I'm a little confused by works. I understand that faith and works go hand in hand. But I'm the type of person who needs concrete examples. Is reading my Bible considered a work? Is, say, giving turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving considered a work? Is praying a work?
"Work" is one of those generic, multipurpose words. Most people wouldn't have trouble figuring out what is a work, if it wasn't for the fad in many denominations to say that "works" are bad. A work is anything that you put effort into doing.
Not all works are the same. There are multiple kinds of works:
- There are works of God (John 6:28-29; 9:3-4)
- There are works of the devil (I John 3:8)
- There are works of man’s hands (Acts 7:41)
- There are works of the Law (Romans 3:20, 27-28; Galatians 2:16)
- There are good works (Ephesians 2:10; I Timothy 2:9-10)
- There are dead works (Hebrews 6:1)
Is reading your Bible a work? Yes. It takes effort on your part to do it. However, it doesn't mean it is wrong. "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15). All the Bible reading in the world won't earn your way into heaven, but then refusal to read your Bible can keep you out of heaven because you would be refusing to obey God's command.
Is giving to the poor a work? Yes. It takes effort on your part to do it. "He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given" (Proverbs 19:17). It won't earn your way into heaven, but it is what God expects His people to do.
Is praying a work? Yes. It takes effort on your part to pray. "For what thanks can we render to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face and perfect what is lacking in your faith?" (I Thessalonians 3:9-10). Praying won't earn your way into heaven, but without prayer you won't be there.
We don't often think in this way, but even faith is a work. "Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent"" (John 6:28-29). The point is that faith doesn't just happen. You choose to trust God, and often that takes some effort on our part. That is why faith is commanded of men. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). You cannot command something that the other person cannot do. God commands faith, we respond with faith, therefore we are doing a work of God.
"He said to him, "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" So he answered and said," 'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,' and 'your neighbor as yourself.'" And He said to him, "You have answered rightly; do this and you will live"" (Luke 10:26-28). We tend to think of works as only physical actions, but notice that God commanded men to love Him, and Jesus said is is something to be done. Though it is an attitude, we need to realize that love isn't automatic. It comes about through conscious effort on our part.
Of course, sinning also takes effort on the part of the sinner. So we need to distinguish between good works and bad works, and that is what the Bible teaches us. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10).
When Paul says, "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" (Ephesians 2:9-10), he is reminding us that we cannot earn our way into salvation. We cannot do so many good works that God owes us salvation. Salvation is always a gift given to us that is beyond what we deserve. But the ones God chooses to give this gift to are those who obey him. "If you love Me, keep My commandments. ... He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, "Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?" Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me" (John 14:15, 21-24). How does God distinguish between who will be saved and who will not? By their obedience that comes from their love of God.
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (II Corinthians 5:10).
Is works a combination of praying, obeying God's commandments, faith and loving God that grants salvation? Is that correct? If not, what else do I need? I'm probably making this more complicated than it should be.
Perhaps you are making it more complicated by trying to nail down exact limits, where the Bible talks about the direction you are headed.
The basis of everything is love. "Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40). Everything commanded in the Old Testament, and by extension in the New Testament, revolve around either love for God or love for your fellow man. Thus, when a person focuses on loving God, the natural result is obeying the commands of God. "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (I John 5:2-3). Love then is the attitude within that is shown by the obedience we display outwardly. "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth" (I John 3:17-18).
On that foundation is another fundamental idea: faith or trust. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). Like love, faith is an inward attitude that is reflected in what we do. Paul said, "Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name" (Romans 1:5). James wrote at length that faith isn't really faith if it doesn't result doing things in accordance to that faith. "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).
The works we are to do are in obedience to God's commands, reflecting our faith in God and our love for God and man. The prayers we offer up are both because God commanded them and because we believe God will answer and in them we can express our love for God and our concern for others.
Salvation is granted as a gift from God when we hear His word, believe what He said, repent of our sins, confess our belief and are baptized. That begins a lifetime commitment to serve God because of our love for Him and our faith in Him. And when we hang on to the end, there is reward awaiting us. "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).