Salvation by faith or by works?
For all of my Christian life, I have been taught that salvation (entry into the family of God, into the Kingdom of God, and ultimately into heaven itself) is a matter of faith; faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and as Saviour and as Master. Not faith plus works, not faith plus anything; Faith and nothing else. And Scriptures that support that perspective are found in Romans 10 and in Ephesians 2.
Romans 10:9-10 (NIV) If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV) 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.
But is that the whole story? Along comes James (can you imagine what a struggle it must have been for James to be known as Jesus’ little brother?), who adds that faith without works is dead. Many have attempted to misuse this passage as justification for their perspective that says salvation by faith alone is incomplete and works must accompany the faith to validate it, to make it “saving faith”. However most theologians and commentators agree that James is actually teaching that a truly saved individual will exhibit changes that confirm his salvation, that salvation results in a desire to do the works of the Father (John 9:4).
James 2:14-19 (NIV) 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.
Jesus added that those who do not feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and give shelter to the homeless, regardless of any previous declaration of faith, are destined for eternal punishment. That is an explicit statement that they are not welcome in or admitted into heaven. People say that those who waiver in their obedience and do not show works commensurate with a walk of faith are not really saved and do not really believe in their heart that Jesus is Lord.
Matthew 25:41-46 (NIV) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So, if our faith in Jesus requires that we give evidence of said faith, what really constitutes “faith-based works”? Can we affirm that what we are doing (for God) is really the will of the Father? There were those (Matthew 7) who thought they were doing the right thing as they prophesied in Jesus’ name and drove out demons in His name and performed miracles in His name. But Jesus called them evildoers and said He never knew them.
Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV) “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!’
“Only the one who does the will of my father…” It is important to know God’s will. Jesus said that His true relations are those who know and do the Father’s will. At its most basic, the will of God is to repent of our sin and trust in Christ. If we have not taken that first step, then we have not yet accepted God’s will. But His will for us includes giving evidence that we are indeed His (Matthew 7:16).
Knowing God’s will is sometimes difficult because it requires patience. The important thing is that, as we wait for further direction, we are busy doing the good that we know to do (James 4:17). If we are walking closely with the Lord and truly desiring His will for our lives, God will place His desires in our hearts. The key is wanting God’s will, not our own. (Psalm 37:4).
Although our good deeds and works of faith (Ephesians 2:10) can be ample evidence of a repentant heart that is committed to Jesus, we must not fall into the trap of trying to prove our righteousness (our sanctification) by what we do. Remember that Isaiah said all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
So what happens if I drop the ball and fail to follow the urgings of the Holy Spirit as He encourages me to reach out to that homeless person or volunteer at the local soup kitchen? Am I locked out of heaven? Have I blown my last chance? I don’t think Jesus is talking about a onetime event or a missed opportunity; He is talking about a lifestyle of neglected opportunities and callous hardness to the plight of orphans and widows, of never feeding the hungry and thirsty and sheltering the homeless and tending the sick. As He said to Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep.
So, yes, I am saved by faith, but I must also do the work(s) of Him who called me.