As Christians it is imperative that we understand the difference between good works (works of the spirit) and works of the flesh. Otherwise, we can easily be deceived into thinking that we do not play a part in our salvation. Showing us the importance of works, James 2:17 said: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, and the Apostle Paul stated “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Why then, is there a common misbelief amongst many Christians, that works do not matter?
One scripture often quoted to support the theology that works do not matter is Ephesians 2:8-9. The Apostle Paul states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”. If we take this verse and the scriptures in the above paragraph, there appears to be a contradiction, however when we continue to investigate, we will discover there are two different types of works. As Paul continues, in Ephesians 2:10, he writes: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Paul, writing to Titus exhorts the elders to be zealous for good works:
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14).
These scriptures have been referring to good works, and the opposite of these are fleshly works, as Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians “. . . knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Galatians 2:16) and further on,“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT CONTINUE IN ALL THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO DO THEM.” (Galatians 3:10). Here we see a distinction between works of the flesh which are the works of the law, that brings a curse, versus the works of the spirit.
Clement of Rome, a first-century Early Church Father, confirms that works are conducive to salvation, but only one type of works:
The name alone, indeed, without works, does not introduce into the kingdom of heaven; but, if a man be truly a believer, such an one can be saved. For, if a person be only called a believer in name, whilst he is not such in works, he cannot possibly be a believer. “Let no one,” therefore, “lead you astray with the empty words of error.” (Eph_5:6) For, merely because a person is called a virgin, if he be destitute of works excellent and comely, and suitable to virginity, he cannot possibly be saved. (1)
Above, Clement makes a very bold statement, but one that all the Early Church agreed with; that without good works, one is not saved. We can profess Christ, but without our actions lining up to His character, our confession is worthless.
The Pharisees were a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters pertaining to the law of Moses (2), simply meaning they were dedicated to keeping the law. However, in Matthew 23 Jesus rebuked the life of the Pharisees saying:
“Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.” (Matthew 23:3-4)
How was it that Jesus said the Pharisees “say, and do not do”, when they were dedicated to keeping the law? The Pharisees observed the letter of the law, meaning they kept the law in the literal sense i.e., only walking so many steps on the sabbath, animal sacrifices to atone for sin, etc. According to Apostle Paul, the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the spirit: the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life and only through the example that Christ set, were the disciples able to walk in the new covenant, which is the spirit of the law. (2 Corinthians 3:6) The letter of the law had no ability to cleanse the conscience, but the spirit of the law does (Hebrews 9:13-14).
Origen, a third-century Early Church Father writes:
Further, therefore, to the reprehensible Pharisees and scribes who were so concerned about their body and appearance, the Lord said, “They do everything to be seen by other men. For they widen their phylacteries and enlarge the tassels of their clothing.” The disciples of Jesus did everything to be seen by God alone. The only ornaments they had bound to their hands were good works. Meditating on divine teaching, they observed the divine commands, always applying them fittingly before the eyes of their souls. Their only tassel was the virtue of Jesus whom they imitated. (3)
Here, Origen writes how the works of the Pharisees were to outwardly appear good and for the commendation from men, whereas the works of Jesus’ disciples were for the inward cleansing of the soul, and to imitate Christ, therefore manifesting His nature through them.
We can see how the Pharisees back in Jesus day were doing works of the flesh because they didn’t understand the revelation, or deeper meaning, of the law. But we can also have the pharisee mindset within us. When answering the Jews when they surrounded Jesus and asked Him to tell them plainly if He is the Christ, Jesus said: “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” (John 10:32). In John 5:19 again addressing the Jews, Jesus said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do”. Notice that Jesus says the good works He does is only what He sees the Father doing. The word “see” in the Greek means to know by experience, to have (the power of) understanding, and to discern. (4) Jesus’ good works came by Him having a revelation of what God sent Him to do and walking-out God’s will. In the same way, for us to do good works, we need to have a revelation of what God is asking us to do, and not just “do” for the sake of doing, or just because we are told we need to. In no way am I suggesting not to listen to those in authority when we are instructed, quite the opposite – because the Lord set up order to be in the Church, and a part of this order is for those who are appointed to do so, to bring instruction when we need guidance and wisdom. But even when we are instructed, we should still be asking the Lord for the revelation, so we can understand the fullness of what He’s calling us to do and receive the healing that He wants to do in us. The Pharisee within us would be us doing works i.e. praying, fasting, studying, evangelizing, ministry work, the list goes on, simply because they need to be done, or just because we were told to do it, without seeking the Father’s heart about the situation and being led by the Holy Spirit.
We cannot be ignorant to think that our confession is enough for salvation. Scripture and the Early Church writings are clear that works are vital, but only good works aid us in salvation. Fleshly works merely look good on the outer but have no way of saving our soul. The good works we do are the works led by the Holy Spirit and with revelation, and the fleshly works, or works from a Pharisaic nature, are what we do out of an obligation (or wrong intention), even if they are the right thing to do. Let us be zealous to overcome every Pharisaic mindset in us and to be led by God in all we do.
- Clement, Vol 8, Ch 3
- Easton Dictionary for “Pharisee”
- Origen- Commentary on Matthew 11, cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture by Manlio Simonetti (2014)
- Thayer’s Greek Definitions: “See” (G991)
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.