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This is a question that has been misunderstood by many for several centuries. It is also one that has been debated numerous times and commented on by countless theologians. Thousands of articles and books are dedicated to the subject and it has been preached from countless pulpits. Why is it so controversial and so difficult to understand? Can we truly know the answer to the question? Let’s see if we can simplify it.The quick, simple answer to the question is “Yes, and No.” Perhaps, now you’re thinking, “I thought you said you were going to ‘simplify’ it, preacher?” Well, that is actually the simple answer and also the reason why it is so confusing to many. It is because the answer depends on a few factors. You see, understanding the truth comes down to three things: (1) accepting what the Bible actually says, as opposed to some man-made doctrine; (2) how one defines the Biblical terms being used; and (3) the hermeneutic method being used.
What does the Bible say? “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast,” (Eph 2:8-9). Seems clear doesn’t it? One theologian, Jonathan Edwards, is famous for having stated, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” However, that’s not completely true when we consider the principle of Psalm 119:160, that we should consider ALL that the Bible has to say about a subject, not just one verse. The Bible also says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only,” (James 2:24). In the context, James makes an undeniable case for “works” being part of one’s faith. The Hebrews writer adds, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him …,” (Heb 11:6). We should also include Peter’s explanation, “… Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls,” (1 Pet 1:8,9). Do you see the connection? One must have works, in order to be saved, but something about those works, or a certain type of work, is not sufficient.
This illustrates why defining the terms being used is so important. Let’s start with “salvation.” In Ephesians, Paul is referring to one’s conversion to Christianity, while James and Peter are referring to one’s actions during the lifetime of a faithful disciple. So then, one becomes saved when they obey the Gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4; 1 Thess 1:3-8), but the salvation of one’s soul isn’t culminated until death – after having lived in continual, faithful service (Revelation 2:10). The term can be used in two, different ways. We can further define words by using a sound, objective hermeneutic method (as opposed to a subjective, situational interpretation). For example, within the context of Ephesians 2, the definition of “works” has to do with attempting to be justified by the old Law of Moses (v11-22), in comparison to the freedom granted with Christianity. Hebrews 10:4 is a perfect commentary for this passage, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” So, works in that sense is referring to animal sacrifices and other activities required under the old law. In James, on the other hand, “works” is used to describe the obedience of a faithful Christian (1:22). These are the good deeds required of all disciples (Matt. 25:37-40; James 1:27; Gal 6:10).
Therefore, the long answer is, “Yes” because Paul writes “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Phil 2:12) and also, “remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ …,” (1 Thess 1:3). This simply means we do “works” to demonstrate our faithfulness and love toward God, not for any personal gain. Don’t forget, we will be, “judged, each one according to his works,” (Rev 20:13). The answer is also “No” because there are no amount of works that one can perform in order to put God into their debt and “earn” their way into heaven. That debt is too great and only Jesus could pay that price (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 6:20).