There is much confusion among those who profess Christianity as to the role of human works in our salvation.
Some insist that man is saved by grace alone — that a saved man did no works whatsoever to contribute to his salvation. According to them, we are saved entirely unconditionally.
Others deny the no-works theory. Instead, they insist that man does assume a role in his salvation. In fact, human works are essential to that end. Thus, contrary to unconditional election, we are only saved if we meet certain conditions.
Both of these viewpoints are partially accurate. But neither of them, respectively, present the full picture.
A Free Gift
In the first place, there is a sense in which human salvation comes “apart from works” (Rom 4.6) — “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2.9; cf. Rom. 11.5-6).
Christian salvation — both in the present sense (i.e., the remission of sins) and in the ultimate sense (i.e., entrance into heaven) — is not like a worker who has earned payment for a job. Indeed, we can do nothing to provoke God to say: “you did something worthy; therefore, I will save you.”
If that were how man is saved, then man could boast of his efforts, accounting his salvation from sin as a debt-payment from God, like an employer paying his employee for his labor (Rom. 4.2-4). In that case, God would owe man salvation for his works.
But that is not the way God saves us. Rather, salvation is the “gift of God” (Eph. 2.8; Rom. 6.23).
The word, gift, translates the Greek word, charisma. It alludes to a benefit “which one receives without any merit of his own” (Thayer, 667). A gift of grace “is always something which is unearned and undeserved” (Barclay, 68). Thus, it “refers to that which is freely and graciously given” (Mounce, 284).
Noted lexicographer, Ceslas Spicq, observed that it denotes “any gift, present, pardon, or concession that is granted freely, out of one’s goodness” (III.503). Regardless of what the recipient of the gift has done or not done, the gift-giver offers the charisma simply because he is kind.
Apart From Some Works?
When Paul argues that salvation comes “apart from works,” some interpret that as limited in scope. They suggest that Paul only means certain kinds of works (e.g., works of the Law of Moses); they therefore contend that he did not mean to include other types of works in his statement (e.g., gospel obedience).
However, this is erroneous.
First, the term, “works,” is anarthrous in construction (Rom. 4.2, 6; cf. Eph. 2.9). In other words, he leaves the term without a definite article, indicating that he is not alluding to a specific set of works (e.g., the works [of Moses' Law]), but he means works in general. Hence, it is not of works of any kind, including works of the Law of Moses (cf. Rom. 4.13ff).
Second, in the context, Paul employed the patriarch Abraham as an example of justification apart from works (Rom. 4.1ff). Abraham lived hundreds of years before the Law of Moses; he was therefore amenable, not to Moses, but the Law of Patriarchy. Yet, Paul affirms that Abraham himself was also justified apart from works. And he specifically denies that his justification was accounted “while circumcised” — referring to the pre-Mosaic Abrahamic covenant (Rom. 4.10f).
Hence, God offered justification to Abraham even apart from works of the Law of Patriarchy. It is therefore unequivocal that Paul does not mean to limit his remarks to works of the Law of Moses only — for the works he references in the context predate the Mosaic Law.
Third, again, Paul’s use of the words charis and charisma (cf. Rom. 4.16) demonstrate that he refers to all works, since the concept alludes to that which is unconditional or freely given. But if he means that only some works do not justify (i.e., of the Law of Moses), but others do, then he shoots himself in the foot!
Rather, Paul is affirming that God has never distributed justification on the grounds of works of any kind. The case of Abraham is meant to demonstrate that it has always been distributed as a gift to our race, not as earnings for work done. Indeed, God does not dispense salvation because we obey the gospel or do good things; he extends his grace to the entire world — even to those who have done nothing good — simply because he is kind.
In short, the gift of Christian salvation is a “free bestowment upon sinners…on the part of God as the donor” (Vine, 264). No conditions were stipulated for God to offer us this great gift, for it is freely extended to “the whole world,” regardless of our works (cf. Jn. 1.29; 1 Jn. 2.2; Rom. 3.24; 1 Tim. 4.10; Lk. 3.6; Tit. 2.11).
