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Salvation by Works? Absolutely.

I’m enjoying my first seminary class in 10 years—Dispensations with Dr. Rolland McCune. My heart was stirred yesterday when considering texts that promise life to one who perfectly keeps God’s Law. (Lev. 18:5b; Deut. 30:16; Neh. 9:29; Ezek. 20:11; Rom. 2:13; 10:5; Gal. 3:12). If words mean anything, the Bible teaches that one can be saved by works: “the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13).

Since we are sinners by birth and by choice, such obedience is obviously out of our reach (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). Dr. McCune’s class notes teach as much: “Hypothetically or ‘in principle,’ a perfect keeping of the Law would mean salvation and acceptance with God.” In other words, since the qualifications can’t be met, there is no possibility of salvation by works.

Or is there? Our salvation by grace and through faith in Christ is actually dependent on those very promises of life as the reward of perfect obedience. Christ fulfilled the Law in its entirety (Matt. 3:25, et al), thereby earning life as the reward for obedience. That very obedience—that earned righteousness—is credited to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ. This is a crucial point. Our salvation rests on it. As Dr. McCune explained, “This is the very foundation of the ethical basis of the atonement.” Christ earned life for us by perfect obedience to the Law.

Michael Barrett points this out in Complete In Him, especially noting that the righteousness imputed to us is Christ’s earned righteousness and not inherent righteousness. Barrett writes,

“I must clarify that I am not referring to the inherent and eternal righteousness that Christ has by virtue of His deity. It is wonderfully true that as God He is righteous. But the righteousness that ‘counts’ for our salvation is that which He earned every day and every moment for the thirty-some years He lived on earth.” (132)

In other words, Barrett says, “His life was just as vicarious as His death…Christ earned life.” (131-132) He earned life, the wages of righteousness, as surely as we’ve earned death, the wages of sin. And then He traded His earnings for ours. Think on that, and worship Him!

Are we saved by obedience to the Law—by works? Absolutely. We’re saved by the obedience and meritorious works of Jesus Christ!


19 Responses

  1. I took that class exactly four years ago this week. It was a great help to my understanding of Scripture!

  2. You need to follow up with his class on the Kingdom, excellent material. Although we would all state that we believe in Christ’s good works being imputed to our account for our righteousness, it is very rarely proclaimed from the pulpit. (At least in my limited experience) I have been excited to hear more and more men focusing on this incredible little jewel.


  3. “Little Jewel”? This is huge! An idea that has found its way into a good number of hymns through the years, e.g. And Can It Be? – “And clothed in righteousness divine”; Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness – the whole song!; Before the Throne of God Above – “The risen Lamb–my perfect, spotless righteousness”; The Solid Rock – “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne”; My Hope Is in the Lord – “my only hope is found in Jesus’ righteousness”; and more recently in Almighty Father – “you are my righteousness” & In Christ Alone – “This gift of love and righteousness.”

    This truth has become increasingly precious to me in recent years. It is one of my favorite themes to sing and to preach. Praise the Lord!

  4. I’ll second Garry’s motion, Chris, as to what class you should take next [heh heh]

  5. Good to hear that DBTS covers what the undergrads at BJU get (weren’t you paying attention in class, Chris?) (-;

    Imputation (its basis and results) is one of the doctrines that really sets apart Christianity from every man-made religion. I love how concisely Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him .”

    Christ’s death is the basis for the imputation of my sin to Him, and His life is the basis of the imputation of His righteousness to me. Neither his life nor his death can be considered in isolation…it is their combined effect that provides the payment for my guilt and the provision of actual righteousness that I need to be declared righteous in God’s sight.

    Glad you’re enjoying class–a mind is a terrible thing to waste!

  6. Ouch. I didn’t say this was new to me; just that “my heart was stirred.” Turkey. :)

    Actually, though, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the fact that it was Christ’s earned righteousness vs. inherent righteousness that was imputed to me until I read Barrett on it a few years ago. I knew it, I guess, but hadn’t really distinguished between the two in my mind, and certainly hadn’t meditated on it as I have in the last year or two.

