Paul wrote, "By grace are ye saved through faith...NOT OF WORKS, lest any man should boast" (Eph.2:8-9). But James wrote, "BY WORKS a man is justified, and not by faith only" (Jas.2:24). Again, James says "Faith without works is dead....Was not Abraham justified by works?" (2:20-21), while Paul argued, "If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory...but to him that worketh not, but believeth on [God], his faith is counted for righteousness" (Rom.4:2,5).
How could both these apostles be correct, when one was saying, "not of works", while the other said, "by works"? This has been a puzzling enigma for many throughout history. However, the mysterious, perfect harmony between their teachings is easily seen, once we realize that Paul and James were speaking of two different kinds of works! In the books of the New Testament, various kinds of works are mentioned, some good and some evil. Here is a list of the major ones:
- "GOOD WORKS" ... Kind deeds shown to another.
- "WORKS OF ABRAHAM" ... deeds which demonstrate a special closeness and trust in God (such as forsaking one's earthly family to be a part of the family of God).
- "WORKS OF GOD" ... healings or miracles which God grants through certain persons to be done. Also called, "mighty works" and "wonderful works".
- "WORKS OF REPENTANCE" ... deeds a sinner must do in order to be forgiven by God for past sins (such as repayment of stolen money, making amends for a cruelty, withdrawing from evil companions, etc.).
- "WORKS OF MEN'S HANDS" ... buildings, highways, monuments, industries, vehicles, and other inventions.
- "WORKS OF THE FLESH" ... These are deeds motivated by the desires of human fleshly nature and are intended, not to bless another's life, but to promote one's own self-interest. Also called "wicked works".
- "WORKS OF THE DEVIL" ... deeds performed and words spoken by men, which originate not in the heart of man, but in the perverse wisdom of Satan. These works include certain doctrines about Christ Jesus, called by Paul, "doctrines of devils", preached by "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ" (2Cor.11:13).
- "WORKS" ... a term Jesus used (Mt.23:3-7), referring to showy religious observances and ostentatious devotion.
When "works" is mentioned in our Bibles, we should be careful to make certain we know to which kind of works the writer is referring, so that we do not misunderstand his meaning. With reference to Paul's teaching on works, there is yet another kind of works we haven't mentioned. It is "Works of the Law". Understanding these works is crucial to a right understanding of Paul's gospel concerning salvation being "not of works".
"Works of the Law" refers to the religious ceremonies contained in the Law which God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai. The Old Covenant was a covenant of symbols. It prophesied in actions more than in words of the life and ministry of Christ and his congregation. The circumcision of the flesh of Israelite males symbolized the cutting away of worldly attachments, to become a new member of the family of God (Col.2:11). The tabernacle at which Israel worshipped symbolized heaven itself (Heb.9:24). The incense symbolized the prayers of saints, rising to God (Rev.5:8). The washing of the priests' bodies was a symbol of the washing of the body of Christ, by the living Word of God (Heb. 10:22; Eph.5:26). The candlestick represented the seven spirits before God's heavenly throne (Rev.4:5). The veil which divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place symbolized human flesh, through which we must pass in order to enter into the very presence of the Almighty (Heb.10:20). Such religious symbols, holy and precious in their time, are the "WORKS OF THE LAW" which Paul said are now useless for attaining salvation. No longer do the Law's ceremonies accomplish any spiritual good.
The works of the Law, being from God, were good, not evil, as Paul acknowledged in Romans 7:12, "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." Jesus showed great respect and deep love for the Law, and he told his disciples and others to do the same (Mt.8:1-4; 23:1-3). Unfortunately, his devotion to the Law sometimes caused conflict with traditions that had developed in Israel. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was not a trouble-maker. He was not a rebel, flaunting his superior knowledge and power. He observed the traditions of the elders, when doing so was consistent with the word of God in the Law (e.g., Jn.10: 22-23). When forced to choose between obeying the Law of Moses or following the traditions of the elders, he always chose to obey the Law.
The earliest congregation, like Jesus, was both Jewish and extremely devoted to the Law. Indeed, had they not loved the Law, they could not have loved Jesus. It was because they loved the Law that they were able to love the Son of God of whom the Law spoke. Jesus himself said if a man did not believe Moses' writings (the Law), that man could not possibly believe his words (Jn.5:46-47). The religious traditions developed by the elders clouded the picture, but the works of the Law pointed directly to no one but Jesus Christ. Paul described the Law as "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Gal.3: 24). If Christ is holy, Paul would argue, surely the Law, which lead us to him, was holy. No evil thing would lead us to the Prince of Life. No one in the early congregation questioned this reasoning. So, a true believer in the earliest congregation was one who loved and obeyed both the Law and Jesus. There were thousands of Jewish believers, and they all were very zealous for the Law (Acts 21:21), just as Jesus had been while he was on earth. In the second chapter of Acts, you will remember, when the Holy Spirit was first given to men, it was given only to Jews who diligently kept the Law. At that time, God did not yet offer His sanctifying Spirit to the Gentiles (Acts 3:25-26; 13:45-46; Rom.1:16).
