Regarding Responsible Reformation
by Al Maxey -------
Issue #39 ------- May 16, 2003
Work out your own salvation.
Do not depend on others.

--- Buddha (563-483 BC)

Traditional Proof Texts
For Works Based Salvation

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). As mentioned in previous Reflections, salvation by grace through faith, apart from any meritorious works performed in compliance with some legal code, is an extremely difficult concept for some disciples to grasp. Some brethren, seemingly, never grasp it. They are absolutely convinced that they must "pull their fair share of the load" in the salvation process. We must make an effort to effect our own salvation, by the performance of certain works, and grace is then provided by God to "fill in the gaps" where our own effort falls short. I've heard some express it this way -- "Give it your best, God does the rest." Thus, salvation is a partnership between God and man, the latter "doing his best" and God's grace providing that which is lacking in man's effort. The more I study God's Word the more convinced I become that this is nothing less than dangerous and deadly False Doctrine!

Those disciples who are law-bound, however, and who are wedded to a dogmatic methodology in their interpretation of Scripture, will often produce a few passages which they are convinced prove their works based theology. As expected, I heard from several readers of these Reflections, and they all urged me to consider the same four passages which they are convinced refute what I believe to be the teaching of God's Word. Thus, I shall examine each of these four Scriptures which they suggest prove the necessity of works in the salvation process.

John 6:28-29
They said therefore to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent."

One reader, after quoting the above, made this request -- "You said that 'Baptism is no more a "work" than belief, repentance or confession.' Please deal with this particular passage in light of what you said." Another reader, who has for many years been faithfully serving as a missionary to Belgium, wrote, "In response to Reflections #37, with which I can basically agree, I would like to point out that faith is called a work in John 6:28-29." The assumption, of course, is that Jesus is declaring belief (faith) to be a work, and admittedly that does, on the surface, seem to be the intent of the statement in verse 29. Since I maintain belief is not a "work of man" that must be performed to effect our salvation, it obviously behooves us to examine this passage in the gospel of John more closely.

John 6 is filled with some very spiritually significant events. It begins with the feeding of the 5000 (actually, this was just the number of the men; the actual count was much higher). Here we see Jesus meeting the physical needs of the people; demonstrating His care and concern for the whole man. Immediately following is an account of Jesus walking on the water. Later, Jesus makes a most insightful remark about the motivation of many of those in the multitude who followed after Him, "You seek Me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled" (John 6:26). Too many of the people were looking to have their physical needs met, and were not really focused on the spiritual "bread" our Lord had come to offer. They would do whatever it took to get those material blessings, but would they also be willing to do whatever it took to receive spiritual blessings? That was the question!

Thus, Jesus tells them the focus of their effort must shift from the physical to the spiritual. Their quest for nourishment must undergo a transformation. "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (John 6:27). Jesus here contrasts the physical and the spiritual, and He does so by employing literal and figurative uses of words like "work" and "food." The majority of the people were pursuing physical food; Jesus urges them to pursue spiritual food. They were willing to engage in physical labor to acquire that literal bread; Jesus urges them to engage in a spiritual "labor" so as to gain that figurative "bread." What is this figurative bread? "I am the bread of life" (John 6:48). The Jews began to argue about how Jesus could be this bread (they were still thinking in literal terms), and as a result of this difficult teaching, many of them "withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore" (John 6:66).

Today, many disciples still fail to distinguish between the literal and the figurative in this passage. Since men work for their physical bread in life, they believe it naturally follows one must also work for that spiritual bread of life. In so doing, they entirely miss the point of Jesus' teaching. The "work" of which Jesus speaks, when referring to that response of man to the gift of the Bread of Life, is pure and simply -- Faith. Thus, we have the passage under consideration -- John 6:28-29. The people wanted to know what works they could do to please God and acquire the blessing. Jesus, using the same terminology as used in their question, responded by declaring that "work" to be "faith." Their question of Jesus reflected their lack of awareness of God's grace, supposing that His gift could be acquired through human effort. Jesus, employing the same word they mistakenly used, indicated to them that the only "work" God sought was FAITH. The message should have been clear --- no "work" is necessary; the "gift" comes by faith.

