Salvation by Works
The doctrine of salvation by works states that personal worthiness is fundamentally dependent on an individual's obedience to commandments, obedience to religious leaders, and on participation in specific ordinances or rituals, and that personal worthiness is the criteria for entry into the kingdom of God. It seems to be the most universal belief system outside of Christianity, and in almost every religion that uses the name of Christ outside of mainstream Christianity. In the latter case the doctrine is that the atonement and resurrection of Christ are necessary for overcoming death and sin in the first place, but that each individual must build upon that universal salvation through personal obedience and through ordinances. However, it fundamentally contradicts the Bible as illustrated in the chapter, Salvation by Grace. Nonetheless, its supporters rely on their own interpretation of a few Biblical verses, such as those reviewed in this essay.
First, there are scripture verses (such as Matt 16:27 and 1 Cor 3:8) that state that people will be rewarded according to what they have done. But these verses do not state that people receive salvation and eternal life in return for what they have done. To the contrary, the children of God have already been saved by grace through faith and are already assured of eternal life even before their good works are considered. The rewards will be granted in addition to the gift of salvation and eternal life. The apostle Paul clarified the distinction between receiving rewards and entering the kingdom of heaven. He wrote "...the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Cor 3:13-15) In the Bible the word "save" means to receive eternal life and membership in the kingdom of God. It does not mean physical resurrection alone. (See meaning of "Salvation") So a person's "rewards" are separate from eternal salvation.
Second, other scripture verses (such as 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 6:7; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 20:12-14; and John 5:29) state that people will be judged according to their works. They apply to people who have rejected the Lord’s free offer of grace, and who will stand before the Lord on Judgment Day, indicating that those people will be judged according to their own works without the gift of grace. And all of them will be cast into Hell because none will be found worthy to enter the kingdom of Heaven. For additional detail on this topic, see the separate essay judged according to their works.
Third, there are scripture verses (such as Matt 7:21; John 2:17; and Heb 5:9) that state that those who do the will of God are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. We are doing the will of God when we live by faith. (Heb 10:36-39) ”for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12-13) And, 'Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'" (John 6:28-29)
The Lord's prophecy of the sheep and the goats is perhaps the scripture that causes the most difficulty for
the casual reader regarding the doctrine of salvation and eternal life by grace through faith exclusively. To such
reader it seems to say that eternal life is earned by doing good deeds for the poor and less fortunate. However
when this scripture is carefully studied, one can see that the Lord makes it clear that salvation is indeed a gift
from Him to those who accept it through faith.
The issue in the prophecy of the sheep and goats is the structure of the cause and effect relationship. For
the sheep the effect is clearly eternal life. The cause is either the acts of compassionate service for the poor,
or the faith exhibited through compassionate service for the poor. For the goats the effect is eternal punishment.
In this case the cause is either the failure to do acts of compassionate service, or the lack of faith exhibited
by such failure. Referring to the word "for" in verses 35 and 42 makes the argument for the cause being
the acts or lack of acts respectively. In the English language "for" usually means "because".
This would argue for the interpretation being, "because you did this you receive eternal life." Or, "because
you failed to do this you reap eternal punishment."
At first glance there appears to be a contradiction between James and the apostle Paul in their writings on faith vs. works in the Bible. James states:
You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
Whereas Paul states:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28)
But recognize that these verses are taken out of context, and context is the first and most important consideration in understanding the Bible. This is especially true considering that the verb “justify” is a relative term. (Greek: dikaioo from dikaios) A person is “justified” relative to some issue. When we say “a person was justified in taking a certain position” we aren’t saying that he was justified for entry into heaven. Instead, we are saying that he was justified relative to a certain issue – that issue being that he took a certain position. In examining these verses from the writings of James and Paul, we must consider the issues relative to which they are using the term “justified”.
In chapter 3 of Romans, the apostle Paul is discussing the topic of personal righteousness in God’s sight. He states earlier, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:20-24) Based on this context, I believe that it is safe to infer that Paul is stating in verse 28:
“For we maintain that a man is justified as being righteous in God’s sight by faith apart from observing the law.”
