One can hardly discuss human salvation without the mentioning of God’s grace, for without the grace of God, salvation is impossible. However, it is the conviction of the Holy Spirit of God that there is something else involved in the salvation of man. To some, it is a word whose place is among the vile “four-letter words” of our English language: it is despicable, provocative, horrendous, putrid, and disgraceful; it is legalistic, Pharisaic, dogmatic, and divisive. Nevertheless, the word is used even in the Word of God. The word to which we are referring is “works.”
There are several different types of “works” mentioned within the pages of the New Testament:
- “good works” (Mt. 5:16)
- “mighty works” (Mt. 7:22, et al.)
- “works of your fathers” (Lk. 11:48)
- “greater works” (Jn. 5:20)
- “works of Abraham” (Jn. 8:39)
- “works of repentance” (Acts 26:20)
- “works of darkness” (Rom. 13:12)
- “unfruitful works” (Eph. 5:11)
- “works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8)
- “the first works” (Rev. 2:5)
This list could be expanded, but all can be condensed into three main categories:
- Works of the Flesh
- Works of the Law
- Works of God
W O R K S O F T H E F L E S H
Simply put, “works of the flesh” are all sinful deeds. But don’t take my word for it. Hear the apostle Paul:
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21 | ASV).
Any time one falls before temptation, he commits one of the many “works of the flesh” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:11).
W O R K S O F T H E L A W
A second type of work in the New Testament is “works of the law.” Works of the law are exactly what it sounds like they are—the works of the law. All the rituals and ceremonies that go along with the Mosaic system of worship, forgiveness, (e.g. circumcision, blood offerings) et cetera, are called “works of the law.” Notice again, very carefully, these words of Paul:
“…by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight… But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested… We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:20a,21a,28).
The apostle Paul here makes very plain what kind of works to which he is referring—the works that were required under the OT system. Yes, man is justified by faith apart from works, in this context. But what kind of works? All works? Any works? In the words of apostle, “God forbid” (cf. Rom. 6:1). Man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law of the Moses.
To take this passage (among others) out of its proper context and to ascribe to it a meaning unintended by the Holy Spirit is to create an unsolvable riddle:
Inspired Words of Paul: Faith – Works = ALIVE (Rom. 3:28)
Inspired Words of James: Faith – Works = DEAD (Jas. 2:24,26)
In view of this, we must understand an extremely important, unavoidable chain of events:
- To claim that Paul taught that salvation is granted devoid of any and all “works” is to make Paul contradict the Lord’s half-brother James;
- To make Paul (who wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) contradict James (who wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is to deny the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;
- To deny the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is to deny the Holy Spirit, Himself;
- To deny the Holy Spirit is to deny Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13);
- To deny the Lord is to deny oneself eternity in heaven (cf. Matt. 10:33; 1 Jn. 2:23).
In other words—to summarize—if Paul and James contradicted one another, the Bible is a fake, and we need to stop wasting our lives away (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-19,32). On the other hand, if Paul and James did not contradict one another, and something we believe makes them contradict one another, then we are denying the very Spirit whose word we claim to follow. To do this is to condemn oneself.
W O R K S O F G O D
How does one solve the man-made riddle above? Simple: Paul and James are talking about two different kinds of works!
Notice what was asked of the Lord on one occasion as recorded in John 6:28:
“’What must we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.’”
The Lord has not confirmed Calvinism, here (quite the opposite, in fact). Instead, He has just obliterated the false doctrine that baptism is not necessary for salvation on the grounds that it is a work. If false teachers want grasp onto their false doctrine, let them be consistent, and go just stagger on back to five-point Calvinism—for, if baptism is to be rejected for being a “work,” then, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, believing in Him must be also, because He, Himself, said it was a work! But that’s not all. The text reveals some other glorious truths as well:
- These works are separate and apart from the other works, mentioned above.
- These works must be done.
- These works are “of God,” meaning they are works of which God approves or requires.
A careful consideration of this passage makes plain the harmony that exists between it and James 2:14ff. “Faith apart from works is dead,” said James, but what kind of works? The works of God!
Finally, in John 6:29, Jesus employs the figure of speech known as the synecdoche. The synecdoche simply puts a part for the whole. In other words, “believe” does not simply mean that I hear a sermon and believe what the preacher speaks truly. Rather, “believe” is merely a part put for the whole plan of salvation. Thus, considering the whole counsel of God (cf. Acts 20:27), the works of God are:
- Hear (Rom. 10:17; et al.)
- Believe (John 3:15; et al.)
- Repent (Acts 3:19; et al.)
- Confess (Rom. 10:10; et al.)
- Be Immersed (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:3-5; Gal. 3:27; 1 Pet. 3:21; et al.)
- Persist in the Faith (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11, et al.)
When one follows the steps set forth by Almighty God (i.e. the “works of God”), he then, and only then, may look forward to the glorious promises and eternity in Heaven with the Lord.