Grace And Works


‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.’ Ephesians 2:8-9

‘You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.’ James 2:24

For centuries men have attempted to harmonise these two passages. We have Paul saying we are saved by grace through faith and works have nothing to do with our salvation. On the other hand, James says we are saved by works and not by faith only. Many have falsely concluded that James contradicts Paul.

Martin Luther is a classic example of this. In reading the book of Romans, Luther came to Romans 1:17 ‘The just shall live by faith.’ His exegesis of this passage and other passages led him to the conviction that we are saved by ‘faith only’. In all fairness to Luther, his concept of faith was different from the mental consent kind of faith proclaimed today. However, he is the author of the doctrine of salvation by faith only.

When Luther came to the book of James and especially the second chapter, he became furious in his denunciation of James calling it an epistle of straw. He said the book should not be in the canon of the New Testament and should be totally rejected.

He said James was some Jew who was trying to lead the people back to keeping the works of the law of Moses. Through the years scholars have disagreed with him, even Lutheran scholars, proving without a doubt that James is a part of the New Testament canon, 2 Timothy 3:16.

Thus, the scriptures do not contradict each other. If it is felt there is a conflict between Paul and James then the fault must be with uninspired men and not with Paul and James who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In view of this claim of contradiction, it seems in order that we give some attention to what is being taught in these two passages.

First, let’s look at the grace passage in Ephesians 2:8-9. We frequently hear grace defined as the ‘unmerited favour of God.’ This brief definition sets forth a basic fact concerning grace. God’s grace is something that we do not deserve.

No one can demand salvation on the basis of who he is or what he has done. No one can earn the unmerited favour of God no matter how many good works he may have engaged in. It is a gift. The grounds of our salvation are totally God’s gracious and unconditional love without one grain of human involvement. It is in no sense earned by any human effort.

We usually see so much bad in a good person and so much good in a bad person but with God, the bottom line is simply this.

‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ Romans 3:23

‘As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one’ Romans 3:10

‘All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ Romans 3:12

What about the good man, the righteous person?

‘All our righteousness are like filthy rags.’ Isaiah 64:6

‘So likewise, you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ Luke 17:10

Even Christians sin. John writing to Christians said, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ 1 John 1:8. One has only to read the first chapter of Romans to see what a sinful world we live in. Man never initiated an effort to be reconciled to God. God is the one who took the initiative.

John reminds us, ‘We love him because he first loved us.’ Peter says, ‘God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ thus it was God who took the initiative. At the same time, we must be careful not to overlook the fact that God’s grace comes ‘through faith.’ This is vital to fully understand the doctrine of grace.

Now let us look at what James says in the second chapter of his epistle. Upon close observation, we will see that James is speaking of a specific kind of faith. James is saying that God wants an active, obedient, servant kind of faith. He wants a trusting faith such as Abraham had.

Faith must be more than that just mental assent. It must move us to get rid of all the idols that have separated us from serving God. We must be willing to let Jesus become Lord and Master of our lives. True faith causes the heart and will to become involved and the sinner then resolves, I will accept and obey God’s terms of pardon and receive his gracious forgiveness of all my sins, which is something I don’t deserve.

By contrast, the ‘faith only’ of James 2:24 is a do-nothing faith. James illustrates this.

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ James 2:14-17

The issue is simply inactive faith versus active faith. James points out in verse 19, that we are no better off than the demons because they ‘believe and tremble!’ They believe without any question in the one true God and His son Jesus Christ. But at the same time, they oppose God with all their being.

James uses Abraham as an example of one who had a faith that works. In verse 22 James points out that in Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice ‘that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?’

James concludes by saying, ‘For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.’ James is not speaking of some kind of meritorious work that deserves some kind of repayment. He is simply saying that faith will take action on what it believes.

An obedient faith leads one to be baptized. Baptism is an act of faith and trust in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ the Lord. Is baptism a ‘work’? This charge is often made concerning baptism. It is clearly not a work in the sense in which Paul uses the word in Ephesians 2:4, that is, works of personal righteousness as a ground of justification. In the sense of obeying God, even faith is a work.

‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.’ John 6:29

Baptism is in fact an integral part of saving faith, the point at which the believer commits himself to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, Romans 6:1-4. It is an expression of faith in Christ’s death as the sole basis of our salvation by ‘wholeheartedly obeying the form of teaching which was entrusted to us.’ Romans 6:17.

Out of appreciation for God’s grace, good works will naturally follow. When we come to the realisation of what God has done for us we will have the attitude, ‘Lord, what will you have me to do?’ Genuine appreciation for God’s grace will result in good works. Good works are an inevitable result of God’s grace. In the grace passage of Ephesians 2, Paul goes ahead to write.

‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ Ephesians 2:10

Grace is not opposed to good works. Good works complement grace. It is interesting to note that even grace operates through law, Titus 2:11-12.

However, we must remember that good works are the product, not the grounds of our salvation. Our motivation as Christians is love. Love knows no limits on expressing its appreciation. Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’

A mother will make all kinds of sacrifices for her child. She sits up during the night with her sick child, comforts the child, she will exert herself in whatever is necessary for the child’s well-being.

I recently heard the story of a lady who when close to giving birth to her child was told by the doctor that he could not save both. Her reply was, ‘save my baby and let me die’. Why? Her love for that child is so great no sacrifice is too great.

In the Ephesian passage, Paul said that God’s grace comes through faith. Most cities have a source of water. It may be a lake, river, springs or a well. The river or lake does not literally flow through one’s house. The water comes into one’s house by a system of pipes. God’s grace comes to us through our faith.

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.’ Ephesians 2:8-9

James is simply elaborating on the kind of faith that is pleasing to God. He points out that if our faith does nothing then it is a useless or dead faith. Our works of Christian service serve as evidence of a true genuine faith. They are a demonstration of our faith. It is by the grace of God that He enables us to do Christian works of service.

Paul said, ‘By grace I am what I am.’ 1 Corinthians 15:12. As we have noticed James concluded his comments about faith with the words, ‘You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.’ Why is it by works? Because works are living proof that we have a real genuine faith, not a dead faith. Earlier in Chapter 1, James wrote, ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ James 1:22.

Grateful hearts will demonstrate their love and appreciation for God’s grace over and over again with good works, Romans 5:1-2.

Thus, faith is the channel through which we receive God’s amazing grace. In summing up this lesson we can assume certain facts.

1. Where there are no good works, there is no saving faith.

2. Where there is no faith, there is no grace.

3. Where there is no grace, there is no salvation.

In conclusion, there is no conflict between grace and works. There is no conflict between what Paul wrote and what James wrote. The word ‘faith’ is the key to harmonising these two passages. Let us be eternally glad and rejoice in the amazing grace of God which brings salvation to those who have a loving, trusting, obedient faith.


1. Why can’t we depend on our good works to save us?

Because the bottom line is that we are all sinners. We cannot earn the atoning blood of Jesus. We can never do enough good works to earn what the Lord did for us on the cross.

2. When we total up all our good works should they outweigh all of our bad deeds?

Certainly, we would want to do more good than bad. But salvation is not a matter of totals. It is a matter of grace through an obedient faith.

3. Why is it important that we see the relationship between grace, faith and works?

The result of seeing the relationship is that we can credit God alone with our salvation without in any way diminishing men’s responsibility in accepting or rejecting that salvation.

4. If good works are lacking in our Christian lives what does this indicate?

It would indicate that there is something defective about our faith.


"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."