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.