Saved By Works
There are two passages in the New Testament that contradict one another, or at least it seems:
· Ephesians 2:8-9 says “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.”
· James 2:24 says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
You might not see the contradiction and for a long time I didn’t either and that could be because I didn’t want to. After really looking at these two verses, I was convinced it was a contradiction and one I needed to overcome. The contradiction is Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are not saved by works and James 2:24 says we are justified by works.
I set out to disprove this contradiction and I did so by pointing out that two different words were being used. Paul says “saved” and James said “justified.” I reasoned that Paul was referring to the initial salvation a person receives when they become a Christian and James was speaking of the justification we hold on to after becoming a Christian. Meaning, when a person becomes a Christian they are not saved by works but after becoming a Christian they are constantly being justified by their work in Christ. This sounds reasonable and for me, it got rid of the “contradiction.” It also helped keep me away from the doctrine that “we are saved by works” which I was taught is false. I no longer believe we are not saved by works. I believe works play a very vital part of our salvation. However, it’s not just works but a certain kind of work and this is where I found the distinction that helped me better understand the passages.
Let’s begin by noticing the words that Paul and James used. Even though they used two different words, saved and justified, it doesn’t prove anything. The word “justified” that James used is also used when referring to the initial salvation a person receives at the point of becoming a Christian. Paul said we are “saved by faith” in Ephesians 2:8, but he also said we are “justified by faith” in Romans 5:1. The word justified is the same word James uses in 2:24. Also, in 1 Corinthians 6:11, after mentioning a list of sins they had been committing before becoming Christians, Paul said “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” Again Paul used the same word James used and here Paul connected that word, justified, to their initial salvation. So in my view, even though Paul used the word “saved” and James used the word “justified”, both men most definitely could be talking about the same thing, the initial salvation. So looking at how these two words are used proves nothing and it does not solve the problem of the “contradiction,” it only shows both writers are possibly speaking about the same subject, our initial salvation. And so we are right back to square one, a glaring contradiction. We are either saved by works or we are not saved by works. We are justified by works or we are not justified by works.
What I found in my studies on this subject is the Bible presents us with at least three different types of works. These three works, if not distinguished from one another, can cause much confusion. The works are; 1) Works of the Law of Moses, 2) Works of man, and 3) Works of God. Let’s look at some verses and identify the distinctions.
First Type of Work
Works of the Law of Moses
The first type of work I want to look at is known as works of the Law of Moses. In Galatians 2:16 Paul shows that the Law of Moses could not justify and that real justification comes by faith in Jesus Christ. Notice his words: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. In this verse, Paul identifies these works as being “works of the Law of Moses.”
Paul makes it clear that no one can be saved or justified by the works of the Law, which would be the Law of Moses.
Second Type of Work
Work of Man
Indeed, we sometimes feel we can create methods, programs, or works that make God’s view of us more pleasant. We don’t set out to try to earn our way to salvation but we feel our works should merit us some favor. It is this attitude that can cause us to think we are more righteous than we are. It is this attitude that may cause us to think that salvation is ours for the keeping. Jesus even said that at judgment many would say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” (Matthew 7:22) See how they exalted themselves; how everything was about what they did, their works? They were wrong, there is nothing we can create or come up with to find favor in God’s eyes. The favor God extends comes from one thing and I’ll talk about that a little later.
To combat the thinking that we can create works to earn salvation, Paul said, “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)
Notice that Paul affirms they had been saved but he says their salvation was not “of yourselves.” Immediately in the next verse, he tells them their salvation is a “gift from God”, not of works. What does all of this mean? It’s simple. Paul is making a distinction about the origin of their salvation; either it originated with mankind (of yourselves, through the works of man) or it originated with God. Paul is contrasting the works of man from the gift of God and his point is that salvation is not the product of works created by man. When speaking to the people on the island of Crete, Paul also admonishes them that God had saved them, “not because of works done by them in righteousness but according to His mercy.” (Titus 3:5)
In these two contexts, Paul is not discussing the works of the Law of Moses or the works of God; Paul is discussing the works of man.
Third Type of Work
Works of God
The last work is the “works of God.” Identifying this work is very important. The reason it’s so important, in my opinion, is because like myself at one point, many people believe we are not saved by works. Once again, it about properly identifying the type of works talked about.
As I studied, I came across John 6:28-29. After reading it, I concluded that If we are not saved by works then we are not saved by faith. In John 6:28-29 notice the conversation between Jesus and His disciples:
· “Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
Jesus' disciples specifically inquired about doing “works.” However, they were not inquiring about doing the “works of the Law of Moses” or the “works of man.” No, Jesus' disciples wanted to know how they could do the “works of God.”
Jesus answers their question by telling them that believing in God is a work. Jesus added that it was not just any work, it was a “work of God.” So the Lord considered faith in God a “work of God.” It’s not a work of the Law of Moses. It’s not a work of man. It’s a work of God. If we are not saved by works, then we are not saved by believing in God since Jesus identifies it as a work. The truth of the matter is that we are saved by works. We are saved by the “works of God.” Any command given by God is a work of God. When we carry out God’s commands we are doing “works of God.”
Now let me ask you a question. Do we have to keep God’s commands to be saved? The answer is yes. Now let me ask you the same question in another way. Do we have to do the “works of God” to be saved? Again the answer is yes. Hebrews 11:6 says “without faith, it is impossible to please God.” So if it is impossible to please God without faith and if Jesus considers faith a “work of God,” then it follows that to please God we must do the work of having faith in Him.
To establish this point, even more, let’s look at the context of James 2:24. James, in 2:14-26, is discussing dead faith as opposed to saving faith. Dead faith is faith that is not accompanied by works. “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (2:18) James then proceeds to use Abraham as an example of working faith. Notice what James says:
· “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works, faith was made perfect?” (2:21-22)
According to James, Abraham was justified by faith and works. Without Abraham’s works, his faith would have been incomplete. So what was this work Abraham had to do? James tells us. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obeyed God’s command. Abraham’s obedience to God’s command was the work. Once Abraham carried out the “work of God” his faith was complete.
So in the context of James’ writing, works have to do with commands or instructions given by God. When someone carries out these commands or instructions they are doing the works of God, thereby being justified or saved by works, the works of God. James is not discussing the “works of the Law of Moses” or the “works of man.” James is only concerned about the “works of God” and from these works, God extends His grace. When we obey God’s commands; when we do the works of God which is the same exact thing as keeping His commands, God extends His saving grace to us.
Now let’s bring everything full circle. Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24 do not contradict each other. In Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul is letting them know that no one is saved by the works of man. James compliments Paul’s reasoning by showing that we are saved or justified by the works of God.
Rather than these verses contradicting one another, when you understand the distinction between the types of work, you see that these verses beautifully compliment each other.
I have combined and paraphrased Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24 below in a way that helps me to better understand what’s being said:
· For by grace you have been saved and justified through faith; it has nothing to do with you; it is a result of the gift of God found in the works of God. Not the works of man, so that none of you should boast.