John Calvin, in his commentary on John, wrote, "In putting this question, they are partly mistaken by not understanding the kind of labor; for they do not consider that God bestows upon us, by the hand of the Son, all that is necessary for spiritual life. They ask what they ought to do .... In this manner they manifest their ignorance of the grace of God." The people were still thinking in terms of "works" (plural) of law, and thus wanted from Jesus a list of "works" (plural) that God would approve for them to perform so as to obtain the blessing. Jesus indicates there is only ONE "work" (singular) desired by God --- Faith. The Geneva Study Bible correctly observed, "They think that everlasting life depends upon the condition of fulfilling the law; therefore, Christ calls them back to faith."

By focusing on the fact that Jesus, in like fashion to His questioners, used the term "work" (although He changes it from plural to singular, which is significant), many falsely believe that Jesus is characterizing faith as a "work" to be performed by man, and thus they feel justified in declaring a works based salvation. However, "Faith is here called a 'work' in a peculiar sense, differentiating it entirely from 'works' as righteous acts of ours" (Lenski). "These Jews were thinking of various deeds of the Pharisaic type and rules. Jesus turns their minds to the central fact" (Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament). That central fact is: We are saved by grace through faith. The only "work" (singular) that God desires is BELIEF .... "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). J.W. McGarvey observed, "Humanity, in seeking to answer this question, has invented pilgrimages, penances, fasts, mutilations, and many other methods of self-punishment; not heeding the plain and decisive answer of Jesus" (The Fourfold Gospel).

Many overlook the significant fact that Jesus turns the plural into a singular ("works" into "work"), thus indicating an entirely different concept than that posed by the questioners. Kittel, in his classic Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, notes that "the singular is used in John in this sense" -- it "refers to God's saving activity as a whole" (vol. 2, p. 643). Our faith does not effect salvation (that is the work of God); rather, our faith responds to and, in so doing, receives the gift of God's salvation through Christ. It is a "work" that merits nothing, but receives much. Kittel states that our faith "has no value in itself, but only as a response to the revelation of repentance" (ibid, p. 650).

Perhaps John Calvin phrased it best when he wrote, "It is idle sophistry, under the pretext of this passage, to maintain that we are justified by works, because faith is likewise called a work." It is simply a failure to perceive the intent of our Lord in His reply to these persons seeking to know the legal requirements of justification and salvation. Jesus, throwing their own words back at them, simply indicated that the only "work" required was FAITH. Many of those disciples did not understand this then, and many do not understand it today. Thus, countless believers continue to seek salvation through their own effort. In so doing, they return to a yoke of slavery, they are fallen from grace, and they are severed from Christ (Galatians 5). A works based theology of redemption is DEADLY.

Nevertheless, it is vital to note that "Christ does not separate faith from its fruits" (John Calvin). Faith does not exclude good works performed by those in Christ Jesus. Indeed, faith includes them! These good works done by those who are saved is the very demonstration of their faith; perhaps we could even say the validation of that saving faith. After all, as James clearly points out in James 2, faith alone ... faith without any visible evidence of its existence ... is worthless. To be valid, faith must be visible. That saving faith is SEEN in our good works. The Holman Bible Dictionary states, "The works of people testify to their faith or lack of it" (p. 1419). This source goes on to say, "Sinners are accepted as righteous before God on the basis of God's grace through faith in Christ, not on the basis of their own works. However, one evidence of saving faith is the existence of good works in the lives of believers" (ibid).

Repentance, confession and baptism are evidences and manifestations of our saving faith. They are NOT "works" (plural) that bring about salvation, but rather a visible demonstration of that faith which receives God's gracious gift. We are not saved by them, but neither are we ultimately saved without them. Faith to be valid must be visible, and the visible evidence of our saving faith are these demonstrations. Thus, repentance is a fruit of faith; so also are confession and baptism. Indeed, my life of faithfulness and good deeds performed to the glory of my Father are simply daily demonstrations of my FAITH. I have merited nothing, but I have manifested my faith (as well as my gratitude and love) by my good works. "The problem with works of law is that they can bring into a person a sense that what he or she receives from God is due as payment, in effect, for the person's working" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 1109). We need to hear again the words of God Himself -- "Who has given to Me that I should repay him?" (Job 41:11).

James 2:24
You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.

Several questions immediately come to mind when reading this passage. Are James and Paul in theological conflict? What type of "works" is James speaking of in this passage? What exactly is the meaning of this term? Are these works of LAW or works of LOVE? Are these works performed so as to be saved or because we are saved? Many questions!

