Are We Saved By Works?
The subject of works is one which seems to cause some confusion among Christians. There are those who say that we are saved by faith, not by works. The Scriptures seem to affirm this, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9) Then there are those who proclaim that even though we are saved by faith, works have a part to play as well. Again, the Scriptures seem to affirm this, "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17)
Do the Scriptures oppose themselves? How can this be that we are saved by faith only, yet have works play a part in it? Are both groups right? Do these Scriptures prove that it is all in how you look at it? Well, first the Scriptures do not oppose themselves. And also, this subject is not hard to understand. Let's examine this subject of works, faith, and salvation and see how it all fits perfectly together.
During the time that the apostles were on earth teaching and establishing the churches throughout the world there begun to arise those who wanted to put additional qualifications on being saved. We know by studying the Scriptures that there is a simple plan which we are to follow in order to accept the free gift of salvation. That plan consist of (1) faith, (2) repentance, (3) confession, (4) baptism, and (5) faithful living. (See our monograph "What Must I Do To Be Saved?) This group began to teach that in order for one to be saved -- to be a Christian -- he/she must first obey the "works of the law." In other words, one must first become a Jew, then become a Christian. Even the apostle Peter began to behave in a manner which indicated to the Gentiles, that one must obey the law of Moses first. In Galatians chapter 2 Paul writes of the time when Peter would associate with the Gentiles as long as no other Jewish Christians were around. Then when his fellow Jewish Christians were present, he behaved in a different manner, perhaps giving the message that in order to be a "real" Christian, one would first obey the Jewish laws. Paul then rebukes Peter for this behavior and states to him, "We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." (Galatians 2:15,16)
In other words, man can only be justified (vindicated) by faith (and those things which faith produces) in Jesus Christ. The law of Moses can not vindicate us from our sins. The "law" can only make us aware of the fact that we are sinners. Therefore, when the Bible says that we are justified by faith, and not works, it means we are vindicated by faith (and those things which faith produces) and not by our striving to obey the law.
This concept that we are justified by faith is found in several passages in the Bible. "Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of Works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." (Romans 3:27,28) See also Galatians 3:1-5, Romans 4:1-6, & Romans 5:1,2.
So what about those other Scriptures which indicate that works do have a part to play in man's salvation. In order to better understand how this relationship exists, let's look a James, chapter 2: "But someone will say, 'You have faith, and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." (James 2:18-24) You are probably saying, "How can this be? Now I'm more confused than ever." Let's try to sort this out.
First, the above passage is not discussing the issue of salvation, but rather the relationship between works (the way we conduct ourselves) and faith. Works, regardless of how we want to phrase it, can not and will not result in our salvation. We simply do not have the ability or opportunity to work our way to heaven. We could spend the rest of our days doing "good works" and it would not save our souls. Salvation is apart from works!
So, what relationship does works have to salvation and faith? How can we be justified by works? Let's examine the few verses which precede the above passage. "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to him, 'Depart in pease, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give him the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:14-17) Works -- good deeds which help our fellow Christians, spreading the gospel, etc. -- is what proves that our faith is alive and real. If we were to say, "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God," we would call that faith which can lead to salvation. But the proof of that faith, is not that we say we believe, but that we do those things which further the kingdom. Works are the result of saving faith. We are justified by our works, in that our works prove our faith to be real, alive saving faith; not just intellectual assent that God and His Son exist.
It is sort of like the old saying, "Put your money where your mouth is." It is one thing to say that we believe something, and another to conduct ourselves in such a manner as to demonstrate our belief. I have a friend who is a pilot. I may say, "I believe that he is an excellent pilot." But my refusal to fly with him indicates that I do not really believe that. My actions disprove my statement. In respect to salvation and saving faith, our actions after we have been saved proves or disproves our faith.
If we have the kind of faith which will save us (not just intellectual assent), that faith will produce repentance, confession, baptism, and faithful living. So then we ask, "Are these (repentance, confession, baptism, and faithful living) works?" The answer is, no they are not works. Now I would be the first to agree that these four items could be perverted into works. One might say, "I want to go to heaven (or maybe avoid hell) so I will do those things which he has taught that I need to do." He might say "I'm sorry for the sins I've committed."; he might confess that Jesus is the Christ; he may permit himself to be baptized; and he may go through all the "acts" of being a Christian (faithful living). He is then trying to work his way to heaven. Real salvation is different.
When one has real saving faith that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God, and gives his life to Him, a transformation takes place. He becomes truly remorseful of his sinful nature and strives to eradicate sin from his life. He is happy and please to proclaim Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He willingly submits himself to the watery grave of baptism so his sins can be washed away. And he strives to live a life which is pleasing to God by committing himself to daily prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with his brothers and sisters in Christ. These then are not works, but the manifestation of saving faith in his life.
There are several other Scriptures in the Bible that discus the subject of works. Again, these seem to indicate that works are important to salvation. Here are some examples: ". . . each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet as through fire." (1 Corinthians 3:13-15); "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 15:58); and "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work." (2 Corinthians 9:8) See also: Ephesians 2:10, Colossians 1:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4; 5:12- 13, Titus 1:16; 3:8; 3:14, and James 1:25.
Do these Scriptures teach that we must "work" our way to heaven. Again, the answer is no. If we are truly saved, and have abiding faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, these works are a natural result of our desire to please Him. Because we are a child of God, saved by His grace through our faith in Him and His Son, we want to do the works mentioned here. And really it is more than just a "want to", it is a deep burning desire which cannot be extinguished.
I hope that I have given my readers a better understanding of the subjects of faith, works, and salvation and how the three work perfectly together. We are saved by faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and faithful living; but these produce in us and through us good works for the kingdom of God. May God bless you as you continue in His good work.
All scriptures quoted are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted
About the Author
Stephen Kingery is an author, preacher, teacher and founder of The Home Bible Study Institute.
Visit our site at http://www.james1-22.org
Permission to use is granted if attributed to author and his website.