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Last time, I discussed an issue that I believe is frequently misunderstood within the church. As part of a larger collection I am working on, I want to stay with that theme in this blog. This material is a bit more in-depth than my normal writings, but it is necessary given the breadth of the topic.
This time, I am interested in the claim that salvation comes through faith alone, without respect to our works. While it would be wrong to lump everyone into the same group—as views certainly vary—I firmly believe that a great many people within the Protestant church affirm this perspective; they do believe and teach that works play no role in our salvation.
There are a variety of historical issues involved, but one is probably central to this movement. The Protestant Reformation brought about a rejection of many things that were considered to be essential within the Roman Catholic Church, its emphases on ritual and procedure being among them. The Protestant mantra of “salvation by faith alone” fit the bill, though the claim would be that this view was derived by a rediscovery of Scripture: something that was not especially allowed prior to that time. This is of course a vague explanation of the situation, but it hits at the heart of the issue. A close look into the writings of the Reformation leaders reveals that the intention was not to eliminate works from the discussion. However, the impression was strong enough to last. Whether intended or not, subsequent generations of Christians came to believe that we are saved apart from anything we do: no works necessary!
But first things first: what are “works”? Works take on several connotations throughout Scripture. One prominent type of works is the 613 commands—or laws and ordinances—God gave to the Israelites through Moses. Anything involving the sacrificial system, food laws, temple requirements, feast days (special Sabbaths), and many others, have been rendered obsolete because of Christ’s atonement (Col. 2:13-17). If this set of commands were what most of us meant by “works”—like the “works of the law” that Paul often referred to (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 2:16)—there would be no issue, since we are clearly not obliged to keep them.
But I am not talking about this definition of works. Rather, I am referring to our moral actions and conduct. You might even prefer to call these “deeds,” in the modern sense of the term. Do we follow the Ten Commandments? Do we give of our time and money to charitable causes? Do we care for others the way the Bible instructs us to? Do we follow the guidance of the Spirit? These things, and many more, are the “works” I am discussing here. Often, these works are seen as completely separable from salvation. You can have the latter without the former.
Now that we have established exactly what is at stake, we are prepared to see what the Bible reveals on the matter. Let’s begin with Paul’s instruction to the believers in Ephesus, since it is one of the most referenced verses on this issue. There, he tells them: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (2:8). Indeed, we are all saved by grace. That is, no one warrants salvation by their own deeds or actions alone.
This is easily one of the most important things to understand within this entire discussion. Jesus aside, there has never been a human being who deserved to know God and to live with Him for the rest of eternity solely because of the quality of the life they lived. God will not look at any mortal and declare, “Now that person is so virtuous that I have no choice but to save him/her!” The Bible is emphatic: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Apart from God extending grace—or unmerited favor—to us, we would all be unworthy of salvation. Further, no amount of good works could ever outweigh our sins. Salvation is not a scale where our works must balance out our sinful deeds. As God sees things (and has revealed in Scripture), good conduct does not eliminate bad conduct. It simply doesn’t operate that way.
Regardless of how kind, decent, charitable, etc., we are, we would still need to be forgiven. This is entirely the point of the Atonement, and it is why neither atheism nor any false religion can offer salvation. No one can be saved apart from the work of Christ; his blood, and nothing else, is the agent of salvation. Sin requires a sacrifice. I have stated this point as clearly as I possibly can, so I sincerely hope it has hit its mark.
However, that is not the end of the matter. The fact that no one warrants salvation by their own works does not mean that works play no role in salvation. Let that sink in for a moment . . .
The reason why is simple but strangely complex: we are saved by faith, but faith cannot be detached from works. Put another way, true faith in Christ is accompanied by works. Perhaps the most famous passage of Scripture that deals specifically with this issue is James 2:14-26. There, James—the half-brother of Jesus—details several important facts: 1) The debate about faith and works is as old as the church itself 2) There is no faith without works (vv. 17, 20, and 26) and 3) Works actually prove faith (v. 18). James explicitly referenced Abraham—who is perhaps the greatest OT example of this teaching—because he was willing to offer his only son as a sacrifice when God commanded him to (Gen. 22). His action proved his faith: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected . . . You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:21-24, my emphasis).
Imagine if Abraham had responded to God’s directive like this: “You know I believe in you Lord, but I see no need to prove it.” If Abraham had not been willing to follow through with his faith in God—no matter how difficult that would have been—it could not have been said that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Faith is proven by action.
Sometimes, our works even include the things we choose not to do. Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example of this (Lk. 10:30-37). In this teaching tale, the two recognized men of faith (the Levite and the priest) failed to act, whereas the despised Samaritan man came to the victim’s aid. This shows us that a failure to put faith into action either renders it useless or proves that it wasn’t authentic to begin with. Whatever the case, the lesson is the same: faith and follow through (actions, deeds, works) are inseparable. Both are necessary for salvation. James summarized this well also: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22).
The last point worth mentioning is that Jesus was consistent in teaching that works matter, and matter greatly. In addition to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus presented the same general message—that those who do are declared to be faithful—in many other parables (Talents, the Sheep and Goats, etc.). As if this were not enough, he directly stated that we will be judged based on our actions. “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:1, my emphasis). He made a nearly identical statement in Matthew 16:27, as did Paul in Romans 2:5-6. Notice that Jesus did not say the reward will be rendered according to our inward thoughts, or what we consider doing. Rather, he said it will be based on the actions we carry out.
This statement of Jesus comes to mind: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Mt. 5:14-15).
As it turns out, the question— “Are we saved by faith or works?”—is fundamentally flawed. The answer is neither faith nor works, but simply yes. Salvation comes by our faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and our subsequent works based on this faith. If we take “salvation by faith” to mean “we are saved without respect to our actions,” we have terribly misunderstood the gospel message. Further, ask yourself if that belief is logical. We will either be saved or condemned without respect to how we live our lives . . . does that really make sense? Alternatively, if our theology places our works as the saving agent or that which absolves our sins, then we have made a mockery of Jesus’ atoning work at Calvary.
In the end, I believe this entire misunderstanding comes down to two major problems. The first is a failure to recognize that the “works of the law” (that Paul described) are not the same as the “works” of faith (that James described). The former no longer apply to Christians, but the latter certainly do. The second problem is one involving personal responsibility: it is simply easier to believe that salvation occurs wholly apart from our actions than it is to accept that we have a part to play. If Jesus “did it all,” then nothing is left for us to do.
Every ounce of responsibility would be lifted from our shoulders. There is no doubt a warmth in that thought, but as Sister Aloysius said in the movie Doubt, that “warm feeling” is “not the sensation of virtue.”
The view that works play no part in salvation is both pervasive and dangerous. In fact, I can think of nothing that would more naturally lead to spiritual lethargy and an utter lack of motivation to do good works. And that is why this issue matters, and matters greatly.
For more on these issues, and a host of other interesting phenomena, see my new book God Made the Aliens.