Faith or works. The issue we humans have been arguing about since nearly the beginning of its creation, and surely will be until its end. The Bible says that all you need is faith, doesn’t it? But doesn’t it also say that we are justified by our works? Which one is true? All of these are excellent questions, but there is no simple answer. I could write an entire book on this subject, and many already have, but I’ll do my best to sum up this sensitive subject in a couple of blog posts. Let’s look first at the argument for faith:
A SAVING FAITH
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:16-18
These verses make it clear that it is faith in Christ that saves, nothing else. But what about the argument for works? James 2 seems to be a favorite for this side, although I’ll give my own perspective on it in a minute:
…OR SAVING WORKS?
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and 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? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
“18But 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. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and 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. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2:14-26
It’s a big chunk I know, so let’s unpack it a bit. Many use this as proof that we must do things to be saved. We must follow the rules and spend every possible moment being as efficient and productive as possible so God will accept us. The thing is, we’re not that important. God doesn’t need us. He’s not up in heaven wringing His hands hoping we’ll come through for Him. No! He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He doesn’t rely on us to get things done. When Moses was too cowardly to face Pharoah, God used a stick instead. He literally could have delivered an entire nation with a twig. We think far too much of ourselves.
It’s interesting that Jesus Himself didn’t even spend every waking moment helping everyone He possibly could. He spent three years of His life doing that, and certainly, He did some before then, but He the majority of His life in relative obscurity. Yes, He commands us to do much for His kingdom and certainly, most of us don’t do enough, but our salvation is not dependent on our productivity. No, it’s dependent on His Grace! Thank goodness for that, because if we had to earn our way to Heaven even the most productive of us would fall short.
GOD’S TRUE DESIRE
So, if faith isn’t enough and works isn’t everything, what saves? That’s where the complicated part comes in. Yes, faith is what saves us, but notice how James says we are to identify true faith: by its works. He states plainly that faith without works is dead. Now as we’ve already seen, this isn’t because the works themselves save, but because they are proof of real faith. Simply saying you believe in Christ is no proof that you truly do- even the demons do that! Certainly, their faith in God didn’t save them, but what they chose to do with it.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:11,16-17
As we have discussed much on this blog, God doesn’t just want lip service. He isn’t pleased by us obeying all the rules and looking like good Christians. No, He wants our hearts. If He just wanted us to do whatever He said, He would have just created robots, never planting the one tree that allowed us to choose something other than Him. But He wanted us. He wanted a people that loved Him not because they had no other options, but because we chose Him over all else.
Now, we can have a better understanding of the faith and works arguments, plus better insight into the desires of our God. Next week, we’ll delve further into the purpose of faith and works and determine the balance that must be struck between them.