Failures of a Works-Based Righteousness

by Travis Bookout


The more I pour over the book of Romans the more amazed I am at the grace and mercy of God.  The more thankful I am for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And the more challenged I am to grow in faith and obedience.

Romans discusses God’s offer of righteousness to mankind.  God is righteous and He wants to give His righteousness to us.  This righteousness is obtained in one of two possible ways: through our works of law or through our faith in Christ.  “Works of Law” describes a system of meriting God’s righteousness by our flawless check-list obedience of all of God’s demands.  “Faith” describes a system of receiving God’s righteousness as a gift based on trust in the gospel.  (We will be sticking with Paul’s definition for now. Leave James in James as you study Romans.  Otherwise things get confusing.  Just ask Martin Luther).

Paul’s conclusion is that “apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).  Paul chooses “faith,” because he sees some major problems with “works.”  So, what is the problem with a works-based system of obtaining righteous?

Works Render Faith Meaningless: Faith is the idea of total commitment, love, and submission to God.  We obey God because we love Him, not because it earns us salvation.  If “works” were our method of obtaining salvation, then our faith and love would be obsolete. As long as I did everything commanded, I could earn salvation, regardless of my trust or faith in God.  Going through the motions is all that would be necessary.  I would need to place my faith in myself and my own abilities.

Works Put Us in God’s Place: If I am only putting my faith in myself and my abilities, then I am taking God’s proper role.  I am relegating God to the sidelines to be the audience in my salvation, rather than the source of my salvation.  “Works” says I can do this on my own, and I don’t need God’s gift.  I just need my goodness, integrity, hard work, strength, and might.

Works Make us Boast: If my goodness, integrity, hard work, strength, and might, earn me salvation, then I have reason to feel pretty good about myself. When we think that the “good news” is about our power to save ourselves, rather than “God’s power to save” (Romans 1:16), then we can boast.  Instead of thanking God, we thank ourselves.  “I am strong and righteous enough to save myself! I am a great Christian!”

Works Make us Divisive: When we boast in our righteousness we look down on those who are not as “righteous” as us.  Isn’t it odd how we think that people should “grow” in their faith, but we look down on those who are not on our level? I like to think I am more faithful now than I was 10 years ago, but does that mean I was lost 10 years ago?  Would I judge another Christian for being where I was?  Grace levels the playing field.  “All have sinned…being justified as a gift by His grace” (Romans 3:23-24).  The amount of times I have read the Bible, attended a worship service, or gone on mission trips does not earn me an ounce more of salvation than the person who has not done as much as me.  This is a HUGE point in Romans.

Works Can’t Bring Justification:  While works based righteousness brings division, it certainly does not bring justification.  “Justification” and “righteousness” in Greek are the exact same word.  So, really, everything I’ve written so far becomes moot when we realize that we actually cannot make ourselves righteous by our works.  Works aren’t even a real option in obtaining righteousness.  Only God is righteous.  Our righteousness would require a sinless life.  Can you live as morally pure as God? If not, then you need His righteousness to be given to you.  You need to be justified by Him.  Paul is crystal clear, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

Works Can’t Bring Forgiveness:  Since you cannot justify yourself because of sin, you need some way to take care of the sin problem.  Sorry, works cannot help you here either.  Works cannot take away sins.  Say I rob a bank on Friday, and then do hundreds of good works on Saturday.  On Sunday, when the police track me down and arrest me, my good works will have done nothing for me.  I still have to pay for the crime.  In the same way, if you sin, but do thousands of good works, your sin still remains.  You don’t get to forgive yourself on God’s behalf.  He needs to be the one who forgives you.  He does this based on your faith in Jesus Christ.

Our obedience to God is the greatest way we can show our love for Him.  If we want to honor our baptism and live for the Lord, then we should never turn our back on obedience.  Paul’s goal in preaching was to bring people to “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26).  We put our faith into action by obedience.  “Works” on the other hand, is our way to telling God, “No thanks, I got this thing.”  “Obedience” and “works” might look similar in some ways, but the motivation is completely different.  Works are the opposite of faith, while obedience is the result of faith.  Righteousness is the result of faith and unmeritorious obedience (Romans 1:17; 3:22; 6:16), and can never come by works (Romans 3:20).