No, I do not believe Paul and James are in theological conflict. This is resolved quite nicely when one realizes they are speaking of different types of "works." The reader from Belgium, after pointing out that faith is called a "work" in John 6:28-29, goes on to observe, "But, of course, as you point out, 'works' does not always mean exactly the same thing." When Paul informs us that we are not justified or saved by works, he is speaking of meritorious works performed under some legal system. These are deeds done to merit one's salvation or justification. Thus, our justification, redemption, sanctification, and salvation are all "wages due," and God is obligated to "pay up" because we earned it through our own effort. Paul tells us the reality is that we can do nothing to merit eternal life. Nothing! "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about ... but not before God" (Romans 4:2). Paul tells us our salvation is "not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:9). If you and I can play some role in bringing about our own justification or salvation, then we would indeed have some reason to "boast." That is not the case, however!

The point James seeks to make to his readers is simply that faith must not be passive; it must not stand alone. For one's faith to be truly efficacious in receiving the gift of justification and salvation, it must be visible; it must be demonstrated. It must be active and alive. An unresponsive faith is not a saving faith; it is a dead faith. Abraham was not justified because he set out to WORK his way into God's good graces; Abraham was justified because he had FAITH in his God ... and demonstrated it. Thus, Paul and James are not in conflict at all, but rather their teachings compliment and complete one another.

It should be noted that the Greek word ergon, which is typically translated "work" in the above passages, can mean far more than "labor." It often carries with it the significance of "response, manifestation, practical proof" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). The English word "work" does not always convey the most accurate intent of the author in some passages. The concept of a response or a manifestation or a practical proof is often far more the authorial intent. Such is the case with faith and its accompanying "works." These are simply visible demonstrations of an active faith responding to the gracious offer of God. They are not laborious "works" which merit one's subsequent "wages." The "wages" of sin, which derive from the "works" of the flesh, merit one's DEATH; the free gift of eternal LIFE, however, is the "gift of God" in Christ Jesus for those who have faith. A gift is received, it is not earned. And yet, he who would receive must respond to him who freely gives! It is this responding faith of which James speaks in chapter two of his epistle.

Philippians 2:12-13
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

One of the most vital aspects of sound biblical interpretation is attention to context, both immediate and remote. Paul has addressed this particular epistle "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). Paul is speaking in this letter to all of his beloved brethren in this location, not to a specific individual (as he did in certain other epistles). This is important to note, as all the personal references and admonitions are stated in the plural. Thus, he is talking to the church in Philippi in 2:12-13, and not to a lone disciple. "So then, my beloved (plural), just as you (plural) have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your (plural) salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you (plural), both to will and to work for His good pleasure." In the Greek text there is actually one more plural included that is not reflected in the above English translation. Literally, the phrase in vs. 12 reads, "You (plural) work out the salvation of yourselves (plural)."

As one can plainly see, this "working out" of salvation is to be done by the group. It is not an admonition directed at individuals, but at the entire body of believers in the city of Philippi. In a scholarly paper entitled "Trembling and Fear," Tony Warren captured the essence of this use of the plural in the following observation, "Philippians 2:12 cannot be a command to an individual church member telling him that he must work to escape hell." Warren then points out the same plurals in the text as I have noted above. He goes on: "Thus, Paul is not giving a command to an individual, but is giving a command, a corporate command, to all the Philippian Christians about the safety or preservation or rescue of the entire church at Philippi. He is commanding them as a group to do something --- to watch closely their public behavior as a group." He concludes by noting, "Since Christ has worked out the salvation from hell, Christians need to work together to give as good a witness as possible to a lost world."

One of the primary concerns of Paul in this context is his own absence from them. Although he is no longer there to help mature them in their faith, and encourage them in their walk, and equip them for their work, he is nevertheless confident that the Lord will continue to be "at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philp. 2:13). Indeed, Paul writes, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philp. 1:6). Paul, in the next verse, defends his right to feel this way by stating he has them all in his heart and that they are his fellow "partakers of grace." Paul knows that in his absence (he is writing from a prison cell) they must labor for the Lord without him. Nevertheless, they are not alone .... the Lord is with them!

Paul is calling the group of believers to continue the walk of faith; to continue the "good fight," not to become weary and give up, so that they might achieve the victor's crown in the end ("Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" -- Rev. 2:10). Paul was not there to struggle alongside of them, so they must face the struggle together, relying upon one another in his absence. In many ways it is a plea for unity with one another, and with the Lord, so that their witness and work might be effective. Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the New Testament, said, "Paul has no sympathy with a cold and dead orthodoxy or formalism that knows nothing of struggle and growth." In Paul's absence he doesn't want them falling into the trap of apathetic, ritualistic religion, but rather to allow the Spirit to continue working in and through them. "Now, therefore, when their monitor is at a distance from them, there is need that they should stir up themselves" (John Calvin).

