What role do good works play in our relationship with God? What role, if any, do they play in our salvation? These are issues commonly debated among sincere religious people today. Some people say that works are essential for one to be saved, while others say that any work at all prior to salvation renders the one wishing to be saved guilty of seeking salvation by the law and not by grace. Are we to believe that the scriptures are so unclear as to render this question without a definitive answer? Let's look to them and find out. As with all of my studies I'll begin by defining the terms we're seeking to understand, look at works in detail as they are spoken of in the scriptures, and use our understanding of the scriptures to answer our question about works.
This is a list of the Greek words translated "work" in the KJV. Each word is followed by the part of speech it occupies, the number of times it is used, and the English words used to translate it.
Ergazomai (verb, 39): work, wrought, do, minister about, forbear working, labour for, labour, commit, trade by, trade
Ergasia (noun, 6): gain, craft, diligence, work
Ergatees (noun, 16): labourer, workman, worker
Ergon (noun, 176): work, deed, doing, labour
Logos (noun, 330): translated "work" in Romans 9:28.
Pragma (noun, 11): thing, matter, business, work
Praxis (noun, 6): deed, work, office
Energeo (verb, 21): work, show forth (one's) self, wrought, be effectual, effectually work, effectual fervent, work effectually in, be might in, to do
Energia (noun, 8): working, effectual working, operation, strong
Energema (noun, 2): operation, working
Katergazomai (verb, 24): work, do, do deed, to perform, cause, work out, wrought
Poieo (verb, 579): translated "work" 8 times
Poiema (noun, 2): thing that is made, workmanship
Ischuo (verb, 29): translated "work" once (Acts 27:16)
Molis (adverb, 6): translated "work" once (Acts 27:16)
Sunergeo (verb, 5): work with, help with, workers together, work together
Sunergos (adjective, 13): fellowlabourer, helper, fellowhelper, fellowworkers, workfellow, labourer together with, companion in labour
Dunamis (noun, 120): power, mighty work, strength, miracle, might, virtue, mighty, miscellaneous terms nine times
Whew! How best might one approach the question of works and grace? The task of understanding works appears daunting, with 18 different words translated "works" or something similar. In addition, the words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Each of these parts of speech is used in a different way to convey the writer's meaning regarding works. The highlighted words are linked to an on-line English grammar. Should you have any questions regarding these parts of speech, please link to the grammar and review the usage of these words.
I'd like for us to consider the definition of ergon before we move on. This noun is used 176 times in the New Testament. It has three principle definitions:
business, employment, that which any one is occupied
that which one undertakes to do, enterprise, undertaking
any product whatever, any thing accomplished by hand, art, industry, or mind
an act, deed, thing done: the idea of working is emphasized in opp. to that which is less than work
When one considers the positions of the various religious organizations today, what is a common theme? Works of any kind are unnecessary for salvation. Phillip Hopwood comments on Romans 3:20-25 and states, "If Paul hadn't put it so plainly, many of us would have trouble accepting that God reckons us righteous without any good works. It is hard to grasp the enormity of God's grace and love. We think we have to contribute something." ("Justification and sanctification-- The role of faith and works in salvation", URL http://churches.wcg.org/hobart-au/justif.htm; emphasis mine) In this study on works we will consider the role, if any, works play in salvation. Based on the definition of ergon noted above, we will have to show two things to be true before no good work of any kind is required for one to be justified:
No physical product or act (that is, physical work such as one might perform with their hands) is required for one to be justified.
No mental product or act is required for one to be justified.
Before we address works and salvation, we need to lay much foundation. Please continue with me as we seek to understand works in our relationship with God.
I'd like to begin our study of works by looking at two verses which, I believe, illustrate a source of misunderstanding among religious people today.
Romans 3:28: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."
James 2:24: "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
There are a limited number of possibilities when we encounter writings of two different people that seem to contradict each other:
One is right, the other is wrong.
Both are wrong.
Both are truthful, and our understanding of their message is lacking.
Paul records in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all scripture is given by the inspiration of God, and Jesus in John 17:17 tells us that the word of God is truth. John writes in 1 John 2:21 that no lie is of the truth. We spent quite a bit of time evaluating the scriptures in our study "Why must we use the Bible only?" and have shown that the scriptures are true. If any passage in the Bible were untrue, then Jesus couldn't claim truth to the entire word of God. Therefore, all scripture must be the word of God and truthful. So Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 appear to contradict each other only because our understanding of their message is incomplete. Let's look in detail at the scriptures recorded by Paul and by James and come to an understanding of the message the Holy Spirit is conveying to us.
