The Case of Works
There is probably not a biblical subject that is characterized by more diverse and extreme positions than the subject of works as spiritually pertaining to man. Some religionists hold the view that the word "work" has absolutely no place in the matter of manís salvation and is, in fact, a term of utter repulsion. Others believe that man can, "Work his way to heaven" and thus earn salvation. As we shall see, both of these views constitute the extreme positions in the spectrum of works (cp. Eph. 2: 10; Tit. 3: 5). As always, between the extremes, truth resides (cp. Josh. 1: 7, see addendum).
A common Greek noun translated "work" is the word, ergon. Ergon is a word that is essentially a word indicative of action. Ergon is an antonym of passivity. Be it immediately understood that "work" is not within itself a word of repulsion. God worked (Gen. 1; 2). There are works that God has ordained (John 6: 28, 29). The fact that the Greek ergon (work) is observed about 176 times in the Greek New Testament is proof of "works" being very much in the vernacular of the scriptures. Ergon is rendered "doing," "deeds," and "labor" (Rom. 2: 7; 2: 6; Phili. 1: 22). We read of, "Works meet for repentance" associated with "turning to God" (Acts 26: 20). Works are actually faith in action; hence, such works are good, desirable, and even requisite (2 Thes. 1: 11, Jas. 2: 19-26). Let us now put aside our actual and potential prejudices and allow the word of God to teach us about works.
God determines what is a good work. Not all works are "good" in the sense of being approved of God. Jesus thus warned his apostles:
"1: These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. 2: They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. 3: And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me" (John 16).
When God pronounces a work "good," rest assured it is in the fullest sense a good work (cp. Mark 14: 6). A work may be "good," but for different reasons, the performer of the deed is not accepted (cp. Matt. 7: 21-23). However, "Ölabor in the Lord is not in vain" (I Cor. 15: 58). In the acceptable sense, "good works" are works that God has taught and in these God actually participates (Phili. 1: 6, 2 Thes. 2: 16, 17).
Man cannot earn salvation through the performance of good works. Notwithstanding the particular dispensation or period of time being considered, man has never been able to merit salvation, this is an incontrovertible biblical fact! Consider Paulís cogent language:
"1: What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? 2: For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3: For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4: Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5: But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. 6: Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, 7: Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8: Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (Rom. 4).
If man could earn or merit salvation by works, there would have been no circumstance or need for God to provide his only begotten Son. Paul makes this plain in Romans 11: 6. In fact, Paul shows that "salvation by meritorious works" and "by grace" are two mutually excluding terms and concepts. On another occasion, Paul succinctly stated: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved usÖ" (Tit. 3: 5).
God demands and requires works of man. First, man is to labor and provide for his own (Gen. 3: 19, I Tim. 5: 8). To not have such works is to "deny the faith" and render one "worse than an infidel" (I Tim. 5: 8). Godís law is if a man will not labor, "Öneither should he eat" (2 Thes. 3: 10). Regarding the spiritual, as such, consider what the scriptures teach:
"12: Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phili. 2).
In fact, the very reason for the existence of the Christian is good works. Regarding the chief design of the Christian, consider the following:
"10: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2).
Some, at this point, declare that regarding works, the scriptures contradict themselves. However, this is not the case, as we shall see in our review and conclusion.
Our works reveal our true identity. Works are presented as so basic and important that the scriptures declare that true identity can be established based on works. Jesus said in warning about false teachers:
"16: Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17: Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18: A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19: Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20: Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7).
Some profess that they know God, but their deeds reveal differently, either in the sense of evil deeds or the absence of the proper deeds. This Paul taught to the young preacher Titus:
"16: They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate" (Tit. 1).
Works set forth in the scriptures are so important that the Christian is to be in a constant state of preparedness to perform them. To the young preacher Timothy Paul taught, "Öprepared unto every good work" (2 Tim. 2). Consider Paulís language to Titus:
"1: Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work" (Tit. 3).
To be "ready" implies the ability to perform and the discernment to determine such opportunities.
Works are to be present in order to influence others for good. Concession is made that works can be performed for show or purposes of ostentation and such is condemned (Matt. 23: 5). However, it is evident that works have a legitimate place in the making of certain determinations (cp. I Tim. 5: 10). Jesus spoke at length as to the good purpose and effect of works pleasing to God (Matt. 5: 16).
Works determine our ultimate destiny. Those who teach that works, all works indiscriminately lumped together, have no place in the spiritual scheme of things are ignorant of what the scriptures actually teach. "When God examines man, he only sees Jesus and the perfect works of Jesus, not the man or his deeds, whether evil or good," is rank false doctrine. I know this in view of such texts as the following:
"6: Who will render to every man according to his deeds: 7: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: 8: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, 9: Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile" (Rom. 2).
How do we reconcile all the foregoing? First, I submit that what we have seen set forth in the scriptures needs no reconciliation as there is no disharmony. For instance, in the verse where we observed the teaching that the Christian is created in Christ "unto good works," Paul had just taught that in terms of works, any works, within and with of themselves saving, such is not the case (Eph. 2: 8, 9). Hence, Paulís statement in verse ten must be viewed in the light of verses eight and nine. In the same verse we noticed in which Paul taught that salvation is not even by "works of righteousness," he went on to obviously present baptism as vital in manís salvation (Tit. 3: 5).
The simple truth of the matter is, man is saved by Godís grace, but not by grace alone, in the sense that man does not participate. In the first place, man elects and decides whether to accept or reject Godís grace (2 Cor. 6: 1). However, when the spotlight, so to speak, is placed on salvation, manís part pales in comparison to what God has done (Eph. 2: 1-10). Yet, in appropriating Godís grace, man is active. Works such as faith; repentance; confession of Jesusí deity; and baptism for the remission of sins, however, while necessary are not such that gloriously reflect on man (John 8: 24; Acts 17: 30, 31; Rom. 10: 9, 10; Acts 2: 38, 22: 16). Keep in mind that belief itself is a work, a work that God has ordained (John 6: 28, 29). Hence, those who contend that all works, regardless, are excluded, have man being saved without even possessing faith (cp. Heb. 11: 6). In closing, in view of all that God has done in providing his Son and the comparative insignificance of manís obedience, albeit required, "Öwhen ye have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17: 10).
Addendum: Universalism, the doctrine that all men will unconditionally be saved, and Catholism, salvation by works, constitute the two antithetical extremes. Between these two extreme doctrines, there are a number of variant views, also falling to present the whole biblical truth. The truth of the scriptures resides in the middle of all these aberrant teachings.