Saved by Faith?.....Or Works?
The relationship between faith and works has been debated for a long time. Some have made various attempts to make James’ statement that “man is justified by works” fit into their “faith alone” theology. There would be no problem with this, if people were to take into account all that the Bible says about faith. One common explanation is that James was saying: “With God we are justified by faith; but with men we are justified by works.” That is simply grasping at straws. Another familiar explanation is this: “it is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” I mentioned to someone once that this is one of the most non-sensical statements that I have ever read when it comes to an interpretation of a biblical passage. For if the faith that saves is never alone, then faith alone does not save – which is the opposite point that they are trying to make. Many people will try to explain this passage by saying that faith is the only factor in our justification, and this faith leads to works, which have nothing to do with our standing before God. We could go on and on about the different things that people say about this matter, but we should look at what the Bible says. Why has there been such confusion surrounding this statement from James? Could it be due to a faulty definition of biblical faith? The Apostle Paul wrote: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law…" (Romans 3:28). Paul also wrote the following to Titus: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;" (Titus 3:5). But again, it seems that some people have failed to consider everything the Bible says about the relationship between faith and works and therefore they have created a false teaching concerning this important issue.
We know that "dead works" can save no one. The works of the Mosaic Law are powerless to save. However, I agree with those who believe that the kind of works that James is referring to are indeed necessary for salvation. Many think that there must be a disassociation between justiﬁcation and works, so that one's actions are allowed to have no part in one's justiﬁcation. Listen again to the words of James: "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (James 2:24) The way some look at it, James' statement seems to contradict Paul's statement in Romans 3:28. Some theologians and commentators have tried to resolve this seeming contradiction by claiming the "works" mentioned by James are less important than faith when it comes to our salvation, even though they are in some sense related to faith. They have claimed that works are merely a derivative of faith. The problem with this interpretation is that it is not what James wrote. He said: "by works a man is justified.” James did not say that a man is justiﬁed by a non-working faith, and that this leads to non-justifying works. According to James, the works themselves are in some sense justifying or saving. As many know, Martin Luther rejected the Book of James because he could not reconcile it with his own definition of faith. However, Paul also made statements that show that "works" have more than just a derivative role when it comes to salvation.
“Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?.....for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” (Romans 6:16, 19b-22)
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." (Galatians 6:7-9)
In the ﬁrst passage, "eternal life" is said to be an outcome of yielding one's "members as servants to righteousness unto holiness" and of "obedience." Paul associated eternal life with the believer submitting himself as a servant of obedience and righteousness.
In the second passage, Paul taught that eternal life is reaped by the one who "sows to the Spirit." The idea of sowing to the Spirit is followed by the phrase “well doing." The indication is that those who persevere in "doing good" will as a consequence reap eternal life.
Peter wrote the following: "And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-11) Here, “doing” the things mentioned in verses 5-7 is what leads to entering the Kingdom of Christ.
If salvation is by “faith alone”, defined as a mental dependence on some soteriological fact, as though our behavior has no bearing on our salvation, then how can "doing" contribute anything to our salvation, as these passages claim?
There is an answer to this question that avoids the attempts to attain salvation by one’s own self-righteousness or the dead works of the Mosaic Law warned against by Paul, and agrees with James that our justiﬁcation is by works. To understand this answer, we need to understand three different relationships between faith and works that are presented in the Bible.
*Works without faith
There is a difference between works of self-righteousness, or someone doing “what is right in his own eyes” and thinking that makes him right with God - and acts of obedience toward Christ. We have no self-merit to boast of and works that attempt to validate self-merit on our part, are like filthy rags. A Jew thinking that adherence to the regulations of the Law of Moses will help him obtain eternal life is also addressed in the Bible, and Paul preaches against this works-based salvation.
This concept is dealt with in the following two passages: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:2-5) And also - "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) It is impossible to be saved by the works of perceived self-merit, or mere outward acts like circumcision, baptism, church membership, etc. We have all sinned, and therefore we cannot be justified on the basis of self-merit. We cannot be saved apart from God's mercy.
*Nor can we be saved by faith without works.
It is equally impossible to be saved on the basis of “faith alone”, if one’s definition of faith excludes obedience to the Lord. James says: "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:14-17; read also 18-26) Here James refers to "dead" faith; a so-called faith that lacks obedience to the Lord. According to James, a non-working faith can save no one. Many claim to “believe” in the Lord, but they have a “faith” that does not save. They claim that they know him, but in their “works” they deny him. They still practice sin, and obedience to the Lord is not important in their lives. They go to church, they tithe, they sport an “I’m forgiven” bumper sticker, but they do not follow Christ in obedience. They serve self and do not deny themselves for the Kingdom of Christ.
*Faith with works
For the one who has yielded his life to Christ, his works of obedience are the expression of biblical faith. Works of faith, or works of obedience toward Christ, stand in contrast to works without faith, the works of perceived self-merit, or the dead works of legalism. James discussed works that are done because of submission to the Lordship of Christ (James 2:18-26). James said that works "show" faith (vs. 18) and "perfect" faith (vs. 22). This makes clear that the works being described by James are not merely a derivative of faith, or the result of faith, they are an integral part of saving faith. This is why James said that "a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (vs. 24).
James presented two examples to support his point; Abraham and Rahab.
