Does our faith alone bring about salvation? Or are good works also required? Some scriptures tell us that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’ (like the letters of Paul), where others seem to suggest that good works are also needed (like the book of James). So, what gives?
Firstly, the very phrase ‘faith alone’ is perhaps a misleading one. Faith is an active thing. There is simply no such thing as a totally passive Christian faith. For starters, it’s not practically possible to make a genuine decision to trust and follow Jesus without some kind of initial action. It may be a quiet prayer of repentance and commitment, or a public response to an altar call, or whatever. In any case, this real-world response is a vital part of any faith awakening. So, when we say that ‘faith alone’ saves us, what exactly are we talking about? Some inert, hidden feeling without any conscious or active step in God’s direction? Clearly not. Genuine faith is always acted upon, even in such simple ways as these.
This is powerfully modelled in Abraham’s act of trust when he offered up Isaac in obedience to God (see Gen 22:1–19 and James 2:21–22). In that moment, he revealed his faith by his action (an action so laden with total trust that I can honestly never imagine doing the same). So, when we talk about there being some conflict between the idea of salvation ‘by faith’ or ‘by works’, we must think very clearly about what we mean. Surely, when Biblical writers like Paul talk about ‘faith alone’ being sufficient for salvation, they don’t mean that a faith with no outworking of any kind is valid, or even possible! Instead, they teach that we do not ‘earn’ our way to right-standing with God through good works alone, as though they themselves are atoning events (meaning, events that cancel out our ‘sins’, restoring us to right relationship with God without the need for an accompanying faith). It is our active trust in Christ’s own atoning work that saves us, which gives birth to responsive works even in the midst of our first faith step. Faith and actions are distinct, but intimately tied. If faith is the seed, good works are the fruits that prove the seed’s true planting.
The writing of James is peerless in its handling of this issue. It reminds us of the necessary signs and fruits of a heart-felt faith after the time of salvation (see James 2:21–23 and 2:14–18). While this teaching may at first seem to conflict with ‘faith alone’ teachings, it affirms that the relationship between our faith and our actions is inseparable. Our action becomes a public evidence for the sincerity of the ‘faith seed’ from which it came. Here’s one very simple example: If I were to say that I am a committed vegetarian, but then go on to eat meat daily without a second thought, clearly my ‘beliefs’ about not eating animals aren’t genuine. So it is with God. Our works in the world prove the reality of our faith.
Based on this, works are a necessary part of any real Christian faith. In reply, I hear you ask, “Where is grace? I thought grace covered everything, and my works don’t matter?” Grace is still present in abundance. While obedient actions are a necessary evidence for our faith, this doesn’t mean that sins or failures invalidate our faith decision. God’s ‘second chances’ never run out and his mercies are new every morning. By the immensely practical teaching of James, we’re simply encouraged to regularly observe ourselves, asking the all-important question, “Is the outward expression of my life turning towards the image of Jesus or away from it? Does it approve or rebuff my claim to faith?” Either way, we have read the signs, and we learn how we’re traveling.
Perhaps this is all best summed up by the single verse of James 2:18:
Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith apart from your works.
I will show you my faith by my works.
Of these three lines, the middle is almost a dare from James to his unnamed ‘someone’! “Just try it”, he says. “Just try to show me your faith apart from your works” (suggesting that it’s impossible). Then, he offers the truth that faith and works can’t be separated. While not sufficient for salvation in themselves, our actions serve as necessary evidence for the truth of our belief.