The claim is often made that members of the church of Christ believe that an individual has to earn their salvation by working their way to Heaven. This argument is generally proffered by those who believe in the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Their belief is that if one has to do anything in order to be saved, he has thereby worked to earn his salvation and it is no longer by the grace and mercy of God. Therefore, it behooves us to consider what the Bible says about the works of man and to compare works of obedience and works of merit.
Before considering the Scriptural arguments for these principles of work, let us first ensure we are on the same page in our understanding of the discussion. When one considers “works,” he is considering deeds or actions performed. Therefore, works relate to the things done by people in their lives; it may be a mental task, the most menial of physical labors, or the greatest of efforts, but all are works.
There are two types of works discussed in Scripture. The first are works of obedience. “Obedience” is defined by Webster as, “Compliance with a command, prohibition or known law and rule of duty prescribed.” By Webster’s definition, obedience is an action performed out of duty prescribed by another. The second type is works of merit. “Merit” is defined as, “Goodness or excellence which entitles one to honor or regard; reward deserved or earned.” Meritorious works require that the individual do works of such a nature that they are entitled to whatever they receive. For that individual to not receive his reward would be deemed unfair or unjust by any who knew him and his deeds. These two types of works are not the same, nor are they discussed the same way in Scripture. Consider what the Book of Books says about whether works are necessary; and if so what they must be.
Can works of merit save man? Members of the church of Christ are accused of believing in the necessity of works of merit for man’s salvation, but the Bible teaches no such thing. Paul makes the following argument pertaining to salvation by works of merit: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5). Paul is making the argument that Abraham, considered to be one of the greatest servants of God in the history of mankind, was not considered to be righteous because he did more good deeds than anyone else. His salvation was based upon his faith in God, not the necessity of God to save him because he had earned it (Vs. 4). He would further state to the Ephesians, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Our salvation is not earned by works of merit, thus leaving man no room to boast about his own good deeds.
Jesus will also illustrate this argument in his discussion with the rich young ruler. When the young man asks him what good deed he must do to earn eternal life, Jesus responds by stating, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mat. 19:17 ESV). This young man came to Jesus with the expectation that he could stamp his ticket to Heaven with a couple of good deeds. Jesus tells him the only one truly good is God and meritorious works will not make one good enough to deserve Heaven.
Therefore, based upon the evidence from both Paul and Jesus, there is no man who can do enough works to earn his salvation. It must be understood that no man will be saved because he deserves it; “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Are works of obedience necessary for salvation? Understanding that there is no number of “good deeds” one can do to deserve eternal life, does that mean God does not expect man to do anything for salvation? To the same degree that God says meritorious works will not earn us Heaven, God also says that works of obedience are necessary for our salvation.
James would argue that it is impossible for a man to have a godly faith without works. He states, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble” (Jam. 2:17-19). James then continues to use the very same example for the necessity of works of obedience that Paul used to show that salvation was not by meritorious works: Abraham (Vs. 20-23); concluding his thoughts with the statement, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Vs. 24). Though Abraham’s deeds did not put him in the place of deserving salvation, they exemplified his righteous service to God through obedience to his commands.
The book of Acts will further illustrate the necessity of works on the multiple occasions where the question of what one must do in order to be saved is asked. If works were not required, the answer on each occasion would be, “Nothing, all that is necessary has already been accomplished.” Instead, Peter (Acts 2:38; 3:19), Philip (Acts 8:35-38), Paul (Acts 16:31-33), and Ananias (Acts 22:10, 16) all tell their listeners that there are actions (works) required if they are to be in a right relationship with God. Further, in the epistles there are many other statements showing the lifestyles and duties required for the Christian to be faithful to God; not the least of which is the command to “love one another” (1 John 4:7).
To some, these statements are contradictory and confusing; but when the Bible student understands that there are two different kinds of works under consideration, the proper application can be made. Consider again the examples from the questions of what a man must do for salvation. Jesus tells the rich young ruler that good deeds will not be sufficient to force God’s extension of salvation to mankind. We have all sinned, therefore, without the help and willingness of God, we cannot return again to his side.
However, God has extended his grace and mercy to mankind through the blood of Christ; but in order to accept those gifts the requirements for works of obedience must be met. We must always remember the words of Jesus when he told his disciples, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Luke 17:7-10). Jesus shows that our works of obedience do not earn us salvation; they are simply the fulfillment of our duty as servants of God. Thus, to refuse to do the works the master requires is to rebel against him, and any man who does so can rest assured he will not receive the promised payment for his service (Mat. 25:30).
Does God require works for man to receive salvation? Absolutely. From the initial action of faith in God through Jesus Christ, to the living of a faithful life in service to him, man is required to work for the master. But all the works in the world would never be enough for us to earn our salvation if it were not for the grace and mercy of our Creator. God be thanked that he does not give his servants what they deserve, but what he has promised for faithfulness!