James argued that Abraham's faith was in some sense incomplete apart from obedience to the Lord (James 2:20-24). Of course, some will remember that the Bible says in Genesis 15:6 that “Abraham believed in the Lord and it was counted unto him as righteousness.” That is a correct statement. Others might remember that, according to James, Abraham was justified when he expressed his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. That is a correct statement. So, in which of these instances was Abraham first saved? Neither one.
The Bible says in Genesis 12:1-4a – “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him.”
The Bible says this in Hebrews 11:8 about the passage we just read: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went...” Abraham was saved by faith when he first obeyed God.
So, what does the Bible mean by these other references to Abraham’s justification? This will not be accepted by those who think that one moment with God settles a person’s eternity, but the fact of the matter is, salvation is not merely a one-time event. It has a beginning (at our conversion) but it is a state that must be continued in by our ongoing choice. Our salvation is derived from a faith that is constantly being reafﬁrmed and reinforced as we live our lives in obedience to Christ. It is not only that we "were saved" at some point in the past. We are "being saved", and on a continual basis we are "receiving the end of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls" (1 Peter 1:9). This happens each day as we continue in faith - faith that is characterized by loving, obedient actions. Paul told the Galatians: "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love." Understanding this allows for a straightforward reading of those passages that speak of works or acts of obedience as having saving signiﬁcance for the believer.
When Paul teaches that we "sow to the Spirit" by "well doing" and as a result "reap eternal life", he is speaking of the believer's good works as they are acts of obedience, or acts of faith, and how they have saving significance for the Christian. So, Abraham was saved, when by faith he obeyed God and left Ur. But his obedient faith did not stop there, nor did his need for justification. Walking in faith includes believing in the Lord (which Abraham did in Genesis 15:6) and obeying the Lord (which Abraham did when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command). Both are indicated when one obeys the Lord. Abraham did not have faith without works, nor did he have works without faith. He had a faith that works. He had an obedient faith. Both Genesis 15:6 and the account of Abraham being willing to offer Isaac were reaffirmations of faith on his part, and his justification on God’s part. For faith is continuously reaffirmed and reinforced as we obediently follow Christ, and our justification is continuously reaffirmed and reinforced along the way. So, by faith were his works made perfect, and by works was his faith made perfect. If Abraham had not continued to act on his belief in the Lord, if he had refused to obey God, then his faith would have been incomplete. His justification would have been in jeopardy. There can be no justiﬁcation apart from a faith that obeys.
Similarly, Rahab the harlot demonstrated her faith in God through her actions when she hid the spies in her home and helped them escape (Joshua 2:4-6, 15). According to Rahab's words, others in Jericho at least “believed” in, in the sense of acknowledging, the God of the Israelites (Joshua 2:9-11), however, only Rahab actually expressed that belief through her actions, so only she was saved.
When James spoke of the "works" by which a person is justiﬁed, he was not speaking of the "deeds of the Law" that Paul discussed (the Law of Moses), nor was he speaking of works of perceived self-merit (as if any of us have been sinless and have not needed God’s mercy). The Christian is one who has decided that life is all about following Christ. When by faith we obey the call to surrender to the Lord’s rule over our lives, God in his mercy declares us righteous by forgiving us of our sins, yet that is only the beginning of salvation. We must continue in faithful obedience. We must abide in Christ. We must not depart from the living God. What we learn from James is that for the believer in Christ, each act of obedience has saving signiﬁcance because it is an expression of our faith. We do not have to be afraid of acknowledging an association between faith and works as the two relate to justiﬁcation. We thus truly "work out our salvation" through these acts of obedience, because of the influence of God.
This information may make some people feel uncomfortable because of the defective theology they have been taught. We can refer people to what a theologian or preacher said, or we can point them to the words of the Bible itself that a man is "justiﬁed by works" (James 2:24). It is appropriate to say that we are saved by faith, as long as we understand saving faith to be an obedient faith. It is appropriate to say that we are saved by works (as James said), as long as we understand saving works to be the works of faith. It is common to hear people say that what we do has no part in our salvation, because the Bible says "all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." Is this what the Bible teaches, or have some people taken this out of context to support their own theology?
Isaiah 64:6 says – ““But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” If that was the only thing said in this context, maybe we could come to the conclusion that nothing we can do could ever please God. But if we read the previous verse, it says: “Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved.” God does not say that works of obedience are as filthy rags, only the “self-righteous works” of a rebellious people. Israel at that time was going through the motions of religion, giving lip service to God, but their hearts were far from him, and instead they were serving sin.
I was asked once, by someone that I correspond with, if I think we can avoid sinning. My answer is this: Each of us has sinned. No one ever gets to a point where we are unable to sin. But the Bible says this in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Based on what God says, yes, I believe we can obey God and say no to any temptation. I am not one that teaches, because I don’t believe the Bible teaches it, that a person that sins somehow instantly loses his salvation. The Christian is in a relationship with God, and when we sin, God does not forsake us, rather, he will convict and chasten to bring us to repentance and reconciliation (Hebrews 12). But my understanding is, that a follower of the Lord can cease to abide in him. He can harden his heart toward God’s correction, he can refuse to repent, and he can fall away, and forfeit his justification.
“Whoseover transgresseth, and abideth not (does not remain) in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God, He that abideth (remains, continues to follow Christ) in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.”
Is your faith being reinforced and reaffirmed by your obedience? Or are you depending on a one-time moment you had with God a long time ago?