  7. Ted,
    We would love to have you come up North for a “review” class too sometime. We would enjoy the fellowship.

    Chris and Garry, grasping this has changed the way I emphasize the different aspects of the gospel when I preach it and proclaim it. Really great to see you up here, Chris.


  8. Great to be here, Pearson.

    BTW, I’m glad for any opportunity to show Dr. McCune and Dr. Barrett beating the same drum. And this is a great drum to beat.

  9. Hey, Chris. If you keep posting your seminary class notes, can we earn our MDiv by reading them? :)

  10. Chris–you’re right, you’re right. (Uncle). Please don’t even ask me about all the truths I “discover” each year, only to realize later that I was taught them mutiple times before. And that doesn’t even count for all the gems I’m sure I missed in class when I was fighting the zzzz’s. Of course, a short memory (and drowsiness) has afforded me the great joy of discovery in the years since then! Perhaps it’s like theological Alzhimer’s–you’re alway meeting new friends…
    Hey PJ–good to hear from you! I don’t know that I would have much to add, really, although I’d love to visit DBTS (never been there).
    This discussion has brought back something that I was mulling over some time back. I regularly read that Romans 5:12-19 teaches that God directly condemns all men for both their “imputed sin/guilt” (because of Adam’s disobedience) as well as for their “earned sin/guilt” (for their own sinful deeds).
    However, I’ve begun to be less convinced that Romans 5:12-19 must be interpreted to teach both ideas. I am clearly condemned for sins I commit (which I commit because of the sin nature I inherited from Adam). And Adam’s sin certainly wrought terrible effects on the race (namely, death). But it seems possible that I am not actually condemned for Adam’s sin (although his sin makes my eventual sin, and thus my eventual condemnation, a certainty unless something can be done).
    I’m still working this out, but based on passages such as Ezekiel 18, 1 Peter 1:17, and Revelation 20:12-15 (esp 20:12), it seems that God does not look at a man’s relationship to Adam (or any other human) when he makes his final judgment, but upon the man’s individual works. In some sense then, is it possible that God’s condemnation of each person (for inherited sin) is provisional in some sense, but not actual until the individual actually sins himself (earned sin)?
    What brought this back to my mind was Barrett’s quotation on Christ’s earned righteousness (rather than his inherent righteousness) being the basis for our justification:

    “I must clarify that I am not referring to the inherent and eternal righteousness that Christ has by virtue of His deity. It is wonderfully true that as God He is righteous. But the righteousness that ‘counts’ for our salvation is that which He earned every day and every moment for the thirty-some years He lived on earth.”

    (Hopefully accurate) Summary: Christ’s inherent righteousness made his actual (earned) righteousness certain, but it is the earned righteouness (rather than his inherent righteousness is the basis for my justification.
    Using a mangled version of Barrett’s statement (I’m not putting words in his mouth–it’s just a concise way to state what I’m mulling), the “flip side” of the issue would be:

    “I am not referring to the inherent and eternal unrighteousness that a sinner has by virtue of his fallen humanity. It is sadly true that as fallen man he is sinful. But the sinfulness that ‘counts’ for his condemnation is that which a sinner earns every day and every moment of his life on earth.”

    Summary (for analysis/discussion/rebuttal): A man’s inherent sinfulness makes his actual (earned) sinfulness certain, but it is a man’s earned sinfulness (rather than his inherent sinfulness) that is the basis of his condemnation.
    Any thoughts/feedback on this random musing from this august crowd would be much appreciated. And if I missed something because I was asleep in class, I won’t be offended if anyone says so…

  11. Hey, Ted. What I understood Barrett to be saying is that it not is not Christ’s inherent righteousness which He (as God) has had for all eternity, but His earned righteousness which He (as man) acquired during His time “under the Law.”

    I could be wrong, but that’s my understanding. If that’s correct, I’m not sure it would be analogous to man’s sinful condition. I don’t think there is really a human “flip side” to this.

    MTC, anyway.

  12. pc,
    i can’t fully explain how grateful i am that you’re honing your understanding to a finer edge. as one of your “flock”, maybe now we can make sense out of all the dull exegesis we’ve received thus far. :-) looking forward to clearer pastures, or is that pastors?

