Are we saved by faith alone or are we saved by faith and works (obedience/action)?
This is a topic I often hear debated in churches, and, admittedly, it is something I have often questioned myself. I recently gained a better understanding of it, and it’s something I’d like to share with all of you, and I’d like to do that by primarily using scripture to debate the topic rather than by simply sharing my own viewpoints.
First, I’d like to establish a few definitions for this blog post:
Grace: The power of God to change things to where they conform to his will.
Faith: “I heard and believed, and because I heard and believed, I obeyed.”
Works: Obedience (action) to what one believes in (faith)
Saved (sozo): The result of grace moving (a change of heart, a healing, a deliverance)
We are saved by grace through faith, resulting in works (obedience/action).
Below are two of the most debated scriptures on this topic:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not by your own doing;
It is a gift from God. Not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, Which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Issac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Both of these passages (the parts I made bold) seem to be saying exactly the opposite thing as each other, don’t they? One says we’re saved only by faith and that works aren’t what save us (Ephesians), but then the other one says a person is justified by works (James). However, they are not contradicting each other—they are complementary passages/complementing each other. You may notice how it talks about how we are SAVED in the passage of Ephesians, while in James it talks about how we are JUSTIFIED. Salvation and justification are not necessarily the same thing. Let’s briefly go over some more definitions so you can distinguish the difference between them.
Justified: declared righteous
Salvation: the effects of a move of grace
(e.g. a healing, deliverance, answer to prayer, repentance etc.)
The following are the Greek words for “saved/salvation”:
Sozo (verb) – saved, healed, delivered, protected, preserved,
made whole, kept safe & sound
Soteria (noun) – salvation, healing, deliverance,
For the first time the other day, I finally began to understand the passage in Ephesians. We are saved by grace through faith, but we are not saved by grace through works. If you read the passage in James, it (as I said above) talks about how we are justified. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” It isn’t works that save us, but works will follow if we have faith; we will begin to do the things that God commands us to do in the Bible, and our lives will begin to reflect the life of Jesus Christ.
“Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?”
Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, but we are also to bear fruit for the kingdom. This is why James stresses that works must accompany our faith; our faith is useless if we don’t actually do anything with it. If our “faith” is nothing more than what we say we believe, James says our faith doesn’t profit us nor others. And, if I might add, God is not interested in having children who do nothing of service to the people He sent His Son to die for. He saved us for the purpose of us doing good works. The passage in Ephesians makes that clear: it says we were created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing the good works God prepared beforehand that we should walk in. Therefore, doing good deeds (i.e. “works”) is a crucial part of being born again.
When we get born again, we are recreated by the Spirit of God to live differently than the way we were living before, which includes doing certain kinds of activities that the Bible calls “good works.” Examples of this in the Bible are preaching the gospel, baptizing people to Jesus Christ, helping people to receive the Holy Spirit, casting out demons, healing the sick, visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, almsgiving and charitable giving in general, doing the work of discipleship, and so on.
We are not meant to have a kind of faith that merely consists of saying we believe the right things. We are meant to have a kind of faith that moves us to be of great benefit to people in very practical, tangible, and useful ways. And, if we don’t have that kind of faith, James says we don’t have the kind of faith that will truly save us (from the wrath of God) in the end. God doesn’t respect dead, useless faith that inspires ZERO action on our parts. He does, however, respect and respond to faith that inspires us to get moving, to act, to make ourselves legitimately useful in the lives of others. That’s the kind of faith that draws an increase of God’s favor and blessing into our lives. That’s the kind of faith God is calling us to have in our walks with Jesus.
Matthew 7:24–27 (ESV)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus is God. So God essentially said if you not only hear His words but obey them (put them into practice, you’re wise. And, if you hear His words but don’t obey them, you’re a fool.
