I will be very happy to explain what Paul meant by works. It is clear that we need to spend more time in this subject than I thought. A number of people seem to really want to understand this issue. For me to answer this question, I will have to first talk about salvation, what it is Nd how one obtaines it. I am not going to spend a lot of time on it since my other posts clearly explains it.
Titus 3:4-7 (ESV)
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The above verses and may other like them, clearly shows that salvation is the sole act of God who washes us and provides us the Holy Spirit. The washing if regeneration here does not refer to baptism but rather refers to God himself cleansing our hearts. Take a look at this verse:
Ezekiel 36:24-28 (ESV)
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
As you can see in the above verse that the washing is an act of God. The above verse is the clearest explanation of salvation in the Old Testament.
Now it is clear that salvation is the sole act of God and there is not human intervention in that process at all. This is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 that Salvation is by grace..
Now how do we obtain this salvation? Jesus said in John 3:16 that the only thing we must do is believe and that is having faith in Jesus. Having faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
John 3:16 (ESV)
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Romans 10:9-10 (ESV)
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
How was Abraham saved? He believed!
Genesis 15:5-6 (ESV)
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
If you look at Hebrews chapter 11, you will find what I call heroes of faith in the Old Testament and at the end of this chapter, you find this:
Hebrews 11:39-40 (ESV)
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
As you can see, all you have to do is believe. That is all. Even in the old testament, people were saved because they believed. Nothing more is required to obtain salvation but just to believe. This is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 that Salvation is by grace through faith and that is not your own doing, it is a gift of God. This is because you have no say in it. All you have to do is to have faith and God decides. Remember when Jesus said this:
John 6:44 (ESV)
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:64-65 (ESV)
But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
John 10:25-26 (ESV)
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.
1 Peter 2:8-9 (ESV)
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Ephesians 1:4-7 (ESV)
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,
All these verses show one thing, that salvation is the sole act of God and he decides who he provides it to.
Finally then, this is what salvation is and how we obtain it.
1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Now that we know what salvation is and how we obtain it, it should’ve clear that whatever the works Paul is referring to, has nothing to do with salvation. Now the question is what is he referring to?
John 15:1-6 (ESV)
I Am the True Vine
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
Luke 13:6-9 (ESV)
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 And he told this parable:“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down. ’”
The above verses have one thing in common, branches that do not bear fruit and the actions that will be taken if branches do not bear fruit. If you read the context well, you will realize that the branches refers to you and me and the fruits, refer to to our works. Now if you go back to Hebrews 11, you will find people in the Old Testament that had faith and are now in heaven. What has been the greatest misunderstanding has been that, people often read Hebrews 11 and concluded that all those people who are mentioned in there were saved because of what they did but, what Hebrews 11 shows is the works of those people that had faith.
In other words, they did not have faith because they did something but, they did something because they had faith. Works do not produce faith but faith produce works. The first thing that Jesus said was if you believe me, keep my commandments. What this means is that if you say that you have faith, we will see by your works. Having faith that results in no good works, is useless. You are no different to the devil and demons because they also believe! But their works are evil.
James 2:19 (ESV)
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
A Tree and Its Fruit
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
If a person has faith in Jesus, we will see him by his works or fruits. Avoid tree will never bear bad fruits and vice versa. This is how we identify false teachers and prophets.
Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)
I Never Knew You
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? ’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. ’
John 6:40 (ESV)
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
What Jesus is saying here is that, good works alone will not make you enter heaven. You have to believe and do good works.
This is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 that Salvation is by grace through faith and that is not your own doing, it is a gift of God. Not as a result of works, so that no one boast.
Yes keeping the commandments is works. It is part of what you are required to do as a result of having faith. It is part of your identification as someone who has faith and has been saved. Another thing that you must do as part of works is to be baptized. Jesus said that we should be baptized after we believe.
Finally, what Paul is referring to by works is that, he is referring to the works or fruits of those that are saved. He is saying to them that remember that you did not receive salvation because you earned it. You did not receive salvation because you gave to the poor, visited hospitals, attended church everyday, prayed everyday, payed tithe but you received salvation by the grace of God through your faith in Jesus. You did nothing, so don’t go around telling people that I was saved because I did this and that (boasting). You will be lying. You did nothing except, believe.
This is my answer to you and hope it is clear.
Just another thing on the side. I know that there are some of us who believe that you must earn your salvation that is, you must do good works or certain rituals or keep certain festivals or keep certain holy days and only if you do these and keep on doing them, will you have salvation. I know that there are some of us who believe that baptism is part of salvation. I know that there are some of us who believe that keeping the law of Moses is a requirement of salvation. I know that there are some who believe that the Elders of the church must put their hands on you and only then, will you be saved. There is nothing I can do about that.