Do Works Have Any Role in Salvation?

It is frequently suggested that man cannot do anything — other than believe, in terms of his salvation;/1 that “works” are the natural consequence of salvation, but they do not have any role in securing or receiving salvation. Is this popular doctrine in harmony with the revealed will of God? Consider what the Bible has to say:
Faith is a work. John recorded, “Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent'” (John 6:28,29). The disciples asked, “What shall we DO …?” In his response, the Lord neither corrected nor condemned them for their sincere inquiry. He did not say, “Do? Beloved, you cannot do anything pertaining to your salvation.” On the contrary, Jesus said, “This is the WORK of [from] God/2 THAT YOU BELIEVE.” If all works are excluded from the plan of salvation as some allege, then faith itself is eliminated because Jesus clearly identified it as a work. Circle the word “work” in your New Testament and then make an arrow to the phrase “that you believe.” Then in the margin write, “Faith is a work” (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26).
Repentance is a work. Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah …” (Matthew 12:41). Circle the phrase “they repented” in your New Testament and then cross-reference it to Jonah 3:10. There the Bible states, “Then God saw their WORKS, that they turned from their evil way …” Watch it — the men of Nineveh engaged in works when they repented. In the margin of your Bible beside Matthew 12:41 write, “Repentance is a work.” Are works of repentance necessary for salvation?/3 Jesus thought so. He taught, “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3; cf. Acts 3:19; 17:30).
Baptism is a work. While some will reluctantly agree that faith and repentance are works (and that both are necessary), they will deny that baptism is likewise essential to salvation, because to do so would somehow imply that remission of sins was earned. This is simply not true. Granted, baptism requires that something be done, but that does not mean it is a meritorious endeavor. In point of fact, Scripture explicitly teaches that baptism is not a work that entitles us to the forgiveness of sins. In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul taught that we are “not [saved] by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 2:5; cf. John 3:5). Note the contrast — we are not saved by works of righteousness which we have done (e.g., works of human merit), but we are saved through the washing of regeneration. The washing of regeneration is an obvious allusion to baptism. Even Martin Luther, who coined the phrase “salvation by faith only” understood this passage to refer to baptism and taught it was necessary for salvation./4 In the margin of your Bible beside Titus 2:5 write, “Baptism is not a meritorious work.” In Acts 22:16 Ananias told Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and BE BAPTIZED, and WASH AWAY your sins …” When we compare these two passages, it’s clear as to how an individual is saved. He’s saved through the washing of regeneration — through baptism (cf. Mark 16:16)/5 at which point he washes away his sins./6 That’s why the apostle Peter could say “baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21).
Now we’re not saved through water baptism alone any more than we are saved through faith alone (James 2:17,24,26), or repentance alone. ALL are necessary (Psalm 139:17; Matthew 28:20) even though all are works of a sort (cf. 2 John 8; Philippians 2:12). No, they are not works of the Law of Moses — which require sinless perfection (Galatians 3:10b). No, they are not works of merit — which entitle us to salvation (Ephesians 2:9). Careful Bible students recognize that there are different kinds of works mentioned in the divine record and that faith (Hebrews 11:6), repentance (Acts 2:38), and baptism (Matthew 28:19; Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27) are works of God (cf. John 6:27,29) in the sense that he has ordained them for us to obey (Acts 10:35; Matthew 7:21; Hebrews 5:9) in order that we might receive the free gift of divine grace.
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1/ “Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort” (Discipline of the Methodist Church, New York: Methodist Publishing House,1939, p. 40).
2/ Obviously faith is not a “work of God” in the sense that he believes for man. The New English Translation removes the ambiguity and says, “Jesus replied, ‘This is the deed God requires — to believe in the one whom he sent.'”
3/ “That’s the danger of even beginning to think that I have to do something OTHER THAN BELIEVE in Jesus in order to be saved” (Mrs. Ken Berggren, “Salvation’s cause is grace through faith,” McLean County News, Aug. 24, 2006, p. 3A — emphasis mine, mb).
4/ “What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow? It effects forgiveness of sins? … Through baptism he is bathed in the blood of Christ and is cleansed from sins. … To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save” (Luther’s Small Catechism). See also Luther’s Large Catechism, pp. 98-102.
5/ Note what Jesus did not teach about this passage: 1) He who does not believe and is not baptized will be saved; 2) He who does not believe and is baptized will be saved; or 3) He who believes will be saved and may optionally submit to baptism. Jesus plainly taught that both faith AND baptism are necessary in order to receive salvation (cf. Acts 8:36,37).
6/ “We obey, and go down into the water because we believe. We arise from the waters of baptism and say we are saved by faith, but not faith only” (Jerry Moffitt, “The Nature of Saving Faith,” Denominational Doctrines, 1996, p. 76).

