"For by grace are ye saved through faith,
and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God
-- not by works, lest any man should boast."
(Ephesians 2:8, 9)
When the Bible says that we are not saved by works (Eph. 2:8-9), how shall we understand it? Does it follow that we can both continue in sin and be saved? Of course not, otherwise it would contradict with Paul's clear warnings, just to mention two passages.
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid! How shall we, who are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, and they are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, quarreling, rivalry, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envying, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like. About these things I tell you again, as I have also told you in times past: that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.
Observe what Paul says if we ignore the moral law. "That those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God." And Paul was quite serious in his warning, by coming with the same admonitions to both Ephesian and Corinthian Christians.
But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let them not once be named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not befitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know: that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.
Let us not deceive ourselves by saying that we can continue to live a sinful life, ignoring the moral law, and at the same time be saved from the wrath of God. Paul is quite clear: no one who live and practice all those things from the above list of sins "hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." Observe the emphasize when he says "any inheritance." Neither an inheritance on the Earth nor an inheritance in Heaven. If that is not so clear, observe his warning to the Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Be not deceived: Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
Are not these three warnings sufficient for not deceiving ourselves in ignoring the moral law? It seems that it was not so clear for Luther and Calvin, and for their followers who have distorted Paul's teaching of God's grace and his teaching that we are not saved by works.
Yes, indeed, we are not saved by works!
But would not that contradict with the teaching of the previous verses, namely that a continuance in a sinful life will result in not being saved? No, not at all, for the following reasons.
When the Bible says that we are not saved by works (Eph. 2:9), why should we interpret the term "work" in moral terms only? The term "work" can mean ritual works of the Mosaic Law and it can also mean good works of the moral law. The term is used in both ways depending on the context. It has no uniform linguistic usage. Therefore, there is nothing wrong of James to say that a man is saved also by works. However, many Christians are so shocked by hearing such a statement, illustrating how widespread the Protestant influence disastrously governs the average modern Christian mind-set. James shocks us, when he says:
James 2:17, 20, 24
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (…) But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (…) Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
"And not by faith alone." Many non-Christians complain that the Bible has a powerful contradiction, when they compare Eph. 2:9 and James 2:17-24. Their contention would be correct only if the term "work" is used in the same sense where they occur in both of these two passages. However, Paul uses the term for works of the Mosaic ritual law, while James used the same term for works of the Mosaic moral law.
From such ignorance, someone can say that James writes specifically to undo the work of Paul. However, we have already seen that it is doubtful to say that Apostle James did not agree with Apostle Paul. Even Paul, surprisingly for many Protestants, emphasized that continuance in a sinful life would not save a man. Unfortunately, many tend to ignore Paul's serious warnings. What they instead do is that they emphasize antinomian aspects of Paul's doctrine, with no balance, and in so doing they distort Paul's teaching. Peter warns us of people who distort Paul's teaching.
2 Peter 3:15, 16
And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things. Therein are some things hard to understand, which those who are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction.
We can ask ourselves: what did God want to teach us through Paul's wisdom? What is so significant with Paul's teaching that we are not saved by works? To answer this important question, we should observe what kind of problems were present in the first Church of the Apostolic period. The answer to our important question is connected with the first serious conflict among Christians as reported in the Book of Acts.
The first Christians were Jews, and the first conflict began when they were confronted with the question whether we should continue to observe the Mosaic Laws of purity, animal sacrifices, circumcision, observance of pure animal foods, etc. It was a hard question for the Jewish Christians, who were raised their whole life to observe these ritual works. Imagine yourself being a Jew in those days; it probably would be uncomfortable for you not to observe ritual works of the Mosaic Law anymore. The power of habits do not die so easily. Nevertheless, Paul wished to emphasize that we are free from works, works cannot save us. But in what sense "works"? The ritual works, of course. Calvin and Luther were so blinded by their concept of work, that they did not study the book of Acts, the context of the Romans and Galatians, where anyone obviously could see that the works in question were ritual. For instance, if you study closely the Epistle to the Galatians, you will see that the whole Epistle is concerned about circumcision.
However, many Jews were uncomfortable with Paul's teaching. They thought that Paul's teaching could have disastrous consequences in leading people to ignore other works of the Mosaic law, i.e. the moral works. Therefore, James, who was a respected elder among Christian Jews in Jerusalem, also wanted to emphasize that works are still important. But in what sense of the term “work” should it be understood when James uses the word? It is obvious that it should be understood in moral terms.
However, Paul was quite clear that moral works are not abolished, as we have seen already in his warnings to the Galatians, Ephesians and Corinthians. Paul was also explicit to Roman Christians when he said that we cannot continue to live in sin, as seen in Rom. 6:1-2. [Observe also other Paulinian passages on the theme of continuance in faith in order to be saved: Rom. 8:13, 11:20-22, Col. 1:22-23 (notice the conditional "if"), Col. 3:5-7, 1 Tim 4:16.]
The trouble is that the Jews had no clear conceptual distinction between moral and ritual works. For them work was work, as it was for Luther, Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation, as well as it is for many Christians in the 21st century who follow their antinomian, lawless, teaching. It was terribly confusing for the first Jewish Christians to distinguish moral works from the ritual ones, and therefore there was so many heated disputes among them. Many thought that the whole Law defined what is a good act, and any good act is thought of as moral, not understanding that ritual works served a temporary function.
To repeat, James and Paul would contradict each other only if the concept of work was identical in both their epistles. Paul would certainly have agreed with James that we cannot continue in sin (Rom. 6:1-2, Gal. 5:16-21, etc). And James would never consider that we must continue with animal sacrifices and circumcision. (Acts. 15:13-21, but see also Peter's speech, vv. 7-11, which preceded James' speech).
James' teaching is significant in that it emphasizes the distinction between dead and living faith, a distinction not touched by Paul's teaching. Paul would certainly agree with James on the distinction between these two kinds of faith.
So, can we conclude from Paul's epistles that moral works are not necessary for our salvation? Obviously not.
However, let it be clear that we are not teaching that our moral nature can save us. No, not at all. No matter how morally good we are, we do not deserve to inherit God's Kingdom. We are saved by God's grace, but through our living faith. God's grace is indeed great. God is so good towards us in spite of sins we have committed before His eyes. God has forgiven us just because we believe in His beloved Son. We don't deserve His goodness at all, even if we believe! Our faith does not diminish the nature of His grace, since we do not deserve to be in the Presence of His Glorious Beauty, whether we believe or not. Truly, His grace is Great!
Yes, God's Grace is great, but let us not misuse His Grace by living intently and actively in sin. God's Grace is efficient only for people who have both acknowledged their sins before God and submitted to Christ as their Lord. God's Grace is not cheap. It costed the life of His beloved Son. God extends his grace only towards people who are in Christ. There is no forgiveness of our sins if we continue to live in sin. Of course, we might have trouble with certain sins, but as long as we honestly wish to have a pure heart before God, God will give us strength. We must believe in Jesus Christ, who died for everyone who will accept His saving hand. He died as a sacrifice for our sins, so that anyone who believes in Him can be reconciled with God. But this faith is a living one, faith which lead us to repentance by not doing sins that have crucified our Lord.