Be prepared for theological engagement and english from the 18th century.

4 thoughts on “Of Justification by Faith and Works

  1. brandon cunningham August 25, 2008 — 3:43 pm

    I just checked your blog out and am saddened by the lack of responses on this topic! I think this a huge, possibly wonderful, and much needed conversation in the UMC (and for all Christians).

    What is salvation? How does one attain salvation? What is faith? Is it given or a choice of the human will? This is the watered down version of my own observations during my time in the church and at seminary. Tell me what you think. Many of the soap boxes I hear people shouting from are often composed either by an emphasis upon love of God or love of neighbor. As one of my professors put it, “there seems to be a long standing tension in the UMC between notions of piety (love of God) and mercy (love of neighbor.” While most Christians see the necessity of both, many seem to emphasize one over the other.

    Now, these conversations are about the nature of salvation and often not implicitly so. The driving force, however, behind these vast differences in opinion regarding the life of discipleship, at the root, are about salvation. So, here are a couple questions I’ve been thinking about. Has there been a tension created between piety and mercy, faith and works, in the UMC today? If so, why? Does it have to do with our understanding of the role of the human will in the process of salvation? What steps could be taken to begin a dialogue about this issue? Or, do you think I am completely off base by pointing to a discussion about the doctrine of salvation as largely lacking and much needed?

  2. I think that the tension that is often posited between love of God and love of neighbor is, in some respects, a nearly direct result of the shift in theology that occurred within the protestant movements of the 16th century. By abstracting faith into fiduciary faith, or the conviction on the part of the person in question that God has declared them just and hasimputed the righteousness of God unto them, there was, quite ironically, the shifting of the focus of justification as an act of God to, logically extrapolated, an act of the human being. While naturally such a focus is vehemently denied, it seem to be an unavoidable outcome of the presuppositions involved.

    Justification by faith is naturally contrasted with the more traditional understanding within Christendom that one is justified by faith and works. While such an understanding may, upon a cursory examination, shift the focus from the work of God to the work of the human being, ultimately such is not the case. Justification is, within this understanding, seen as formally caused not by a decree of God concerning the human being irrespective of their actual ontological state, but is formally caused by the presence of sanctifying grace within the individual. Thus, the declaration of justification is predicated upon the fact that the person who is declared just is, in fact, just, because of the transformation effected by God’s grace within them. Since the grace within the individual is an actual transformative reality, the ontological state of the justified person is properly and actually correlated relative to the declaration of justification. Thus, this interior transformation enables the ‘works’ that are the basis, per their relation to sanctifying grace, of the justified person’s justification through the faith by which they receive sanctifying grace.

    It seems to me that within this understanding the supposed tension between love of God and love of neighbor is best resolved, as justification necessarily flows, ultimately, from the love of God shed abroad in the human heart and creates, in actuality, the capacity within the justified person to love both God and neighbor. In fact, since justification is therefore predicated upon the aforementioned, (in a restated fashion) it would seem that for justification to be a reality would presuppose that such a tension is an irrelevant abstraction.

  3. brandon cunningham – I think there may be a blurry line between the work / actions of loving God and the work / actions of loving our neighbor. The work / actions of loving God, are most often expressed (perhaps explicitly) in the spiritual disciplines both public and private. I believe that an increase of spiritual works as understood in this way does not correlate with justification.
    I do think that you are right to assert that there is a need for a broader an deeper discussion of justification within the United Methodist Church. The focus at times can seem to be on God’s love for us to the detriment of considering our response to God’s love or the opportunity to love our neighbor.

    deviantmonk – I agree with your assessment of the presence of grace within a person that would determine her or his justification and also I appreciate your articulation that love of God and love of neighbor both flow from God’s initial love for the person. I am more appreciative of justification by faith and works now than before reading the article and the comments, but I do think that there is an experience of justification that is necessarily a response of faith, while sanctification may be a process of both faith and works.

    Further thoughts…
    Is there a difference in one’s actions / works / spiritual disciplines before or after justification? I think that perhaps they may move toward perfect love of God and neighbor whether before or after justification. I do think that at some point there is an experience of faith in which one accepts God’s love for oneself – whether a single moment or over a period of time.

    What do you think?

  4. Good thoughts Andrew. I think I want to clarify myself a bit, as I noticed the language I used didn’t convey what I wanted! (hate when I do that.) In regards to the presence of sanctifying grace- I guess I would want to clarify that it’s not merely the presence of sanctifying grace that brings about justification or determines it, but rather that because of the presence of that grace the ontological state of the person is transformed, thus justification is based upon that ontological change, rather than relative to the presence of grace within the individual. That is, because a person is made just they are declared just. A subtle clarification, but important. You maybe have intended that in your restatement, but I just wanted to make sure I stated myself lucidly!

    As for justification being an experience that is a response of faith, I would agree. Faith is that response to the touch of God’s grace. I think that part of the disconnect (at least for me in the past) tends to come from perceiving justification as a decree on God’s part rather than a transformative event.

    In regards to your question, I think that if there is a proper understanding of sin as privation, and the person apart from union with God as lacking sanctifying grace, then I think there is, of necessity, a difference that must be admitted. I don’t think that necessitates denying the ability of those who haven’t been justified the ability to perform good actions or to love in some way. And I was going somewhere with that, but I forgot…lol.

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