Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
There seems to be an endless debate regarding the role of works in salvation. There are a few verses which explicitly reject works as having anything to do with salvation. However, the verses which state this are only six, and all by the same author, Paul, who also states in a multitude of passages that works actually do matter. So, how should this apparent contradiction be resolved? Many teach that works are only a result of salvation and totally reject that works are required as part of obtaining or preserving salvation. Others teach that works are mandatory for salvation. The debate goes round and round.
How do grace and works relate to the topic of atonement and the blood covenant? They relate because our understanding of the meaning of grace and works will influence what we think atonement means. If our definition of atonement is that Jesus literally paid God for our forgiveness, that all our sins past, present and future are all paid off and forgiven, then works are irrelevant, even after salvation, and this is salvation by pure grace and grace alone. However, if atonement is understood as being at-one-ment, or reconciliation, then what happens with grace and works? This opens a list of questions that need to be resolved. To begin this resolution we should first list all the verses which deny that works are related to salvation, then examine them within their historical and textual context, and then compare the many verses which seem to teach that works actually do relate to salvation.
Here are the few verses which seem to explicitly state that works do not apply to salvation:
|Paul is against works|
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28 ESV
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Romans 11:6 ESV (The context is about God favoring one people group over another for a given function. It is not about judgment or salvation.)
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16 ESV
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:5 ESV
“Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” 2 Timothy 1:9 ESV
As stated above, all six of these verses were written by Paul the apostle, and no other Bible writer makes this kind of claim regarding works. Furthermore, Paul himself seems to refute himself in other passages, that is, if the reader is not understanding what Paul is dealing with and what he means by “works”. Here is Paul refuting Paul:
|Paul insists on works|
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Romans 2:6-13 ESV
“If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13 ESV
“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Acts 26:19-20
“If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:18-21 ESV
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Galatians 6:7-8 ESV See also texts such as Romans 8:13, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 2 Cor. 5:10
A serious Bible student will not just overlook the contrasting passages as if this is irrelevant. Paul seems to contradict himself, even in the same book, like Romans. The problem is that there were individuals who infiltrated churches and insisted that the Gentiles had to earn salvation by keeping certain Jewish legalistic practices. These individuals were dividing the churches and causing a lot of destruction and strife. These legalistic-minded Jews were so troubling that at one point Paul even goes to the point of declaring, “I wish those upsetting you also will amputate themselves!” Galatians 5:12. It was not that Paul was against keeping the law, the problem was the motivation and rationale behind this teaching – that salvation was earned, to the point that God became obligated as a debtor to grant salvation to good law-keepers. God’s grace/favor was totally absent in this way of thinking.
The books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians refute the claim that salvation could be earned through some legalistic formula. But these were not intended as an argument against a believer needing to keep God’s core law of holy living. There is an enormous difference between believing that salvation can be earned by means of keeping a set of rules, and the fact that those who receive salvation must live by God’s rules. This difference is emphasized throughout the book.
PSA advocates often emphasize faith to such a degree that they are fearful of works altogether, thinking that works may condemn them. Some take it to such an extreme that merely making a choice to not commit a sin is considered a work. However, this extreme also nullifies faith because even faith requires a degree of work. Consider that before one can have faith, the person must deliberately listen to a gospel presentation. That requires effort, work. Then, the person must think about and process what was heard, which also requires work. Finally, making a decision to believe requires some work, and in some societies where this decision means enduring persecution, it may require a lot of work agonizing over what to do before committing to believe. Obviously, these are not the kind of works Paul is referring to. Paul’s definition of works is doing deeds with the expectation that the works put an obligation on God, thereby annulling salvation as a favor from God.
Various illustrations can be given to show the difference between keeping the law from a relational basis versus a legal basis. One example could be like a husband who gives chocolate candy to his wife, thinking that she is obligated to be a good wife based on his gifts. This is similar to a person doing occasional good deeds thinking that they obligate God to give eternal life. This improper thinking is based on debt, whereas the good thinking is relational and maintaining a healthy relationship. A healthy relationship involves doing good things to please the other party, not in a this-for-that arrangement, but out of a heart-felt desire, with “faith working through love” Galatians 5:6.
The Greek word for “grace” is simply the word “favor”. It is no different than me doing you a favor, or God favoring you in some way. Today, grace has become a theological term, but this is wrong; it is a favor, no more, no less. God favors those who believe in Him with salvation, and true belief, genuine faith, includes works, just as love includes works – not to earn love, but because of love. Faith and belief are synonyms for one side of a coin, while works is the other side. Works without faith do not count, and neither does faith with no corresponding work, as that cannot be genuine faith.
Many Protestants will define faith as simply believing and trusting God. But that is very generic. Did not those whom Jesus ordered to depart from him also have at least this generic degree of faith? Yet it was not enough because that faith had no impact on their lives: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who DOES THE WILL of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Mat. 7:21-23
Obviously, Jesus does not accept mere intellectual or generic trust and belief. Faith must sprout and have its expected fruit, which is to stop sinning, stop being lawless. There is a big difference between having a living faith which impacts how one thinks and lives, versus a paper faith which matches a doctrinal statement, regardless of how accurate that doctrine may be.
Notice that according to Peter, to believe is to obey, and to disbelieve is to disobey:
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” 1 Peter 2:4-8. ESV
According to Paul, we do not earn salvation by means of works, but just as there can be no genuine faith without corresponding works, neither can there be any salvation in the absence of works, as that would demonstrate faithlessness.
As stated earlier in this chapter, there are only a few verses which seem to explicitly state that works do not apply to salvation. Now, here is a list of non-Pauline verses which state otherwise – that works and salvation are inseparable. The following texts have sections in bold to emphasize the relevant portions.
“Do not be amazed at this; for a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come out: those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the bad deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:28-29 NASB
“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” Matthew 16:27 ESV
“And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them; and they were judged, each one of them according to their deeds.” Revelation 20:12-13 NASB
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him“ Acts 10:34-35 NASB
“And having been perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey Him.” Hebrews 5:9 NASB
“The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” 1 John 2:17 NASB
In the following chapter dealing with justification and righteousness, we continue dealing with God’s insistence that His people live godly, holy, righteous lives which reflect a righteous God. This righteousness is NOT about earning salvation, rather it is righteousness due to a committed faith and relationship with God which is evident in the believer’s life.