Working Out Your Own Salvation

220px-Luther46cOne of the central tenets of Protestant theology is the idea that salvation is given by grace alone and achieved through faith alone; it is impossible to earn it through good works. This is as good a paraphrase as there is of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Martin Luther took this verse and ran with it, reacting to the use and abuse of indulgences in the Catholic church. The way Luther understood Paul’s statement, a person was saved exclusively through inner belief, and works has no role at all in a person’s salvation.

But there was that pesky section of James’s epistle where he asserts the emptiness of faith without works. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14 NRS) Clearly James would answer with a resounding “No!”

This is how he puts his “No!”: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17 NRS) 

The way Protestants have answered this seeming disconnect between Paul and James is to say that works are the result of salvation, which comes by faith/belief alone.


But James will have none of that. “Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:20-24 NRS, emphasis mine.)

It really can’t get much clearer than that; and Luther fully understood that James was contradicting his assertion and his reading of Paul that salvation came by faith alone without any mixture of works. He didn’t understand James to be saying that works are merely the result of salvation by faith alone, but that the two work together to achieve salvation. Rather than try to make James say what he clearly was not saying, Luther opted to try to have the epistle stricken from the canon of accepted Scripture, calling it an epistle of straw.

Luther understood; he couldn’t change James’s meaning, so he tried to get rid of it.

Nonetheless, even though the Epistle of James remains in the canon, Protestant theology still insists that human works have nothing to do with gaining salvation, that they are the result of and evidence of a salvation already gained.

Thus, we not only contradict James, but also Paul, who told the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12 NRS)

While there are many who would try to make this say that you work out the salvation you have already gained by being obedient, and that this “working out” is but the evidence of salvation, that isn’t what Paul is saying.

In fact, the Greek word translated here as “work out” in other places is translated as “bring about” (Romans 4:15), and “produces” (Romans 7:8; 2 Cor. 7:10). It is a verb that indicates the means by which something is achieved, not the result of something already achieved.

So is Paul contradicting himself, saying one thing in Ephesians 2:8-9 and something else in Philippians 2:12? Of course not.

It’s important to understand that the word translated as “faith”, pistis, is also translated in other places as “belief” and as “faithfulness.” In fact, though in translation we have to choose one of the three for any particular verse, in reality all three form a constellation of meanings that should always be understood as present.

Pistis means believing the facts about something, having faith against all evidence to the contrary that something is true, and acting in ways consistent with that confidence—remaining faithful in your actions and allegiance to that truth that you accept by faith, so that its fruit may be born out in your life.

Part of this confusion about faith and works comes because we think that the totality of what we are being saved from is sin and the condemnation of God which that leads to.

But the Bible speaks of a way (of life) that leads to death and a way (of life) that leads to life (Jeremiah 21), and it is Jesus’s way that leads to life (John 14:6), though few will choose it (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul says that this is because we are slaves to sin and death, slaves who need deliverance from our bodies of death (Romans 6).

The language of slavery perhaps no longer speaks to us the way it does other cultures, including Paul’s, for whom it was a contemporary reality.

I think there is another metaphor, more contemporary to our culture yet deeply connected to the metaphor of slavery, that will help us understand God’s plan of salvation.

I’ll explain in the next post.

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