Gifts Can Be Refused
Second, even though God’s gift of salvation is unconditionally offered to everyone, yet that does not mean everyone is automatically saved. Man did no works to deserve or earn the freely-given gift; but man can refuse the offer!
There is a fascinating legal case that illustrates this point perfectly.
In 1833, the Supreme Court of the United States adjudicated the case of George Wilson (32 U.S. [7 Pet.] 150 ). Mr. Wilson had been “indicted for robbing the mail of the United States and putting the life of the driver in jeopardy” (Supreme.justia.com). For this crime, he was sentenced to death.
However, after his friend lobbied on his behalf, President Jackson eventually gave him a pardon. Again, this gift was freely given. Mr. Wilson did no works to influence the President to pardon him. He was given this pardon simply because of the kindness of others.
Astonishingly, however, the man refused the pardon! What, then, was to be done with him? Here is the ruling from the Supreme Court:
“A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it is rejected, we have discovered no power in this court to force it upon him” (UChicago.edu).
Some reports indicate that Mr. Wilson remained in prison for another decade, and only later accepted a pardon from President Martin Van Buren. Others suggest he was hanged (see Wikipedia).
Regardless, the parallels are plain. God extended his pardon to the entire world, not because man has worked and God owes him such, but simply because he is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2.4). Yet, sinners can “reject” or ignore the gift (Acts 13.46). If we should “set aside the grace of God” (Gal. 2.21; cf. 1 Cor. 15.10; Heb. 12.15; Jude 4), God will not force us to be saved. Rather, he will allow us to remain lost (cf. Ps. 81.11-12; Acts 7.42; Rom. 1.24, 26, 28).
Gifts Must Be Accepted
What, then, is necessary for us to benefit from this freely (i.e., unconditionally) given gift? Man must accept the offer! As David Lipscomb put it:
“Man is a lost and helpless sinner, saved by the grace of God; but he must accept that favor by complying with the conditions God has enjoined for his enjoying it” (81).
For sake of clarity, consider the following illustration.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones are enemies. Mr. Smith is a kind man and treats Mr. Jones well. But Mr. Jones is calloused and cruel, and he mistreats Mr. Smith frequently.
One day, Mr. Smith decided to give Mr. Jones a present, not because of anything good his adversary had done for him, and despite the bad he has done to him. He gives the gift freely, just because he is kind and tenderhearted. So, he boxes the gift, wraps it up, and secures the present with a bow. He then extends the generous gift to his enemy.
Does Mr. Jones yet have the gift? Of course not. He must accept it first, with a trusting disposition and a softened heart. If he should callously slap the present out of Mr. Smith’s hands, Mr. Smith will not force him to receive it.
Equally so, because of sin, every human being (Rom. 3.10, 23) has become God’s enemies. Yet, simply because he is kind, God offers us the gift of salvation (cf. Rom 5.10; Eph 2.1-4). But we must accept the gift “through faith” (Eph. 2.8; cf. Rom. 4.16). That is, “access…into this grace” is only possible if we trust that what God has promised us is both real and beneficial (Rom. 5.1-2).
Jesus said that man must be willing “to do his will” (Jn. 7.17). The invitation for salvation is extended to “whosoever will” (Rev. 22.17). If we are “not willing” to receive God’s deliverance, then, like the inhabitants of Jerusalem who rejected him, the sinner’s house will be left “desolate” (Mt. 23.37-38). God will not force his gift upon us.
In short, Christian salvation, though freely given, must be accepted through a willing faith.
The Gift-Receiver Must Take Action To Benefit From The Gift
Finally, what if Mr. Jones should soften his heart and become willing to accept the present by faith in his gift-giver? Does he have the gift the moment he decides to trust Mr. Smith? Not yet!
For him to receive it, he must comply with the conditions Mr. Smith has built into his gift. Mr. Jones must (1) extend his arms, (2) take it in his hands, (3) untie the bow, (4) unwrap the box, (5) open the box, and (6) grasp the gift inside. Only then will the gift be in his possession. He can then put the gift to use and start enjoying its benefits.
It should be noted that it was not because Mr. Jones accepted the gift, untied the bow, etc., that Mr. Smith gave him the gift — that would make no sense. Even though Mr. Jones did works to receive the gift, he did no works to earn it, for it was freely given. Indeed, Jones can’t boast of receiving the item due to some act which he did for Mr. Smith since Mr. Smith gave him the gift apart from and despite Mr. Jones’ works. But Mr. Jones could not possess the gift unless he acted in such a way as to receive it for himself.
Consider a Biblical example illustrating this.
Before the Israelites possessed the city of Jericho, God told them he had already “given Jericho into their hand” (Josh 6.2). The city was his gift to them. But Jericho was not yet in their possession. To receive this gift, they had to exercise an obedient faith in God by marching around the city for seven days (Josh 6.3ff). Only “after they” marched around the city “by faith” “for seven days” did “the walls of Jericho” finally fall (Heb. 11.30). Though Jericho was a freely given gift from God, the Israelites still had to take action by faith to receive it.
And this is precisely the way the Bible describes Christian salvation. It is neither exclusively unconditional nor is it exclusively conditional. Rather, it is both.
On one hand, God dispenses the remission of sins and eternal life unconditionally to the entire world, regardless of our works. But, on the other, man can only receive this gift conditionally. If we are willing to accept it, then we can “receive the grace of God” (2 Cor. 6.1) by complying with his terms of pardon through faith.
The “remission of sins” is promised if we “repent” of our sins (Acts 2.38; 3.19), “confess” our faith in Christ (Rom 10.9-10), and are baptized into water (Acts 2.38; 8.38; 22.16; 1 Pet. 3.21).
Likewise, “eternal life” is available “to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality” (Rom. 2.6).
Again, does the fact that we take these actions — repenting, confessing, baptism, doing good, etc. — to accept God’s gift of grace mean that we have suddenly earned it? Again, that would make no sense! Taking action to receive a gift does not mean the gift-giver now owes us the gift!
Put another way: to earn something, works come before the earnings are made available. One does the work and then the employer extends a paycheck to him for the work performed. If God makes salvation available only after we engage in these actions, then it is “no longer” a gift of “grace” (Rom. 11.6) but a payment of debt!
However, to receive a gift, works come after the gift is made available. Since God’s gift of grace was given first — freely — then the actions of faith, repentance, confession, etc., which succeed the gift offering, cannot in any way be accounted as an earning, but merely as acts necessary to receive that which has already been made freely available by a gracious God. Though the gift is given freely, apart from works, yet without these works, no one can enjoy his gift, for they are essential to our salvation (cf. Jms. 2.17ff)!
Centuries of debate between Calvinists (unconditionalists) and anti-Calvinists (conditionalists) might have been curtailed if we only acknowledged that there is some validity in both viewpoints.
On the one hand, the offer of salvation is unconditionally given. Man has done nothing to elicit God’s mercy, which he kindly extends to the whole world.
On the other hand, the reception of salvation is conditionally obtained, requiring us to act to acquire it (cf. Rom. 6.17-18; Heb. 5.9; see “Your First Steps Toward Heaven” for more). Indeed, there are things we “must do” (Acts 9.6; Acts 16.30; cf. Jms 2.17ff) if we want to receive God’s free mercy and go to heaven.
Hence, salvation is a gift from God, given “not of works” (as Paul stresses). Yet, it also requires human “works” to receive it (as James [2.17-26] stresses). For an extended discussion on these two points, see "Are We Saved By Works Or Not?"
By “working out [our] own salvation” (Phil. 2.12), the child of faith will not take the view that God owes him such for his efforts; instead, he will humbly acknowledge that his efforts are merely the exercise of his sacred “duty” (Luke 17.10), necessary only to receive that free gift which he otherwise does not deserve and cannot earn.
Barclay, William. The Letter to the Romans. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975. Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles: Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1986. Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 3. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, Publishers, Inc., 1996. Supreme.justia.com. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/32/150/ Thayer, J. H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. T. & T. Clark, 1958. UChicago.Edu. https://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a2_2_1s29.html Vince, W. E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Wilson#cite_note-3