Faith, or Works, or Faith and Works?
James R. Aist
“…while Paul emphasizes the importance of good works in the life of the believer, he sees them as something that we were saved to do, not something we are saved by doing. And that’s a very important distinction!”
Perhaps the single most important doctrine of the Christian church is the doctrine of salvation, for it is what you believe (or, more precisely, in whom you believe!) about salvation that will ultimately determine your eternal destiny, whether it be heaven or hell. There are a number of Bible passages that speak about the relationship of both faith and works to salvation. Prominent among these are the teachings of Jesus, Paul and James. A cursory reading of them can give the impression that the Bible contradicts itself in this regard. One can find passages that say that salvation comes through faith alone, while other passages seem to suggest that it may be a combination of faith and works that get it done. But, since all Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God — i.e., literally “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) – the Bible cannot contradict itself; God is not a liar and He doesn’t make mistakes (Numbers 23:19). So let’s take a closer look and see if we can make sense out of what may appear, at first glance, to be confusion.
Two Kinds of Faith
There are actually two different kinds of faith at work in the world. There is a “natural faith” that everyone is born with. It is part of our human nature, and it helps us to deal with the realities and necessities of the natural world. We use this kind of faith in our everyday lives. By our natural faith, we believe that if we turn the ignition key, the car will start, and so we do it “on faith.” By our natural faith, we believe that the chair we are about to sit on will be strong enough to support our weight, and so, by faith, we “take a seat.” By our natural faith, we believe that if we put a dollar bill into a change machine, it will return four quarters, and in it goes. We are all very familiar with this natural faith. While natural faith is a necessary part of successful and productive living in this world, it is not perfect, as witnessed by the fact that the car doesn’t always start, the chair doesn’t always hold and the change machine doesn’t always return four quarters.
But there is another kind of faith. This is “supernatural faith.” No one is born with it, so not everyone has it; it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Supernatural faith enables the “born again” believer to understand spiritual things, qualify for heaven and do good works out of a pure motivation of love and compassion. Contrary to natural faith, supernatural faith, when properly understood and applied, never fails. For a more complete treatment of the meaning of “born again”, click HERE.
If we keep these two different kinds of faith in mind as we examine the relevant Bible passages about faith and works, we will see that the teachings of Jesus, James and Paul are really not contradictory at all, but are, instead, complementary. So, here we go…
Here are some of Paul’s teachings about faith and works:
- “…know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
- “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)
- “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
- “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
- “For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless…” (Romans 4:13-15)
- “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5).
Based on the above passages, I believe that Paul’s teaching can be summarized accurately as follows: (supernatural) faith (in Jesus Christ and in His finished work on the cross) is what accomplishes salvation; our good works do not add anything to what (supernatural) faith does in this regard. Since we are saved by grace (i.e., the free gift of God), if we try to save ourselves by doing good works, we cancel God’s grace and have no hope of salvation. Paul emphasizes the exclusion of good works from the process of salvation.
But wait, didn’t Paul have something else to say about “good works” in relation to salvation? Indeed he did! Here are just a few examples:
- “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
- “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
- “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:18).
So we see that, while Paul emphasizes the importance of good works in the life of the believer, he sees them as something that we were saved to do, not something we are saved by doing. And that’s a very important distinction!
The teaching of James on faith and works is summarized in James 2:14-26 as follows:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Based on the above passage, I believe that James’ teaching can be summarized in this way: Mere mental agreement (natural faith) that Jesus is the Savior of the world will not save anyone; even the demons believe that. That kind of faith (natural faith) is dead faith. On the other hand, faith that saves (supernatural faith) is accompanied by good works. In fact, the good works are evidence that your faith is supernatural faith, not natural faith. In this way, your supernatural faith and your works are acting together to confirm that your faith is supernatural, genuine and effective. James brings good works into the picture, but not as a means unto salvation. Rather our good works are produced by (supernatural) saving faith and are evidence that our faith is the supernatural kind of faith, not dead and ineffective (natural) faith.
Here are a couple of key Bible passages that represent the teachings of Jesus about faith and works:
- “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:27-29)
- “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23)
You may be surprised that there are elements of both Paul’s and James’ teaching to be found here. In the first passage, Jesus states quite simply that the work of God that results in eternal life is to believe in (have supernatural faith in) the one he has sent (i.e., Jesus). This leaves no room for good works, in the usual sense of “works”, in meeting God’s requirement for salvation. That sounds a lot like what Paul was saying. On the other hand, in the second passage, Jesus says that only the one who does the will of my Father will enter the kingdom of heaven. So, here we have supernatural faith that saves and is authenticated by obedience (good works). Isn’t that essentially what James was saying? So, in effect, the teachings of both Paul and James about faith and works echo the teachings of Jesus.
I would summarize the teachings of Jesus, Paul and James on faith and works as they relate to salvation like this: A special kind of faith, supernatural faith, is required for salvation. It is a faith that is a gift of God and leads to good works. The good works are evidence that one has supernatural “saving faith”, but they do not help one to “earn” eternal life. God requires only that we have (supernatural) saving faith in Jesus Christ to qualify for heaven; the good works will follow naturally after one is saved. In short, both (supernatural) saving faith and good works are necessarily present and manifested in the lives of true believers, but it is the (supernatural) saving faith alone that qualifies them for heaven.
(For more articles on BIBLICAL TEACHINGS, click HERE)