Not of Works
The term “not of works” (Ephesians 2:9) and the phrase “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5) are often taken out of their proper context and made to say something they do not mean to be saying.
Bible teachers have for centuries been using these Scripture passages to try to prove that salvation is unconditional and lays no conditions, obligations or responsibilities upon its recipients.
Both of the foregoing Scriptures with their context are portraying the kindness, love and grace which God has shown in providing salvation for us. In Titus it is clearly stated that that which is “not by works of righteousness” is something that hath already appeared unto all men (Titus 2:11, 3:4,5). And if it hath already appeared, it is obvious that some one else brought it and that it, therefore, was “not by works of righteousness which we have done.” Man simply could not go up to heaven to bring Christ down from above. No man was worthy that. And it was just as impossible for man descend into the deep to bring Him again from the dead. No man was powerful enough to do that. (Romans 10:6,7). The only type works by man connected with the provision of salvation would be the wicked works of contradicting, denying, condemning and
slaying the spotless Lamb of God. When man did this, God moved down to earth with His grace in unlimited measure and there was gracious and ready forgiveness provided for all mankind, including the very crucifiers of the Lord of Glory. Salvation was now provided apart from any “works of righteousness which [mankind] have done.”
Now there are a number of aspects in which salvation is “not of works”. In the first place it is definitely not of provisional works. Anyone who “climbeth up some other way” instead of coming through the door which Christ opened “is a thief and a robber.” Man is as helpless to provide salvation as he is to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.
Secondly, our salvation is not of Old Testament ceremonial works. The cleansing ceremonies of the law were types of cleansings we now have in Christ so that to use the ceremonial works any longer for our cleansing from sin and to please God would constitute a denial of Christ and a falling from Grace. (Galatians 5:1-4)
And thirdly, “not by works of righteousness which we have done” would apply to the supernatural miracle works of “regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost which He shed on us abundantly” by our acceptance of Jesus Christ. (Titus 3:5, 6). Regeneration is another term for the “new birth.” We do not born ourselves physically, neither do we born ourselves spiritually. The new birth is a supernatural work of God and can never be accomplished by, or accredited to, the works of man.
But the Bible also emphasizes good works on the part of man for salvation and justification just as clearly as it states that our salvation is “not of works.” Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? No, in no wise!
If we understand the nature of justifying works the problem is quickly cleared up. God has designated that certain conditional works on the part of man must be met to make His provisional and supernatural works effective in man. If our salvation were unconditional and depended only on the provisional and supernatural works of God all mankind would be saved for salvation is provided for all.
The conditional works of man and the provisional supernatural works of God are inseparable in both our initial salvation experience and in our continued endurance unto the end of Christian sojourn.
It is interesting to note that whenever sinners asked the Apostles what they must do to be saved they were never told that there is nothing to do. Sinners were always told to do something (conditional works) to be saved. As Cornelius was meeting the conditional works of salvation Peter opened his mouth and declared that “in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, [conditional, not provisional, works of righteousness] is accepted of Him.”
Just as those who provide their own system of righteousness are thieves and robbers and will not be accepted of God, so those who accept God's provision of salvation but refuse to work righteousness will also be rejected for without repentance, faith, obedience, holiness, etc. no man shall see the Lord—saved.
Meeting the conditional works of righteousness and thus receiving the provisional and supernatural gift of salvation is by no means a purchasing or an earning of salvation and is certainly nothing to boast of.
“Could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
– Aaron M. Shank