Faith, or Works, or Faith and Works?

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!”

Introduction

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…

Paul’s Teaching

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!

James’ Teaching

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.

Jesus’ Teaching

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.

Summary

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)

A Note of Concern to Roman Catholics

Catechism ClipsA Note of Concern to Roman Catholics

 James R. Aist

I was a Roman Catholic for 20 years of my adult life. There are a number of things about the Roman Catholic Church with which I agree, and admire and appreciate. And I know several Roman Catholics who, by all indications, are born-again Christians, as I am. But I do have one concern in particular that I feel compelled to share with you.

To the best of my knowledge, the most important single 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. I developed the case (click HERE) for the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), and not by either works alone or faith plus works. In the official Roman Catholic Catechism posted on the Vatican website, under the heading “Merit” (click HERE), the following paragraph speaks about the roles of “merit” (the particular term used in this Catechism to mean “good works” or “good deeds”) in the life and eternal destiny of the believer:

“2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” (italics mine).

Here is the (italicized) excerpt to which I want to draw your attention: “…we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces neededfor the attainment of eternal life.” Now, with the understanding that “merit” is taken to mean “good works” or “good deeds” in this Catechism, what this paragraph is saying is that, once we are saved, our good works will earn for us the grace needed for eternal life.  Thus, it appears that the Roman Catholic Church clearly teaches a salvation doctrine of faith (in Jesus Christ) plus good works (merit), rather than the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, and not by works.

Now, you may have the impression that this is probably a trivial and meaningless distinction, but let me bring to your attention the following words of the apostle Paul in this regard:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28);

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3);

and now, the clinchers…

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4). In other words, if you are trying to justify yourself by your good works, then you are alienated from Christ and have fallen away from the very grace that is necessary to attain eternal life, rather than having earned that grace by your good works!

AND

For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless…” (Romans 4:13-15). That is to say, if you depend on your good works to qualify you for heaven, then your faith (in Jesus) is nullified and the promise (of eternal life) through that faith is worthless.

AND

“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). In other words, if your salvation is wages for your good works, then it is not by grace (a free gift) that you are saved. But if your salvation is a result of your faith in Jesus, then you are saved by grace, not by works.

AND, in Jesus’ own words…

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 6:28-29). No “works” at all are required, in the usual sense of the word, for one to be saved; only faith is required (belief).

How, then can we understand James 2:14-26, which seems to imply that works play a necessary role in our salvation? When one takes this passage in its entirety, it becomes evident that James is talking about two kinds of “faith” here. One kind is the same as the demons have, is dead, does not lead to salvation and does not produce good works. It is merely “mental ascent” to certain facts about the things of God.  The other kind of faith is alive, leads to salvation (i.e., it is “saving faith”) and produces good works. The good works are a result of, and evidence of, the kind of faith that saves, but they are not what brings about salvation; only saving faith does that.

One might reasonably summarize the teachings of Jesus, Paul and James on faith and works as they relate to salvation with this paraphrase: “A special kind of faith is required for salvation. It is a faith that leads to good works. The good works are evidence that one has “saving faith”, but they do not help one earn a place in heaven. God requires only that we have saving faith in Jesus Christ to qualify for heaven; the good works will follow naturally after one is saved.”

It would seem to me that the distinction I am making here is neither trivial nor meaningless; rather, it is vital and necessary for the attainment of eternal life, according the Bible, that is. For this reason, I sincerely hope that you will weigh my concern carefully, and then make any necessary adjustments, if any, to your professed doctrinal belief regarding salvation. After all, this is the doctrinal belief upon which your very eternal destiny hinges!

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