On the other hand, in chapter 2 of James, he is describing the type of faith that leads to salvation. Given that a person is made righteous in God’s sight through faith, it is important to know what kind of faith leads to righteousness and salvation. I believe that the purpose of chapter 2 of James is to answer that question. He begins this topic with the question, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14). Notice the words “such faith”. He is trying to get his readers to discern a certain type of faith here, thus indicating that not all faith is the same. A few verses later he states “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (verse 17). He is not stating here that all faith is dead, but a certain type of faith – faith that does not lead to action, faith that consists of thoughts alone. Notice that he is not saying that a person’s efforts are dead, but that the faith is dead. His focus is on faith. He concludes this topic with the statement, “so faith without deeds is dead” (verse 26). James is specifically discussing dead faith here, which he distinguishes as “faith alone” and “faith without works”, indicating that this is not the kind of faith that leads to salvation. Based on this context, I believe that James is stating in verse 24:
“You see that a person is justified as being truly faithful by what he does and not by his thoughts alone.”
The teachings of James are very important in the New Testament, and without them we can fall into the misunderstanding of “cheap grace”, which is that one is saved and thus receives the gift of eternal life by simply accepting the idea that Jesus is the Christ. I believe that James’ purpose in chapter 2 is to debunk cheap grace. Although the apostle Paul is correct in teaching that we are saved by grace alone through faith, it is important to understand what is meant by “faith”. Although our own works can never be sufficient to earn salvation, James explains that our works will reflect the faith that allows us to receive the grace of God.
In THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY (p. 318) Dallas Willard states that “to believe something is to act as if it is so.” Can we truly believe in Jesus without believing in what He said? And can we believe in what He said to do without actually doing it? If He taught us to love our enemies and in real life we never do, do we really believe in Christ? I think this is the point that James is making. Not that our actions result in our salvation, but that our actions shed light on the true condition of our faith and help us see whether we have the kind of faith that opens us up to accepting the grace of God.
Therefore, I do not believe that there is a contradiction between James and the apostle Paul in their writings on faith vs. works in the Bible. I believe that James is clarifying the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but
now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
To each person according to what he has done
One of the important words in Romans 2:7 is persistence. This means holding steadfastly to an undertaking
despite obstacles. Paul doesn't say here that people will receive eternal life by persistence in trying or by persistence
in intent, he is writing about persistence in doing. He is writing about never failing, always obeying. How many
people do that? Careful examination of the context of chapter 2 discloses that it is not on the topic of the plan
of salvation: Paul covers that topic in chapter 3. Chapter 2 is on the topic of justice. Look at verse 5 of chapter
2: "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up
wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed."
Paul is writing in chapter 2 about Judgment Day. He is describing the criteria for those who will be placed under
judgment without the saving grace of the Savior.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:20)
This statement by Jesus is a condemnation of the religious legalism, the attempt to be justified by personal works, practiced by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In chapter 23 of Matthew Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they attempt to achieve personal righteousness by strict legalism rather than following his teachings of seeking salvation through his grace. They are so careful to obey every commandment and to participate so precisely in each ordinance that they are an outstanding example of obedience to the law. It is difficult to imagine people who could have more personal righteousness than the Pharisees. Yet even they, the outstanding example of human righteousness, fall short of the glory of the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus. Furthermore, He explains that even those who teach the law are not sufficiently righteous under the law to enter the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus is making the point here that if you want to make it into heaven by being better than everybody else like the Pharisees are trying to do, then you’ve got to be even better than they are. Because these guys aren’t making it even though they’ve devoted their lives to strict legalistic obedience. You have to be absolutely perfect (Matt 5:48; 19:21), and nobody can do that. In other words, Jesus is saying here that you cannot earn entry into the kingdom by personal righteousness. We are found righteous by grace through faith, not by religious legalism as found in the Pharisees. (Rom 3:20-22, quoted above) The apostle Paul taught that when people attempt to achieve personal righteousness, they are rejecting God's righteousness, and thus God's grace: For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Rom 10:2-3)
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." (Luke 10:28)
Jesus states here that if anyone obeys the law, he shall receive eternal life. Jesus did not remove the law, it still stands. Without the law and a definition of obedience to the law with corresponding consequences, there would be no justice. His answer was in response to the question, “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26) The “expert in the Law” (or "lawyer" in the KJV) who asked this question wasn’t seeking to be taught by Jesus. He was trying to trip up Jesus by testing him against the law. But the scriptures clearly teach that no one has the personal capability of achieving eternal life by obedience to the law. (Rom 3:20)
If you want to enter life, obey the commandments. (Matt 19:17)
As in Luke 10:28, Jesus is referring to achieving eternal life through personal worthiness in obedience to the law, which will be the requirement for those judged at Judgment Day. However in this same teaching, Jesus explains that it is impossible for people to achieve eternal life through personal worthiness. Instead, eternal life is made possible by God, through the atonement of Jesus, as He goes on to explain:With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matt 19:26)
Jesus provided a similar answer to the rich young man who asked,"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 18:18) His answer was "You know the commandments…" (verse 20) indicating that obedience to the commandments leads to eternal life. To this the young man replied, "All these I have kept since I was a boy." (verse 21) But Jesus made it clear to him that even though he thought he was living all of the commandments, he really wasn’t because he was selfish or self-centered. One cannot be living all of the commandments if one holds more than one needs and yet allows anyone in the world to suffer from want . No one is perfect. No one lives all the commandments. No one is able to enter the kingdom of God through his own personal worthiness. People who think that they are living all of the commandments are likely to be in the same condition as this rich young man.
