This etymological (word) study/commentary regarding the word works (deeds) will be approached from the New Testament treatment of the topic. First, the etymology (derivation or root meaning from the original Greek) of the word translated works will be addressed. Second, a litany (account) of works described in the New Testament will be listed. Third, works within the framework of religion will be discussed. Fourth, works within the framework of Christianity will be examined. And fifth, there will be concluding comments.
The precursory questions underlying this study are:
(1) What portion do works play in salvation?
(2) What portion do works play in keeping salvation?
(3) What portion do works play in heavenly rewards?
(4) What is the difference between human works and divine works?
Etymology of the Word
There are approximately 14 different Greek words translated work, works, worketh (KJV) or working in the New Testament. The predominant Greek word used by the New Testament writers, used either directly or as the stem-root of most others, is the Greek word ergon, which is from ergo, “to work,” and may be utilized to express a person’s effort or performance, or the result or results of such effort or performance.
In most cases, when the word is used relative to the concept of salvation or Christian living, it may be understood as thoughts or deeds that one entertains or performs relative to God or others.
Works in the New Testament
The word works as used in the New Testament refers to the following:
Religion and Works
By religion it is meant man’s endeavor to achieve the approbation (approval) of God. Religion is what man can do for God, an exercise of “human good.” Human good (works) are those thoughts and deeds performed by man under his own power and apart from God. Those who are “lost” (without salvation) are able to only produce human good. Those who are “saved” are able to produce both works of human good and divine good. All works of human good are insufficient for any heavenly objectives (Isaiah 64:6).
The various religions of the world, both those who go by the name of “Christian” and those who do not, operate from a position that heaven and God’s benefits come only through adherence to set rules, practices and ceremony; in other words, through the doing of “good works.” And even then there is no assurance of such salvation or reward, since it is impossible to establish the exact number or kinds of “good works” that will achieve such a prize. The hope of the religious is both unsure and laced with fear of the unknown. This comes from either a non-biblical theology or a self-imposed ignorance of the Bible and its doctrine.
But one thing is for certain, religion places its trust and confidence in “good works” to get to heaven. Works end up being religion’s god. And since in the mind of the religious it is by man’s efforts that such works are performed, man ends up as the ultimate deity, even though this will never be expressed or admitted in religion’s theology.
Religion had its beginning in the Garden of Eden, when after man’s fall, he attempted to cover his nakedness with fig leaves—an expression of human merit that was atypical of a blood sacrifice. On the other hand, God upon making man aware of his shortcoming, clothed man His way with a covering of animal skin—an expression of divine merit that was typical of a blood sacrifice—which foreshadowed the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross thousands of years in the future.
Christianity and Works
The difference between religion and Christianity is dramatic and is most evident in the topic of this study. Religion is the antithesis (direct opposite) of Christianity. Whereas religion is based on human merit in the achievement of heavenly goals, Christianity accomplishes nothing through human merit. Christianity is solely based on divine merit and is a union or relationship with a Person—Jesus Christ. Christianity is what God has done and can do for and in man, divine good.
The hope of the Christian is confident expectation—a certainty based on the sure Word of God, the finished work of Christ and God’s unchangeable nature of love and grace. The gulf between religion and Christianity is a chasm that only Christ can breech, which is only possible by faith alone in Christ alone.
Christianity is centered on and in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, both for and in salvation:
1. Works for Salvation
In John 6:27-29, when the people crossed over to Capernaum to find Christ in hopes that He might feed them again, Christ told them, “Do not labor [work] for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” To this they responded, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” They were of a “religious mind” and wished to know exactly what kind of works would please God to the end of granting them eternal life. The answer of Christ is the crucial key in emphasizing the difference between religion and Christianity. He told them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him [Jesus Christ] whom He sent.” This is whole concept of salvation by grace in one simple, direct and all-inclusive statement. Salvation is obtained only by faith alone in Christ alone.