Men have gone to great lengths to support their beliefs regarding these two scriptures. Recently I read a book entitled One Book Rightly Divided by a Baptist author, Douglas Stauffer. In his publication he claims that "the book of James does not have direct doctrinal application to the Church Age Christian." (p 29, emphasis his). His claim is that the books of Philemon through Revelation apply to a group of people yet to live, the "tribulation saints." (p 28). He bases his entire teaching regarding these books of the New Testament on his belief that the rapture is truly an event to come. I will deal with the rapture in a forthcoming study. But for now, let's consider briefly the contradictions he records within the pages of his book:
"The book of Hebrews is written to the Hebrews (Jews) covering future events, whereas Paul's epistles are addressed to the Church today." (p 22, emphasis his).
"The Lord Jesus Christ, our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), made the final atonement (Romans 5:11) and there remains no more necessity to sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:11-12)." (p 21, scriptural quotations his).
Please use your God-given reasoning ability when you encounter any teachings of man and determine whether they are of the truth or not. The most superficial examination of the two statements from his book quoted above show the fallacy of the doctrine he wishes to promote. It makes you wonder whether he was reading his own writings, or whether he had any type of proofreading to keep him out of trouble! On page 21 he refers to the present status of Jesus as our High Priest and takes his proof from the book of Hebrews. However, one page later he tells us that the book of Hebrews is written to a specific group of people yet to live, while the writings of Paul are recorded for the Church today! Why does he do this? To support his position that the book of James does not apply to us today (recorded within the same chapter of the book, page 29). Why does he wish to discount the book of James for present-day Christians? Because he cannot continue to preach the impossibility of a child of God falling from grace if the book of James is applicable to us today. James emphasizes the requirement for works before one is justified. He cannot preach his doctrine of justification by grace alone if James is in force today. Therefore he has to devise a way to discount the book of James, and makes the statement noted above regarding the doctrinal applicability of James to present day Christians. John, an inspired writer of several New Testament books, records for us as he closes the book of Revelation (chapter 22, verses 18 and 19): "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." I pray that not one of my students might be found guilty of adding to or taking away from the word of God as he/she stands before God on the day of judgment. Lets look at Romans 3 and James 2 in detail, to learn the full message of the Holy Spirit to us today.
Consider again the teachings of Paul and James in the two verses under consideration. Paul states "we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law", while James writes "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." As noted above, both scriptures are true, but our understanding of the message is lacking. What concept is misunderstood, leading to one group teaching that works are unnecessary for salvation, and another that works are necessary? Justification. Once we understand justification, we will understand the message the Holy Spirit is recording for us through the pens of Paul and James.
As you know, in all of my studies I consider the meaning of the Greek words recorded by the writer. Let's do the same for justification. Are these writers using two different words with two different meanings? No. The Greek verb dikaioo is used in both verses. Vine's dictionary tells us more about the definition of dikaioo. Please link for further study. As part of our consideration, I'll list the usages of dikaioo:
To show to be right or righteous.
To declare to be righteous; to pronounce righteous:
By man, concerning God
By man, concerning himself
By God, concerning men
Notice the function this word serves in a sentence: it is a verb. A verb expresses "an act, occurrence, or mode of being" of the subject of the sentence (Merriam-Webster's dictionary). Each of these passages agrees as to the subject of the verb: "a man." So, Paul and James are telling us of the act, occurrence, or mode of being of "a man." Let's consider each of these possibilities. Are the writers speaking of an act of the subject ("a man")? That is, does a man justify? No. We read in Romans 3:25-26 "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Here Paul tells us who justifies: it is God, not man. But we learn something else about justification in Romans 3:25-26. Since it is God who justifies, the verb dikaioo in Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 must reflect a mode of being of "a man." A man may either be justified by God, or not be justified by God. If we return to the definition of dikaioo noted above we see that the word in each of these passages under consideration deals with God's declaring a man righteous. Since dikaioo reflects the mode of being of a man (justified), and God is the one who justifies (declares a man righteous), self-righteousness (to declare ones' own self righteous) is an impossibility in our relationship with God. Only God can declare a man righteous.
