Are We Saved By Works?

By Jady W. Copeland

If the Bible does not contradict itself (and I believe it doesn’t), then two passages need harmonizing, for in James 2:24 we find we are justified by works and in Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul says we are not saved by works. On the surface these would seem to conflict one to the other but it is not necessarily so. In the first place, neither says we are saved by one of these only. Interestingly enough, one says we are not saved by faith only, the very thing that many say we are saved by. Seems that James and the religious world are in conflict. Could it not be that both faith and works play a part in salvation? I had faith and works both in evidence this morning when I came to my office. I had faith in God that I had the health and strength to make it, but it took work (not much but a little). Had I had no faith in God, and some other related things, I would not have begun. In this article, we want to concentrate on whether or not we are saved by works.

Not Saved By Works

We are obviously not saved by some kinds of works the Bible mentions. For example, there are the works of Satan. Are we saved by those? (Read 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10.) We can break down the works of Satan into several groupings.

The works of the flesh. Paul says in Galatians 5:19 that there are works of flesh. Those who do such shall not enter heaven. Not saved by those works are we? Now these are the doings (desires) of Satan as opposed to Christ (see verse 22). These works are in obedience to Satan, not to Christ. Let us keep this rule in mind. We are the servants of the one we obey (Rom. 6:16). Therefore if we obey Satan, we are his children. This is in opposition to God.

The works of men. I believe we can also put man’s works in this catalogue too as some follow their own works instead of the works of God. When I substitute my will for the will of God, I have renounced His authority for mine. When I do my own biddings, then I fail to follow Him. Isaiah says that such is as “filthy rags” and that doesn’t sound like faithful obedience to God (Isa. 64:6). Remember Paul says we are the servant of the one we obey (Rom. 6:16). Obey yourself and you cannot be the servant of God. Salvation does not come through our own wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-25). If I obey self, I am not serving God.

Works of which one may boast. Here is another work by which we cannot be saved. Is there any “boasting” when I obey God? Is there any “glorying” when I do that which God authorizes? We can take pleasure in the hope He gives us, but there is no room for boasting, for it is His works, His commands, His will that we are observing (read Rom. 4:1-4). Here Paul uses Abraham as an example of this principle. As carefully as he obeyed God, there was no room for boasting (merit) on Abraham’s part. Why? Because he only did what God said. He did nothing of his own will. But Paul calls that faith. But isn’t it interesting that James uses the same man and the same passage (Gen. 15:1-6) to prove that justification comes by works? Now that should tell us something. More about that later. Do you suppose Abraham would be called the father of the faithful if his faith had not led him to obey God?

Now let us look at Ephesians 2:1-10, a passage often used to disprove the necessity of obedience to Christ. God’s mercy is the subject here (v. 4). Man was dead in sin, and the mercy and loving kindness of God is manifested that man might have a remedy for sin. God (in view of His nature) simply could not stand by and let man be lost in sin without a way of salvation. So from the depths of His love, He sent the Christ to save man so (“by grace have ye been saved”). Grace or mercy was God’s part and faith (v. 8) is man’s part in salvation. The whole of God’s plan to redeem man is expressed in one word – grace. The whole of man’s part in redemption is expressed in one word faith. Details in either case are here given. But with regard to the plan and person (Christ) of our redemption, it is “not of work” on the part of man; it was totally God’s plan. And as Paul says in Romans 5:1-2 it is accepted by faith as the means into God’s loving kindness. We are not saved by works of which we can boast.

We are not saved by the works of the law of Moses. As has been pointed out many times in recent months in the Guardian of Truth we are not saved by perfect law keeping (whether you speak of the law of Moses or any other law). While we do not intend to spend much space here on this point as it needs more space to justify it, suffice it to say that Moses’ law has been done away (Eph. 2:14-15; Gal. 5:1-4; 2 Cor. 3:1-11). Justification comes in two ways: (1) Perfect obedience of faith. (2) Salvation through Christ. Unless you have never sinned, you will have to be saved by the blood of Christ. I know of no other way.

So, if we are not saved by (1) works of Satan, (2) the works of man (merit) or, (3) the works of the law, are we saved by works? Surely James 2:24 has to mean something when he says, “Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith”.

The Works Of God

Perhaps we can get a thought from the words of Christ. Look at John 6:28-29. “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” This is the same as saying “do the works” of God. What are the works of God? “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he bath sent.” Our work is to believe on Christ. Now the question is, “Does that require obedience or works in any way?” We can get an idea of that when we look at what Jesus did in doing the works of His Father. In verse 38 of this same chapter Jesus said, “For I am come down from heaven not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me”. Jesus obeyed His Father. What He did He did at His Father’s will; He was obedient to His Father. He brings out this point in John 7:14-18. He came to speak God’s words. He came to do the Father’s will. “If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself.” Furthermore in verse 18 He said, “He that speaketh from himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh the glory of him that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.” Likewise when we do the will of God instead of our own will, we have the approval of God for we are demonstrating faith in Him (as we obey) and not faith in self.

But if it is the work of God to have faith in Christ, does not this mean that faith is all that is essential to salvation? Yes and no. It all depends on the kind of faith. James 2:14-26 talks of more than one kind. One is a dead faith and the question needs no answer which says, “Will this faith save?” If so, the demons will be saved for they had faith (v. 19). The saving faith is the kind that Abraham had. He gives Abraham as the example of the kind he is talking of, and as noted it is the same man, and the same passage that Paul uses to show one is justified by faith. James uses him to prove one must do something. He says, “You see then that by works a man is justified and not by faith only.” What kind of works? It is the same kind that Jesus did (that is doing the will of His father). He cannot be saved who obeys Moses’ law, or the law of his own choosing, or the will of Satan. But did not Abraham do the will of God? He did not do works of which he could boast or glory for they were not of his choosing. Always Abraham’s works were the works of God. Then and only then was faith put to his account for righteousness. As James says, “Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.” So there must be an imperfect faith (faith without works) if there is a perfect faith (faith coupled with works).

When one is baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27) is this the work of man, or of Satan, or of the law of Moses? Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). I take it then that if one does what Jesus said, it is not his own (man’s) works but the works (obedience) of the Lord. When Abraham was about to kill Isaac God stopped him and said, “for now I know that thou fearest God. . .” (Gen. 22:12). When one obeys today (God’s works) then God knows of your faith. Like love, faith can only be known by the action it prompts. Think on these things, the Bible is right.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 8, pp. 238-239
April 21, 1983