Working through how “works” are defined in Scripture isn’t for the faint of heart. Where one comes down on works defined has led some to question the very inspiration of the Bible. After all, Paul said, “one is justified by faith apart from works” (Romans 3:28). James said, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). As a result, many have concluded that Paul and James – two apostles – were at odds. Some tear James out (‘wink’ – Martin Luther)!
But, consider how Paul makes it clear that he “did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom,” with “words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:1,13) Just as with many biblical words (e.g. fellowship, priest, joy, etc.), how “works” is defined in Bible terms is critical to resolving this conundrum.
“Therefore St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
“The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it.”
“We should throw the epistle of James out of this school [i.e. Wittenburg], for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning.”
How Scripture answers "How are works defined in the Bible?"
Works defined in the Bible are either meritorious works1,2,4,10 or works of faith/righteousness6,7,8,9,10,13,17,19. Meritorious works defined in the Bible are any legal system by which you can “earn” your salvation. We see this several times with Paul’s statements about the Old Law1,2, Jesus and the Pharisees of the first-century14, and the Judaizing teachers of the early church4. [In fact, meritorious works perfectly describe the indulgences of Roman Catholocism that Luther rightly opposed.] Works of faith, on the other hand, make no claim to the basis of one’s salvation10 but rather are a result or demonstration of their faith3,7,13,16,17,18 – a product of one’s salvation19. Or as Paul would put it, the saved are “created in Christ Jesus for good works”10.
Works of Merit are about the source of one’s salvation. Paul speaks against salvation by meritorious works when he contrasts the Old Law with the Law of Christ1,2,3. There were many in the early church teaching that one needed to become a Jew (e.g. be circumcised) before becoming a Christian4. This “work” negated the power of God’s free gift of grace, His Son, adding another “basis” to one’s salvation (when it is only “by grace you have been saved”10). Salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of [meritorious] works, so that no one may boast”10 (“to boast” is literally part of the definition of “merit”).
Works of Faith are about the result of one’s salvation. From Abraham1,2, to Noah15, to Moses5,11,18, to Jesus12,17, to Paul3,4,6,8,9,10,13,16, to Hebrews19, to James7, this was always part of God’s condition of salvation, regardless of covenant. Works of righteousness are the “repentance” part of one’s salvation, or what Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”12,14. For the Christian, works of faith begin with belief in Jesus17 and must continue to be found, as Paul puts it, “worthy of your calling”16. Indeed, they are the measure by which all will be judged18,19 in the end.
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