We Are Not Saved by Works

“We are not saved by works — baptism is a work; therefore, we are not saved by baptism.” So reason the multitudes. It is true the Bible says we are not saved by works: “For by grace have ye ben saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works that no man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). It is equally true the Bible says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only” (James 2:24). Which one of these passages is true? Are both true? If one of the passages is true and the other false then there is a contradiction in the Bible which makes suspect the whole of it. If both passages are true, how is one to explain the apparent contradiction between the two cited passages in Ephesians and James?

The only explanation that properly shows that there is no contradiction between the two passages is that the writers in Ephesians 2:8 and James 2:24 were not using the word “works” with the same meaning. There is no other way to reconcile the two writers. Granting that such an explanation would remove any contradiction between the two writers, the next question is, “Is there evidence that such might be true of other words in the scriptures?”

There is. In fact it is necessary to understand that the same word may be used but with an entirely different meaning by two men. And not only that, we must understand that truth (for it is true) to avoid making a writer “contradict” himself. Case in point. John wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him might not perish but might have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). He also wrote, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15). God loved the world and gave His Son to die to save it. Yet if man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. How can that be true? The word “world” (kosmos) is the same in both passages whether English or Greek. The difficulty is resolved by understanding that the word “world” in John 3:16 is a reference to man whereas in 1 John 3:15 “world” is a reference to the sinful pleasures which draw us away from God. Examining the scriptures will show that there are other words in the New Testament which are may be found in one passage to mean one thing while in another place the meaning is entirely different. Sometimes it is opposite in meaning from its use in other passages. So it is with the word “works” as found in Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24 — it means one thing in Ephesians 2:8-9 yet something entirely different in James 2:24.

To allow only one meaning to the word “works” will result in a series of errors.

First, allowing only one meaning to the word “works” puts Ephesians 2:8-9 at odds, not only with James 2:24 but also with John 6:28-29 where just one meaning to the word “works” in Ephesians would eliminate even faith as essential to salvation. The Jews asked Jesus, “What must we do to work the works of God?” He responded, “This is the work of God that ye believe on him whom he sent” (John 6:28-29). Jesus said that faith is a work. If works do not save, then it is not essential that one believe to be saved.

Second, allowing only one meaning to the word “works” denies countless scriptures which show obedience to be absolutely essential to salvation. Consider just a few. Heb. 5:8-9 says, “Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him, the author of eternal salvation.” Matt. 7:21 adds, “Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my father which is in heaven.” Second Thess. 1:8 adds, “… rendering vengeance to them that know not God and to them that obey not the gospel.” Dozens of other passages could be given, all which show that man must obey God to be saved. Furthermore, while obedience includes faith, it also includes other commandments of Jesus. It certainly includes water baptism because Jesus said it expressly saves (Mark 16:16).

If the Bible is truly inerrant, there can be no contradiction between Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24. For there to be no contradiction between Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24 it must be true that the “works” of which Paul wrote and the “works” of which James wrote are different. And, if it is true that Paul used the word “works” in an entirely different sense than did James, then the next question to be asked is, “What works was Paul writing of that will not save and what works was James writing about that are as essential for a man to be justified as is faith?” We’ll consider the answer to this in the next article.

Jim McDonald