What does Works Mean in Religion Today?

In the religious world today there is much confusion regarding works. Some teach that works have nothing to do with salvation, that salvation is by the grace of God and received by faith only. Others hold a doctrine that essentially teaches a kind of works-based salvation. They hold that one who has committed sin can do some kind of penance to compensate for that sin, thus their works save them.

Three Kinds of Works | Jack McNiel, Evangelist, Oak Grove Church of Christ

The religion of Islam teaches salvation by works only. They believe that if a person’s good works outweigh their sins then they will go to heaven and conversely if their sins are more than their good works they believe they will go to Hell. This belief, in reality, is shared by most Americans. Most people in our country, when you get right down to it, believe that those who do good will go to Heaven, regardless of their religion,  and those who do evil will not.

As we have noted, religious denominations vary in their teachings on works. Some hold to the extreme position that works and salvation are completely unrelated. While, others hold to the opposite extreme that we are saved by works alone. A great deal of time could be spent studying all of the various positions held in the religious world on the relationship between works and salvation.

However, it would be more productive to study the relationship between works and salvation as it is found in the Bible. 

As Christians, we must demonstrate our faith by our works.

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” — James 2:14-18

There are three kinds of works mentioned in the New Testament, two of which are useless, one of these works is absolutely essential.

Works of the Law of Moses

To the Christian today, trying to be saved according to the works of the Law of Moses is useless.

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”Romans 3:24-28

The context makes it clear that works of the Law of Moses is under discussion. The Holy Spirit working through the apostle Paul here deals with some Jewish Christians who were appealing to the Law of Moses to command circumcision on the Gentile Christians. The Law of Moses has been replaced by the Law of Christ.

“In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” — Hebrews 8:13.

Works of Self-Righteousness

In the Roman Epistle, Paul speaks of the Jews as establishing their own righteousness. They were appealing to their works of righteousness of their own devising according to their traditions.

“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God…” — Romans 10:3

And, also see Matthew 15.

“But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” — Matthew 15:9.

Works of God’s Righteousness

There are works commanded by God that one must continue in to be Christ’s disciple in deed and thus be made free.

Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” — John 8:31-32

One is justified by the works of God’s righteousness.

Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” — James 2:22-24

These works include:

  • Faith

“Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father…” — 1 Thessalonians 1:3

“This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” — John 6:29

  • Confession

“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” — Romans 10:9-10

  • Repentance

“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death…” — 2 Corinthians 7:10

See also Matthew 3:7-8 and Acts 17:30-31.

  • Baptism

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” — 1 Peter 3:20-21

See also Acts 2:38; 8:36-38; 16:33; and 22:16.

  • Continued Faithfulness

“…Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life…” — Revelation 2:10

Scripture makes it clear that God requires us to answer, to respond with a willing heart to things he requires us to do. Thus, we must demonstrate our faith by our works, works of obedience and righteousness.


— By Jack W. McNiel
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