Chapter 8 – Faith, Grace, and Works

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 that explicitly reject works as having anything to do with salvation. However, the verses that 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 a condition 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 to buy our forgiveness, and therefore all our past, present and future sins 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 discussion there must be an examination of the words involved, and then examine their use in the Bible.

Grace is the word “charis” in Greek, similar to our word “charity”. The meaning of the word is simply “favor”. The word “grace”, or “charity”, or “favor” is not a theological term in its biblical context, but it is often used that way today because it is a better-sounding spiritual jargon to say “by God’s grace” than “by God’s favor.” It is easier to pack mystery and theological baggage into “by God’s grace you have been saved” than to say, “by God’s favor you have been saved.” In reality, everything good from God is His gracious gift, a favor, including salvation. A favor is given or done as a favor, and not based on an obligation on the part of the recipient. A favor based on obligation would in reality downgrade the favor into a payment. However, grace, or charity can be granted to particular persons based on their need or their condition, as the one who performs the charity or favor has the right to grant or withhold the favor based on his own criteria. If I offer to reward a child for good behavior, this is a favor on my part. The child has no obligatory claim on the reward, and even though work in some sense was involved, there was no debt incurred and I would have the right to determine if the behavior was acceptable. Or, I may give financial help to one family that has shown itself to be disciplined and responsible, while withholding help from another family which has a pattern of being irresponsible. These scenarios help to illustrate that works can be done within the context of charity, yet without there being any debt involved. Works are not the opposite of grace, as grace is simply the granting of a favor, a charity.

Work is the Greek word “ergon”, and it involves actions, deeds, or behavior. There are various categories of work. One category can be doing deeds out of love and charity, which expects nothing in return as a payment of a debt. There can be personal works which are to improve the individual who is working, such as learning music or painting the kitchen. There is also the category of work that is done to incur the debt of the party which benefits from that work, and a payment is expected in return for that work. Work can be physical, as in labor, or it can be mental, as in designing like an engineer or a programmer. The fact that it is mental does not negate the fact that it is work.

Many proponents of PSA reject works to such an extent that any deed whatsoever that relates to salvation is wholly rejected, as if salvation was completely passive on their part. But as we read in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”. The gospel message must be heard, which requires active mental participation – work. Then the gospel message must be considered, which requires reasoning with it – more work. After attentively hearing and carefully reasoning through the gospel message, the next step is to choose to believe, to accept it, and this acceptance can at times be an enormous struggle based on past personal history or due to persecution if the gospel message is accepted, and all this is even more work. In short, embracing the gospel, even though it is God’s favor, can at times require significant mental, emotional, and internal struggles for a person to believe. All of this is a personal work, not in the sense of incurring any debt, but because there is a personal cost involved.

There are numerous Bible passages that very clearly state that works are related to salvation. But there are a few which seem to explicitly state that works do not apply to salvation. All of these anti-work passages are written by the apostle Paul, and yet Paul also has multiple passages which also explicitly state that works, deeds, are related to eternal life. The solution is to understand the context in which Paul is using each of the anti-work passages to ensure that they are not being misapplied to the wrong category of works. In seeking to resolve this apparent contradiction, 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 them with Paul’s 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:

  1. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28
  2. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Romans 11:6 (The context is about God favoring one people group over another for a given function. It is not about judgment or salvation.)
  3. “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
  4. “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
  5. “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
  6. “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

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 seems to contradict himself in other passages. Here is Paul refuting Paul:

Paul insists on works:

  1. 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
  2. “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
  3. “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
  4. “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
  5. “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 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 apparent contradicting passages as if they are 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 – thinking that salvation was earned, to the point that God became obligated as a debtor to grant salvation to good law-keepers. God’s grace and favor were 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 list of rules, and the fact that those who receive salvation are favored by God for obeying His 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 anti-work extreme also nullifies faith because even faith requires a degree of work, as explained above because before one can have faith, the person must deliberately listen to a gospel presentation, the person must think about and process what was heard, and finally make a decision to believe. All of this requires work. Obviously, these are not the kind of indebting works Paul is rejecting. Paul’s rejection 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 debt 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 seeks to main 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 heartfelt 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. 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. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” James 4:6. 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 will define faith as simply believing and trusting in 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 belief. Faith must sprout and have its expected fruit, which is to live according to this faith, which includes stopping the sin and lawlessness. There is a big difference between having a living faith that impacts how one thinks and lives, versus a paper faith that matches a doctrinal statement, regardless of how biblical 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

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 that 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 marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. John 5:28-29

“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

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Revelation 20:12-13

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Acts 10:34-35

And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. Hebrews 5:9 NASB

And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:17

In the next 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.