Theology & Worldview

Putting Works in their Proper Place

God created humans so that they were “very good,” but people choose to rebel against him. Paul writes in Romans that “All have sinned,” and “the wages of sin is death,” which means that every human deserves eternal death in Hell, and no one is capable of earning forgiveness (Romans 3:23, 6:23, ESV And yet, the Bible is clear that there is an alternative: eternal life (John 3:16). Since guilty sinners cannot atone for themselves, some perfect source must provide restoration by paying the death wages. God is the only perfect being. At the same time, a non-human cannot die for the sins of people, because God could not be just and judge that being. It would be like trying to pay a speeding ticket with acorns. Human death is required to make up for human sin, just like speeding tickets require currency. The only one able to be fully human and fully God is Jesus, which means he alone can pay for our sins. This is exactly what Christ did on the cross. Yet, the role of works in salvation remains questionable. Does God offer people atonement through Jesus once they reach a divine quota? Is salvation the result of works and faith, combined?

The Biblical passage most often used to support works-based salvation is James 2. Here, James writes “see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” (James 2:24, ESV). This is a striking contrast from Romans 3:28: “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” (ESV). On the surface, this is a horrible contradiction. However, the two writers were merely looking at the issue from different angles. In Romans, Paul speaks of the means of legal reconciliation with God while James focuses on how a person proves that they have faith (Harbin). Quickly checking the context behind both verses, Romans 3:28 is proceeded by the statement that “we are justified by his grace as a gift,” (Romans 3:24, ESV).  Then, in Chapter 4, Paul explains that Abraham was justified by faith. Turning to James 2:24, book was written to believers who were not acting on their faith (ESV Study Bible). James exhorts them to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” and explains that “faith… if it does not have works, is dead,” (James 1:22, 2:17, ESV). James insists that true faith will naturally be accompanied by works and proclaims, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” (James 2:18 ESV). This is just like what Jesus said about how a person’s “fruit” reveals their heart, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” (Luke: 43-45, ESV). The New Living Translation helps clarify this meaning: “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone,” (James 2:24, NLT). In short, “salvation is by faith alone, but that faith will never be alone,” (“How can you believe in salvation by faith alone”).

It is important to remember that before God saves a person, they are spiritually dead, living in the sinful “passions of our flesh,” (Ephesians 2:1, ESV). Of course, dead people cannot do anything, let alone earn God’s favor. However, unsaved people are worse off than just being dead to God’s ways; they live in “disobedience” toward God, (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV).  Clearly, no one can be good enough to incite God to save them. The reason he chooses to save is spelled out: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV, emphasis added). Additionally, Jesus himself said that “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16, ESV, emphasis added). Clearly, God saves people out of love, not because of anything they have done. Further, “since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God,” (Romans 5:9, ESV). So Christians will be saved completely based on Christ’s atonement, not any works they have done, before or after they trusted Jesus.

However, God still calls believers to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). But God also gives people the desire and means to live for him (Philippians 4:13, Colossians 1:29). Good works are not a chore. It is a tremendous blessing that God not only forgives people, but also changes them. And though sin sometimes looks attractive, it no longer enslaves believers. Before I became a Christian, I tried to find my value in what people thought of me. So I tried to improve what they thought of me, often by trying to look smarter than my brother. But now, while I sometimes still feel tempted to show off, I know that I am loved by God, so what others think of me does not matter so much. I am free to love my brother, and not be his enemy. And this is a huge gift from God, because it is so much better to live by what God says. Living for me was so unsatisfying and exhausting. It is not a burden that God tells us how to live. He, after all, knows what is best for us. Living God’s way may be difficult, but we know that there is always a way to escape temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In the end, no one has to earn salvation. But God is so good that he does not leave Christians to wallow in sin. He changes their hearts to live for Him (Jeremiah 31:33). God Himself will give his believers the strength to do what He calls them to do (Colossians 1:29). In the end, Jesus’ words summarize perfectly, inviting us to: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you… and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV).


Works Cited

“How can you believe in salvation by faith alone when the only occurrence of “faith alone” in the Bible (James 2:24) says that salvation is not by faith alone?” Got,

Harbin, Michael A. The Promise and the Blessing. Zondervan, 2005.

The Bible, English Standard Version, 2011 Edition, 2001.

The Bible. New Living Translation. Bible Gateway,

The ESV Study Bible, 2016 text edition, Crossway, 2008.

Image Credit: Jingwei Ke on


  1. Great job! I totally agree! that is such an amazing article!