Putting aside for the moment the question of whether (and, if so, to what degree) it is condemned by scripture, what exactly is the problem with works-righteousness?
Some accounts I’ve read seem to imply that works-righteousness is implicitly Pelagian—that is, that it allows for righteousness (which can always also be translated as either “justice” or “justness”) to be earned either partially or totally independent of grace. (“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. . . .”) Now, to be clear, let me be the first one to stand up against the heresy of Pelagius and to acknowledge that it is only by virtue of the freely-given and unearned grace of God that we are capable of achieving salvation, of being put right with God and with God’s Church. But if we more closely examine the elements underlying the faith/works distinction the question of Pelagianism quickly reveals itself to be a nonissue.
I simply do not see any reason why we should be required to understand works-righteousness as either implicitly or explicitly Pelagian (or at least no more so than already inherent in a theological system under which grace is resistable, e.g. Wesleyanism)—unless we are working with some strange definitions of “works” and “faith” such that works are established a priori
to be capable of being performed by a human agent independent of God’s grace, and faith as being something over which the person of faith has no control over or participation in. But I cannot for the life of me understand what would lead us to accept such strange and idiosyncratic definitions in the first place, and see several strong reasons, grounded in experience and scripture, as to why we should reject them.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, St. Paul asks:
Does God give you the Spirit so freely and works miracles among you because practice the Law, or because you believe what was preached to you?
Here the choice seems to be between two actions capable of being performed by a human agent (that is, essentially between two types of “works”), not
between an action and an unearned state of being. In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, St. Paul actually refers to “the work of faith” (unsusprisingly, the NIV opts to translate this as “your work produced by faith”) of the Thessalonians.
Indeed, even under a strictly Calvinist account of sola gratia
—in which atonement is limited, election unconditional, and grace irresistible—there doesn’t seem to be any inherent link necessitating sola fide
or faith-righteousness. Instead, the two doctrines seem to function completely independently from each other, such that irresistible grace provided to God’s elect would manifest itself (without any cooperating effort on the part of the elected humans) as justifying works rather than (or in addition to) justifying faith.
Of course, I don’t actually agree with the Calvinist that anti-Pelagianism requires grace to be irresistible. But even if we are to stipulate that point, there is still nothing inherently Pelagian about works-righteousness, nor anything inherently anti-Pelagianism about justification by faith.