Did Jesus Teach Justification by Works?

A recent post got me thinking: did Jesus teach justification by works?

Some people cite the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) and Jesus’ warnings about false teachers and their fruits (Matthew 7) as evidence that the Savior taught we would be judged finally according to our works.

Justification or Judgment?
A digression for a moment is needed. Justification is the act whereby God, the Judge of the universe, graciously makes a hell-deserving sinner innocent before Him. Judgment is the last verdict God the Judge gives to each and every person based on their status before Him: the just come into His joyous kingdom and the unjust into His angry wrath.

There is quite a bit of overlap here. Justification is meant to guarantee salvation at the judgment. The Father will not condemn Christ’s people, those for whom He died. Some groups might say that a justified sinner can later be condemned, but we won’t deal with there here. In this article, we’ll treat “justified” the same as “finally saved” the same way that Romans 8:30 teaches, “Those whom He predestined, He also called; those whom He called; He also justified; those whom He justified, He also glorified.”

The Gospels in Two Contexts
Another introductory note on context is necessary. The Gospels exist in two important, overlapping contexts:

  1. The Gospel of Matthew. Matthew didn’t just write down a bunch of Jesus’ sayings and divorce them from the cross and the resurrection. No, he wrote a story in which Jesus teaches hard things and compassionate things, then lives for them and dies for them and rises again for them. He writes this story with a theme – Christ crucified is all we need. We don’t become like Jesus first or even mainly; we trust Him in our place. This is the story of the Gospels.
  2. The Bible as a whole. Just as Matthew didn’t write down sayings alone, the Gospels don’t exist as their own book. They live in the larger book of the Bible. The Bible, from start to finish, teaches justification by faith alone. Remember Abraham in Genesis 15:6? He believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Habakkuk 2:4 says that the righteous man isn’t mainly the one who does good but the one who lives “by faith.” Paul goes to great lengths in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians to defend justification by faith alone.

The Passage at Hand: Matthew 7:15-23

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

1. Notice that Jesus is addressing the issue of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Critics of justification by faith alone might argue here that anyone can be a false prophet, and I would agree. This becomes important in verse 21 (see below).

2. In verses 17-18, Jesus points deeper than the fruits to the heart-level condition of the man: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad
fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree
bear good fruit.” The issue is whether a tree is “healthy” or “diseased.” The fruit, says Jesus, evidences the heart.

3. The famous “Lord, Lord” passage here (verse 21) is key – it teaches that justification is not by works (“Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”). In fact, the evidence that these men are false teachers is that they point to their own “mighty works,” even if they claim these works are in Jesus’ name.

4. The connection between the diseased tree of verses 17-18 and the worker of lawlessness of verse 23 is given in the first half of verse 23: he doesn’t know Jesus. Knowing Jesus isn’t a euphemism for “do stuff for Me,” because Jesus just said it wasn’t! Knowing Jesus is faith, true faith, full-bodied faith, life-changing faith that is real.

Conclusion
As is always true in the Bible, we must look more closely at the context – of the Bible, of the book, and of the passage – to interpret correctly. Matthew 7 holds many details that explain what exactly Jesus intends. The passage can never mean what He never intended, and the details show that He was talking about true faith that is no wolf in sheep’s clothing, but neither is it based on our works.

Jesus taught justification by faith alone.

** Does anyone see other details that support or negate my conclusion? Leave them in the comments! Thanks!

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About B Treece
loved by God before I ever loved Him, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by the authority of the Bible alone to the glory of God alone, made to enjoy Him forever, happily married with wonder-filled children.

4 Responses to Did Jesus Teach Justification by Works?

  1. Pingback: Dividing Up the Gospels « Your Cross on My Back

  2. Pingback: Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone « Your Cross on My Back

  3. Pingback: New Series! « Your Cross on My Back

  4. Pingback: Archives: “Do Stuff” Still Isn’t the Gospel « Your Cross on My Back

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