Are Good Works Essential for Salvation?
Question: James says that faith without works is dead (James:2:20, 26). Paul wrote, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians:2:12). Shouldn’t we conclude, therefore, that good works are necessary for salvation? And wouldn’t we be in a dangerous position if we failed to recognize that good works are essential for salvation? Christ even says that if we don’t forgive others, we can’t expect God to forgive us. What about that?
Response: If good works are essential for salvation, then we must have some standard for those good works. The gospel would have to specify how many good works and of what kind. Where does one find such teaching? Nowhere.
There is no mention of good works in the “gospel by which we are saved” (1 Corinthians:15:1-4). In fact, Paul argues that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans:3:28), and he reminds us that “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus:3:5).
Nevertheless, all the world’s religions are based upon works. The idea that we must live up to a certain standard of works to be saved is the foundation of paganism. The gods must somehow be appeased by human effort or sacrifice. The same idea is innate in all people: “If You will get me out of this predicament, God, then I’ll do this or that for You!” Clearly, that is not what James is teaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
A works-for-salvation mentality marks every cult. Indeed, even atheists justify their rejection of Christianity on this basis. Famed atheist Robert Ingersoll sarcastically complained against the gospel of God’s grace:
“They [Christians] say a certain belief is necessary to salvation. They do not say, if you behave yourself you will get there; they do not say, if you pay your debts and love your wife and love your children, and are good to your friends and your neighbors and your country [like we atheists are], you will get there. That will do you no good; you have got to believe a certain thing.
“No matter how bad you are, you can be instantly forgiven; and no matter how good you are, if you fail to believe that which you cannot understand, the moment you get to the day of judgment nothing is left but to damn you, and all the angels will shout ‘hallelujah.’”
Christianity alone rejects this universal delusion. We have already seen that keeping the law perfectly in the future could not make up for having broken it in the past. As Paul said, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans:3:20). It is therefore clear that we cannot be saved by good works.