Home > Salvation
Are Works Essential to Salvation? Most Protestant churches teach salvation by faith only: works of obedience (especially baptism) are not needed to be saved. But are there different kinds of works? Do we earn salvation by living without sin? What about grace? Are there Scriptures that say we must obey to be saved? Do our attitudes matter? What about children of God: must we live a faithful life to receive eternal life?
Click/tap here to view this material as a free video Bible study.
Click here to view PowerPoint slides and charts to accompany this study.
The church promoted outward rituals but ignored the need for true repentance and upright living. People were taught they could escape purgatory by buying indulgences. The church sold high offices in the church or the government for a fee. Church leaders were incredibly corrupt.
Instead of mere outward ritual, many reformers went to the other extreme emphasizing good attitudes without outward actions. Then and now many deny that obedience (such as baptism) is necessary to salvation. All that is needed is faith in the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus.
By the term “works” we refer to deeds: outward actions, speech, or thoughts. We will see that many Scriptures teach that obedience, involving various works, are essential to salvation.
The reformers overlooked an important fact: There are different kinds of works. Often Scripture uses the same word to refer to different kinds of things, some of which are essential to salvation some of which are not.
There are different kinds of love: some are essential to salvation but some not.
There are different kinds of faith: some are essential to salvation but some not.
There are different kinds of obedience: some are essential to salvation but some not.
There are different kinds of law: some are essential to salvation but some not.
There different kinds of works: some are essential to salvation but some not.
Let us attempt to distinguish different kinds of works and understand the consequences.
Nothing we do could ever earn eternal life. It is a gift from God’s grace through Jesus’ death.
These passages refer to works of human righteousness by which one earns salvation.
Romans 4:4 – Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
Romans 11:6 – And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
Ephesians 2:8,9 – 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.
Titus 3:5 – not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.
(2 Timothy 1:9)
The Old Testament is no longer binding (Galatians 3:23-25). But studying it helps us understand the kind of works that do not save.
Hebrews 10:1-4 – The old law had sacrifices that provided no lasting forgiveness.
Galatians 3:10 – Any sin put one under a curse, so the only way to be justified by such a law would be to live one’s whole life without ever sinning. Then one could boast that he had saved himself. He would earn his righteousness as a matter of debt, not grace. (Romans 3:20,23; James 2:10; Deuteronomy 6:24,25)
But no one will be saved by such works because we all sin (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8,10; 3:4). So, we all need grace whereby we can be forgiven though we do not deserve it. This is what is meant by all passages saying we are not saved by works.
(See also Galatians 2:16; 3:11; compare 4:21-25; 5:3; Acts 13:39.)
Note some examples:
|Not by Works||But We Must Obey|
|Galatians 2:16; 3:11 - not saved by works||3:27 - baptized into Christ
5:6 - what avails is faith working
|Romans 3:20,28; 4:2-16; 11:6 - not by works||6:3,4 - baptized into Christ/His death
6:17,18 - obey to be free from sin
10:9,10 - confess unto salvation
|Titus 3:5 - not by works||through the “washing of regeneration”|
Ephesians 2:8,9 - not by works
|5:25,26 - cleansed by the washing of water|
Passages teaching works do not save are usually close to verses saying obedience is essential. Since there are no contradictions, we must conclude there are different kinds of works. So, obedience is essential, but there are kinds of works that do not save.
(See also Romans 2:6-11; 1:5; 16:26; Compare Acts 22:16; Hebrews 10:22; Romans 6:4; John 3:5; Colossians 2:12,13. And compare Ephesians 2:4-9 to Colossians 2:12,13; Romans 6:4ff; 1 Peter 1:22,23; John 3:5.)
These acts of obedience do not earn salvation but are necessary conditions to receive it. They are a test of faith whereby we demonstrate trust, humility, and love for God.
1 Peter 1:22,23 – We purify our souls in obeying the truth.
Romans 6:17,18 – Servants of sin must obey from the heart to be made free from sin.
Hebrews 5:9 – Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.
Acts 11:14; 10:34,35 – Peter told Cornelius words whereby he would be saved. But he said God accepts those who fear Him and work righteousness. This is true for all people, since God shows no partiality!
James 2:24 – Man is justified by works, not by “faith only.”
Matthew 7:21-27 – To accept Jesus as Lord (ruler, master) and enter the kingdom of heaven, we must do what He says. Confessing Him without obedience is not enough.
2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 – Those who do not obey the gospel will be destroyed.
Romans 2:6-10; 2 Corinthians 5:10 – We will be judged according to what is done in the body. Those who do good will receive eternal life.
The doctrine of “faith only” denies the need for any obedience to commands. All the passages we have just studied show that such is a false view of gospel teaching.
(See also Luke 6:46; Revelation 20:12-15; John 5:28,29; 1 John 2:17.)
Acts 17:30 – God commands all men to repent. If keeping commands is not necessary, then repentance is not necessary to salvation! Luke 13:3 – Except you repent you will perish. (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 2 Peter 3:9)
Romans 10:9,10 – Confession with the mouth is a command. If obedience is not essential then confession is not essential! Yet the passage clearly says it is essential. And note that confession is an outward act done with the mouth. (See also Matthew 10:32,33.)
Matthew 22:37-39 – Love is the greatest of all commands. If obeying commands is not necessary to salvation, then love is not necessary, since it is a command.
1 John 3:23; John 6:28,29 – Faith itself is a command; it is a work God tells people to do. If works and obedience are not necessary to salvation, then faith itself is not necessary!
These are works of obedience that the gospel says are essential to salvation. But they are not works of human righteousness whereby we earn eternal life. Instead, we admit we are sinners and come to God for forgiveness by His mercy and grace; yet we must believe in Him enough to meet whatever conditions He lays down.
Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3,4; 1 Peter 3:21 – Baptism is also essential to receive forgiveness and come into Christ just as surely as are faith and repentance, etc.
Verses that say we are not saved by “works” do not eliminate faith, repentance, confession, or baptism. None of these works earn salvation, but all of them are essential conditions to receive forgiveness by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The reformers reacted to false doctrines that led people to practice outward works without godly attitudes of love and devotion to God. The gospel says attitudes matter. But this does not eliminate the need for obedience. Both obedience and motives matter.
Romans 6:17,18 – To be set free from sin we must obey from the heart.
Galatians 5:6 – What avails in Christ is faith working through love: both acts and motives.
1 John 5:3 – For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (2 John 6; John 14:15). Love and obedience are both needed; we cannot truly love without obedience.
It is not a matter of choosing between faith and works. Both are required.
(1 Peter 1:22; 1 Timothy 1:5; James 3:13; 1 John 3:18; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Obedience is the test of faith. God grants no forgiveness until we obey. We are saved by faith when that faith leads us to obey God’s required instructions, not before.
Hebrews 10:39 – We must “believe to the saving of the soul.” Chapter 11 illustrates this faith by examples of people who “by faith” pleased God and received His reward (11:6). Did God reward them before / without actions, or did people work (obey God) first in order to be rewarded?
Noah (11:7) – By faith Noah prepared an ark to save his house and become heir of righteousness according to faith. Was he saved by faith before he did the work; or did God save him only after he obeyed? Would he have been saved if he had not obeyed?
Abraham (11:8) – By faith Abraham obeyed God and went to the place God eventually showed him. Did God reward him before he obeyed (works), or only after he obeyed? Would God have rewarded him had he not obeyed?
Israel at Jericho (11:30) – By faith the walls of Jericho fell. Did they fall before the people did what God said (works) or afterward? Would the walls have fallen had the people not obeyed? The walls fell “after they were compassed about.” (See also 11:4,17,24, etc.)
In every case, God rewarded people for obedient faith. They received the blessing “by faith,” not before they did the works or without obedience, but only after or as a result of their obedience. When faith led to obedience (works), then they received the reward “by faith.”
Saving faith is faith that obeys. Does a person have saving faith if he believes obedience is not necessary or that God will save him before he obeys? Consider this chart:
|Blessings Received “by Faith”|
Noah built the ark then his house was saved
Abraham obeyed to go then received the inheritance
Israel marched then the walls of Jericho fell
We obey the gospel then receive forgiveness
Obedience/work comes first, then comes the reward!
In this favorite passage, the bronze serpent illustrates salvation by faith. To be saved from death, the people had to look at the serpent (Numbers 21:9). So even John 3:16 shows that saving faith includes action – obedience – it does not exclude it.
Some kinds of faith save and some do not, just as some works save and some do not.
Verse 14 – Can we be saved by the kind of faith that does not have works (verse 14)?
Verses 17,20,26 – The answer: faith that does not work is dead, like a body without a spirit.
Verse 24 – We are justified by works, not by “faith only.”
Faith without works will not save, nor will works without faith. Both faith and works must operate together (verses 21-23). Only then do we have faith that saves!
The passage flatly contradicts the doctrine that we can be saved or justified by a faith that does not obey. Such a faith is dead. Can a dead faith save us?
The truth is that saving faith leads people to obey Jesus because they trust Him; they are not saved until their faith leads to the required obedience. When people think they can be saved without obeying what Jesus says, those are the ones who have a faith that will not save.
(Galatians 5:6; 2 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; Galatians 2:20; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Romans 1:5; 16:26.)
No one can earn eternal life. So this obedience does not earn eternal life, yet it is required.
Luke 6:46 – Why do you call Me “Lord, Lord,” and do not do the things which I say?
Colossians 1:10 – Walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, fruitful in every good work.
Titus 2:14 – Jesus gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
James 1:25 – But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
(Matthew 28:19,20; Acts 26:20; 1 Corinthians 15:58)
Some say Christians obey, not because obedience is necessary to receive eternal life, but because God has forgiven us. But the truth is that we must obey both to express gratitude, and in order to remain in God’s favor.
Philippians 2:12 – Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Revelation 20:13 – We will be judged each one according to his works. Works will be the basis of our judgment! (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23; 22:12; Matthew 25:31-46)
Romans 2:6-10 – God will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but indignation and wrath to those who do not obey the truth but do evil; glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good.
Galatians 6:8,9 – For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.
Romans 8:13 – For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Revelation 2:10 – Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
(James 5:19,20; 1 Corinthians 9:25-27;Romans 6:16,23;1 Corinthians 10:11,12; John 15:5,6; 2 Peter 2:20-22; 1 Timothy 5:8; James 4:17; 1 John 5:3; John 14:15,21-24; Acts 8:18-23; Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 3:12-14: 6:4-8; 10:24-31; 2 Peter 1:5-11 1 John 2:4-6)
Summary: No one will earn salvation by living a sinless life or by mere outward ritual. Salvation is a gift by God’s grace granted through the sacrifice of Jesus. We receive forgiveness at conversion on the condition of faith that expresses itself in obedience including baptism. We must then follow with a life of faithful service. If we sin again, we must again meet conditions of forgiveness by repenting and praying (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:8-10).
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2023; gospelway.com
Local churches and individuals may, within limits, distribute this Bible study guide for free, but not for sale. Web sites may link to this page but not reproduce it. Click here for more information about our copyright guidelines.
Please bookmark our site in your favorites.
We welcome links to us from other sites :
gospelway.com - The Gospel Way: Free Bible Study Materials & Guides
Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.