The religions of this world have many different beliefs about what is required to be "saved." One of the most prevalent ideas is that an individual can receive salvation by simply "believing" and that his works—the way he lives—has no bearing on his salvation. This belief in salvation by faith alone is one that millions of sincere "Christians" strongly defend. And many of these will vehemently condemn anyone who believes that one's way of life has anything to do with being saved.
These people will often use Romans 3:28 to support their view. In this scripture, God inspired the apostle Paul to write that we are "justified by faith apart from the deeds [works] of the law." Some translations read, "without the works of the law." Lifted out of context, this verse at first glance seems to say that our obedience to God contributes nothing to our salvation, and therefore, salvation is by faith alone.
Is Paul really saying this? Are we to believe that we can enter God's Kingdom having spurned His laws and ignored His holy commandments? Does struggling against temptation and living a life of righteousness have nothing to do with attaining eternal life? What does this much-disputed and oft-quoted portion of scripture mean? When we study this verse in the context of Paul's letter to the Romans, we can fully understand what the apostle meant.
The Church at Rome
The church at Rome was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Based on some of Paul's statements at the beginning of his letter, it is obvious that a certain amount of friction existed between these two ethnic groups. A major problem was that the Jews regarded themselves as superior to the Gentiles. They felt this way because they were physical descendants of Abraham and thus were more familiar with God's laws than their Gentile counterparts. As a result, the Jews were quick to judge the Gentiles, who were still learning many things that the Jews had known from childhood.
Paul addresses this problem in Romans 2:1: "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things." Paul dishes out strong correction to those who accused others of disobedience to God's laws while they themselves did the same things. He warns them that they were facing the wrath of God if they continued in such attitudes and practices. "But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (Romans 2:5).
Paul goes on to explain how God judges people:
. . . who "will render to each one according to his deeds": eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek. (Romans 2:6-9)
Paul sums up his point in verse 13. "For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified."
That certainly does not sound like a "no-works" doctrine! Paul makes it abundantly clear in these verses that the manner in which we conduct our lives has a great bearing on whether we will receive eternal life or not!
All Are Guilty
In chapter 3, Paul explains that every human being who has ever lived (except Jesus Christ), regardless of race or ethnic origin, has sinned. "As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God'" (Romans 3:10-11). All of mankind stands guilty before God because all have broken His law and are condemned by it. "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God" (verse 19).
With Paul, we are forced to conclude: "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (verse 20). To be justified means to have our past sins forgiven and to have righteousness imputed to us. The apostle is saying that there is no way anyone can receive forgiveness of past sins by obeying the law. Present obedience does not do anything to wash away past iniquity. There has to be some other manner for sinners to receive forgiveness of past sins if they are to have hope of entering God's Kingdom.
In verses 21-22, Paul begins to explain how a sinner can receive forgiveness of past sins:
But now the righteousness of God apart from [that is, distinct and separate from] the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference. . . .
Here he explains that God has provided a means whereby we may receive forgiveness of sins and be accounted righteous in His sight. It is separate and distinct from obedience to the law. This forgiveness comes by having faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ!
He explains this principle further in verses 24-25:
. . . being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.
Justification is not something that one earns by any kind of lawkeeping or good works, but God freely gives it to those who repent and have faith in His Son's sacrifice.
In verse 27, Paul further drives home the point that no one can earn justification or boast about having received it through his own effort. "Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith." No one can ever brag about having been so obedient or having done so many good works that God just had to grant him eternal life. No one will ever be able to boast that he "earned" his way into the Kingdom of God! All those who enter the Kingdom will have done so solely because God extended His mercy to them and forgave their sins through their faith in the sacrifice of Christ.
Justification Is Not Salvation
Now we can clearly see what Paul meant in verse 28: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." This is the conclusion of his entire discussion. The only way we can be justified, that is, have our sins forgiven and be brought into a right relationship with God, is through faith in the sacrifice of Christ. This justification is something that is imputed to us once we meet God's conditions of repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). We cannot earn it through lawkeeping or doing good works.
However, what many do not understand is that being justified is not the same as being saved. Justification is only one step on the road to salvation. Someone who has been justified cannot break God's laws with impunity and expect to receive salvation anyway. To have our sins forgiven, we must repent from having broken the laws of God (Acts 3:19). To repent means to turn around, to stop sinning and orient our lives to obeying God's law. Paul explains it plainly in Romans 3:31: "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law."
The true Christian, having repented from sin, has been given the gift of God's Holy Spirit which is the love of God that enables him to keep His laws in their full spiritual intent and purpose. He has been justified and has received God's undeserved pardon. He realizes his sins caused Jesus Christ to have to suffer and die. Because of all of these things, the true Christian strives with all his might to resist the pulls of the flesh and to put sin out of his life.
Paul makes it very clear that the true Christian must not continue to live a life of sin. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2). The true Christian understands that the way he lives and conducts his life has a great bearing upon whether he will inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).
To receive salvation, we must not only be justified, but we must live a life of obedience to the laws of God, developing the fruits of His Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). Then—and only then—will God give us the gift of eternal life.
Inset: What's the Difference?
Justification: A legal act on God's part to impute the righteousness of Jesus Christ to us once we have accepted His sacrifice on our behalf. One could say that justification puts us into "alignment" with God and His law.
Salvation: The conclusion of the process by which God conforms us to His image and brings us into His Family. Delivering us from the power and effects of sin by a resurrection, he gives us eternal life in His Kingdom.