The issue of salvation “by grace through faith” and “not of works” (Ephesians 2:8) has challenged people, who find themselves on either side of the fence. The issue, simply, arises from the nature of the apostle Paul’s writings which, as the apostle Peter admitted, contains “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Thus the divide between those who believe and teach that salvation is by grace alone — without works — and those who believe and teach that salvation is by grace — plus works.
It’s time to clear up our understanding of the role of good works in our Christian faith — and salvation.
The simplicity of Christ
Actually, one doesn’t need theological sophistication in order to understand this. The “simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3) is something even little children — with their simple, direct and honest logic — can understand.
First, it should be clear that all human beings — including every individual person who has ever been born, and will yet be born — have sinned and will have sinned (Romans 3:23). All, that is, except Jesus Christ, “who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22, NKJV).
How, then, can sinful man be cleansed of sin?
Only one way
God’s Word tells us there’s only one way! We cannot cleanse ourselves of sin by using physical soap or by washing. Nor can we clean ourselves of past sins by thereafter doing something good — that is, doing what is according to God’s law. As the apostle Paul put it: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20; compare with Galatians 2:16).
The law tells us what sin is. The law convicts us of our sinfulness and thus condemns us (Romans 7:7-14). Of itself the law has no power to cleanse us of sin, to “justify” us (make us just, righteous or clean and holy in God’s eyes). Even when now or in future we decide to obey God’s law, our present obedience does not — and cannot — justify our past sins.
Our past obedience might lead God to mitigate the consequences of our present disobedience, but it does not earn us forgiveness of sin. When God was about to punish the otherwise righteous King Hezekiah of the Kingdom of Judah for his pride, the king humbled himself and summoned his past obedience to God’s law to appeal for God’s mercy (2 Kings 20:1-11; 2 Chronicles 32:24-26; Isaiah 38:1-8). God heard Hezekiah’s prayer, healed his disease, extended his life for another 15 years, and defended Judah against the Assyrian invaders. Needless to say, God mercifully and graciously forgave Hezekiah of his sins.
The “works,” which Paul says are not able to save a sinner from sin, refer to the works of obeying the sacrificial laws regarding the ceremonial cleansing of sin. For further explanation of this subject, see: Freed From Bondage and Law Added to Law Transgressed.
The Jews thought they were “righteous” because they had the Law of Moses. They were circumcised according to that law, and they boasted about it. But Paul confronted their partial obedience to that law by pointedly asking them: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?…The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, as it is written” (Romans 2:21-24).
Paul answered these questions by concluding, “…for all have sinned…” (Romans 3:23). And what is the solution? “…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:24-26). The sacrificial system which God gave as a temporary remedy for sin could not really justify sinners, particularly the sins that required the death penalty — “capital punishment.” [See: Forgiveness in the Bible.]
What does it mean to “justify?”
A modern twist to an old analogy
Paul compared the Christians at Corinth to “an epistle [letter] of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3). Let’s suppose Christ were to “write” us Christians as a kind of “letter,” and we all happen to have “crooked” or uneven edges or margins that need to be “justified” — made straight, even, or aligned. Can the letter justify itself? No way! It will take the letter-writer (the person) to justify the letter (using whatever machine to do the job).
Back in the days of the manual typewriter, the task of justifying the right margin of a manuscript entailed painstaking labor by the typist, often resulting in imperfect alignment of the margin. Now in our age of computers, one needs only click on an icon, on a monitor screen, that takes care of automatically justifying the right margin — and the result is perfect alignment. In either case the job of justifying is that of the typist (or, in cyber lingo, “encoder”). The manuscript, letter, or article being typed has no power to justify itself.
So it is with our crooked, sinful lives. We have no power of ourselves to justify, make straight, our past lives. We cannot purge ourselves and be freed from the curse of sin, which is death. Our only hope is for Christ — who is “writing” the letter that is our life — to justify us. Jesus took on Himself our curse for sin, so that we need not suffer the curse any further but be blessed instead (Galatians 3:13-14).
In Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul explains: “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.” Clearly, it is only through faith in Christ, by God’s grace, that we can be saved from our sin and its consequence, death (Romans 6:23). Our good works, if any, cannot save us — cannot erase or cleanse our past sins and thus make us “just,” “righteous” and acceptable in God’s sight.
