Most Protestants, reacting adversely to the “works system” of Roman Catholicism, have adopted the extreme (and unscriptural) view that works play no role whatever in human salvation. Some allege that salvation is on the basis of “faith alone,” while others (e.g., radical Calvinists) argue that God chose the redeemed before the world began, and that redemption, therefore, is entirely unconditional.
“But is it not true” someone is bound to argue, “that the Scriptures state that we are not saved by works (Eph. 2:9)?” Yes, that is correct. But it is also the case that the New Testament asserts that we are saved, i.e., justified, by works (Jas. 2:14,24). Since the Bible, being the word of God, does not contradict itself, there must be a sensible solution to this seeming difficulty. How is the problem to be resolved?
Well, it is not (as Luther suggested) that one is at liberty to repudiate the book of James as an inspired document! Rather, the careful student must recognize that there are different kinds of works addressed in the divine record. Let us give brief consideration to this matter with a spirit of genuine investigation.
Works of the Law
In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that no one can be saved by keeping the works of Moses’ law. The apostle argued that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (3:28). The term “law” in this passage is broader than the Mosaic system, though it certainly includes that law.
This certainly does not suggest, however, that obedience to Christ may be ignored with impunity. In the same epistle, Paul affirmed that these saints in Rome had embraced freedom from the penalty of sin as a result of having been “obedient from the heart” to the “pattern of teaching” whereby they were delivered (6:17; cf. 3-4).
The works of the Mosaic law could not save because they required perfect compliance (Gal. 3:10b), which no person could achieve. Moreover, the regime of Moses had only the blood of animals, which could not atone for sin in the absolute sense (Heb. 10:4). The primary focus of the Hebrew system was to direct attention to the coming Messiah (Gal. 3:24-25); it was never designed to provide the ultimate phase of God’s plan of salvation. Had the Mosaic law that kind of power, Christ need never have died as the sin-offering (Gal. 2:21).
Works of Human Merit
In his Ephesian letter, Paul wrote: “[F]or by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works that no man should glory” (2:8-9).
The works here excluded are charitable works which men pile up, imagining that such will justify them, while they, with a smug self-sufficiency, ignore the sacrifice of Christ and his redemptive system.
The Red Cross is famous for its benevolent efforts, but there is no justification to be found therein, because its “works” are mere human benevolent efforts, wholly divorced from the mission of the Son of God. The man who boasts: “I am a good person; I do not need Jesus Christ,” is guilty of the same mistake.
Works of Obedience
There are works mentioned in the Bible that are designated as “works of God.”By this expression it is not implied that these are works which God himself performs. Rather, they are works ordained of God, to be obeyed by men, that are indispensable to salvation.
Consider a text in John, chapter 6. The disciples inquired of the Lord: “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus responded: “This is the work of God that you believe on him who he has sent” (vv. 28-29). Observe that this “work of [from] God” required a human response — that of believing. Regarding the term “work,” as here used, J.H. Thayer commented: “... the works required and approved by God” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 248).
The term “works” is sometimes the equivalent of “obedience.” Elsewhere Jesus promised victory to those who “keep my works,” i.e., the works (commands) prescribed by him (Rev. 2:26). If, therefore, all “works” are excluded from the plan of salvation, faith itself would be eliminated, for it is identified as a work.
It must be noted as well that “repentance” is a component in God’s scheme of redemption (Acts 2:38; 3:19). And yet, repentance is classified as a “work.” Jesus once said that the people of ancient Nineveh “repented” when Jonah preached to them (Mt. 12:41). The book of Jonah explains the meaning of this. God saw their “works, that they turned from their evil way” (3:10). There is no question about it, works — of a certain sort — are a part of the salvation process.
Is Baptism a Work of Merit?
The truth is, most denominational folks have little difficulty in acknowledging that both faith and repentance are requirements for the remission of sins, even though they are classified as works in the Scriptures. The real point of contention is baptism. Sectarians feel that if it were conceded that baptism is essential to salvation, this would be equivalent to arguing that forgiveness is earned. Baptism, it is charged, is a work of human merit. Under this assumption, it is thus (by many sincere people) excluded as a requirement for salvation. But this reasoning is fallacious.
In the first place, the only passage in the New Testament that even remotely identifies baptism as a “work” is found in the book of Colossians. There, Paul says “[H]aving been buried with him in baptism, wherein you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12, ASV).
The act of submitting to immersion is not meritorious; the operation is a “working of God” designed to provide pardon upon the basis of Jesus’ death. One is spiritually blessed by the working of God when he submits to the sacred ordinance. Nowhere does scripture come anywhere near suggesting that submission to God’s command, “be baptized” (Acts 2:38; 22:16), is a meritorious work.
Second, the Bible specifically excludes baptism from that type of works that have no relationship to salvation. Paul, in his letter to Titus, affirmed that we are “not [saved] by works done in righteousness which we did ourselves,” i.e., which we contrived and implemented as a means of justification. Rather, “according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (3:5). The “washing of regeneration” (an indisputable allusion to baptism) is plainly placed in contrast to those human “works” that are ineffectual to save.
The conscientious Bible student needs to eradicate from his mind the false notion that “works” are wholly alien to God’s plan of salvation. If you have been confused about the role of works in the divine pattern of conversion, why not give the matter fresh consideration?