Salvation and Works
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
One should expect that in a matter as crucial as personal salvation, Satan will work diligently and subtly to introduce confusion and error into the thinking not only of the unconverted but also of professed Christians. An almost infallible litmus test of the validity of a religion is its teaching with respect to individual salvation. If that teaching reflects and takes into account the entire range of Scriptural data it may be judged valid; if it distorts the Scriptural message of salvation, on the other hand, it must be rejected, no matter how its teaching on other doctrines and practices may conform to the Scriptural message.
One of the classic texts of Scripture pertaining to the doctrine of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10, inasmuch as it clearly sets forth the proper relationship between salvation and good works. It is surely not the only Scripture describing this relationship, but it is one of the most succinct and clearest.
The purpose of this essay is to examine briefly the teaching of Eph. 2:8-10 with regard to the relationship between salvation and works and refute two chief heresies arising from a misunderstanding of that relationship.
GOOD WORKS CANNOT MERIT SALVATION
In 2:1-7 Paul has discussed the sinful state and actions of the Ephesians previous to their regeneration, and has pointed out that “God who is rich in mercy,…when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” (vv. 4,5); in vv. 6,7 he reveals the ultimate aim of regeneration: our heavenly abode with Christ that will demonstrate his incomparable grace. He then states that it is by grace that we are saved through the instrument of faith, “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Exegetes dispute the antecedent of “it” in the last expression. Does “it” refer to “faith,” thus teaching that faith itself is a gift of God; or does “it” refer to the entire clause “by grace are ye saved through faith”? My opinion is that “faith” is the antecedent of “it,” and that faith is in fact specifically stated to be “a gift of God.” Frankly, however, it makes little practical difference if the word it refers to the entire clause, because the meaning is essentially the same: salvation is a gift of God, and faith is an aspect of salvation. On the basis of this statement concerning grace, Paul remarks, “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” We may infer from v. 9 that insofar as securing salvation is concerned, grace and works are antithetical (see, in addition, Rom. 11:6). The whole concept of grace excludes human works as a source of merit for salvation. This teaching refutes the heresies of Roman Catholicism; Pelagianism; the rationalistic school within Arminianism; and, obviously, most cults. The Bible’s teaching is that it is not on account of any of our own good works that salvation can be obtained. From a practical standpoint, the good-works heresy is so deadly because it diminishes the glory of God and draws attention to human works in which one may “boast.” But the most objectionable feature of that heresy is that it attacks the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work in his life and particularly on the cross (see Heb. 9). Christ’s active and passive obedience on our behalf eliminates any need for human action to pacify God’s wrath; and, in fact, any attempts to merit God’s salvific favor dilute the grace, kindness, love, and mercy of God (Titus 3:4,5). Paul in Philippians 3:1-9 unequivocally discloses the truth that one’s own righteousness (and “righteousness” implies good works since Paul specifically mentions his Pharisaic works in this passage) is equated with “dung,” and consequently cannot in any way contribute to one’s salvation.
Religious activities, including penance, baptism, charity, sacraments, church attendance, and so forth may have special value but not within the sphere of securing salvation.
GOD THE WORKMAN
Immediately after stating salvation cannot be secured by good works, Paul declares, “for we are [God’s] workmanship,” implying that the reason it is unnecessary for humanity to work in order to obtain salvation is that God himself has performed the work; and that concept is amply supported by Paul’s very theme in the book of Ephesians and by the rest of Scripture. In Eph. 1 he catalogs in vv. 1-12 numerous benefits our salvation provided by Christ confers on us, but not once does he indicate man has any role in obtaining these benefits: blessed with spiritual blessings, elected, predestinated, accepted in the beloved, redeemed, forgiven, united with Christ, etc. Verse 12 reveals “belief” and “trust” are instruments in securing those benefits, but they can never serve as the ground of our salvation, which elsewhere is said to be Christ’s death for us (see 1 Pet. 3:18).
Because God through his Son Jesus Christ has performed and completed all the work necessary to our salvation, it is unnecessary for us to perform any further work; and the performance of any such work in order to merit salvation is an affront to God.
SAVED “UNTO GOOD WORKS”
It is precisely here-with the statement “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them”-that we confront the teaching that refutes a second heresy, one held by many supposed Bible-believing people. They are fully aware of the Scriptural teaching that salvation cannot be merited by mankind. They eschew-as God does-any endeavor by mankind to elicit God’s salvific favor by performing good works. Some of them have so legitimately opposed the teaching that good works of humanity can somehow merit salvation that they have reached the unscriptural conclusion that good works have no relationship to salvation whatsoever. They believe, for example, that it is possible for a genuine Christian to live a lifetime without conforming himself to the teaching of Scripture or performing good works. That idea, however, is almost as heretical as the good-works-for-salvation teaching of Roman Catholics and cultists. For 2:10 states that the very reason we were chosen to be regenerated was to perform good works which God ordained beforehand (that is, before our salvation) that we should walk in them. One aspect of God’s aim in saving us is the practice of good works. The New Testament is thus filled with exhortations to Christians to perform good works; consequently, if we do not perform those good works we are not fulfilling the purpose of God’s saving us in the first place.
