“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). I fully believe in the truth of this verse, but to my shame I have not talked about this verse as much as I should. I am saved solely by the grace of God. My sins have severed my connection with God and corrupted my soul. By itself, confession in God will not save me. By itself, faith in God will not save me. By itself, baptism will not save me. None of these things on their own will ever be sufficient for me to obtain salvation. Those acts alone, and even collectively, are not a sufficient price to cover the cost of my sins. The forgiveness of sins is only possible because God chooses, for his own name’s sake, to extend grace to men and women.
But, God’s grace and therefore God’s salvation, is not unconditional. If it were, then all people would be saved. We know that’s not true. There are conditions which we must meet before we can hope to experience God’s grace. Faith, as described in Ephesians 2:8, is one of those conditions. If we lack faith, we cannot expect to experience God’s grace. This has always been the case, regardless of the law men and women served under. Romans 9:30-32 says the Jews failed to attain righteousness because they lacked faith.
I also believe the following statement is true – We are not saved by works. That phrase is completely supported by scriptures, Ephesians 2:9 being one of them (“not of works”). Does that mean we access God’s grace by faith only? No. The phrase “faith only” is found just one time in the scriptures and it is in the negative. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). When reading the context of these verses we see the faith which justifies, the faith which saves, is an active faith. It is a faith which is expressed in actions – works. But those works, by themselves, do not save.
So what is a “work?” Without getting into the Greek, the word “work” means exactly what we assume it would mean – something a person does. Giving money is a work. Helping someone whose car has broken down is a work. Providing medical help to an injured person is a work. And yes, baptism, because it is “something a person does,” is technically a work.
“So that settles it, right? If baptism is a work and works don’t save then baptism can’t be essential for salvation.” This line of reasoning is wrong because it has unexpected consequences. Confession is also technically a work because it is something a person does; however, confession is specifically mentioned by God as something which is part of the salvation process. Romans 10:10, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” To continue, consider John 6:28 and 29. “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.’” In this passage, belief in Jesus – faith – is specifically called a work. If we apply the reasoning that anything which is a work cannot be considered essential for salvation because “works don’t’ save,” then we are forced to conclude faith is not essential. The point being made is a blanket statement like “anything called a work can’t be essential for salvation” has serious scriptural flaws.
What is often lost in the discussion about works and salvation is the specific reason why works don’t save. Too often the “why” is glossed over or completely ignored in the discussion. One side quotes Ephesians 2:9, the other side quotes James 2:24, and a stalemate results. As often is the case, figuring out the “why” leads to greater clarity in the matter. God gives us two reasons why works don’t save.
One of the reasons is found in the back half of Ephesians 2:9: “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” If works saved, then a person would have a reason to boast about what they had accomplished. This same theme is echoed in Romans. Romans 3:28 is often quoted about works and salvation. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” The “therefore” should turn our eyes to the previous verse which says, “Where is boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.” This theme is continued in Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”
This makes sense. If my works brought salvation, I could brag, and in doing so, I would take glory away from God. Consider words of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” This man was bragging to God about all he had done and how this made him a better man compared to the tax collector next to him. I could fall into the trap of comparing my works to those of others. “Well, what you did for the Lord was good, but I’ve done a whole lot more. I give twenty percent in my tithes rather than ten percent.”
We are tempted to boast about many things. Boasting about works leads to a sense of having earned out salvation. This is the second reason why works don’t save. We cannot say we have earned our salvation or we deserve salvation because of what we’ve done. Look at Romans 4:4, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” If works saved, then we could get to the point where we could say we have paid off the debt of sin. We have earned our salvation and God must grant it to us.
This may have been the mindset of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22. Look at this part of the conversation:
“’Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’ So Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?’”
This man was trying to earn his salvation. It’s not specifically stated, but there’s a good chance he was hoping Jesus would say, “Sounds like you’ve done everything. You have eternal life.”
Once we understand the reasons why works don’t save, we can then properly evaluate the role, if there even is one, of things we do when it comes to our salvation. Look at the wording in Ephesians 2:9 again. “Not of works, lest anyone should boast.” We are not saved by our works, but this doesn’t exclude works from being part of the process. This is an extremely important distinction and makes sense with what we previously read in James 2. We are not saved by our works; however, works are still part of the salvation process.
In fact, works have always been part of the process. We have always had to do something to access God’s grace through our faith. Abraham’s faith, which was “accounted to him as righteousness” had to be shown. How? By offering up the son of promise as a sacrifice. If the Israelites wanted atonement for their sins, they had to do something. They had to bring the appropriate gift to God as a sacrifice. Yes, the atonement from God was ultimately from his grace; however, without the Israelite doing something, there was no opportunity for God’s grace. Look at the story of Naaman in II Kings 5. Was it actually the waters of the Jordan river which cleansed his leprosy? No. It was the power of God; yet, Naaman had to do something to access that gracious healing power of God. If he did not go to the river and dip seven times there would not have been any healing. The work didn’t heal him, but a work was still an essential part of the process.
It therefore stands to reason the same principle holds true today. While we are saved by God’s grace, it is up to us to find the means to access this grace – “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). We believe in God, we accept responsibility for our actions and resolve to changes our ways, we confess our convictions, and we follow our Lord into the grave through baptism.
Much more could be said about grace and works and much more needs to be said regarding the power of God’s grace in our lives. Our works, including the moment we obeyed the gospel and submitted to baptism, have no power at all were it not for God’s grace. May the Lord God be magnified in our lives and in all the earth.