Christianity 201

May 19, 2013

We’re Not Saved by Works, But Works Happen

The biggest myth that Christ followers need to combat is the idea that by doing things for God, we merit or earn eternal life. Even among people who have spent a lifetime immersed in churches where the message of grace is preached, there are people who, if you ask them, will tell you that they will spend eternity with God because of what they did.

Ephesians 2 contains two verses familiar to many of us:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (NIV)

But someone will say, “But what about James 2:24?” That’s the verse many of us memorized as “Faith without works is dead.” The variety of translations we usually utilize here doesn’t clear this verse up because a good translation won’t interfere with what the original text actually says. Clarification of difficult passages is for footnotes, commentaries and Bible handbooks. But the CEV tries to provide us with the verse in a way that doesn’t trip us up vis-a-vis the Ephesians passage.

24 You can now see that we please God by what we do and not only by what we believe.

Or moving from the CEV to the CEB:

24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

which is almost word-for-word the same as the NLT.

But the other translations use words like “justified,” or “made right,” which implies a works based salvation.

It must be difficult to be a Bible translator — trying to stay loyal to the reading of a particular Greek section — but knowing the whole compendium of scripture and, in this case, knowing that salvation is a work of grace.  Here’s how the NCV approaches an earlier verse (italics added):

22 So you see that Abraham’s faith and the things he did worked together. His faith was made perfect by what he did.

The Reformation Study Bible notes:

None of our deeds are worthy of ultimate justification in the sight of God. Only the merit of Christ avails for that kind of justification. Only by trusting in Christ alone can we be made righteous in the sight of God. Here James attacks all forms of antinomianism that seek to have Jesus as Savior without embracing Him as Lord.

…I think a good passage to bring into this discussion is one that isn’t usually considered in this context, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and washes his feet with her hair in Luke 7: 36-50.  I’m going to assume that most people reading this know that story, but if not, click the link.

A parable about a debtor is taught within the narration of this story, the point of which is to show to Simon, the host of the party, as to how grace plays out in the real world. The conclusion is:

47 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (NLT)

47 This woman has been forgiven much, and she is showing much love. But the person who has shown little love shows how little forgiveness he has received. (The Voice)

Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.” (The Message)

Works flow naturally, organically out of the overflow of the heart. Works are response to what we already received by grace, by faith. If a person isn’t finding some area of response to God, I think we’re safe in questioning the authenticity of their faith experience. 

Is your Christian service a laborious exercise done out of obligation, or is it a joy-filled response of a recipient of a level of grace that you know you could never deserve?