The apostle Paul was adamant that works have no saving efficacy in God’s soteriology. In Romans 11:6 he wrote, “But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Martin Luther clung so tightly to Paul’s statement that he called the book of James an “epistle of straw”.1 This was due to James’ teaching that, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This apparent contradiction is pointed out by many cults who would advocate a system of works salvation or groups who are attempting to prove that Christianity espouses a system of works salvation. Christianity is the only religion in the world that holds to redemption by grace.2 in this post I intend to show how grace is the biblical doctrine of redemption, how Scripture reconciles grace with the necessity of works, and how any works based system falls short of the redemption that is only offered through the grace of God.
Grace alone: One of the most well known passages on the Christian doctrine of salvation is found in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.” (ESV) Some may claim this doctrine of faith alone is Paul putting his own spin on salvation while James is trying to combat it3, but the apostles Peter, James, and John examined Paul and his doctrine. They approved of his message after finding it to be the same as what Jesus taught them. We find Peter teaching salvation by faith alone in I Peter 2:6-7a among other places, “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…” It is also notable that the passage Peter is citing is from Isaiah 28:16 establishing the doctrine of salvation by faith alone as an Old Testament doctrine. Jesus also clearly taught it as He said in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” In verses 64-65 of the same chapter Jesus shows that the act of coming and believing on Him are synonymous. We also have this illustrated for us when Jesus promised the thief on the cross forgiveness of sins and life with Him when the their did nothing to merit that forgiveness.(Luke 23:43) The teaching that one is saved by doing nothing but believing on Jesus is what Paul called grace in Romans eleven. It is therefore not novel as it was taught in the Old Testament Scriptures as well as by Jesus and His apostles.
Reconciling grace and works: James does not teach a soteriology that is any different than the other apostles or Jesus. Paul, who said salvation is by grace apart from works, also taught that a person who did not live righteously would not enter heave. He said in I Corinthians 6:9-10, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do no be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, no idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Jesus called men to repent of their sins which required them to live differently than they had previously (Luke 13:1-3) and demanded perfect righteousness. (Matt. 5:20) It is apparent from these two examples that James’ teaching on works is not an anomaly.
John shows us how James’ doctrine of works and Paul’s doctrine of faith are to be united when he tells us in I John 3:3, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” John, who in the same book says that those who only believe can be sure of having eternal life (I Jn 5:13), agrees with what James says about faith apart from works being worthless (James 2:20). The message of James is that true faith will result in works; they are inseparable.4 This is true of every day life. A driver is sitting at a red light; but when the light turns green he accelerates and drives through the intersection. He believes that the intersecting traffic has a red light and that they will honor it. He also believes that pressing the gas pedal will move the vehicle forward. His faith spurs his action. If he didn’t believe any of these things then he would not act. We can see that reality agrees with the Scriptures – grace and works need no reconciliation for they are friends.
Where the others fall short:Having seen that Scripture teaches that salvation is by the grace of God being through faith alone, and that this faith so tied to works that if one does not have works then we may be sure saving faith is not present, we should examine how this differs from false systems of salvation. It was stated earlier that Christianity is the only religion that is not a merit based system, no other religion is founded upon grace; no other has a substitute that atones for man’s sins. If the false system doesn’t outright deny the existence of sin, they develop a form of works that if the individual would strive to follow he will find a way to balance the scales and thus merit forgiveness. Not only is a works based system of salvation unbiblical, it is also self-defeating.
Works based systems acknowledge a few things by default: there is a god, this god punishes evil (thus the need for reconciliation), this god demands righteousness (thus the need for works), and this god can be trusted to judge justly when he examines their works. These foundational beliefs negate any hope of works regardless of how good one thinks man is capable of being. If one’s god is good then his god hates evil. If he hates evil and is trustworthy he will not pardon the guilty without just retribution. If he does pardon sin without adequately dealing with evil then this god is not good and righteous as he does not truly hate evil, nor can he be trusted because he isn’t righteous in dealing out justice. This overlooking of evil makes him evil as well and unfit to judge or punish other evils. Since he is evil he has no right to demand that man be good there is now no reason for man to perform righteous works as their god is evil also. Thus works systems defeat themselves as they are hoping their evil hating, trustworthy, good god will somehow accept some evil, pervert justice, and compromise some good for their eternal benefit.
The beauty of the Gospel: Christianity maintains the four affirmations that works based systems attempt to found themselves on: that of a good God that hates evil who demands righteousness and will justly punish evil. Christianity is the only religion that solves man’s need for forgiveness and still upholds the justice and holiness of God. Paul said in Romans 3:23-26 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is righteous and has declared that the soul that sins must die (Ezekiel 18:20). Jesus Christ, God incarnate, fulfilled the law of God perfectly. Although He was without sin He took our sins upon Himself and bore the wrath of God that was due the sinner. God showed His hatred for sin and justice in punishing it fully and promises that the perfect righteousness of Jesus will be imputed to all those who cease from trying to earn their salvation and trust in the person of Jesus Christ Who’s resurrection validates that the Father’s justice was fulfilled and the debt of sin was paid, otherwise Jesus would still be dead. Once a man breaks God’s law he is under penalty of death, no amount of good works can alter even one infraction that brought death upon him. Perfect obedience can only be found in Jesus Christ. This is the gospel! It is in this good news of Jesus that we are freed from having to live as we should under penalty of death to living as we should because by free grace we have been given life. “There is therefore now no condemnation”for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) “So in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26)
1Carson, D.A., and Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament, Zondervan, 2005, 631-632.
2Does Islam teach salvation by works? http://carm.org/religious-movements/islam/does-islam-teach-salvation-works
3E.g., Dunn, James G.D., Unity and diversity in the New Testament, Philadelphia, Westminster, 1977, 251-252.
4Lea, Thomas D., and Black, David Alan, The New Testament its Background and Message, B&H Academic, 2003, 518-519