Can a person be saved by works? Can the absence of works doom a believer? What is the connection between salvation and works? Can it be earned by works?
What Are Works?
Martin Luther wanted the Book of James excluded from the New Testament. Why? It was because James wrote,
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:14-18).
Can you see why the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, wanted to cut out the Book of James? He saw it as tying salvation to works but is that what James was really saying?
James concluded this chapter with verse 24-26
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
The conclusion of this chapter really reveals what James was saying. If there are no works, then there must be no faith in Christ. We are not saved by works as Paul wrote and Martin Luther saw in Romans 3:20a, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” Since we know, and James must have also known, that we are not saved by works…then we must be saved for works. That is we are saved for the purpose of doing good works and that is to glorify God. Our works don’t get us to heaven but our works follow us there. James was saying that if there are no visible works…no fruit of conversion…then that professed faith is dead (James 2:26).
Jesus on Fruits Revealing Conversion
Jesus would have agreed with James because if there are no works then the faith is not real. Jesus liked to use the analogy of fruits in showing whether that person is really converted. You can tell a fruit tree by its fruits but if a tree has no fruit, or it has bad fruit, then you know its not from God the Holy Spirit for the Spirit always bears godly fruit.
Jesus said “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). Plainly, we can not bear good fruit by ourselves. We must be attached to and receive the help of the Vine (Jesus Christ). Jesus continued “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:5-6). So then, if we are attached to the Vine (Jesus), we will no doubt bear fruit, but a serious warning is given to those who produce no fruit (and may be false converts) that they will be gathered up and “thrown into the fire and burned” which reminds us of the fate of all those who have and those who will reject Jesus as Lord and Savior. The proof is in the fruit as Jesus said, “that [if] you bear much fruit [you are] showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8b). Fruit is produced by effort and we might say that this effort takes work. If there are no works of the Spirit, there will necessarily be no fruits of the Spirit. This is what James was basically saying. We are not saved by works…we are saved by grace alone but grace alone doesn’t come alone…it comes with works.
Verses About 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” (Eph 2:8-9).
“we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).
If you think you can ever earn your way into heaven, listen to what Isaiah wrote about human efforts:
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (64:6).
God has actually prepared, ahead of time, good works for us to do but they don’t save us. That doesn’t mean we don’t do them, as Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Now if God has prepared “good works” for us to do ahead of time, surely He expects us to be doing them. Why would God prepare them in advance and not expect us to do them? It’s not that we’d be saved by them but that we would glorify God in doing them. Paul wrote to Titus that, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8). For “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). This means not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Talk is cheap. Actions speak loud.
Thankfully no one is saved by works for we would always wonder just how many works we needed to do to be saved or get saved…and that nagging thought in the back of our minds would always be…”Is it enough. Did I do enough works?” Rest assured…we could never, ever do enough good works to save ourselves. Actually, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). If we were saved by works, no doubt we’d all be bragging and boasting about ourselves (Eph 2:9). God knew this. Jesus’ disciples once “asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29). That is the greatest work of all. To put your trust in Him and realize you could never do enough works to pay for your own sins. Jesus already paid it all…in full…at Calvary. If you have not put your trust in God, then you must know that just being a good person is not enough. We have to be perfect to get into heaven. But Jesus has made a way. How? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). That works for me. How about you?
Article by Pastor Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Senior Writer at What Christians Want to Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible.