What follows is a 5-point rebuttal of the way they reach this contradictory understanding. And they will claim, by the way, that it's not contradictory. First, I have to explain what they teach.
Their argument centers on what they say what would otherwise be a contradiction between Ephesians 2:8-9 and James Chapter 2. For more background on this, see here. The hosts of the show believe that when Paul says "Not of works" he means not of a particular kind of works. Namely, works which are undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature. Similarly, when James says in Chapter 2 that "Faith without works is dead", they believe he means a particular other kind of works. Namely, works undertaken for the purpose of raising God's stature. This is the core of their belief and thus Don Johnson writes in his book "The Road To Heaven: A Traveler's Guide to Life's Narrow Way" the following:
"At first glance James seems to contradict Paul. He does not. The key is to understand the difference between works as Paul defined them and works as James defined them. For the purpose of my argument I will refer to Paul's term as "works" and James' term as "work." We are not to do works, but we are to work."
The point of vulnerability here centers on Paul's use of the word "works", which is the Greek word "ergon." If I can show that Paul means works in a broad sense in Ephesians 2:8-9, then their view is shown to be false.
1. Paul's Use of "Ergon"
In all of Paul’s epistles he uses the word “ergon” (works) a total of thirty-seven times and twenty-four times he uses some kind of descriptor alongside “ergon” to describe the works he’s talking about. Obviously Paul gets more specific when he deems it necessary by adding some sort of descriptor, but other times he uses no descriptor, no adjective, which suggests that if he was referring to a particular kind of works in Ephesians 2:9, he would have added a descriptor for the sake of specificity. The fact that he used no descriptor means that, more than likely, he meant works in a broad sense; not just a particular kind of works.
These two verses are examples of Paul's use of adjectives. The first is only one verse away from the "not of works lest any man should boast".
"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."
"And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them."
In 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 Paul clearly uses “ergon” to refer interchangeably to works which are not approved by God (burned up) and to works that are approved by God (rewarded).
1 Corinthians 3:13-15
"Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."
And this verse offers a serious challenge as well:
1 Thessalonians 5:13
"And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves."
Paul says we are to esteem very highly those who labor among us because of their works or "for their work's sake". Well if Paul defines "works" as "tasks undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature" then just why would he tell us to esteem these people so highly? It seems to me that if Paul meant what Don Johnson says he meant by "works" that we should not esteem these people for their works!
Conclusion: In Eph 2:9, when Paul says that salvation is "not of works", he must be speaking of works generally.
2. Asymmetry in Specificity
"Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. "
Notice first of all that the word “ergon” here is used without an adjective. So either it means works in a very broad sense, or it means tasks undertaken for the purpose of raising one’s own stature.
Here Paul says that the payment a man receives for his work is what that man is owed, and it cannot be called a gift. But then Paul says that the man who does not work, but trusts in Jesus Christ, (trusting must not be work) his faith (trust) is counted as righteousness.
The contrast here is between work and trust. And notice the asymmetry: Paul is specific about the word trust. He means trust in a particular object: Christ. The one who justifies the ungodly. But he is ambiguous about the works. No descriptor. If he has in mind some particular definition of ‘works’, he does not make that clear at all. Isn’t that odd? Why would he do that?
Once again, the most reasonable conclusion is that Paul is talking about works in a very broad sense.
3. These Works vs. Those Works or Any Works vs. Grace?
"And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work."
Paul is driving a wedge here between the concept of grace and the concept of works. And we've already seen that Paul has no problem using adjectives when he feels it's necessary, so this is works generally. But if there's also a wedge to be driven between one category of works and another category of works, Paul does a lousy job of communicating that here, and everywhere else also. It seems the only important distinction in Paul's mind is between grace and works.
Conclusion: You cannot mix any kind of works with grace or grace is no more grace.
4. Passive, Active, or Middle?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that (salvation) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”
This verse gives us yet another way of demonstrating that Paul is not excluding a particular kind of “works”, and although it's subtle, it's very powerful.
The key here is the word for “saved.” That word in the Greek is “sesosmenoi” which is the passive voice form of "sozo" which means "to save". This means that the subject in the sentence (you) does not participate or contribute anything. Passive voice means the subject receives the action. If Paul understood that a certain kind of works were required in order to be saved, and by “not of works” he was only excluding another kind of works, then he could not have used the passive voice… he would have used the middle voice instead.
Conclusion: The Greek grammar in this verse forecloses on the possibility that Paul could have meant one kind of work while allowing for another kind of work. In other words, salvation is not of any kind of works. It is nothing that we do. God saves us… we are passive in that.
5. Anvils Make Poor Flotation Devices
It seems entirely reasonable to me to say that God approves of "works undertaken for the purpose of raising God’s stature" but does not approve of "works undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature". Given that understanding, why would Paul need to tell anyone that they couldn’t earn their salvation by doing works not approved by God? Why would anyone suspect they could?
Do you need to tell someone clinging to floating debris that an anvil won’t keep them afloat?
Our nature inclines us to think that we can earn our way to Heaven by doing works that, we assume, are approved by God. This is the notion that Paul would need to speak against. Who goes around thinking they can get to Heaven on the basis of works that are not approved by God?
Conclusion: Once again, the most reasonable conclusion is that when Paul says "works", he means any and all works.