What part does “works” play in the realm of salvation?

That is a thing debated often.  There is a pendulum that swings back and forth throughout the history of the church.  Even looking into scripture sometimes seems to muddy up the waters further. May I explain the problem and offer a solution?  (Solution: brought to you in large part by Jack Cottrell)

I will try to do this as simply as I can, though an encyclopedia of explanation could easily be written.

Two seemingly contradictory passages are Romans 4:1-8 (written by Paul) and James 2:14-24.  These both reflect on the life of Abraham and what he found in the matter of faith (trusting).  Paul says in verse 5, “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  James says in verse 17 and 22, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”  You see the dilemma.

First, we must realize the context in which each is writing.  Paul is in the middle of a conversation about the inability of a person to earn salvation.  Let’s call these “works of law.”  These are PRIDEFUL in motive.  These are to appease God’s demanding side, His moral holiness.  These would be from the motive of being self righteous, proving one worthy before God on his own merit.

On the other hand, James is trying to spur people to meet needs.  Let’s call these “works of faith.”  These are HUMBLE in motive.  These are to bless someone else or look after their needs based on gratitude and understanding the heart of God.  These assume righteousness and healing has already come through grace.

Let’s put it this way regarding salvation…

Paul is saying, “It is not faith AND works (of law).”

James is saying, “It is not faith WITHOUT works (of faith).”

BOTH Paul and James would say “It is faith WHICH works that saves.”

Ephesians 2:8-10 (Paul again) wraps this idea in a beautiful nutshell.  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

That’s right… not BY works, but FOR works we were saved.

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