Growing up I often was taught that salvation did not come by works. However, we are going to find, in this chapter that that is not entirely true. That may come as a surprise, but by the end of the chapter, you will see how this idea fits into the concept of salvation and discipleship. Some will be saved without works, but others will be saved with works. We are going to investigate the difference between being "saved without works," and being "saved with works." Our first stop on this journey is Acts 16:30-31.
And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”1
This verse demonstrates the single requirement to have everlasting life, which is believe in Christ. Paul and Silas give this simple instruction, that if the man believes in the Lord Jesus Christ he would be saved. He adds this important appendix to it, “you and your household.” That is an valuable line because it tells us that the condition is the same for everyone. Paul and Silas want to make it clear that the Jailer wasn’t getting a special deal because he let an apostle out of jail. Instead, anyone who follows these instructions will be saved.
Now this doesn’t imply that the one who believes won’t or can’t do good works. It simply means that even if there are no works now or in the future, the believer is still saved. Receiving salvation has nothing to do with works, and everything to do with faith. Therefore, it’s possible to be “saved without works.”
Despite that being a possibility, the hope is that every believer takes up the mission of discipleship, and works for his Lord. The fact that works are voluntary means that we should encourage believers to work all the more.
That’s why we need to see the distinction between being “saved without works” and being “saved with works.” Let’s find out what being “saved with works” means from James 1:21.
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.2
The Greek phrase found here “save your soul” is not a reference to eternal salvation from Hell. “Save your soul” was in common use in the sense of “to save the life.” It is used in both the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament to mean saving a person’s ‘life3’ or saving ‘oneself’4.
In fact, we can see an obvious connection when we read the section that precedes these words. James speaks about enduring and overcoming trials, and temptation. The concept that a person could be saved from such trouble in the present life fits perfectly with the flow of ideas.
Note the actions the verse prescribes for this physical deliverance. The believer needs to lay aside filth and wickedness, and take up a meek attitude as they receive the word of God. These are all action oriented. These are not automatic outcomes of becoming a believer, but instead are good works that a believer needs to be encouraged to do.
Therefore, a person is physically saved by works. A persons’ commitment to discipleship will result in a physical deliverance from troubles that plague the uncommitted believer. James never promises that the trials will not come, in fact he encourages us by saying, “count it all joy when you fall into various trials,5” and in a following verse, “Blessed is the man who endures trials6.”
So, being saved by works doesn’t mean that we will get to skip life-trials, but instead that we be able to endure them with honor. The claim that good works can save the life of the believer who does them appears, not only here at the beginning of the book, but in the last line of the letter as well. Here’s how he puts it there.
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.7
When we take these verses together with 1:21, it is clear that James is speaking of the same idea. However, here he specifically says, “save a soul from death.” We don’t even need to ask, “saved from what,” because he explains clearly. It’s important that you soak this up. James begins his book with the concept that a believer who falls into trials and temptations can suffer the deadly consequences of sin, but that their physical life can be saved by turning away from sin and doing good works. He also ends the book with the reminder that a believer who falls into trials and temptation is in danger of the deadly consequences of sin, but their physical life can be saved by turning and doing good works. His letter begins and ends with this idea. Would it be safe to say that this is the point of his writing?
He repeats the same idea once more in the middle of his letter in 2:14-17.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?8
At seeing the word “save” we ought to ask, “saved from what.” Although, it should hardly be a surprise that, saved, should mean the same thing here that it does in the opening and closing of his letter. James is connecting us back to the sense of the word in which he used to book-end his writing.
Thus, the rhetorical question, and it’s implied answer sound as if James is claiming that faith alone, cannot save a person. In fact, that is what he is claiming. He’s claiming that salvation can’t come by faith alone. The caveat, and it’s a big one, is that he’s not talking about eternal salvation from hell. He’s talking about salvation from the deadly consequences of sin.
James has already stated it, and will state it once more before he’s through. He wants them to know that in order for this physical salvation to take place, believers need to have works. This doesn’t contradict that eternal salvation comes by faith alone. Physical salvation, in the sense he means it, comes by works. Therefore, being saved with works is all about discipleship.
Let’s look at one more verse in Phillipains 2:12.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;9
This verse has often been used to teach that eternal salvation from Hell requires good works. However, when we ask, “salvation from what?” It sends us searching through the book of Philipians.
Paul uses the word “saved” and “salvation” three times in Philippians. As Paul is writing this letter he is in chains.10 He’s awaiting his trial in Rome. He seems confident that he will be released (saved) from imprisonment. That is how he means the first usage of the word saved in 1:19.
The second use of the word “salvation” comes a few verses later. Paul tells the Philippians not to be intimidated by their enemies.11 Who are their enemies? There was a rash of false teachers that Philip was dealing with.12 This courage in the face of adversity will encourage them in their deliverance from trouble by God.13
The fact that there is already uses of the words “saved” and “salvation” not referring to “salvation from hell” only a few verses previous is significant. It makes sense that Paul is not talking about salvation from Hell when he says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
The answer comes clear by understanding that Paul is drawing a connection between his own hoped-for salvation from jail, and the Philippians hoped-for salvation from the trouble with false teachers. Paul was confident that he would be able to work out his own salvation (from jail) when he stood trial. Standing trial in Rome could definitely be a time of fear and trembling.
In a similar way, Paul called the Philippian’s enemies, “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh.” You can image that dogs, and flesh mutilators might cause a little fear and trembling as well. Paul was calling them to work on being saved from those enemies. It seems, he’s saying, “don’t lay down and take it, but fight back.” Having to fight a dog and flesh mutilator would cause fear and trembling, but Paul wants them to be saved from this trouble.
How were they to fight back, and work on being saved from their enemies? By obedience. He says it this way, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.” They would be able to obtain victory over their adversaries by obeying Paul, and consequently Christ.
This could be called “salvation by works” since he tells them to fight for this physical salvation by doing work. It’s not salvation from Hell, but from physical advisories.
What a vital distinction. Many people have tripped over these verses because they have assumed that “saved” and “salvation” always means the same thing, salvation from hell. When we understand the fluid meaning of “saved” we can see how a salvation by works is possible.
We’ve learned in this chapter that being saved without works is connected to having everlasting life by faith alone. However, being saved with works is about discipleship. For those who choose the hard work of a disciple, they can expect to be deliver from a range of physical issues that the damage of sin can cause.
1 Acts 16:30–31.
2 James 1:21.
3 Gen 19:17, 32:30, 1 Sam 19:11, Jer 48:6, Mark 3:4, Luke 6:9
4 Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 85.
5 James 1:2.
6 James 1:12.
7 James 5:19–20.
8 James 2:14.
9 Philippians 2:12.
10 Philipians 1:17
11 Philippians 1:28
12 Philippians 3:2, 18-19
13 Gregory P. Sapaugh, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 898.