A prominent issue that divides religious denominations and beliefs is grace vs. works. In this article, we’ll look at the differences in Christian belief and what the Bible says on this matter.
In the 1964 book “The Grace of God,” by Charles Ryrie, he referred to grace as “the watershed that divides Catholicism from Protestantism, Calvinism from Arminianism, modern [theological] liberalism from [theological] conservatism.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of grace in Christianity is that it is the divine assistance, approval, or favor given to humans by God for their sanctification or regeneration, which is unmerited.
In other words, grace isn’t something you deserve, earn, or are even worthy of. God gives grace out of his love and willingness to forgive and bless humankind, despite the fact that one/they may be living in an unrighteous manner.
Works are things that human beings do, such as righteous behavior. Judaism is based on the Law, following God’s commandments, which are works. And while Christianity does not disregard the Law, it is through faith in Jesus Christ that God justifies sinners and offers salvation and grace.
In 1999, a joint declaration between Catholics and Lutherans, affirmed: “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace.”
Yet, Catholics still require believers to participate through sacraments as a means of grace. Protestants view this as being something that still involves “works” and believe pure grace comes from God with no human participation whatsoever.
Sacraments are defined by Wikipedia as: “visible rites seen as signs and efficacious channels of the grace of God to all those who receive them with the proper disposition.”
The Catholic Church has seven sacraments: Baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing the sick, holy orders, and matrimony.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
In the above two verses, these two sentences make the case for grace over works. It seems to indicate that through faith in Jesus Christ, God offers salvation through grace. It states salvation cannot be attained through works.
Underlining this point further is the following verse:
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
The point here is simply made, if works mattered, there would be no need for grace.
As the scholar Barnes notes, if God reserves any by grace, then grace cannot be a reward of merit. Barnes writes: “He [Paul] reminds them that in the time of Elijah it was because God had reserved them; that the same was the case now; and therefore their doctrine of merit could not be true;”
According to the Geneva study Bible: “This saying demolishes the doctrine of all kinds and manner of works, by which our justifiers of themselves teach that works are either wholly or partly the cause of our justification.”
Another area that causes confusion is faith and works.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
– James 2:14
The above verse causes confusion when it comes to grace versus works, as it seems to indicate that works are important in salvation. But take note that it raises the question of whether faith alone can save someone. The answer comes back to salvation comes through God’s grace.
A few lines later, we are told how faith and works go together:
“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
– James 2:17
He follows with:
“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
– James 2:18
Works are a demonstration of faith. However, James does not contradict the apostle Paul’s teachings that through faith, God grants his grace, not by works or the Law.
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
– Romans 3:28