Earning Salvation

There have been some Bible students who have seen irreconcilable differences between the teachings of the Apostle Paul and those of the book of James on the importance of good works in regard to salvation. These seemingly irreconcilable differences led Martin Luther to “divorce” James from the rest of the New Testament, assigning the little book to a type of appendix in some Luther Bible editions.

This reflects a difference of practice within the Christian world. Some believe that salvation is by faith alone, and that is the end of the story. We do nothing whatsoever to be saved, and works of any type are irrelevant. Others believe that salvation is primarily a matter of the accumulation of good works, that we earn our way into heaven. In this case, we can never be satisfied with our good works, we must always be looking for more.

Let me say that I believe the New Testament teaches that salvation is a gift, it cannot be earned. Even more, this teaching is found in the Old Testament, too, because Paul uses Old Testament texts like Habakkuk 2:4 to make his point that “The just shall live by faith,” and Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” We cannot earn our salvation, and whenever our theology leads us to conclude that we do, we are wrong and need to fix something.

I think, though, that Paul and James are talking about two different sets of “good works.” Let me illustrate with this diagram:

Works of Law vs Works of Faith

To put it simply, Paul is concerned about the understanding of earning salvation through keeping the Jewish Law. In this he reflects the teachings of Jesus, who indicated with the rich young ruler that a keeper of the law will always have one more thing left to do. James is concerned with how we practice our faith. We might even say that James is concerned about the nature of faith itself, what the result of faith should be.

Once we have crossed the doorway of salvation (and we may disagree on how that works), what happens? After we walk through the door of faith and trust Jesus for our salvation, what do we do? James is encouraging his readers that this relationship with the Lord should show up in our lives. Good works are not the condition of salvation, they are the consequence. A life of faith should demonstrate itself as a life of doing good for others. If this does not happen, the personal faith of an individual is in question. There cannot be faith, true faith, genuine faith, saving faith, that does not lead to good works. This is the concern of James, and Paul would not have disagreed.

And I agree with both of them. You cannot be saved by good works, but you are not saved without them.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College


10 thoughts on “Earning Salvation

  1. I agree completely.

    What do you think of the New Perspective on Paul reading of “works of the law” as works of Torah, specifically those that separate Jews and Gentiles, and righteousness as meaning covenant membership? This reading is of Paul is much more ecclesiological (relating to membership in the people of God) than soteriological (though it is both). This reading also would likely see both the old and new covenants as holding to a sort of “covenantal nomism” (now that you are in the covenant people of God, here is how you live) rather than either a works-righteousness or a “pure grace” where works are irrelevant (thus eliminating the reading of Paul that contrasts old and new covenants as legalistic and gracious, respectively).

    And since it comes up a lot, I would like to note that Catholicism holds to the same position (not saved by works, but true faith shows itself in works). To quote from the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on justification: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html)

    • Dan, I’m not really a Pauline guy. I do understand the new readings of Paul through Jimmy Dunn and others, that made “Law” a very Jewish argument, and included a better understanding of the covenantal aspect of all of this. Dunn also impressed me by not wanting to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as a normative way to understand the process of coming to faith.

      I also realize that officially that the Roman Catholic Church has officially agreed with the Lutherans on salvation being by grace through faith, but I don’t think that is the usually understood position by the person in the Catholic pew. Just as in the Christian Church, the traditionalists understand baptism as the key to salvation, even a causative element in being saved, so most lay Catholics understand their relationship to God as being based largely on good works. I am not Catholic, but this blog was prompted by a Sunday School lesson I taught last Sunday, and one of the men who is a very good Bible student came to me after the lesson and said that he grew up Catholic, and that was the way he was taught (good works were essential for salvation). I have had Catholic friends express this to me by saying that salvation is by faith and works.

      Likewise, the Restoration Movement folks have never believed officially (if there is any way to say this) that baptism is a work that earns or merits salvation, but this has been the lay understanding and the way it has been practiced for over one hundred and fifty years now.


  2. I have worked to make this case with many people over the years Mark. Thanks!

    I am curious about your thoughts, perhaps in a slightly different direction, but I think related. The Christian Church (Restoration Movement), in my experience has been criticized a bit, and fairly so perhaps, as making baptism a “work,” and therefore many deny the efficacy of baptism as any way connected to salvation. I don’t personally see baptism as a work, and I don’t think the church in the second half of the first century saw it as a work either. I am growing to think much more sacramentally over time however. It has caused me to think of the Sacraments, Eucharist and Baptism less “memorially” and more as causing something real to happen on the inside as we engage in an act on the outside. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems to me that the tradition in which I’ve grown up in faith is woefully devoid of a robust view of sacrament. I guess I might really be asking you to write something on Sacrament.

    I’ve really enjoyed these little (by that I mean short) posts. Thanks for taking the time to do them Mark!

    Peace of Christ,

    • Thanks John, I’m glad you enjoy these. I will try to write on the sacramental nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper later this week. Good idea.

      One of the ways I hear RM guys talk about baptism is as an “act of obedience.” I guess this is sort of OK, because if Jesus commanded us to baptize the nations, obedience is involved. But it seems to me this is obedience on the part of the baptizer more than the baptized. And I have always thought that “act of obedience” was a kissing cousin to “work to earn salvation.”


      • That’s interesting. When the ‘baptism is an act of obedience’ line has been spoken to me it’s been to support the view that baptism is a less important part of responding to the Gospel. “It’s the first thing you do after you are saved.” Usually the person was pushing against my ‘high view’ of baptism, wanting to make sure I understood that we cannot do any works to earn our salvation. Their misunderstanding of works/law is what you clarified in this post.

        Baptism is a grace, not a work of the law. It is part of our response to the Gospel. It’s not a work… nobody can baptize themselves, although that would be fun to watch. You can yield and submit to baptism, but if that’s a work we’re all in trouble.

  3. I agree with you on this point Mark. The “act of obedience” approach to this misses the point in my mind, and does relegate baptism to a much more memorial approach. I do think baptism can become “law” or”a work”… just a hoop we’re getting people to jump through. But if, as I think a sacramental view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper suggests, something is mysteriously going on within a person… something real happens on the inside as something concrete is happening on the outside… then baptism, simply as an act of obedience, looses its meaning. As long as you’re at it with sacrament… what about marriage? In other words, to put my cards on the table here, so to speak, I am beginning to see baptism, Eucharist, and Marriage as sacrament, not in quite the Catholic way probably, but in particular with Eucharist, more along the lines of Calvin or Luther, who I think were pretty close to each other.

  4. “You cannot be saved by good works, but you are not saved without them.”

    Which means they only PARTIALLY earn salvation, but they clearly do earn some of it. You earn it partially by works (Paul can burn in hell for saying otherwise) and God’s mercy fills up the difference.

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