Here’s the most condensed quote I’ve come across that makes sense of all the various New Testament passages on faith, grace, works, and judgment:
“Salvation is by grace, but judgment is according to works. Works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation.”-E.P Sanders (Quoted in John M. G. Barclay’s book “Paul & the Power of Grace“)
After posting this quote on Facebook, I had a good question arise from a friend: “‘Works are the condition for remaining in’ sounds like salvation by works to me. It’s like saying you get a free gift but then have to make payments on it in order to keep it. That’s not free, that’s a loan! Doesn’t it make more sense that works are the fruit of a changed heart, not a condition for maintaining salvation?”
The following is my lengthier response in case you should find it helpful in sorting out this question:
It’s well worth checking out John M. G. Barclay’s book “Paul & the Power of Grace” to get a fuller picture as to what a gift was in ancient culture. We in the western world have a different cultural perspective as to what a gift is that doesn’t match other cultures either today or in the past.
But yes, as you said, we are saved by grace and then empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk towards the fullness of resurrection life, acting out the fruit of the good works that has been put in us. But just like overcoming an addiction takes effort on our behalf alongside the power of the Holy Spirit, so do good works come from our effort working alongside the Holy Spirit.
If we were to get to the throne room for judgment and all we had to say was, “Thanks for the gift by faith—that was some good stuff,” I think we’d be surprised to find out that we were never operating by faith in the first place. Throughout Romans, Paul actually condemns people who belittle his theology to various statements that sound like that. Likewise, James 2:14-26 pushes back on people misinterpreting faith as nothing more than thinking a certain way (I’m guessing it was people who misinterpreted Paul’s letters).
Jesus evidences works being a part of our faith-salvation all over his own teachings. Just to name a few, there’s the parable of the servant who did nothing with the investment God made in him and so he was condemned (Matthew 25:14-30); the parable of the sheep and the goats where those who didn’t do good works aren’t let into Heaven (Matthew 25:31-46); and there’s those who operated in the gifts of the Holy Spirit but still weren’t allowed in for their lawlessness and for not doing the will of God (Matthew 7:21-23).
Even Paul himself who is perhaps most famous for talking about God’s gift as grace still says God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8). So in Paul’s understanding, there’s a judgment day for all.
On the upside of that judgment is further implications that there is also some kind of extra reward in Heaven for those who go above and beyond in giving up much in this life—maybe illustrated by the martyrs who literally gave their all on earth, and therefore receive an earlier resurrection of some sort at the end of the book of Revelation.
These are just a few glimpses into some of the passages that, in my opinion, need a better harmonization in our current theology. E.P. Sander’s quote above makes space for all of that in two short sentences, and I really appreciate that.
Here’s a few other sources to go deeper:
- You can listen to our current series on Romans on the 1208PODCAST.
- “Salvation by Allegiance Alone” or “Gospel Allegiance” by Matthew Bates
- “Paul and the Power of Grace” by John M. G. Barclay
- “Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1” and “Part 2” by N.T. Wright
- “Paul and Judaism” by Scot McKnight (Very short video course on SeminaryNow, free with trial)