This Little Thing Called Works

“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)

“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)

On the surface, these two passages seem to contradict one another.  Paul says our salvation is not of works while James says that we are justified by our works.  Further, Paul superficially implies that we are saved by faith only while James says justification is not by faith only.  Is it possible to reconcile these two passages?  I believe that it is possible.  Our reconciliation is found in how the Bible defines this small word “works” and how each author uses it contextually.   There are several different types or categories of works found in the New Testament.  In particular, I find three that do not lead to our soul’s salvation while one does.  Herein I find the reconciliation between Paul and James.

We are not saved by the works of the flesh.

Paul describes the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21.  The works of the flesh are synonymous with sin.  After listing these works Paul concludes that practicing the works of the flesh will revoke one’s inheritance in God’s kingdom.  Simply put, the works of the flesh do not save my soul.  When we return to Ephesians 2, we see that the works of the flesh are contextually present.  Retreating to verses 1-3, Paul describes a Christian’s prior condition, in which they practiced the works of the flesh, “served the lusts of [their] flesh.”  He shifts in verse 4, “But, God who is rich mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”  God’s mercy, love, and grace were extended to humankind even though our works were sufficient to condemn us.  Thus, we are not saved by our works.  In light of our condition without Christ, what human being saved by the blood of Jesus could boast?  Our only boast is in the cross of Christ.

We are not saved by the works of the law.

So says Paul in Galatians 2:15-16.  Once again, context is essential.  When Peter came to Antioch from Jerusalem, he drew no distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  However, when reputable men associated with James arrived in Antioch, Peter, “withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.”  Paul, seeing his hypocrisy and its profound effect on other Jewish Christians, rebuked Peter.  He reminds the apostle that one is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ (verse 16).  The works of the law represent obedience to Mosaic law along with it subsequent man-made traditions.  The message of Galatians — along with its companion books Romans and Hebrews – is that observation of Mosaic law condemns man, it does not justify.  Those who observed the Mosaic law without faith were not made righteous by the works of the law (Romans 9:30-33).   Further, those who did walk by faith in their observation of the law ultimately found justification in the sacrifice of Jesus (Hebrews 9:15).  The works of the law do not justify, thus they do not save one’s soul.  So, I conclude that when Paul says we are not saved by works, he includes the works of the law in his definition.

We are not saved by works of righteousness.

Paul the Jew says to Titus the Gentile, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:4-5).  A lot of people believe that if you live a good, moral life you can expect heaven following your death.  This is not the message of the New Testament.  The amount of good we do in our lives can never overcome the debt load of our sins.  Forgiveness is found in the blood of Jesus alone.  It is in His sacrifice – an act above and beyond what I am able to provide for myself – that I find forgiveness.  I cannot overcome my condition by works of righteousness alone.  Nothing but the blood of Jesus can atone.

We are justified by works performed with faith in Jesus.

Paul taught that the works of the flesh, the law, and righteousness could not save us, leaving us no room to boast.  In doing so he rightly emphasized our desperate condition, our inadequacy to correct it by ourselves, and God’s immense grace expressed by the selfless act of Jesus.   Though some have concluded otherwise, what the Holy Spirit revealed through Paul does not dismiss all works out of hand.  As James argues, extracting works alters the definition of faith.

  • Faith requires works in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26).
  • Works are the evidence, or fruit, of our faith (2:18).
  • People of faith are justified by their works and not by faith only (2:21, 24).

Moreover, faith itself is a work, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:29)  These two are inextricably joined.  If I genuinely believe, I will respond.  Thus, when Paul says our salvation is through faith, works of faith are implicitly present in this statement while other types of works are dismissed in his next.

I invite your comments and questions.

avatar About Wade
Seeking to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ by talking with people who love the truth.

9 thoughts on “This Little Thing Called Works”

  1. Well said Wade, the law and the seeking of righteousness is only a demonstration of our faith; it is the faith that saves because our works — even works of righteousness — are as “filthy rags” to God (Isaiah 64:6). And even faith works only because of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that allows the Holy Spirit to freely impart TRUE righteousness to us as a free gift. So in the end, we are right back to faith and the acceptance of true righteousness: righteousness imparted to us as a free gift (because of Christ’s sacrifice) and not the development of righteousness from works…even though works are expected!