Not only did Jesus Christ take on humanity to live without sin among man, but on the cross of Calvary He died both spiritually (became separated from the Father during a 3-hour period of linier time to bear and pay the penalty-price for man’s sins) and physically (by His own volition) as man’s substitute. He was buried and was raised from the dead, which act validated His deity, his sacrifice, his power over all evil and the coming physical resurrection promised to all who by faith alone in Christ alone receive His offer of salvation (John 3:16-18; Ephesians 2:8, 9).
The transaction of salvation for anyone is achieved by a genuine act of the person’s will when he or she makes the decision to place his or her full confidence (trust or faith) only in Jesus Christ and His finished work (substitutionary sacrifice upon the cross) instead of anything or anyone else (this is a turning to Christ from every other confidence, which is repentance).
This decision to trust in Jesus Christ, which obtains for the individual salvation, is an instantaneous act of the will. It grants to that person:
1. The surety of eternal life with God, which can never be retracted by God or nullified by man—“eternal security” (John 3:15; 5:24; 10: 24-30; 20:31; Romans 8:35-39; 2 Timothy 2:13; 1 John 5:11, 12).
2. A position as a child of God (John 1:12; 3:7; 13:10; 1 Corinthians 6:11, 18; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 3:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23).
3. A position as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10).
4. An inheritance, along with Christ, in God’s eternal kingdom (Romans 8:17; Ephesians 1:14, 18; Colossians 3:24; Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 1:4).
5. Justification in the sight of God (Romans 3:24; 5:1, 9; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:7).
6. Reconciliation with God (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Ephesians 2:14-17; Colossians 1:20).
7. Redemption from sin’s penalty (Romans 3:24; Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 1:18).
8. Full satisfaction before God by the propitious sacrifice of Christ regarding God’s holiness and justice (Romans 3:25, 26; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
9. Personal access to God (Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 4:14, 16; 10:19, 20).
10. Adoption by God—placed as adult sons because of positional truth (Romans 8:15; 8:23; Ephesians 1:5).
11. Full acceptability to God (Ephesians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5).
12. Righteousness of Christ through imputation (Romans 3:22; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9).
13. Positional sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11).
14. The guarantee of a resurrected body forever (John 11:25; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55).
15. Efficacious grace (Ephesians 1:13).
16. Permanent union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 14:20; 15:5; Romans 8:9; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1).
And this is only a partial list of all the blessings and completed actions that takes place when a person by faith alone in Christ alone receives God’s gift of eternal life. The important thing to know and remember is this salvation and its included blessings and actions cannot be achieved, even remotely, by human merit or works.
2. Works in Salvation
Even though works have no part in obtaining salvation, a child of God is expected to produce good works that are pleasing to God. But the works that are pleasing to God are not works of human good, but rather of divine good. There is a difference, as the reader will see as he progresses through this study.
It is the Apostle Paul who instructs the saints (Christians) who lived in Philippi to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12). This passage is often misinterpreted. He wasn’t saying that they should work in order to obtain salvation. Salvation is used in various ways in Scripture.
“Salvation” has many different meanings in the NT. We have already noticed that in 1:19 it means deliverance from prison. In 1:28 it refers to the eventual salvation of our bodies from the very presence of sin. The meaning in any particular case must be determined in part, at least, by the context. We believe that in this passage “salvation” means the solution of the problem that was vexing the Philippians, that is, their contentions. (Believer’s Bible Commentary by William MacDonald)
The Philippians were not behaving appropriately. They were experiencing a definite lack of Christian love among the brethren, which resulted in strife and pride and division. Paul first reacquainted his readers with the example of Christ, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
Paul then instructs the Philippians to “work out their salvation,” which can better be understood with the analogy of a farmer and his field. The farmer possesses the field; it is most certainly his. But for the field to produce any fruit, the farmer must work its produce out of it. The Christian possesses salvation, but he must then “work out” (or demonstrate) that which God has placed within him.
The Greek phrase “work out” denotes the expression, manifestation, or actualization of something one already possesses. The Philippians are to “work out” the salvation God has already wrought “in” them (v. 13), carrying it to its logical conclusion. God has granted them salvation not just for their own profit, but for the good of others as well. (The King James Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988)
The Bible clearly teaches that once a Christian is saved, he builds upon the foundation of salvation a litany of works, which can be of differing quality—some of “human good” and some of “divine good.” The following is from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones [works of divine good], wood, hay, straw [works of human good], each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Paul says something quite similar in 2 Timothy 2:19-21 when speaking of those who harbor evil thoughts and contrary doctrine:
Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity." But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.