Those Bible-believers who embrace this heresy may cautiously agree with my statements to this point. Notwithstanding, they adamantly oppose the Scriptural implication flowing from the specific teaching of this verse, namely, that one who does not perform good works is not, in fact, a genuine believer. But both the logic and the Scripture on this point are irresistible. If our ultimate salvation and destiny are certain because of God’s pre-mundane electing and predestinating acts, our performance of good works are certain because of God’s previous ordination “that we should walk in them.” Admittedly, in some cases the term ordain can be understood as referring to a desirable rather than actual decree (for example, 1 Cor. 9:14), but “ordained” as used in the sense of 2:10 can mean nothing other than God’s firm determination, by virtue of the teaching of other Scriptures. Hebrews 12:14 states that without holiness “no man shall see the Lord.” (It is vain to argue that this holiness refers to the judicial holiness or righteousness imputed to us by God on account of Christ’s work, for in this passage the author of Hebrews has been speaking clearly of personal godliness.) Col. 1:21-23 indicates that our salvation and, specifically, our reconciliation, are contingent on our continuing “in the faith grounded and settled,” and not “mov[ing] away from the hope of the gospel.” This verse is certainly not to be understood in the Arminian sense: i.e., it is not stating that those who move away from the hope of the gospel somehow forfeit their salvation. It is simply indicating they were never genuinely reconciled in the first place, and their lack of good works is only an evidence of lack of salvation. And who will attempt to argue against the invincible logic of James 2 that faith cannot save one who does not perform good works (v. 14), and that faith apart from works is “dead,” that is, non-existent (v. 17) ?
Some do, however, resist the teaching that good works are an essential corollary of salvation. They argue, for example, that Lot was a righteous man, despite the fact that he never performed good works. He seems to be the only Scriptural example they can produce to support their view that salvation does not lead inevitably to good works. Perhaps they have not taken into account that God “winked at” the ignorance of many under the Old Testament dispensation (Ac. 17:30), or that Lot did in fact evidence a small degree of holiness when finally urged by the message and actions of his angelic visitors, or that he was distressed by the ungodliness of Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7). But they cannot provide any post-ascension examples of Christians who refused to practice good works, for the New Testament record everywhere assumes God’s children will unavoidably perform good works.
Some argue that the statement of v. 10, “before ordained” does not guarantee the performance of good works by those who are converted. Zane Hodges, for example, states, “sometimes this text is misunderstood. Sometimes it is read as though it meant that the believer will most certainly walk in the good works God has prepared for him. But Paul does not say that at all.” Rather, Hodges contends, Paul is revealing “God’s purpose for us. God wants us to walk in good works. Whether we do so or not depends on the many biblical factors which are relevant to spiritual development.” Hodges compares the remark in John 3:17, “that the world through [Christ] might be saved” to that of Ephesians 2, “that we should walk in them [good works],” [Hodges, Absolutely Free (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1989) p. 73.]. It is true that this ordination, or preparation beforehand, unto good works does not of itself indicate the performance of those good works as guaranteed. But when linked to a preceding expression “created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” it does indeed indicate that the fulfillment of those good works is inevitable. The following is the force of Paul’s logic: We were created in Christ for the very purpose of performing good works, and those works are designed for us beforehand to fulfill.
Nonetheless, the most compelling argument that the remarks in v. 10 teach that salvation guarantees good works is the entire context of Paul’s statement. His entire logic concerning salvation in Ephesians 2 portrays God as active and man as passive. Note “hath he quickened,” “raised us up,” “made nigh,” “he might reconcile,” “came and preached,” etc. In other words, the performance of good works mentioned in v. 10 is just as much guaranteed as our “sit[ting] together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” in v. 6.
Opponents of the view of this paper charge that the performance of good works cannot be made the litmus test of true belief because Christians may make an inaccurate judgment about another professed Christian during a time of specific weakness in the latter’s life, or because human limitation in general renders us incapable of such accurate judgment. Yet those who understand the Scriptural teaching concerning the inevitability of good works in a Christian’s life do not deny that we may be mistaken in our evaluation of the lives of others, or even that it is possible for us to become Pharisaic and judgmental. Our assertion is not that we will always be able to decide infallibly on the basis of an individual’s works if he is a genuine believer, but rather that true believers inevitably perform good works. The fact that we may be mistaken (even frequently) about another’s spiritual condition is no refutation of the Scriptural teaching that good works flow necessarily from a saved life. The fact that we may incorrectly judge has no bearing on the teaching of Scripture.
Let’s review. (1) Salvation cannot be secured by any human merit, including the performance of any good works. (2) The reason it is unnecessary to perform good works in order to secure salvation is that God himself has through the work of Christ performed all the work necessary. (3) One of the very reasons God saved us is so we would perform good works, and if we do not perform good works we are only indicating we are not truly converted.