  2. @Jim McCune Hi Jim, thanks for your comment which offers an important clarification. While the rites, feasts, ordinations, and expiations of the Old Law were nailed to the cross with Christ, the essential definition of sin did not change between Old and New. The knowledge of sin imparted by the Old was in large measure carried forward to the New. One example is found in Galatians 5:19-21 which Paul calls the works of the flesh. These activities are sinful regardless of covenant. As you say, the notable difference between Old and New is the spiritual dimension which is Paul’s point in Galatians 5-6. We have died with Christ. Faith should work through love. We are a new creation. Christ has liberated us from enslavement to sin and enabled us to walk in paths of righteousness. If we are truly Christ’s, if we live in the Spirit, we will no longer conduct ourselves in such ways. As you point out, our transformation makes our obedience imperative. The bar has been raised, so to speak.

    However, all of this hinges on the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only by His precious blood that my life is made worthy in the eyes of God. “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

  3. Thanks for your post Wade; more need to respect the role of the law. I think when Paul says the law is done away he means the written code passes away with the Old Covenant that is replaced by the New. Jesus “reformatted” the written law in a series of “you have heard it said …” “but I say unto you . . .” Every jot and tittle of the Mosaic (written) law remains in the spirit of the law (the law of Christ) in this new format.

    We no longer focus on not killing, but rather on not hating. If we don’t hate, then we don’t kill. The Spirit of the law is much tougher than the letter, so Paul steering Jews away from Moses was steering them not from the law itself, but into the more demanding “spirit” of the law. As Paul says, we are delivered from the “letter” of the law so we can serve (the law) in the spirit. Paul is alarmed at the Jews who are following Moses because the letter isn’t demanding enough! You can’t seek the promises of the New Covenant by conforming to the Old. . . this was Paul’s much misunderstood message.

  4. @Mary Thanks Mary, I’m glad you appreciated it. Like you, God’s grace has been on my mind a great deal these past few years. Recently, my brother-in-law Richard wisely observed, “There’s a difference between unmerited and unconditional.” As you rightly point out, we can’t do anything to augment what God offers in Jesus (which is why salvation is unmerited). Yet His grace is conditional. We must believe and act on that belief. However, as Craig and I previously discussed, what God does is tremendous and what He asks of us is proportionally insignificant. To me, the gap between the two — my living faith and God’s righteousness — is where grace resides. He bridges the span between my inadequacy and His righteousness with an offering that lies infinitely beyond what I can provide. Praise His holy name!

  5. Thank you for the post 🙂 We’re going through Galatians in our Wednesday night study at Grover Park right now. I have been a Christian for most of my life, but just lately the message of God’s infinite grace has been a big one on my mind. To say that we can do anything to “help” that grace toward our salvation would be negating that grace and saying it isn’t good enough. Neat stuff!

  6. @Craig
    Agreed. When we obey with faith, many wonderful things happen. Most of these lie far beyond our control. How could one possibly conclude that my simple act of faith equals the magnificent glory of God’s grace? Or that the merit of my act alone makes me righteous? Or that my works of faith make God my debtor? Proportionally speaking, God commands very little but He promises so much! This does not negate the necessity of such works as baptism, it simply frames these acts with a Biblical perspective.

  7. @Wade. Exactly! He IS the justifier. One of the frustrating issues (at least for me) that I have seen related to the book of James is a teach that revolves around individual justification or to be more exact – my works, what I do is what beings justification. I believe that this view is taking James our of context, at best, and is potentially anti-Biblical. It reality the view that: I can work my way to goodness, therefore heaven, misses the real point.

    For example, some may look at baptism as a work or maybe even an act of obedience. While it could be looked on this way, it is a major oversimplification of what happens with baptism. Here is just one example of the many things that occur with baptism: we are adopted and sons. That isn’t anything what we DO, it is something that is done for us. The reality is that with baptism God does more for us than we do.

  8. @Craig
    Thanks Craig, well said. All I would add is that Jesus justifies us or makes us righteous. He is just and the justifier. Our faith and works are part of the package, but ultimately He is the one who declares us righteous.

  9. I have a thought on the works vs. grace topic.

    The context of James is that faith demands works. If you truly understand (have faith) that Jesus provided you salvation, it will cause you to produce works of service and obedience. The one sticking point for some believers is what does justification mean?

    What does James 2 say? Jas 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

    The question that often remains unanswered is: what did the writer mean by “justified?” Well, the Greek word is “dikaioo” which means “to render as just or innocent.” Some other places that this word is used:

    Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

    1Co 6:11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

    Gal 2:16 … a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

    Tit 3:4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

    We are justified, or made innocent, by His grace and we are justified by “faith in Christ.” Both of these are in addition to being justified by works. So it seems pretty clear to me that it is a package of “things” that make us innocent and they are all directly traced to Christ.

Leave a Reply