The fact is that every Christian in his thoughts and actions can produce works of divine good that will be pleasing to God; or, he can produce works of human good, which will never please God. The trick is to know how to do the one and not the other.
Not only is God’s salvation centered on and in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, but Christ is also the key to living in the salvation state, otherwise known as the “Christian life.” It is only Christ who can live out “divine good” (works) that are pleasing to God through the agency of the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer.
The following Scriptures make it clear that it is only as the Christian is submissive to Christ in faith that Christ then is able to live through him and produce works of “divine good,” which will be pleasing to God and will result in rewards in heaven.
As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord [by faith], so [in the same manner—by faith] walk in Him. (Colossians 2:6)
For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. (Ephesians 3:20)
To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily. (Colossians 1:29)
For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
The Christian always has the choice during his life on earth to either attempt to do “good” in his own power (by his own merit), or to routinely confess all known sin (which impedes the power of the Holy Spirit) to God (1 John 1:9) and to exercise faith (genuine confidence) that Christ through the Holy Spirit will produce divine good (thoughts and deeds) through him (Colossians 2:6).
Yet there are those who will always bring up the book of James (cf. 2:14-26) to augment their position that “faith without works is dead,” which passage lends itself to three theological positions:
The other verse that those who ascribe to salvation by “faith plus works” is Acts 26:20, “. . . that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” Here the word “repent” and “repentance” is used as the equivalent to “salvation.” To repent is the act of will (a genuine decision) by a person whereby he turns in faith solely to Christ and from every other confidence (person, system or works) for his personal salvation. Paul is simply saying that individuals should be saved and then do divine good works that are “befitting” (properly indicative and that represent) the fact of their salvation. The Apostle Paul is most definitely not stating that a person is saved by “faith plus works.”
The Bible teaches that works, of any type, have nothing to do with the eternal salvation of a person, unless of course one interprets the placement of faith in Christ as a “work.” It is only by faith alone in Christ alone that a person can be saved. Let there be no doubt in this, the most important doctrine affecting the relationship between God and man.
On the other hand, the proper kinds of work are important to a person after he has been saved. Human good (works) is as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). But divine good (works), which can only be produced as a Christian submits to the power of the Holy Spirit (also known as the “fullness of the Spirit”), both pleases God and profits the Christian. When this occurs, a person’s word (testimony) will be in harmony with his works (Matthew 23:3; Luke 24:19; Acts 7:22; Romans 15:18; 2 Corinthians 10:11; Colossians 3:17; Titus 1:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; James 1:25).
To the lost, all good works are of human good. The day will come, should the lost person never accept by faith Christ as Savior, that at the Great White Throne Judgment he will be judged by Christ according to his works. But the judgment will find his record of works, no matter how many, insufficient for entrance into heaven. God will then check to see if his name is written in the Book of Life. Once it is established that his name is not there, he will be cast into the Lake of Fire for eternity. If a lost person’s (human good) works will mean anything, it may mean he will experience some lesser agony in the Lake of Fire than someone who has less or no (human good) works (Revelation 20:11-14).
And the day will come for the Christian when before Christ he too will be judged according to his works, not for entrance into heaven but for any rewards due him. If the works are of human good (wood, hay, straw), they will be burned, yet, he will be saved. But if the works are of divine good (gold, silver and precious stones), the Christian will receive rewards.
So whereas works cannot affect salvation, they indeed do matter to the child of God. So to the lost this commentator pleads, “Do not think that by your merit or good works you can receive God’s gift of eternal life. It is a gift of grace from God that may only be obtained by faith alone in Christ alone.” And to the believer in Christ this commentator adds, “Be certain that you confess all known sin in your life (1 John 1:9) and be submissive to the Holy Spirit by trusting Jesus Christ to live through you (Colossians 2:6). Only in this manner will you be able to produce any (divine good) works during your remaining time on earth.