Grace and works seems to be a difficult discussion. The church I was brought up in held to a distinction between God’s grace and His commandments, as if He were divided somehow. This topic is, of course, multifaceted, and I hope I can clearly present one of those facets here. To tip my hand, grace and works (obedience to God’s Law) are two separate things, but they are not divorced from one another, they are not in opposition. Let me see if I can explain.
Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
Let’s work this out a little bit. Paul is writing to the church and letting them know that they must have the mind of Christ, a mind of servanthood because of their position as saints, as Christians. Then we are giving 2:12-13 and we are told to work out our salvation because God is working in us. God has given us Christ through faith and it is a gift so that no man may boast. Now that we are in union with Christ, we are called to work that salvation out in our lives. This, of course, can only be done through good works. Notice what Paul says about the good we work out, “it is God who works in you”. So, even when we do obey God’s commandments, we cannot boast in our obedience because God has given that obedience to us as a gift. From top to bottom it is all grace.
Ephesians 2:8-10 also speaks plainly on this when Paul writes, “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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
We are not saved merely to be saved, we are saved for good works. These works are according to the Law of God (Romans 3:31, Titus 3:8, 1 Peter 2:15). By direct extension this understanding also puts to death that false dilemma of trying to decide if James and Paul teach the same thing. If you have noticed, I have not quoted James yet, Just Paul and Peter. But, for the sake of your next Google search, here is James in unity with the other Apostles,
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” James 2:14-17.
Faith in Christ produces works in Christ, and this is not of yourselves but is a gift of God, so that no man may boast.