Paul also says, in Romans 9:15-16, “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion’ [quoted from Exodus 33:19]. So then it is not of him [man] who wills, nor of him [man] who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”
Like a typist, it is fully the decision and will of God whom He will justify from sin, and when. [See: Predestination.]
Only the first step in salvation
Justification — the forgiveness of sin — of those whom God has willed to show His grace and mercy to, is but the first step in salvation. [See: Being and Doing.]
Because of sin — which every human being (except Jesus Christ) is guilty of (Romans 3:23) — all have earned the “wages” or penalty of sin — death (Romans 6:23). This is not just the ordinary death that God has appointed for each human being (Hebrews 9:27) — even including His saints! Romans 6:23 is about that “second death” which Revelation 20:14-15 speaks of.
By God’s grace and mercy, through Christ, His chosen ones are saved from that death. Having been thus “justified,” a true disciple of Christ has his name written in God’s “Book of Life” (Revelation 20:15; 21:27). That Book appears to be some kind of “record” or “list” of those who are to receive everlasting life. A person justified in Christ receives the promise of everlasting life. But, as we shall see, that promise does not come without a price. [See: The Book of Life.]
After being justified what is expected of Christians?
Once a believer in Christ has been justified — saved from sin, by grace through faith and by the mercies of God — what is expected of him? Paul asked the Christians in Rome: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin [transgressing God’s law] that grace may abound?” His answer: “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it” (Romans 6:1-2)?
To those who believe in the flawed doctrine of “Once saved — always saved,” here’s some vital thing to consider. [This doctrine says that once a person has been “elected” or “predestined” by God for salvation, that person can never be “lost,” regardless of his “works” — even his sins.]
In Revelation 2 and 3 we have mention of Christ’s “saints” (those whose names are already written in God’s “Book of Life”), most of whom Jesus, in love, rebukes for their sins and inadequate or imperfect “works.” In a message that is meant for all Christians in whatever period of God’s Church, Jesus (as the Spirit) says: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments [symbolic of righteousness], and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Revelation 3:5, 6, 13, 22, etc.).
That means that it is possible for a believer whose name is already written in God’s “Book of Life” to have his name blotted out or removed from that book or list! And that by one not amending one’s imperfect works — sins present and not repented of and therefore unforgiven. Hebrews 10:26-31 warns about sinning willfully after one has been forgiven of sin and given God’s Spirit. [See: Why Is the “Unpardonable Sin” Unpardonable?]
The Word of God shows abundantly that God expects a believer not to continue in sin (John 514; 8:11; Romans 6:1-2, etc.) but rather to do good works! [See: God’s Spirit and Obedience.] This not in order to be saved, but rather — as many have put it — because the believer is already saved! “Saved,” that is, from sin and its consequence, death (Romans 6:23). Ultimately, however, salvation comes when Jesus Christ returns to this earth and brings His true followers back from death to everlasting life in a resurrection or change (1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Saved for good works
Paul continues, in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Paul describes his “heavenly vision” as declaring “first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20; compare with Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8, 10-14).
Paul exhorted the Christians at Rome to use the gifts God had given them, to do the appropriate work (Romans 12:6). He then listed some of such works (Romans 12:6-21; 13:1-15:7).
Paul’s wish for the Christians at Corinth was that they “always having sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance [of God’s grace] for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).
Paul also exhorted Christians at Ephesus to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” in which they had formerly walked (Ephesians 5:11, 8). Rather, they were to “Walk as children of light” (Verse 8) — showing the fruit of God’s Spirit in goodness, righteousness and truth (Verse 9). He then listed some of the good works of the children of light (Ephesians 5:15-6:9) “acceptable to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
Paul prayed that the Colossian Christians “…may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). He lists some good works, in Colossians 3:12-4:5.
Paul qualified true “godliness” as being “with good works” (1 Timothy 2:10). He described a widow worthy of the church’s help as one “well reputed for good works” (1 Timothy 5:10). He also instructed Timothy to exhort wealthy Christians: “Let them do good, that they may be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).
Paul charged Titus: “Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern [model] of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned…” (Titus 2:6-8). Paul also explained where God’s grace should lead to: “…who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. These things are good and profitable to men” (Verse 8; compare with Verse 14).
The unnamed writer of the letter to the Hebrews (probably Paul; see: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?] shows the importance of regularly meeting with the people of God: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Hebrews 10:23-25).
