GRACE DISTINCTIONS #6 – by Jack Cottrell
VI. GENERAL WORKS vs. WORKS OF LAW. In our desire to understand grace, it is absolutely essential that we have a proper understanding of the term “works.” This is because Ephesians 2:8-9 specifically says that because we are saved by grace through faith, we cannot be saved by works. So we must know what “works” means in this statement.
The problem is that most people have no idea what Paul means when he makes this statement. That is because they assume that whenever the Bible uses the term “works,” it simply means “something you do,” i.e., what YOU do in contrast with something GOD does. This assumption is seriously false.
Here is one of the most important (yet perhaps the least known) distinctions we must make in reference to grace: we must distinguish between GENERAL or generic works, and WORKS OF LAW.
“Works” in the general or generic sense DOES mean “something you do.” That includes ANYTHING you do, and THAT includes anything you do in obedience to a command of God, whether that is a law command of the Creator or a grace command of the Savior. I.e., faith itself, as something YOU do, is a work in this sense. See John 6:26-29, where Jesus uses “works” terminology to describe faith itself. Faith, along with every other act of obedience to gospel commands, is a work in the generic sense.
But here’s the deal: Paul distinguishes faith from works (as in Eph. 2:8-9 and many other places), and says that works have no place in receiving grace. How can this be so, in view of John 6:26-29? Simply thus: when Paul uses the term “works,” he is not using it in the generic sense of “something you do.” For him, it means “works of law.” Sometimes he says “works”; sometimes he says “works of law”—but he always means “works of law.” A careful study of Romans 3:27 – 4:8 shows he uses these terms interchangeably.
See Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5 for Paul’s use of the term “works of law.” Note: despite faulty translations, Paul NEVER uses an article in this phrase. He never says “THE works of THE law”; it is always just “works of law.” Also, he is NEVER limiting this “law” to the Law of Moses, contrary to a common but seriously false interpretation. Here is the crucial point: the “works of law” (i.e., the “works”) which cannot save are ANY and ALL things we do in response to our law code (law commands), including all New Testament commands on holy living. Paul even includes our SINS against our law code in the concept of “works of law,” as a comparison of Romans 3:28 and 4:6-8 shows. I.e., we are justified by faith, APART FROM a consideration of the record of our obedience to and of our sins against the commands of our law code. (Please read that last sentence carefully.)
The bottom line is this: when Paul says we are not saved by works, he means we are not saved by how well we obey our LAW commands. He is NOT excluding acts of obedience to GRACE commands, including the command to be baptized. This is not a work, in Paul’s sense of the term.