Salvation and Works
"What do you have that you did not receive?"
People have tossed the subject of "salvation and works" around since the beginning of the gospel. In truth, we have statements in the New Testament that show the inspired writers of the Bible battling erroneous views from two opposite extremes. Some wrongly suggest that Paul and Peter, or Paul and James, contradicted one another. But they did not. They merely fought against the extremes at both ends of the same issue. Paul taught against the concept of earning salvation by works while James taught against salvation by faith alone apart from any works. Because they were tackling different problems, they emphasized different points of truth, and when taken together, they compliment one another.
Seeing Both Sides
We are saved by grace through faith. Many are the passages that address the false concept that we can save ourselves by our own good works or by works of the Old Law. We are saved "not of works" which has reference to good deeds that we might do (Ephesians 2:8-10). Neither is our justification "of works" when referring to works of the Old Law (Romans 4:2-4; cf. vss. 9-11). We are not saved "by deeds done in righteousness" referring to the righteous deeds we might do and ought to do (Titus 3:5). These passages present the truth from one perspective.
But the same truth, approached from the other direction, shows that we are, in a sense, justified by works. We are "justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). What we did or did not do will be considered on the day of judgment and it will make a difference as to where we spend eternity. See Jesus' parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats for a good lesson on this (Matthew 25:32-45). Jesus is the author of salvation to those that obey Him (Hebrews 5:9). So, what does the Lord mean when we bring all these together?
How do we keep right with God? Because of the grace passages some think that works do not play any role in keeping right with God. "Once saved, always saved." But this cannot be so. The church at Ephesus had once been an active church (Revelation 2:2). These people had been busy doing the Lord's will. But they had grown slack. The only way they could be right with God was to return to doing the deeds they had done at first (Revelation 2:5)! The Corinthians were also told that they must continue in the word (1 Corinthians 15:1,2).
Because of the works passages, some think we earn salvation. Some are very uncertain of their standing with God because they know deep down they can never be worthy of His grace and we are all painfully aware of our own frailties.
Do not forget God is aware of this! He knows we cannot merit our salvation. We deserve death, but the Lord has a free gift for us (Romans 6:23). Yes, we have needs that we cannot supply, but the Lord can (Hebrews. 4:16).
So When we correctly put all these together, we do not find a contradiction, but rather two perspectives on salvation that must be taken together in a complimentary way. Any doctrine that puts an interpretation on one of these perspectives so that it contradicts the other is a MIS-interpretation!
The Place of Works at the Judgment
Those who deny that works we have done are at all involved at the outcome of the proceedings at the Judgment Seat of the ages must ignore many passages that say otherwise! There are so many scenes of the Judgment we can examine. We have already noticed the parable of Jesus describing the judgment scene as a division of the sheep from the goats. Jesus highlights what they had done, or failed to have done, as He announces the eternal decree. The Bible also says that people will be judged "according to their deeds" (Revelation 20:12,13). Other passages about the judgment and the deeds we have done teach us that we can lose our souls due to our deeds (Matthew 16:26, 27) and that the righteous judgment of God is according to the deeds we have done, whether good or bad (Romans 2:5-10). Other passages show us the same thing (see 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7,8; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:23-25; Revelation 2:23). We must not let our preaching and teaching suggest to someone that our deeds will not be considered at Judgment!
But thank God for His mercy and grace! Without them we would be lost! Even if starting today I lived perfectly for the rest of my life, moving mountains by faith, in the end, I am still but an unprofitable servant to my God and unworthy of salvation (Luke 17:10)!
Works Will Save Us And Keep Us Saved
How can this be reconciled with passages such as Ephesians 2:9? Does it not say that salvation is "not of works"? Actually, the passage says "not of works, that any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:9). The works that are involved in our salvation are not works about which we can properly boast. Salvation is "not of yourselves" (Ephesians 2:8). That is, salvation is not by our own efforts or power. But the works of God are plainly involved.
There are two categories of the works of God. There are the works of God - the things He did for us (John 3:16) and then there are the works of God, the things He does through us. For example, when I hear the gospel, it is up to me whether to believe it or not. If I receive it into my heart, it will bear fruit in my life. I will undergo growing faith and repentance. I will seek to obey the Lord. It is God that is producing that increase. When I believed, I submitted unto God to work within me (John 6:28-29; I Corinthians 3:5-7). This is why Paul would say "and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me." (Galatians 2:20). Paul's endeavors, he said, were not his own, but Christ living in Him! And these works of Christ in us are absolutely essential to our salvation! They are the result of Christ dwelling our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17). From where does one get his strength during the difficult times of heartache, or temptation, or persecution, or sickness, or spiritual weakness, or uncertainty? We get what we need through Him (Philippians 4:13)!
Understand that none of this is apart from our wills and efforts. But the power is God's. Disciples are to let their lights shine, but the glory belongs to God. It was His strength provided by His grace to me if I wanted it. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians; "For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7).
To the extent that I obey the Lord, He works in me. The saved in the parable of the sheep and the goats did many good things which the lost did not do. But if they had done the very same good things without the Lord, it would not have effected their salvation at all. But in the Lord, these works of faith are the Lord working through us bringing about our justification by faith and works.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 13.12; December 2006