Almost everyone in the industrialized world holds more they need, and yet they know that there are others in the world who suffer from want. By global standards (and by the standards in Jesus’ time) almost everyone in the industrialized world today is rich."Jesus looked at him and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'" (verses 24 & 25) I’ve heard people speculate that “the eye of a needle” might be the name of a small gate in a certain wall somewhere in Judea. Supposedly although it would be extremely difficult to get a camel through it, it could be done with extreme perseverance. This leads to the erroneous conclusion that although it is very difficult for a rich person to earn entry into the kingdom of God, it is nonetheless possible. The error in this explanation is made clear by Jesus, who said regarding this situation, "What is impossible with men is possible with God." (verse 27) Jesus is not sloppy with his choice of words. He clearly used the word "impossible", not "very difficult". "Impossible" means that it cannot be done. According the words of the Lord, a rich person cannot possibly earn his way into the kingdom of God. And nearly everyone in the industrialized world is rich. Fortunately, Jesus said that it "is possible with God." It is not possible with people, but it is possible with God. Rich people cannot achieve personal righteousness to enter the kingdom of God, but God can provide them righteousness - his righteousness through the atonement of his Son. (Rom 3:20-22 quoted above)
If anyone other than Christ could be credited with personal worthiness, it would be the apostle Paul, who was instrumental in founding the church and who wrote much of the New Testament. Yet, even Paul wrote, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst." (1 Tim 1:15) He may have been using hyperbole, but Paul is clearly stating here that he had not achieved any level of personal worthiness. So modern-day Christians who think that they have achieved some level of personal worthiness must actually be suffering from some level of personal pride.
Worthiness to Partake of the Sacrament
To assert oneself as personally worthy to partake with the understanding that there others who are not worthy - either because they are not members of one's church or because they are unworthy members - is similar to the Pharisee in Jesus' parable who said at the temple, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." (Luke 18:11)
In saying "do this in remembrance of me," Jesus is telling us, "Come just as you are to worship. Now is the time to give your heart. Don't allow sins to cause procrastination. Confess your sins to Me, and give your heart to Me, and I will transform you into the person that I created you to be."
Some religions and denominations teach that salvation is made possible through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, but that the personal salvation of individuals is accomplished through ordinances such as baptism. Their doctrines state that baptism is for the remission of sins. But the Bible teaches that the only act on this earth that remits sins is the atonement of Christ (1 Peter 3:18) and that baptism is symbolic of the remission of sins and it is symbolic of resurrection from spiritual death. (Romans 6:4) The Bible provides the commandment in a number of scriptures that new believers are to be baptized, but it does not teach that baptism is a prerequisite for admission into heaven. The following scriptures can cause difficulty for casual readers:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)
According to the basic rules of logic, this scripture does not state that baptism is a prerequisite for salvation. In order for that to be the case the scripture would need to have said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned." The critical factor in this verse is belief (or faith) which appears on both sides of the statement. Baptism is included only on the left side, evidently as an indicator of belief. Logically, this verse simply doesn't state "anyone who is not baptized will be condemned."
