Ever since the Christian faith burst on the scene 2 millennia ago, an insidious theological error has plagued the church.
In the Apostle Paul’s day, this hounded his newly planted churches, and required entire epistles (e.g. Galatians) to clean up the spiritual bewilderment among believers that inevitably followed. This controversy swirled around the part human “works” (good deeds, righteous lifestyle, etc.) play in the salvation process.
Here, in Ephesians 2:8-10, is one of Paul’s classic passages on this “works” issue:
“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, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
The first part of the passage instructs that the source of salvation is God’s grace, accessed through faith — completely independent of works. Even a person’s faith to believe the gospel is a gift, along with the salvation that follows.
Any notion of payment (works/merit) insults the Giver. Picture God’s hand reaching down from heaven in grace and man responding in faith by reaching up to grasp God’s hand — divinity and humanity meet — resulting in salvation.
To illustrate, think of a old-fashioned train with an engine in front, passenger cars in the middle and a caboose in the rear. Theologically, the engine corresponds to God’s grace; the cars in the middle correspond to the human recipients of salvation coupled through faith and carried along by the engine; and the caboose corresponding to “works” that follow salvation.
Reverse the order and put the caboose at the front and the train would not move because cabooses have no power in themselves — theologically, neither do human works, however well-intended. Put works (human merit) before salvation and you have Law (which never saved anyone); put works after salvation and you have the true gospel.
Peril of Getting ‘Works’ Backward
Are the stakes high in this debate? Paul solemnly warned in Galatians 5:3-5:
“And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision (one of hundreds of obligations under the Law), that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.”
A gospel that points back to self is not “good news,” but bad news — it makes YOU the object of your faith rather than Christ.
Pastor William R. Newell wrote in Romans Verse-by-Verse, “Unless you are able to believe in your very heart that you died with Christ, that your old man (your former identity “in Adam”) was crucified with Him, and that you were buried, and that your history before God in Adam the first (the “Last Adam” being Christ Himself) came to an utter end at Calvary, you will never get free from the claims of Law upon your conscience.”
But the next part of the passage above (v 10) goes on to assert that good works will follow in the believer’s life as a result of being saved. This is made possible through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who divinely produces such “good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Salvation is a one-time event (the cause), good works resulting from salvation take place throughout the person’s earthly life (the effects).
Of course, a truly born-again believer will change and bear spiritual fruit, because he/she is now “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The notion that a person who claims to have made a “profession of faith” in Christ and then resumes his or her life unchanged is simply not biblical. A new nature produces new fruit.
How About You?
Still relying on your “do, do, doing” of works for God? Are you willing to abandon your works-righteousness squirrel cage and rest entirely upon the “done, done, doneness” of Christ’s work for you?
“Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it … because it was not united by faith in those who heard … So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.”
— Hebrews 4:1-2; 9-10
— D.C. Collier is a Bible teacher, discipleship mentor and writer focused on Christian apologetics. A mechanical engineer and Internet entrepreneur, he is the author of My Origin, My Destiny, a book focused on Christianity’s basic “value proposition.” Click here for more information, or contact him at email@example.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.