The scriptures list several ways by which man is justified by God. These are:
By faith (Romans 5:1)
By the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9)
By grace (Titus 3:7)
By works (James 2:24)
But how do these work together? I think the best example is that of "white light." We all know that light is made up of several different colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). When these 7 colors are combined they produce "white light". If it weren't for these different colors of light we could not experience the different colors we see every day. Your shirt is blue because the pigments in the fabric reflect only the blue portion of light. Your car is red because every other color in the visual spectrum of light is absorbed, reflecting only the red wavelengths. Just as white light is a compilation of 7 different colors, justification is a compilation of several different traits. God is only interested in seeing "white light" (my phrase) being emitted in our lives. Let's assign a color to the various portions of justification: Let's say faith is blue, the blood of Christ is red, grace is green, and works are violet. One person believes we are justified by faith only. When God examines the "light" being emitted by this person, He sees a blue color. This person is not manifesting all the factors necessary for justification and is not declared just by God. His neighbor may believe we are justified by works rather than faith. When God examines him, He sees a violet color. Again, this person is not declared just by God. Only when God sees faith, works, grace, and Jesus' blood all manifest together in one's life will God declare one just. We must not be found guilty of emphasizing one facet of justification at the expense of another. All facets work together to bring one into a right relationship with God.
Since we know that faith and works complement, not contradict, each other, why do so many people attempt to discount the importance of works? Because they believe that any works we do in service to God is an attempt to earn salvation. What does earning something mean? When I typed the phrase "earn salvation" into the Yahoo search window I received a return of "about 28,600" web page matches. Obviously this is a topic of interest among religious web authors. However, as I visited several of these sites I was struck by how they repeatedly denied the possibility of one earning salvation, but failed to truly explain why. The sites I visited used Ephesians 2:8 or Romans 3:28 to prove their point. However, none told me what it means to earn something. Let's determine what this phrase means.
I'm sure most of you have jobs. Each workday you spend a certain amount of time serving your employer. In return for your services, your employer agrees to pay you a certain amount of money or give you a certain quantity of goods (if you work under a barter system). The time you spend working for your employer and the amount he pays you have been agreed upon by both of you. You, as the employee, consider the value of the money you receive to be equal to the value of the work you perform. Your employer also considers the value of your work to be equal to the value of the money he pays you. As a result, you have earned the pay you receive for your work. You are entitled to receive the money paid you by your employer. However, should you fail for any reason to give an equal value of work for the money you receive, one of two things has happened:
Your employer has given you a gift.
You have stolen from your employer.
Oftentimes employers will give employees time off with pay from work. This is a gift given to the employee by the employer. Unfortunately, employees oftentimes fail to give an employer what they pay for. In this circumstance, the employee has stolen whatever money exceeds the value of the work he has rendered.
Please keep this example in mind as we consider whether one may earn salvation. What must be necessary for one to earn salvation? The value of his service to God must equal the value of the salvation he receives from God. Is this possible? Please turn to Luke 17:7-10. One of Jesus' apostles made a statement (verse 5), and Jesus responded with a parable. In the parable we read of a master and a servant. The servant has been in the field plowing or feeding cattle (verse 7), in obedience to the commandments of the master (verse 9). When the servant comes in from the field, does the master tell him, "Go and sit down to meat." (verse 7)? No. The master tells the servant to prepare the master's meal, and the servant may eat once the master is finished (verses 8 and 9). He doesn't thank the servant because the servant had done all things he was commanded.
Jesus makes application of this parable in verses 10 and 11. Recall how we spent a good deal of time considering grace as we started this study? Jesus actually uses the noun charis in verse 9! Recall how charis is translated "grace" 130 times in the New Testament, with 24 of those instances recorded by Paul in the book of Romans (including Romans 4:4, which states "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt."). In Luke 17:9 the NT translators used the word "thank" to translate charis. So Jesus tells us that the master doesn't "thank" (which could also be translated "give grace to") the servant simply because he had done everything the master commanded. In His application He tells us the attitude we must have: "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." (verse 10). Here Jesus shows us the impossibility of our earning our salvation. But why is it impossible? Because, even when we have done all that God commands us, our service is still unprofitable to God! Since our service will never equal the value of the salvation we receive, it is only because of God's grace and His generous gift that we receive salvation at all. But does this tell us that we are not to work? Absolutely not! On the contrary, Jesus tells us that we are unprofitable servants even though we have done all those things God commands us! What attitude should dominate our lives when we consider the gift God is offering us? It is our duty to do all He commands us to do! Merriam-Webster tells us that duty refers to "obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or functions that arise from one's position." The Greek word translated "duty" is opheilo and means "to owe, to be in debt for." So, when we have done all we can do, we realize we have done it because we owe God, not that He owes us!
Let's consider verse 9 in light of Jesus' application in verse 10. Jesus tells us that the master doesn't thank the servant because he did all he was commanded. In like manner, when we do all we are commanded, our master (God) doesn't thank us. Now, let's use "grace" in place of "thank" (which we may accurately do, since the Greek from which each is translated is charis). When we exchange "grace" for "thank" we learn that God doesn't give us grace simply because we have done all we are commanded to do! But does God withhold grace if we fail to do all we are commanded to do?