Can Salvation Be Earned? A Bible Study of Works vs. Grace

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

Paul wrote,

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.

Resources: photo credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

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  • zuma musa

    If the book of James has to be removed from the Bible, many books have to be removed from the Bible also. The following are the Biblical verses that support the work of repentance is necessary:

    Revelation 22:14, “Blessed are they do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”

    Matthew 19:17 (KJV), “And he said unto him, why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”

    Mark 10:17, “And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” The following of the verses were the reply from Jesus: Mark 10:19, “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.” What did the man reply to Jesus? Mark 10:20, “And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.”

  • zuma musa

    The work of repentance is a must in the Bible in order to be saved:

    1 John 3:24, “And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him and he in him…”

    Can a non-Christian claim that he know God without the work of repentance?

    1 John 2:4, “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

    As mentioned in 1 John 2:4, a non-Christian could not proclaim himself he knows God without obeying His Commandments. As he does not know Him, could he be saved without obeying His Commandments? Besides, the phrase, the truth is not in him is mentioned in the same verse. It implies that there is no truth in a non-Christian if he does not obey the Commandments of God. As there is no truth in the non-Christian if he does not obey the Commandments of God, could he be saved simply by believing in Jesus without obeying the Commandments of God?

  • zuma musa

    Is salvation by faith alone acceptable from scriptural viewpoint?

    Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;”

    The scripture always equates faith to righteousness especially in the book of Hebrews. As the phrase, Not by works of righteousness, is mentioned in Titus 3:5, it implies that salvation should not be from the work of faith since the scripture equates faith to righteousness. The phrase, according to his mercy, as mentioned in the same verse implies that salvation is fully by God’s mercy instead of by your faith.

    Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:”

    If salvation is by faith alone, it is from yourselves since faith is from yourselves to God. However, Ephesians 2:8, “(mentions that) For by grace…not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Even if one supports that God is the one to give faith to people, these people have to receive faith from God in order to be saved. Again faith has to be with them in order to be saved. Or in other words, these people will be saved by the faith that they have.

    The scripture mentions that salvation is to be by the mercy of God instead of by faith alone.

    • Jack Wellman

      Mercy is where we don’t get what we truly deserve but grace is where we get what we don’t deserve, therefore, grace and mercy are not the same.

  • Some guy

    I just want to end my life in peace…this life is a damned sham and in my honest opinion a spell made by some witch. Why I am not allowed to? I’ve asked God to kill me many times, with no avail. I presume the answer is a solid “NO”, or “wait”, because I’m not gone from this place. I’ve truly loved people for years, but after today I don’t need these people’s love, or any people’s love for that matter. My Mom hates me, my brothers don’t like me, why? That’s a damned good question. I SHOULD be allowed to end my life and not have to go to a worse torment for it, because that’s what this place is to me, constant and continual torment…at this point I’d almost rather be in Hell, away from this foolish, downright disturbing place. Who knows, I might get lucky and it’s similar or better than this world. I call out to GOD HIMSELF all the time with no response ever, neither visual nor audio. I suspect this is a godless realm, thus this earth being at least a temporary Hell. I don’t get a response from any angels or saints in Heaven. I just want to die already, and go into a nonexistent state. This place to me IS Hell, but if there is another place that is worse than this, then when I end my life by my own means, in Christian theory I’m going there, no matter how strong my belief in Christ, no matter how great my faith, I’ll go directly to Hell after being sentenced by God himself, although I’ve spent a 25-year lifetime of praying to who I thought was my savior. I do believe there is a God, but from what I’ve experienced through my own testimony, he literally hates only me. Even people with bone cancer, people in Africa struggling to survive, they are loved by Him. But me? He literally can care less that I perceive anything at all. Does that make ME Satan? NO. I’d know if I was, and I’d tell you too. He has a thing with treating me like I’m Satan though.

    • Concerned

      I’m so sorry you are in such pain, and this life is so very challenging. Prayers for you.

      • Jack Wellman

        Amen…Jesus promised the way would be hard, the road narrow and the life difficult and never promised happiness, but I too am sorry for such heartache.