How do you harmonize Scripture when one passage says salvation is not of works and another passage seems to say works are necessary? There are Scripture passages in which there are apparent contradictions. Scripture can have no contradictions, so how do we understand them? John 6:28-30 seems to be a passage like that.
Paul made is clear in Ephesians 2:8-9 that works can not have any part of salvation. God has accomplished the work of salvation. Man can add nothing meritorious to salvation. Salvation is based on what Jesus has done, not on what man can do. So why does there seem to be a contradiction in John 6:28-30? This is the passage,
28 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” 30 Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? (John 6:28-30 NKJ)
It seems like Jesus said that belief is a work. Is that what He is saying? The problem lies in the context. The immediate three verses preceding this passage are necessary to interpret the John 6:28-30 passage on “work.” John wrote,
25 And when they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You come here?” 26 Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” (John 6:25-27 NKJ)
Jesus had just fed 5000 people and He perceived they were going to take Him by force to make Him their Bread King. After feeding the 5000, He departed to pray and that night the disciples went in the boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When the people, who experienced the feeding of the 5000, went to Capernaum in search of Jesus they questioned Him, “When did you get here?” However, they were far more interested in a bread supply than the chronology of Jesus’ schedule.
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus understood their deceptive heart intent and said that they wanted to see Him, not because of the miracle, but because their bellies had been satisfied and were hungry again (John 6:26). So Jesus admonished them not to seek after the physical solutions of life, but the spiritual solutions. He said to seek not the physical food, but the spiritual food that endures to everlasting life. They revealed their own misunderstanding, because they still asked for the physical bread later in the conversation (John 6:34). They were acting like the spiritual children to whom the Mosaic Law was given. They had not advanced spiritually enough to realize life was about spiritual matters, not the physical. They still needed the Law to show they could not work their way to heaven (Gal. 3:24).
They were still thinking they had to work their way to heaven. That was their next question. They asked, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” They lived under the Law. They tried to keep the Law, which they thought would please God. They thought that their efforts in comparison to “bad people” would be good enough to get them into heaven. They were thinking like children. So, Jesus accommodated to their childish question. He said, “This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:29) Using their language, He clarified that all they had to do was accept what God had done for them, in the same way that Abraham believed God apart from works.
Yet, they did not understand, so they asked the question, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do?” (John 6:30) They did not get it. They asked a good question, but they did not get it. He WAS the one who would work, but they did not realize the work that He was going to do. Jesus used the expression “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent,” because they only understood the terminology of works for pleasing God. Jesus was not saying that faith was works, as Paul clearly explained the contrast of works and faith in Romans 4:5.
Hence there is no contradiction in Scripture regarding works. Ephesians 2:8 is clear that works are not a part of salvation and John 6:28-30 is clear that Jesus was talking to mental infants, spiritually ignorant, spiritually dead people, who did not get to first base. They proved their lack of faith by deserting Jesus. When Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to go also, Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68 NKJ)
Faith is not a work. There are no works involved in salvation. Man is not even saved by faith, but without faith, man is not saved. Refer back to the article “Is a decision an action.”