The Greek word translated "work out" in this passage is katergazomai. This word conveys the idea of "bring out as a result; realize in practice" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT). This particular word appears 24 times in the pages of the NT writings (21 of which come from the pen of Paul). Time and again the notion of something being realized or evidenced or demonstrated is conveyed by the use of this term. Paul wants the church in Philippi to experience in daily living, and to demonstrate in daily living, the reality of their salvation. This not only will be a blessing to them as a people, but will be a tremendous testimony to the world about them as the lost see salvation realized and practiced in daily living. Without Paul there to motivate them to this, he urges them to increasingly take on that responsibility themselves .... and to know that the Lord, who works in and through them, will be with them in his own absence! Jesus prayed that we might all be one, "that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me" (John 17:21). The daily demonstrating of the reality of our salvation, and of the One Body that results from it, is the epitome of evangelism.

1 Timothy 4:16
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers."

A question immediately comes to mind: Are any of us truly capable of saving anyone else? After all, does not Psalm 49:7-9 clearly state, "No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give God a ransom for him, that he should live on eternally ... For the redemption of his soul is costly, no payment is ever enough." Thus, will perseverance in my own life and teaching save my hearers? Is that what Paul is teaching? I think not.

We can BRING the good news of salvation to others, who might otherwise not hear it, and if they RECEIVE this good news they can be saved! It is thus not Al Maxey that saves them, but rather the message brought to them that declares salvation can be found in Christ Jesus. If my teaching is flawed, however, or my life not lived consistently with Truth, this may well cause some seekers not to heed this message of salvation in Christ, and thus to be lost. Therefore, one must look closely to his manner of living and to his teaching so that the fullness of the saving message might be revealed to others. In such exercise of diligence we avoid the pitfalls that may prove costly to ourselves and those in need of God's saving grace. Paul somberly declared, "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).

Paul wrote, "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21). The proclamation of the good news informed people of the pathway to salvation ... which was acquired by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Thus, it was neither the message itself, nor the one who proclaimed it, that actually saved, but rather the One proclaimed who was then subsequently received by faith. "How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things'" (Romans 10:14-15).

The part the proclaimer plays in this process (his "work," if you will) is this: he must live and teach in such a way as not to hinder or detract from that message which the lost need to hear and believe, and to which they need to respond. Thus, we find Paul's admonition to the young evangelist to watch his example and teaching closely, and to persevere in them! The impact he has on others will quite likely eternally impact both them and him. James alludes to this solemn responsibility of teachers in James 3:1, indicating that those who share the good news with others can expect to "be judged more strictly." The NIV Life Application Bible comments, "The teachers' responsibility is great because their words and example affect others' spiritual lives."

Something else to carefully consider in this passage is the meaning of the word "saved." From what is the teacher and his hearers "saved"? Although salvation from eternal destruction is likely partly in view, the probability is very strong that something else may also be in view here. Dr. Kenneth Wuest notes, "The salvation spoken of here cannot be the salvation of the sinner nor the preservation of the saint in salvation. The salvation referred to here is understood by a study of the context (vs. 1-3), namely, being saved from the teachings of demon-influenced men. That is, by the reading of the Word, by exhortation from it, and by a clear explanation of its meaning, Timothy and his hearers will be saved from becoming entangled in these heresies" (Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, vol. 2). In the final analysis, of course, if one becomes entangled in heresy, then one's salvation is also in jeopardy. Thus, Timothy is admonished to take great care in his example and teaching so that neither he nor those he teaches are overcome by such false doctrine. Their lives depend on it!


In conclusion, I find nothing in any of the above passages of Scripture, to which the adherents of works based theology often appeal, that substantiates the doctrine we are justified, redeemed or saved by any meritorious, law-based human effort. Yes, as saved sons of God, we are obligated to live faithfully and obediently to our Father, but these are expressions of gratitude and daily, lifelong manifestations of the very faith that reached out and laid hold of that gift of salvation in Christ Jesus. They are not works that earn that salvation. When all has been said and done, Paul still has said it best in his following statement to the Ephesian brethren: