Works? or God’s Grace?

Martin Luther stated that we are saved by grace, but I read in the book of James that we must do “works” to be saved. And I was told that we don’t live under law anymore. Please explain this.              C.K.

Martin Luther was quoting the Apostle Paul, so you might be pitting the Apostles Paul and James against each other (and James was Jesus’ half-brother).

Paul said in Ephesians 2:8–9, “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. Not by works, lest any man should boast.” And James said in James 2:17–18, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (NRSV).

Paul was talking to those who came from an idolatrous background, and whose “worship” consisted of “religious activity.” It didn’t matter what they thought or whether or not they believed in God. Rather, it was things they did that others could see that got them points with God. They thought they had to earn their way to heaven. So Paul emphasized that our actions (works) will not save us, or even prove our relationship with God. Paul was attempting to balance their belief system.

James came from the opposite direction. He was talking to different people who believed that they could say anything, do anything, and live any way they pleased (including moral debauchery); but as long as they had good thoughts in their mind or said the right words, God would accept them and they were saved. But James told them that what they called faith was fruitless, inactive, or non-existent if their actions didn’t support or verify their words. He told them that if we are saved (if we actually have a living relationship with God) our lifestyle (works, obedience) will verify it. James was attempting to balance this other extreme view.

Paul said that salvation cannot be earned or worked for: it is a gift. And James said good works and Godly living will be a result of our faith in Jesus Christ.

So Paul and James are both correct. Nothing we do can gain us favor with God. Words in and of themselves are meaningless, and works in and of themselves are hollow. Rather, God is concerned about what we are. If our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is established, our words and works will be guided by the Holy Spirit and will be authoritative and powerful. What we believe AND what we do will be affected by (or because of) our relationship with God.

Both Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul will agree with this: Our actions or lifestyle (works), thoughts and beliefs (faith) are both necessary to live for Christ. Good works will not save us. But because we are saved, we will do good works.

Now, there is a controversy over living under grace versus living under law.

Regardless of what we say we believe, those who purposely continue to live in sin will live under the law and will be judged by the law. The only reason we live under grace is because we have stopped living in sin, confessed our sin, asked God to forgive us, and we now obey God’s law. But whoever reverts to a sinful life, reverts to living under law.

That is not circular-reasoning, but Godly logic. Just try telling a policeman that you cannot get a ticket for driving 100 mph because you live under grace. The patrolman might say, “Very well; after you pay the ticket, you can resume living under grace – if you obey the law.”

Someone asked if I were a legalist. I told him that Jesus said In Matt. 5:17-18, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, ‘till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, ‘till all be fulfilled.” So, am I a legalist? Perhaps – in the correct meaning of the word. I do believe in the law.

However, Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Therefore, as long as I obey God’s law, I live under grace.

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