Satan’s greatest lie may the timeless fabrication that sinners can escape the punishment of hell and merit the joy of heaven by what they do for God. This lie is used by religious teachers to control people and hold them in legalistic bondage. It may be the most damning lie perpetrated on the human race because the saving grace of God is nullified by man’s worthless works (Rom. 11:6). Since grace, the unmerited favor of God, is the only means by which God saves sinners, anyone attempting to merit eternal life has instead earned death (Rom. 6:23). God’s grace gives sinners what they do not deserve – heaven. God’s mercy spares sinners from what they do deserve – hell. The only work that can save sinners is the work of God. Jesus Christ accomplished the work that was impossible for finite man to do (Psalm 49:7-8). He paid the eternal debt for sin and lived the perfect life required for entrance into heaven. Christ died “for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). By His death and resurrection He completed the work of man’s redemption. Thus for sinful man to believe his works can add to, commingle with, complement or surpass the perfect work of Christ is an insult to God’s holiness and justice. Why then are we exhorted to be zealous for good works and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Titus 2:14; Phil. 2:12)? And why does James say that man is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas. 2:24)? Let us search the Scriptures.
Three Elements of Salvation
First we must understand that there are three tenses and elements in salvation. For believers in the Lord Jesus Christ salvation is past (justification), present (sanctification) and pending (glorification). This is why the Bible reveals that Christians have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. All Christians have been saved (past tense) from the penalty of sin. Paul writes, “you have been saved through faith…not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8). At the moment of faith, the sinner is justified and has a right standing before God that is permanent (Heb. 10:14). He cannot be condemned again (Rom. 8:1). After justification, believers begin working out their salvation with fear and trembling (sanctification) by doing the good works God has prepared for them (Eph. 2:10). Sanctification is an ongoing process whereby Jesus is manifested in Christians who saves them from the power of sin (2 Cor. 4:11). Paul wrote: “to us who are being saved, it (the message of the cross) is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Glorification is still future and will not occur until Jesus saves believers from the presence of sin. The Bible reveals: “Christ…will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28).
Justification Is Not A Result of Works
Paul wrote: “The one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). In another passage, we see “man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). Those who believe they can gain a right standing before God with their works and their own righteousness do not know God or His Gospel (Rom. 10:1-4). If they knew the righteousness of God, they would know their righteous works are like filthy rags in His sight (Isa. 64:6). They would know the only way to approach Him would be with empty hands of faith, bringing nothing except their sins. All human works prior to justifying faith are not acceptable to God because “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Bible clearly states over and over again that works are unable to secure salvation. “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). Salvation is “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness” (Titus 3:5). God saved us “not according to our works” (2 Tim. 1:9). Even works done in the name of Christ will not secure salvation (Mat. 7:22-23). Salvation is based entirely on God’s doing so “that no man should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:29; Rom. 4:2).
Understanding James With Paul
How is it that James appears to contradict Paul by saying: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). It is because Paul is dealing with the nature of justification and James is dealing with the nature of faith. James is asking professing Christians, who have not shown any evidence for their new life in Christ, to “show me your faith” (Jas. 2:18). But faith is invisible to man. It is an unseen relationship between man and God. Since faith cannot be seen, the best way to prove one’s faith is to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers” (Jas. 1:22). Those who do the word of God will live a righteous life in obedience to God. That is why James said: “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). Faith alone justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone. It gives evidence of its existence by righteous living. James is concerned for professing Christians who have dead faith which is idle, barren, and unfruitful (Jas 2:17). He is saying that dead faith does not justify and it is useless (Jas. 2:20). Only genuine faith is alive and bears fruit. James is saying that a man who claims to have a right relationship with God will live a life of good works. Sanctification is thus, the observable evidence that justification has been granted. The epistle of James reflects the teaching of Jesus who said that when you bear fruit you “prove to be My disciples” (Jn. 15:8). When there is no fruit, it is an indication that you are separated from Christ. Jesus also taught that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:16- 20). Just as works do not produce justification, the fruit does not bring the tree into existence. The fruit only reveals the type of tree and whether it is alive or dead.
Works Will Be Tested
Only some of the works done after justification are intrinsically good and acceptable to God. All the works of a Christian will be tested by fire. The good works, described by Paul, as gold, silver and precious stones, will survive the fire and result in rewards at the Bema seat. They are works done in faith, motivated by a love of God, in obedience to the will of God and for His glory. The worthless works described as wood, hay and straw will be burned up, and the believer shall suffer the loss of rewards (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
Four Tests for Good Works
1) The timing of the works performed. They must be done after justification, not before (Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12; 1 Thes. 1:3).
2) The motivation for the works. They must be done in love and thanksgiving for being chosen and redeemed by God, not to merit salvation (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Thes. 5:18; Jn. 14:21).
3) The power in which the works are accomplished. They must be accomplished through faith in God’s power, not through the power of man’s flesh (John 15:5; Rom. 15:13, Phil 2:12; Col. 1:29; 2 Thes. 1:11; Heb. 11:6).
4) Theglory the works produce. They must glorify God, not man (Acts 4:21; Mat. 5:16; John 15:8; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23; 1 Pet. 2:12).
Worthless works will fail all or some of these tests. They include all works done before justification, as well as works done after justification that either seek to earn God’s favor or man’s glory. An example is the rebuke by Jesus of the scribes and Pharisees: “they do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Matt. 23:5). Paul wrote of those who “profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:16).
Roman Catholic Justification
Roman Catholic teaching on justification places more emphasis on works, sacraments
and obeying the law than on faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, Catholics are condemned if they believe they are justified by faith alone. Canon 9 of the Council of Trent states: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification…let him be anathema.” The Catholic Church teaches that the grace of justification comes, not through faith but through the sacraments, beginning with baptism. From paragraph 1992 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “Justification is conferred in baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.” Paragraph 2027 teaches Catholics that they can merit the unmerited favor of God: “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church opposes God’s Word in five critical areas on justification. It teaches justification:
1) is not by personal faith, but is obtained through baptism (1266);
2) is not entirely a work of God, but a cooperative work between God and man (1993);
3) is not permanent, but can be lost by sin and regained through sacraments (1446);
4) is not distinctly different from sanctification, but includes it (2019);
5) is not a legal declaration by God, but conforms us to the righteousness of God (2020).
In conclusion, we know that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). No one can be saved by trying to merit God’s favor. Anyone who relies on what they do to be saved – whether it be receiving sacraments, tithing, self righteousness, faithful church attendance, giving to the poor, indulgences, participation in the Lord’s Supper, coming forward or repeating a prayer – is lost. God’s word reveals that we are justified by grace – the unmerited and undeserved gift of God (Rom. 3:24). This gift can only be received when one forsakes all efforts to save him or her self and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). The grace that brings us salvation instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age (Titus 2:11-12). Thus, the life of a justified person produces evidence that reflects the divine nature that has been imparted. He has been created and called by God for God’s glory alone. Only God is worthy of all honor, glory and praise! For it is God who equips “you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:21).