I think it’s clear that James agreed with Him, considering how he wrote the following:
James 1:19–25 (ESV)
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
In the above passage, James was essentially communicating to his readers, “If you’re a doer of the word (the message and teachings of Jesus/word of God), you’re a wise man and will be blessed accordingly; however, if you’re not a doer of the word, you’re deceiving yourself if you think God’s not going to punish blatant, ongoing, unrepentant disobedience (i.e., you’re a fool),” which is pretty much exactly what Jesus said, as we saw in the previous passage.
Based on these two passages in scripture, we can see how James’s thinking was in line with Jesus’s thinking as it pertained to faith and works: action has got to be put to faith—it must affect one’s life lived in practical, visibly demonstrative ways—or else it’s not the legitimate kind of saving faith the true gospel of Christ commands us all to have.
So I’ve spent much time talking about James’s perspective concerning faith and works. To summarize, James’s epistle emphasizes how faith and works are inseparable; they are a packaged deal. If we have the kind of faith the gospel requires us to have, we will do good works. If we don’t, then us being a person who doesn’t really do any good works like the gospel commands of us serves as strong evidence of that.
Now, the writings of Paul, which includes the book of Ephesians, do not disagree with all of this. He’s the one who wrote that by grace we are saved through faith. He’s also the one who wrote the following:
Romans 2:1–3 (ESV)
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
The heart of what Paul was saying when he wrote this is that how we live matters to God. It’s not enough for us to claim to believe the right things but then live however we want. We have a duty and responsibility to live the way God requires of us or else we cannot expect to escape His wrath. Let’s continue reading…
Romans 2:4–6 (ESV)
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing wrath up for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each according to his works.
Notice how Paul didn’t write that God will render to each person according to his “faith.” No. It says “works.” This makes it clear that Paul also believed it’s not enough to just believe something to be delivered from the wrath to come. Faith (which Paul called a gift from God when he wrote Ephesians 2:8) and works must be found together. If they’re not, you will be judged for doing nothing with what God gave you. (Read Matthew 25:13–30 to see what Jesus had to say about such a servant, particularly verse 26.)
Romans 2:7–10 (ESV)
to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
Paul clearly taught that we must do good. If we are not doing good (works), we are not obeying the truth, which commands that we do good works. James and Paul were in harmony with each other. Their writings don’t contradict each other, but rather they complement each other.
Now, I want to talk about a particular phrase in the Bible and bring some clarity regarding its meaning.
We are saved by grace through faith.
“By grace” means it’s grace doing the saving. “Through faith” means grace saves in response to an action-based faith. When faith moves, grace works. Hearing and understanding the gospel message inspires faith in a man’s heart (see Romans 10:17), which leads him to obey the gospel message by repenting and getting water baptized for the remission of sins (see Acts 2:38). When the man repents, grace changes his heart, thus saving him from having a heart for sin. When the man gets water baptized, grace neutralizes the power of sin in his body, which is a work of salvation. When the man lays hands on the sick, grace heals the sick person he gets his hands on.
This is the heavenly pattern: When faith moves, grace works. Grace does the saving, healing, and delivering (remember “sozo”?) but not apart from faith-motivated action. Faith-motivated action causes a move of grace, and the result we call a work of some kind of salvation.
Saved ← Grace ← Faith
Faith → Grace → Saved/Salvation
leads to leads to
Now let’s think for a moment.
Generally speaking, why does a man ever repent, get water baptized, or lay hands on the sick after hearing and understanding the gospel message? Because of the presence of faith! Faith motivates action. It motivates doing things that provoke moves of grace, which is God’s power to conform things to His will. Grace partners together with action-based faith to accomplish the miraculous. If there is no repentance, there is no true change of heart. If there is no faith-based water baptism, there is no powerful experience to be had with it. If there is no laying of hands on the sick, there is no healing.
Now, why would somebody not repent, get water baptized, or lay hands on the sick? No faith! Faith and action/works go together. It’s what Paul believed and taught, and it’s what James believed and taught.
I pray this post has helped to clear up any confusion you might have had concerning the controversy surrounding whether we’re saved by faith or works. If someone ever asks, “Are we saved by faith or by works?” now you will know to tell them “The answer is yes!” and then direct them to my blog