The biggest controversy which developed in the earliest congregation was that Jewish believers insisted no one could have a right relationship with God unless he kept the Law as they did. They felt very strongly that Gentile believers should be required to perform the works of the Law, as all Jews (including Jesus himself!) performed them. Teachers from Jerusalem taught Gentile believers they would be damned unless they were circumcised (Acts 15). But Paul contended that there was no reason for Gentiles to participate in works which foretold of a Messiah who had already come. Besides, Paul argued, works of the Law were required only of those who were under the Law, that is, the Jews (Rom.3:19). Moses gave the Law to Jews, not to the uncircumcised Gentiles, such as Greeks and Romans.
When Christ fulfilled the works of the Law which spoke of him, the purpose for keeping those works was finished. It is pointless to continue performing ceremonies, however holy they may have been, if their purpose is fulfilled. This is what Paul meant when he taught his Gentile converts that salvation is no longer "of works". It was a new doctrine to James, John and Peter, but they were discerning enough to acknowledge Paul's gospel to be from God and they gave him their blessing to go to the Gentiles (but not to the Jews) with it (Gal.2:7-9). So, Paul went, preaching among the Gentiles the gospel given to him: the way to eternal life is submission to Jesus. To Gentile believers in Galatia he wrote, "A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ...for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal.2:16).
Of course, a Gentile could be circumcised and thus become a Jew if he chose to do so, but Paul taught that Gentile believers in Christ were already Jews in God's sight, circumcised in the heart, where it really counts (Rom.2:28-29)! Paul even called the body of Christ, "the Israel of God", warning Gentile believers that submission to physical circumcision required submission to the whole Law (Gal. 5:3). It is senseless for one who is in Christ to perform symbolic ceremonies, when those symbolic works have been made worthless, or "dead", by the life of Christ. For this reason, works of the Law are called "dead works" twice (Heb.6:1; 9:14).
The way of Christ is "a new and living way", not a way of symbols and ceremonies. He fulfilled every symbol God ever gave. This is Paul's message: Christ, alone, will save from the coming wrath of God. In practical terms, this means that only his blood secures atonement for sin (Heb.9:12), only his baptism cleanses (Eph.4:5), and only his intercession avails upon the Father for mercy (1Tim.2:5). All other things, even all the holy works of the Law combined, could never wash away the smallest of sins. As the writer of Hebrews states it, "For the Law having a shadow of good things to come...can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year, continually, make the comers thereunto perfect....And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man [Jesus], after he offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God....For by one offering hath he perfected forever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost is a witness to us...."
Paul's message of salvation "not of works" means simply that Jesus is the only one who can make a man clean before God. It means that the wonderful symbols of the Law, once holy, are now worthless, because the One of whom those works prophesied had finally come.
In saying, "by works a man is justified", James does not contradict Paul, because he was not referring to works of the Law. The "works" of James' letter are "good works", deeds of obedience to God. He knew as well as Paul knew that performing ceremonies would justify no one. Jewish leaders who hated Jesus performed works of the Law daily. James was merely reminding the saints that man's eternal destination will be determined by his behavior, or works, in this life. Only by holy living will any man be saved (Heb.12:14). Yes, even believers who, after their conversion, live ungodly lives will be cast into the lake of fire. Jesus said it this way: The Lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Many think that Paul's "not of works" refers to any kind of works, even good works, and they scorn the notion that if one would be saved in the end, then he must obey God's commandments. Satan has, with wicked cunning, persuaded many to deny God's requirement of good works, but at the same time to continue performing dead ceremonial works! Incredibly, they reject as heresy the need for men to obey God, while continuing to worship in dead ceremonial works, as if Jesus never came and fulfilled them! Friends, to worship in ceremonies, however lovely and "meaningful" we may labor to make them, is to deny their fulfillment in Christ, and it is not the will of God for men to do that.
Every voice God has used from the beginning of the world to this moment has warned men that how they live will determine where they spend eternity. Jesus said it this way, "All that are in the graves shall come forth, they that have DONE GOOD, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have DONE EVIL, unto the resurrection of damnation" (Jn.5:28-29). Every account of the final judgment is an account of man being judged on the basis of his deeds. Wise men, (Ps.62:12; Eccl. 12:14), prophets (Jer.7:1-16), apostles (1Pet.1:15-17), and Jesus, all plainly and repeatedly preached that man's earthly behavior will determine man's eternal destiny. Caught up in the Spirit while exiled on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John saw this terrifying vision of the final judgment: "And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it. And death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them, And they were judged every man according to their WORKS" .
Notice, please, that men will be judged according to their works. Works of the Law were never considered man's works. They were the commandments of God! In the final judgment, man will be judged according to his deeds. Wrote Paul, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad" (2Cor.5:10). So, while Paul taught that performing symbolic, ceremonial works of the Law means nothing, he strongly insisted that doing good works is essential for salvation, and that eternal life will be given only to those who "by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality".
Now you see, friends, how it is that Paul and James were in perfect accord in their doctrines. Paul was correct in saying that we cannot be saved by (symbolic) works, and James was correct in saying that we cannot be saved without (good) works. They both would have given the other a hearty "Amen". So may we.