Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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by John David Clark, Sr.
Paul said that salvation is “not of works” (Eph. 2:9). But James wrote, “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24). Again, James asks, “Was not Abraham justified by works?” (Jas. 2:21). But Paul argued, “If Abraham were justified by works, he had something of which to boast, . . . but to him who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:2, 5).
How could both Paul and James be correct, when one said, “not of works”, while the other said, “by works”? The harmony of their seemingly conflicting doctrines lies in the fact that these two men of God were speaking about different kinds of works! Here is a list of the kinds of works found in the Bible:
There is a specific definition for each type of work mentioned in the Bible. “Works of the flesh” are not “works of repentance”. And “works of Abraham” are not “works of the Devil”.
A most important kind of work mentioned in the New Testament, with its own specific definition, is “works of the law”. And only when we understand the meaning of the phrase “works of the law” can we perceive the hidden harmony between the statements of Paul and James.
The first thing that we should know about “works of the law” is that they were of God. “Works of the law” were the ceremonies that God gave to Israel through His prophets. The Old Testament was a covenant of symbols. With symbolic rituals, it prophesied of the ministry of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tabernacle symbolized heaven itself (Heb. 9:24). The incense offered by Israel’s high priest symbolized the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). The seven candlesticks in the tabernacle represented the seven spirits that are before God’s heavenly throne (Rev. 4:5). These symbols, and the many others like them, were holy and precious in their time, and they are among Paul’s “works of the law”, which are useless now for attaining to salvation (Gal. 2:16). No longer can the law’s ceremonies accomplish any spiritual good.
Works of the law were of God; they were holy (Rom. 7:12). Jesus loved the law of God, as did every righteous person in Israel. His devotion to the law at times caused conflict with his fellow Jews because of their devotion to the “traditions of the elders”. Jesus was not contemptuous of Jewish traditions; he observed them, so long as doing so did not contradict the law of God (Jn. 10:22–23). When forced by Jewish customs to choose between God’s law or the traditions of the elders, he always chose to obey the law (Mk. 7:1–13). For living this way, Jesus was mistrusted and persecuted.
Earliest believers, being Jews, were devoted to the law, and rightly so; the law had led them to Christ. Jesus himself said if we did not believe Moses’ writings, we could not believe his words (Jn. 5:46–47). The law was designed by God to point men to Jesus; accordingly, Paul wrote “So it was, the law served as our guardian until Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Israel’s devotion to the traditions of their elders equaled their devotion to God’s law, and that confused them because it clouded the wonderful picture of the Messiah that God had drawn for them by the works of His law.
There was a controversy among the earliest believers, all of them Jews, concerning whether or not Gentile believers were obligated to perform the works of the law as Jewish believers were. Many Jewish teachers who believed in Christ told Gentile believers that they would be damned unless they submitted to works of the law (Acts 15). Paul contended that there was no reason for Gentiles to perform works that foretold of a Messiah who had come. Besides, Paul argued, God ordained the law’s ceremonies only for the circumcised nation, not for uncircumcised Gentiles (Rom. 3:19). This is the substance of what Paul taught. When Christ fulfilled the prophetic works of the law, their purpose was fulfilled. Therefore, it is pointless to continue performing those ceremonies. This is what Paul meant by saying that salvation is no longer “of works”. It was a new and surprising doctrine, but James, John, Peter, and other wise elders assented to Paul’s gospel and agreed that Paul should continue teaching it – but only to the Gentiles, never to the Jews (Gal. 2:7–9)!
So, Paul taught that Jesus fulfilled the works of the law, and because the purpose for the works of the law had been fulfilled, Paul referred to them as “dead works” (Heb. 6:1; 9:14). He saw that when Christ fulfilled God’s purpose for the law’s prophetic works, they “died”.
Because of the teaching of certain Jewish believers, many Gentile believers felt they needed to be circumcised and become Jews, but Paul told them they were already circumcised in God’s sight since he had already circumcised their hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 2:28–29). And Paul insisted that they needed no ceremonial work performed on their bodies, telling them that those who are circumcised by the Spirit are now the real “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). The way of God is now “a new and living way”, not the old way of ceremony.
This, then, is Paul’s message concerning works: Jesus Christ, alone, is sufficient for salvation. The blood of Christ, alone, secures atonement for sin (Heb. 9:12); the baptism of Christ, alone, cleanses from sin (Eph. 4:5); the intercession of Christ, alone, prevails upon the Father for the forgiveness of sin (1Tim. 2:5). Because Jesus came, the works of the law are no longer in effect. “You see, the law, being a shadow of the good things to come, not the actual form of those things, can never make perfect those who approach the altar with the same sacrifices they offer continually, year after year. But this man, after he had offered, once for all, one sacrifice for sins, sat down at the right hand of God. For by one offering, he has forever perfected those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:1; 12; 14).
Paul’s message that salvation is “not of works” means simply that there are no ceremonies in this New Testament. Only what Jesus does for us by the Spirit will save us. We can no longer benefit from performing the ceremonies of the law – or any other ceremonies, for the ceremonies of Moses’ law are the only ceremonies God has ever commanded men to perform.
In saying, “by works a man is justified,” James did not contradict Paul’s doctrine because James was not referring to works of the law. The works to which James was referring are good works, wrought in faith. James knew as well as Paul did that performing the law’s religious ceremonies justified no one. (After all, the Jews who hated Jesus performed works of the law.) In saying that “by works a man is justified,” James was teaching that one’s eternal judgment would be determined by his deeds in this life. Only by living a clean, holy life will anyone be saved in the end (Heb. 12:14). Yes, even believers who return to former sins will be damned (2Pet. 2:20–22). Jesus said it this way: “The master of that servant will show up on a day that he does not expect, and in an hour that he does not know, and he will cut him off and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. In that place, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” (Mt. 24:50–51).
Every man or woman God has used from the beginning of the world has warned people that how they live will determine where they spend eternity. Jesus said, “All who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and they shall come out, those who did good things unto the resurrection of life, but those who did bad things unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn. 5:28–29). Every account of the Final Judgment found in the Bible states that man will be judged on the basis of his deeds. God’s wise men (Ps. 62:12; Eccl. 12:14), prophets (Jer. 7:1–16), apostles (1Pet. 1:15–17), as well as the Lord Jesus, plainly and repeatedly preached that man’s deeds will determine his eternal judgment.
Caught up in spirit while exiled on the island of Patmos, the apostle John saw this terrifying vision of the Final Judgment: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled, and no place was found for them. I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. And books were opened (and another Book was opened which is the Book of Life), and the dead were judged by the things written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and they were judged, each one, according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:11–13).
Paul’s words in Romans 2:6–10 show how completely Paul agreed with James on the matter of good works. There, he wrote that God “will render to every man according to his deeds. To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory, and honor, and immortality, God will grant eternal life, but to those who are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, God will pour out indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man who does what is evil, . . . but glory, and honor, and peace to every man who does what is good.”
So, while Paul taught that salvation is not of works of the law, he insisted that good works are essential for salvation, for eternal life will be given only to those who “work good”. Paul and James agreed perfectly in their doctrines. Paul was correct in saying that works (of the law) have nothing to do with our salvation, and James was correct in saying that (good) works have everything to do with our salvation. Each of these apostles would have given the other’s teaching a hearty, “Amen!” So may we.