  13. Ted,
    Some, and I lean this way myself (see For the Sake of His Name, p.220) use this distinction in the issue of infants and incompetents who die, vis-a-vis the issue of the unevangelized.
    I make a clear distinction between the unev. and inf/inc saying “While they are born totally depraved sinners and are subject to death, they have not by their volitional choices sinned or transgressed the law of God. Though God does not owe salvation to anyone at all, the Scripture gives a picture of judgment that is exercised in terms of volitional acts of sin (2 Cor 5:10; Matt 16:27; Rom 2:6,8,et al).”
    Ron Nash says it this way “One could say therefore that they share in the guilt of Adam since they die (Rom 5:14), but it is not apparent that they will ultimately be condemned since they did not commit any of the personal sins that constitute the basis of condemnation meted out at the last judgment to the non-elect. (“Restrictivism” in What about Those Who Haven’t Heard, p 119).”
    Inf/Inc would still need regenerated somehow, though, as God would not overlook justly their depravity. See the West. Conf. on this issue as well (10:3).

  14. Re-reading my response to your question, Ted, I noticed that I said exactly what Barrett did, adding nothing to the conversation. Sorry.

    Even if you’re correct regarding the basis of man’s condemnation being his own sin (which I think is true), I’m still not sure that the two (Christ’s inherent & earned righteousness and man’s inherent & earned unrighteousness) are analogous, since the former is dealing with two natures. I could be wrong, though.

  15. PJ–thanks for the thoughts. What got me thinking about this most recently is the comparison that Paul makes in Romans 5:18 between the effect on the human race of Adam’s sin and of Christ’s righteousness. Since we know God does not automatically justify all of the human race because of Christ’s righteousness (universalism), the comparison seems to demand that God does not automatically condemn all of the human race because of Adam’s sin.

    The key (it seems to me) is my participation in Adam’s sin (through my own sin) and my participation in Christ’s righteousness (through faith). Of course, condemnation has come universally, for all have sinned (i.e. joined or participated in Adam’s rebellion). It just did not come automatically. But I think I’m just repeating some of what you said already…

    The issue of infants/inc. is perenially intriguing (and frightening for those of us with small children). I agree that God would need to regenerate them…but regeneration seems to be simply one of many pictures of what salvation is/does (along with union with Christ, redemption, propitiation, expiation, adoption, reconciliation, etc.) I guess I would simply say that they need to be saved without reducing their need to a single picture of what happens at salvation (not that you did so–I’m just “thinking out loud”). Infants/inc. would need the whole package, so to speak. That God might apply this to them at their death by a different means than conscious faith is up to Him, of course. He can certainly do whatever He wants (and apparently he didn’t bother to tell us as explicitly as we would like…)

    I do have one question about Romans 5:18 that is relevant to this discussion (I’ll try to quit highjacking the thread, Chris!). The KJV and ESV rendering of Romans 5:18 seem quite different to me, and the difference seems relevant for this topic.

    KJV: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”

    ESV: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”

    The KJV’s rendering (which does throw in some words for the sake of smoothness) focuses on the persons, while the ESV’s rendering focuses on their acts. PJ–any debate (or consensus) up there (at DBTS) about which rendering is better? The KJV rendering appears to reflect better what Barrett says more than the ESV rendering, which says “one act of righteousness” as if a single action of Christ were the basis of my justification (rather than his life as a whole). Or does the difference in rendering really have no relevance to this topic? Just curious of your opinion…

  16. […] God hath joined together…” I thought this odd, especially in light of our conversation on Christ’s active righteousness a few weeks back.  I. M. Haldeman, writing on the holy of holies in his book The Tabernacle, […]

  17. FWIW, I notice that Minnick preached on the question Ted is speculating about last Sunday night (June 3). Text: Romans 5.12-14, Title: In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All.

    You can find the audio at Mount Calvary’s site:


    Just thought it might be helpful. I downloaded it but haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  18. […] you worthy by virtue of His blood and imputed righteousness (or passive and active obedience; see here and here). Thus, you claim His name and authority in prayer, not your own. You use His key to gain […]

  19. […] (Note: More on Christ’s active righteousness here.) […]

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