The role of faith vs. works in salvation has been the subject of debate and confusion since the beginning of Christianity. Paul clearly states in Ephesians that we “are saved by faith…not by works” while James says that “faith without works is dead.” So which is it? Are we saved by faith, works, or some combination of the two?
The Case for Faith
The Bible is clear that we are saved “by grace through faith” in Christ. But what exactly does that mean? In short, salvation by grace through faith means that we do not earn it through our own actions. It is an unmerited gift from God (i.e. “grace”) given “through faith” in Christ as our personal savior. There are many Bible verses one can cite to explain what “faith in Christ” means, but one of the clearest is Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”) In other words, if you sincerely confess Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and truly believe that He bore the penalty of your individual sin, died, and was raised back to life, God will forgive your sins and credit Jesus’ righteousness to you.
Many verses in the Bible support this doctrine. Paul’s writings in particular are very clear on the topic of salvation by faith. Examples of Paul’s statements to this effect include Romans 3:28 (“For we conclude that man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”), Galatians 3:10-11 (“For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse…no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous live by faith.”), and Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For you are saved by grace through faith…not from works, so that no one can boast.”)
Jesus also offers examples of forgiveness of sins through faith alone. Examples include Jesus’ healing of a paralytic in Matthew 9:2 (“…When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven’”). In Luke 7:50, Jesus says to the “sinful woman” at a Pharisee’s house “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” The most famous quote from Jesus to this effect is John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, He gave His only son so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”)
Perhaps the most striking example from Jesus is the thief crucified next to Him. After the thief’s confession of faith in Christ, Jesus assures him that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Clearly there was no opportunity for the thief to earn salvation via works in this case.
The Case for Works
However, there are also many passages that suggest “works” (e.g. doing good deeds, following God’s will, etc.) are necessary for salvation. The second chapter of James is most often used in support of works’ role in salvation. James 2:14 says “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” James 2:17 says “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” And James 2:24 states that “…a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
James is not the only source for those who believe in a “works based” doctrine. Jesus Himself said “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus’ comments in Matthew 7:21 and 25:31-46 also seem to imply our obedience and deeds are tied to salvation.
Given these verses, what can we conclude? Does the Bible contradict itself on this point? Are both faith and works required? Or, as some have concluded, are we initially saved by faith but “sustained” (i.e. kept saved) by works?
The solution is actually far less complicated than it initially seems. Few doctrines are as clear in scripture as that of salvation by faith. As mentioned above, the thief on the cross is the perfect illustration of this truth. And salvation by faith is quite easily reconciled with the passages on works.
While Paul tells us that salvation is by faith, he also tells us that once saved we become “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we place genuine faith in Christ, God doesn’t just save us. He changes us. He gives us a desire to follow Him and become more like Christ. Because of this, good works necessarily result from salvation. This fact is why James says faith without works “is dead.” If there are no works, one’s faith is not genuine. So while works do not earn salvation, they are inextricably tied to it and necessarily result from it.
This is not to say that a genuine Christian never sins. On the contrary, Christians sometimes sin rather often! However, if their faith is genuine, there is an attitude of repentance when they sin. And there is a long-term trend toward spiritual growth and becoming more Christ-like (“sanctification”) over time, even if there is occasional back-sliding.
What is the Value of Works?
One may conclude that if works are not required for salvation, they are unimportant. However, this is a serious mistake that the Bible warns against repeatedly.
There are at least four reasons why works are extremely important. First, as described above, works are evidence of genuine salvation. If they are missing from a person’s life, there is strong reason to question if their salvation is real. Secondly, God expects good works and commands us to be obedient throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Failure to do so is sin (James 4:17). The Bible also makes it clear that God blesses and rewards those who are obedient, both on earth and in eternity (e.g. Galatians 6:9, Luke 11:28). Finally, a Christian’s good works serve as a powerful testimony of God’s love that can win unbelievers to Christ (e.g. Matthew 5:16). So while works are not the cause of our salvation, they are an integral and required part of Christian living.
Once we have a proper understanding of the relationship between salvation, faith, and works, we have a much clearer view of both ourselves and God. Knowing we cannot earn salvation by our own efforts causes us to rely on God and prevents pride. Because if salvation was a reward for our own righteousness, we could quickly become conceited and self-righteous, which would actually cause us to fall back into sin! Realizing that salvation is a gift from God, purchased for us through His effort and sacrifice, reinforces His love for us and His abiding mercy and patience.
With a proper understanding of faith and works, there are two questions each professing Christian should ask themselves. First, “Is my faith a genuine one that exalts Christ as Lord and leads to salvation?” The answer to this question is of eternal importance and is one only you and God can answer. The second question is “What behaviors and works should result from a genuine faith?” The answer to that question will be the subject of an upcoming article.