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Mike Benson

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6 thoughts on “Do Works Have Any Role in Salvation?

  1. If Baptism is NOT a “work of righteousness which we have done”, then it is not necessary, and maybe misleading to label it a “work” at all? In fact, any “work” done in this act is by the administrator. Can a dead man bury himself and it be his work? There is no scripture that calls baptism a work. Why should we call it that?

  2. You might want to reconsider your reasoning, Larry. You ask, “Can a dead man bury himself and it be his work?” I might inquire, “Can a dead man believe and it be his work?” “Can a dead man repent and it be his work?”

  3. Salvation is not a work that you have done. You are saved by grace and the reason you are saved by grace is because of your faith. You did not do anything to save yourself. You are not saved by the things you have done. It was a gift from God which means that you did not earn this gift. (Eph 2:8-9)

  4. In Romans it says, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight . . . ” (Rom. 3:20), and “for we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law,” (Rom. 3:28), and “For what does the Scripture say? ?And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'” (Rom. 4:3), and “Therefore, having been justified by faith . . . ” (Rom. 5:1), and “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
    In James it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” (James 2:24) and ” . . . so also faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26).
    Which is it? Are we justified by faith or by works?
    It is a fundamental Christian belief that we are justified by faith. Justification means that God declares a sinner to be righteous. He does this by crediting, by reckoning the righteousness of Jesus to the sinner. This is done by faith. That is, when the sinner puts his faith in the sacrifice of Jesus and trusts in Him and not himself for righteousness, then God justifies him. “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” (Rom. 4:3). But, if the Bible teaches that we are justified by faith, does it also teach we are justified by works as James seems to say? Do we have a contradiction? The answer is no.
    It is erroneous to take a verse, read it without its context, and then attempt to develop a doctrine from that verse alone. Therefore, let’s take a look at the context of James 2:24 which says that a man is justified by works. James chapter 2 has 26 verses: Verses 1-7 instruct us to not show favoritism. Verses 8- 13 are comments on the Law. Verses 14-26 are about the relationship between faith and works.
    For simplicity, I’ve summarized each verse and arranged the section in an outline style.
    14 – What use is it if someone says he has faith but no works?
    15 – If you see someone in need
    16 – and you don’t give him what he needs, but say, ?Go in peace, be
    warmed.’ What use is that?
    17 – therefore faith with no works is dead
    18 – therefore, someone says “I will show you my faith by my
    works.”
    19 – you believe in God? Good. The demons do too.
    20 – faith without works is useless.
    21 – Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac
    22 – faith was working with his works.
    23 – Scripture says, “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as
    righteousness”
    24 – you see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
    25 – Rahab, was justified by works
    26 – faith without works is dead
    Notice that James begins this section by using the example of someone who says he has faith, verses 14. He then immediately gives an example of what true and false faiths are. He begins with the negative and demonstrates what an empty faith is (verses 15-17). Then he shows that that type of faith isn’t much different from the faith of demons (verse 19). Finally, he gives examples of living faith by showing Abraham and Rahab as examples of people who demonstrated their faith by their deeds.
    James is examining two kinds of faith: one that leads to godly works and one that does not. One is true, and the other is false. One is dead, the other alive; hence, “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:20).
    This is why in the middle of his section on faith and works, he says in verse 19, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” James says this because the demons believe in God, that is, they have faith, but the faith they have is useless. It does not result in appropriate works. Their faith is only a mental acknowledgment of God’s existence.
    Two words are worth introducing here: ascentia and fiducia. Ascentia is the mental ascent, the mental acknowledgment of something’s existence. The demons acknowledge and believe that God exists. Fiducia is more than mental acknowledgment. It involves a trust in something, a giving over to it, a complete believing and acceptance of something. This is the kind of faith that a Christian has in Christ. A Christian, therefore, has fiducia; that is, he has real faith and trust in Christ, not simply an acknowledgment that He lived on earth at one time. Another way to put this is that there are many people in the world who believed that Jesus lived: ascentia. But they do not believe that He is their savior, the one to be looked to and trusted for the forgiveness of their sins.
    Ascentia does not lead to works. Fiducia does. Ascentia is not of the heart. Fiducia is.
    James is simply saying that if you ?say’ you are a Christian, then there had better be some appropriate works manifested or your faith is false. This sentiment is echoed in 1 John 2:4 which says, “If you say you have come to know Him, yet you do not keep His commandments, then the truth is not in you and you are a liar.”
    Apparently, there were people who were saying they were Christians, but were not manifesting any of the fruit of Christianity. Can this faith justify? Can the dead ?faith’ that someone has which produces no change in a person and no good works before men and God be a faith that justifies? Absolutely not. It is not merely enough to say you believe in Jesus. You must actually believe and trust in Him. If you actually do, then you will demonstrate that faith by a changed and godly life. If not, then your profession is of no more value than the same profession of demons: “We believe Jesus lived.”
    Notice that James actually quotes the same verse that Paul uses to support the teaching of justification by faith in Rom. 4:3. James 2:23 says, “and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ?and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'” If James was trying to teach a contradictory doctrine of faith and works than the other New Testament writers, then he would not have used Abraham as an example.
    Therefore, we are justified by faith. That is, we are made righteous in the eyes of God by faith as is amply demonstrated by Romans. However, that faith, if it is true, will result in deeds appropriate to salvation. After all, didn’t God say in Eph. 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