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:5)
This verse is a symbolic statement, and it is part of the explanation that Jesus provided for his earlier symbolic statement to Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3) Nicodemus was at first confused by the symbolism and asked if he need to re-enter his mother's womb to be born again. A casual glance at verse 5 can easily result in the feeling that "born of water" is a simple symbolic representation of the ordinance of baptism, which would lead to the expectation that Jesus had said that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is baptized. However, He did not use the word "baptized" in this sentence, and the phrase "born of water" appears nowhere else in the Bible. Therefore, the symbolism of his statement needs more careful attention. It is important to refrain from jumping to a conclusion that "born of the water" means baptism simply because baptism involves water without logical justification for that conclusion. Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus in verse 5 that by "born again" in verse 3 He means a spiritual rebirth, and by spiritual rebirth He means a washing away of sins by accepting his atonement on the cross and a permanent relationship with the Holy Spirit. The term "born of water" refers symbolically to the "washing away of sins". This is indeed the same symbolism as is applied to baptism, and when we are baptized we publicly testifying of our acceptance of the atonement of Jesus by participating in that act of symbolism. So it is not baptism, but rather what baptism symbolizes that permits entry into the kingdom of God. Jesus would have known that Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin who didn’t understand the doctrine of being born again, would not have been familiar with the ordinance of baptism. So, if He had been talking about baptism, He would have been more explicit about the process of baptism. But, what Jesus was saying was: unless you become a new person, wholly dedicated to Him, both physically and spiritually, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.
The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21 KJV)
The key word (translated as "like figure" in the KJV) at the beginning of this verse is antítupon, or antitype, which is a Greek word meaning "symbolic representation of something else". Just as Noah and his family were saved through the great flood as indicated in the preceding verse, we are symbolically saved by baptism, not by the washing away of dirt, but by the washing away of sins by the atonement of Jesus Christ. We receive a good conscience toward God, that is we are justified before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Peter replied, "Repent and be
baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of
your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)
And now what are you waiting for?
Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)
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, whom he poured out on us
generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by
his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7)
Baptism is a commandment. (Matt. 27:19) It is not optional. But it is not prerequisite for salvation. It is an outward expression of acceptance of God's gift of grace and of joining God's family. Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, has written, "Baptism doesn't make you a member of God's family; only faith in Christ does that. Baptism shows you are part of God's family." (The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, Zondervan Publishing, 2002, page 120, italics from text)
Ordinances in General
In chapter 9 of the Gospel of John, Jesus healed a blind man in Jerusalem by making mud by spitting on the ground and by putting the mud on his eyes. In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus healed a blind man in Bethsaida by putting spit on the man's eyes without mixing it with dirt to make mud. And in Mark 10:46-52, Jesus gave sight to a blind man in Jericho by simply telling him “your faith has healed you.” Clearly the power to perform these healings did not come from the spit or the mud or any of the physical actions performed by Jesus. The power came from the diety of Jesus. Similarly, Jesus established ordinances for people to follow in order to carry out his work and to perform miracles. But it is important to realize that there is no power or magic in the ordinances, whether that be the laying-on of hands or the anointing with oil, or whatever. Ordinances are good, but the power does not come from the ordinances or the priests performing the ordinances. The power is from God upon the faith of his faithful servants.
The power of God in the lives of faithful people is astounding. Miracles, like the protection of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego in the fiery furnace are not limited to Biblical times, but continue today. God performs faith healings in response to the laying on of hands, as well as other miracles, all of the time. People are truly overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit during prayer and worship. But it is important to recognize the power of God and not confuse it with the power of men that is conferred from man to man or the power of other spiritual phenomena. The Bible simply doesn't establish magical rituals or mystical incantations. From tribal witch doctors to people who replace Biblical ordinances with magical ordinances, human beings seem to have a natural inclination towards ascribing supernatural powers to human activities.
Comparing Salvation by Works and Salvation by Grace
This is a graphical representation of these two alternative plans of salvation:
The difference between salvation by works and
salvation by grace is
that in the former case the adherents deny the power of the atonement of Christ
on the cross to provide for 100% of the salvation
and eternal life of those who accept it. So, although adherents to salvation by works
may use the name of Jesus Christ and claim faith, they reject the full power of
In other words, it is difficult for someone to have faith that salvation depends entirely on the grace of God while attempting to earn part of personal salvation through one's own obedience to commandments or to religious leaders. And without that kind of faith, it is difficult to accept God's grace and the resulting personal salvation. The reason for this is that personal pride gets in the way of personal salvation when a person attempts to take some of the credit for his or her own salvation:
The boasting of what he has and does - comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:16)
On the other hand, we are doing the will of God when we live by faith. (John 6:29; Heb 10:36-39 & chapter 11)
© 2010 William C. Hamer