Circumcise your hearts. (Jer. 4:4.)
A true Jew is one inwardly. (Rom. 2:29.)
Accursed you whited sepulchres, clean on the outside but on the
inside filled with filth and dead men’s bones! (Mt. 23:27.)
An observant Jew could be saved by faith (Rom. 3:30). Works of the law aren’t bad. But works of the law don’t make you righteous when done apart from faith. That’s a whited sepulchre — righteous on the outside only. That’s works of the flesh and not of the spirit.
This is Paul’s argument throughout Romans, and it’s his point when he says, the law shines a light on your sins, but can do nothing to save you from them (Rom. 3:20) — because works of the law without faith are works of flesh. Thus, “There is a law at war in my members …” (Rom. 7:23) — concupiscence, which the law can do nothing about, other than point out your sins. But when we walk in the spirit, we can put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13).
Walking in the spirit is having faith, as opposed to doing works of the flesh, whether sinful deeds, or works of the law done only for outward show.
Ultimately what faith comes down to is loving God. If you do works of the law out of love for God you are counted righteous, not because of the works themselves but because of the love from which you do them — that is, by faith, not by works. But love that doesn’t show itself in works is dead, a mere worthless emotion.
You can’t prove yourself righteous by works alone, such as to make God owe you forgiveness of your sins. But through love for God you can overcome your sins and be righteous.
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Psalm 36 (37) – Salvation by Faith in a Nutshell
If you trust in the Lord and do good,
Then you will live in the land and be secure.
If your heart’s desire is eternal life with God,
then God will grant you eternal life with him.
You will live in the land and be secure — isn’t this salvation? And how to you get it? by trusting in the Lord and doing good.
Commit your life to the Lord,
Trust in him and he will act,
So that your justice breaks forth like the light,
Your cause like the noonday sun.
Trust in him — have faith — and he will act so that your justice breaks forth for all to see.
This is justification: Trusting God so that you get to live in the land and be secure, and that he will cause you to act with justice.
There is a dispute whether “justification” in Paul’s letters refers to making you just, or merely crediting justice to you. But I never heard of God crediting justice to someone, on an ongoing basis, who was in fact unjust on an ongoing basis. You don’t see the unrighteous Israelite kings having righteousness credited to them on the basis of their faith in God; since the main thing that made them unrighteous was their lack of faith in God, that is, their unfaithfulness to God in the form of worshipping false gods. Faith in God, in the Bible, always goes along with actual righteousness. Faith in God, in fact, is righteousness.
Now granted, often people’s past sins are overlooked by God; but only when those sins are repented of in the present. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness — because it’s a righteous thing to believe God. If you’ve lived a sinful, faithless life before now, but have now come to believe in God, then yes, he’ll count your faith as righteousness, and henceforth consider you a righteous man, in spite of your past sins. But not in spite of present and continuing sins.