  5. Many people are confused about the relationship between faith and works. This confusion can have serious consequences since an erring view of their relationship could lead someone into believing and teaching something that is very unbiblical such as the heresy that we are saved by cooperating with God by doing good works.
    First of all, justification is the legal declaration by God upon the sinner, where God declares the sinner to be righteous. This declaration is based completely and totally on the work of Christ on the Cross. A person is justified by faith (Rom. 5:1); that is, he is made right before God by his faith in Christ (excluding the cults that teach a false Jesus). We are not saved by our works or our works added to the sacrifice of Christ. Our works, our good deeds, have absolutely no affect upon our salvation. Our good works do not get us salvation, nor do help us keep our salvation. This is because our good works are filthy rags before God (Is. 64:6). Besides, if we could be saved by works, then righteousness would have been based on the law and Christ would have not needed to die. Gal. 2:21 says, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.? But, Christ did need to die which proves our works cannot save us.
    However this does not mean that we are not to have good works. The Bible clearly tells us that if we claim to be Christian and we do not have good works, then we are not saved (1 John 2:4). Furthermore, the Bible also says that once we are saved, we are not free to be bad (Rom. 6:1-2). On the contrary, we are obligated to be good. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Also, 1 John 2:3 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”
    Confused? Don’t be. We are not saved by our works because we cannot be. The only way to be saved is to trust in the finished sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. But, once saved, the person is now changed. He is a new creation and the old things have passed away (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that our old sinful ways are gone (or on their way out as we struggle against them). It also means that we then do good works to honor God. We don’t do good works to be saved or stay saved. We do good works because we are saved. I once heard it said that you are not saved by good works, but you aren’t saved without them. This means that our good works don’t save us in any way, but once we are saved we naturally obey God’s law and do good works which is a sign of our being saved.
    So the relationship between faith and works is simple. We are saved by faith, not by works. But, once saved, we do good works because we are already saved.

  6. Baptism is called a work in the Bible. In Colossians 2:12, we read that baptism is the powerful working of God. When one is baptized, it is not our work, but HIS work..!!!
    Johnny

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