Salvation by works is heresy. Salvation without works is heresy. Both are damnable.
In the history of the Church the battle for the gospel has often centered on two extremes that eviscerate it. They are equally damning.
First, there is the heresy of moralism. This is the horridly humanistic idea that man can somehow obtain salvation by his merits, virtue, or “good works.” Many of the Jews during the time of the New Testament had apostatized and had adopted this false teaching. They believed that their physical lineage and their circumcision and their external law-keeping could save them (the Old Testament never taught this). Paul attacked this heresy with great vigor in the book of Romans, but particularly in the book of Galatians. So did Jesus Christ, when He told the unbelieving Jews of His day that only those who do the works of Abraham — that is, those who have faith in Him — will be saved (Jn. 8:33, 39). This is the only “work” that saves! Salvation by merit or “good works” or “morality” is a false Gospel (Gal. 1:7–9). It is an attack on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s implicit message in Galatians 3-5. It is true also of his comments in Ephesians 2:8-10. If salvation were by works, some would boast and thus undercut the great redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Many people today have transformed religion into a system of merit and virtue, a “covenant of works.” They think that the law is made in order to obtain eternal life, despite the fact that Paul plainly declares that the law could never, under any conditions, grant eternal life (Gal. 3:21). This, again, is the fatal heresy of moralism.
But there is another heresy. This is the heresy of antinomianism. It is just as deadly. It is equally damnable. This is the idea that since salvation is by grace, God makes no demands on the Gospel. The gospel is “fun-city” religion. But the Bible tells us plainly that the Gospel is not only a message to be believed; it is a command to be obeyed (2 Thes. 1: 6-9; Rom. 1:5; 16:26). The Gospel makes demands of sinners. The Gospel is the message of the great King, Jesus Christ. He comes to rebels with the gracious, but firm, proposal — “Trust in my atoning work on the cross and my bodily resurrection, submit yourself to my Lordship, and you will be forgiven your debt and you will become my disciples.” Too much of today’s “Gospel preaching” ignores this vital element. It is simply “fire insurance.” Rebels want the luxury of assurance that after they die they will float around on ethereal clouds with halos hearing beautiful harp music. They want to have their sins, and they want to have Heaven, too. So a “gospel” has been developed to appease them.
But this is a false gospel. It is antinomian to the core. Jesus expostulates that those who refuse to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him will “lose their own souls” (Mt. 16: 24-26). Only disciples are saved.
Consequently, there are two heresies to avoid: moralism and antinomianism. No person is saved by good works, yet no person will be saved without good works. Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone (Jam. 2). We today have “Christians” whoring on Saturday nights and singing hymns on Sunday morning. They obviously know nothing about the Gospel. Some of these are the same folks who attack Roman Catholics for believing in salvation by good works. But their own error is no less damnable than the error of moralism.
Never forget — salvation by grace is not a salvation without demands. And it is totally by grace through faith apart from any merit of any kind.