The apostle Peter shows the importance of a Christian’s good works in influencing others toward godliness. “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Peter lists such good works in 1 Peter 2:13-5:9.
Paul also affirmed that “All scripture [including the Old Testament, the main Scripture available then] is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
In sum, our Lord Jesus Himself commands us: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Paul declared that “if anyone cleanses himself from the latter [dishonor or iniquity], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Can a person thus cleanse or justify himself? Isn’t Jesus — His blood and resurrection — all we need in order to be justified and cleansed of sin? Is Paul thus contradicting himself here?
It is true that one cannot be justified from or forgiven of sin except through Jesus Christ. [See: Freed From Bondage.] We cannot add anything to Christ’s sacrifice to make us “more forgiven” or “more justified.” But, once we are justified, God expects us to do our part in the overall “cleaning” process (see: Matthew 23:26; 2 Corinthians 7:1; James 4:8).
What is our part in that process?
Even before Christ came to earth as our Savior from sin, the psalmist had understood a key to keeping oneself spiritually clean: “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word” (Psalm 119:9).
As we journey in this present wilderness of sin, we either lose track of God’s way [to paraphrase M. Scott Peck — “the road less traveled” by most people], follow the well-beaten path everybody is treading on but that leads to our being defiled and eventually destroyed, or stick to our own way that’s no better than that of anybody else. That is, unless God shows us His perfect way — and that through His Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” says Psalm 119:105 of God’s Word.
Jesus told His disciples: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). The apostle Peter echoed this when he wrote to Jewish Christians: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth [God’s Word is truth, John 17:17] through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another with a pure heart…” (1 Peter 1:22).
God’s Word cleanses us where sin starts: in our hearts and minds. Here’s where reading and meditating on and delighting in God’s Word help us to guard our path — that we may not slip, and thereby keep ourselves “clean” (Psalm 1:1-2; 119:11-17). God’s Word thus “cleanses” us in a preventative sense. As “Spirit,” God’s words (John 6:63) have power to keep us from sinning, if we choose or will not to sin.
But should we stumble and dirty ourselves spiritually along the way, as we likely would, God provides a way to cleanse us.
The one whom God the Father calls He draws to Christ (John 6:44, 65), who is the “Way” (John 14:6). Jesus heals that person’s spiritual blindness, shows the person the perfect way of God — and convicts him of his having gone astray from that way! Then the person can come to Christ for the gracious forgiveness and rest He offers (1 John 1:8-10; Matthew 11:28).
So, we can cleanse ourselves through God’s Word — or, falling short of that Word, we have our ultimate “Cleanser” from sin: Jesus Christ, who is also God’s “Word” in person (John 1:1, etc.). [See: The Flaming Sword East of Eden.]
The ultimate reward
Jesus will return in glory — hopefully soon! — bringing His rewards with Him, rewards “to give to every one according to his work” (Revelation 22:12).
While God’s law cannot of itself save us, those whom God saved by His grace through faith in Christ will be found obeying all that He has commanded us. “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life [to receive everlasting life, the “end product” of salvation], and may enter through the gates into the city [New Jerusalem]” (Revelation 22:14). [See: The Law of Christ.]
It is thus directly opposite and contrary to Scripture to assert that “obedience to the law has nothing at all to do with … salvation!”
Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life [everlasting], and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [or judgment]” (John 5:28-29).
Paul echoed this when he wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him [God]. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10). [See: God’s “Book of Remembrance.“]
“Doing good” or doing “good works,” in the truest Biblical sense, is obeying the law or commandments of God. As Paul said, “Love does no harm [but instead does good] to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).
While by our works we are not saved (in the sense of being saved from the “second death” through being justified by the blood and resurrection of Christ), God’s Word is clear that we are saved for good works. And that for all eternity! Only those who do good works, by the grace of God, will enjoy the perfect goodness and pleasures of God’s everlasting kingdom. [See: Being and Doing.]
Romans 6:23 says that, in Christ, we have God’s gift of eternal life. Even the “good works” which we are able to do in our Christian lives — works which “qualify” us for God’s kingdom — are possible, not through our own might or power, but only through the gift of God’s Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). All the credit goes to God! [See: Is There Ever Any Good in Man?]
Through those “good works,” then, we glorify not ourselves but God the Father. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven,” says Jesus to His disciples (Matthew 5:16).
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.