Salvation by works?

Salvation by works. That’s a phrase that is anathema to baptists the world round. Instead, the rallying cry is sola fide, by faith alone. But what if that wasn’t the message of Jesus? We are, I presume, all familiar with what James has to say about the relationship between works and salvation.

 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says the them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2.14-17)

James doesn’t mince his words. Yet, he does not discount faith entirely, but instead advocates the coupling of faith and works. Of course, even so, it is easy for many to ignore James because it isn’t the words of Jesus and still proclaim sola fide. But as I recently reread Luke I was struck by the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that prompts the story of the Good Samaritan.

 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10.25-28)

So the question is how does one inherit eternal life and when the lawyer repeats the “Greatest Commandment” Jesus’ response is “do this, and you will live.” Is this not “salvation by works?”

To be sure, we can attempt to parse out the difference between doing and loving, as the crux of this “Greatest Commandment” is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Nevertheless, we must recognize that the parable of the Good Samaritan comes on the heels of the lawyer asking how to inherit eternal life and then who counts as his “neighbor.” What is more, the parable of the Good Samaritan is, at base, about what this Samaritan does. And Jesus’ parting command to the lawyer is “Go and do likewise.”

How then are we, as Christians generally and as baptists specifically, to understand the disparate views presented here in Luke and those presented in the much more well-known John 3.16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”)? Is one passage inherently more worthy of serving as a basis for our soteriology? If so, which one? And why?


Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at

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  • Andrew

    Jesus’ words to an Israelite assume the covenant framework. Israelites were called to love God who had first loved them. In the case of the lawyer, Jesus is exposing his failure to love God and need for a Savior; Jesus, the Good Samaritan.

  • Euroman

    Good example of the hermeneutical challenge for Evangelicals today.

  • fireyf

    It’s not disparate. Faith results in works. Works in no way save us, but if we have faith it should result in works. Faith is demonstrated in what we do. We cannot earn our way into Heaven. If we can than what did Jesus die for? Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that we can somehow be “good enough” to go to Heaven. We can’t. It is by grace through faith that we are saved and not by works. Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through Him. That rules out salvation by works right there. James’ argument isn’t that we are saved by works. He argues that if you do not have works than where is your faith. No good works, no obedience to Christ, is evidence that there is no faith. It’s like saying, “I trust this chair to support me but I refuse to sit on it.” Well if you really think the chair supports you why won’t you sit in it? If you really have faith in Christ, than why won’t you do what He asks of you?