We should all understand that there is nothing we can do that adds up enough credit to earn our salvation. In Ephesians 2, Paul lays it out very clearly that our salvation is a gift from God that comes through faith and that it does not come from ourselves but is the gift of God (Eph 2:1-10). The key verses in that passage are 8-10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” These verses cause some confusion because they appear to say that grace is the gift of God that does not come by works but does come through faith. It is as if Paul is saying, there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace but you must have faith. To further complicate things, Paul goes on to say that we were created to do the very thing that does not save us – “good works.” How confusing is that?!?
To further muddy the waters have a look at James 2:14,24,26 – “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?…You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone…the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Paul says that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith. James says that faith is no good without works. How do we put the pieces together?
The first thing to understand is that Paul and James do not disagree on the importance of obedience:
James’ usage concerning ‘works’ is both unconnected to ‘law’ and is entirely consistent with the dominant NT usage concerning moral effort as an expression of convictions. Of first importance for this discussion is the observation that Paul predominantly uses ergon (works) in precisely the same sense…” . Johnson goes on to point out that “It is Paul, not James, who declares: “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous but the doers of the law who will be considered righteous,’ Rom 2:13.
– L.T. Johnson The Letter of James, 60-61
The Bible never says that nothing is expected of someone if they want to follow Jesus. It never says there is nothing you are supposed to do or believe or change. Both Paul and James recognized the importance of obedience and both recognized that while essential obedience can never merit our salvation. How can it be essential but not merit it? God does not save us because we have worked hard enough to earn it or done enough good to outweigh the bad we have done. God paid the price for our sins apart from any good thing we had done. We didn’t initiate this process. God did. If God sent Jesus because we were good people then we could say our good works earned our salvation. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” – Rom 5:6. We were powerless. We couldn’t earn it. We couldn’t achieve it. Our good works added up to “0” in the grand scheme of things because of our sin and rebellion. There was nothing good enough we could do to put our relationship with God back together again. But Christ died for the ungodly. He reconciled us to himself by his own power even in our own unworthiness. We are called to respond. The response doesn’t earn anything. The response is the result of a life filled with faith in the Son of God and in his inexpressible grace and mercy shown to us in the cross. To say that our obedience earns our salvation is like saying that a thank you note paid for the new car that was given to you as a gift. The thank you note didn’t earn it. It was only a response to someone else’s generosity! The point is, no matter how much good we do it will never be enough. That is why Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” – Luke 17:10. But because we have faith in God we will desire to be obedient to his will for our lives. We did not initiate our salvation. Jesus died and paid the price for us so that we would respond to that act of grace through faith and the obedience and good works will naturally result. The works do not replace Jesus, they are a response to him.
There is the saying, “Exodus came before Sinai” – God showed his favor and saving acts to Israel before he put the requirements of the law on them. They didn’t earn their freedom but as a result God expected obedience as a response to his gracious, saving acts. The same is true with the cross of Christ – our obedience did not earn the cross. It is only a response to it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Although Peter cannot achieve his own conversion, he can leave his nets.” – Cost of Discipleship, 65