Faith & Works

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

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
James 2.17

Much confusion and disagreement abounds over the role of works as it relates to salvation. Ephesians 2.8, if quoted without regard to its context or the nature of works would be understood as a declaration of faith alone as man’s response to God’s grace. Yet, when reading James 2.17, again without regard to context or the nature of “works,” there appears to be a contradiction. So, a close study of the contexts and of works is helpful in clearing up the confusion.

Some History of the Debate Over Faith & Works

Some of the confusion arises from the after-effects of the teaching of Martin Luther in his denunciation of the works of Catholicism. Luther opposed justification by works, but the works he opposed were works of penance that the Roman Catholic Church in his day endorsed. At the time, a Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel, commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X, was in the midst of a major fundraising campaign in Germany to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The main funding for the early stages of building the new St. Peter’s came from the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were a means whereby remission of sins was granted, or rather, obtained by, payments of money, even after one’s death. This means of receiving (really, obtaining) forgiveness of sins, was what Luther condemned.

In A Treatise on Good Works, Luther spoke of “works done outside of faith.” Yet, in the same writing, he mentioned “works of faith,” which he advocated. Luther (and his followers) viewed good works as “evidence” of faith, but did not believe that good works were necessary for salvation. Thus, Luther advocated that one is saved “sola fide” (by faith alone).

It is obvious from Ephesians 2.8-9 and James 2.17 that there are different works under consideration in Ephesians. Salvation is not a result of those works. In James, faith is said to be dead if apart from works. Thus, if salvation is by faith, and faith must be accompanied by works, then salvation must also be dependent upon works. So, some works are condemned in scripture while other works are necessary. There are different types of works; not all works are of the same nature. Here are a few of the distinctive works mentioned in Scripture…

Works of the Law of Moses.Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Galatians 2.16).

This verse on three occasions speaks of “the works of the law.”d It is equally clear that by these works, there is no justification. Paul is contrasting these works with the works of faith in Jesus Christ. Remember that on one occasion, some came to Jesus and asked him, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6.28-29). Paul goes on to write in Romans 3.28 that “…a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” The works that do not justify are clearly specified. These works are the same as those mentioned in Galatians 2.16. The simple truth is, there are different types of works revealed in the New Testament.

Works of Man’s Righteousness.…Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3.5).

Notice how this verse clearly identifies the works. It is works “which we have done.” By such works, man cannot be saved. He needs the mercy of God in the gospel of Christ. The passage condemns the moral man thinking he can be saved in his own goodness or works of righteousness which he is doing. So many believe that by being morally clean and reasonably honest that salvation is assured them. This can never be, “for all have sinned” (Romans 3.23). We need God’s mercy in the gospel. Man can never originate a plan to remove one single sin. These works are condemned in the verse, but works of all nature are not condemned. The verse is not to be understood as condemning what God has for one to do in obeying the gospel of his Son.

Works of God’s Righteousness.Then Peter opened his mouth and said, ‘Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feared him, and worketh righteousness is accepted with him” (Acts 10.34-45).

What works are involved in one being accepted with God? God has authorized faith (John 6.29; James 2.24), repentance (Acts 17.30; 2 Peter 3.9), confession (Romans 10.10), and baptism (Mark 16.16; 1 Peter 3.21) for one to obey in working God's righteousness to be saved. When one obeys as such, he is not working man’s righteousness, but the righteousness of God. As Paul wrote in Romans 10.2-3, “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.