What is the relationship between Faith and Works

A battle has raged for centuries between Christians who believe works are a part of our salvation along with our faith and those who believed that faith alone in Christ alone is the basis for our salvation. Those who believe that we must do good works as well has have faith will most often point to the Epistle of James as well as a few other Bible passages in support of their view.

The soteriological ping pong match between the Apostle Paul and Apostle James

Soteriology is the study of then doctrine of salvation.  In many ways Paul’s discussion of works in relation to salvation and James discussion of works in relation to salvation could be seen as a virtual “soteriological  ping pong match”.

James says:

“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” – James 2:20 (KJV)

Paul responds:

“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5 (KJV)

James says:

“21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” – James 2:21-23 (KJV)

Paul responds:

“2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.

3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” – Romans 4:2-3 (KJV)

James says:

“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:24 (KJV)

Paul responds:

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” – Romans 3:28 (KJV)

So as we have shown the Apostles Paul and James seem to be saying very different things about works in relationship to our salvation. But when we understand that these two men were both inspired by the same Holy Spirit to write the words they wrote then we know there can be no contradiction. This means we must understand what these men were saying together.

Neither Paul nor James were saying our works after our placing our faith in Christ are unimportant. In fact right after Paul said that we are justified apart from works he said we still uphold the law:

“28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law…31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” – Romans 3:28 & 31 (KJV)

But Paul was putting our works into proper context. Following the law apart from faith cannot save us. Paul makes this abundantly clear to the Galatians:

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” – Galatians 2:16 (KJV)

Paul later shows us that our works rather than being part of our salvation are an evidence of our true faith.

They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” – Titus 1:16 (KJV)

Christ shows us though that while works may be evidence of a genuine faith other times works are just a show to gain power or have a sense of self-righteousness apart from a genuine faith in God:

“22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” – Matthew 7:22-23 (KJV)

Notice the key phrase in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew – Christ said “I never knew you”. He did not say “I knew you but you fell away”.

So what was James telling us in James chapter 2?

“20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” – James 2:20-26 (KJV)

James shows us that just as there are two type of sanctification(positional and practical), so too there are two types of justification.  There is positional justification before God and there practical justification before men.

James was showing us examples of how people like Abraham and Rahab showed evidence of true and genuine faith in God by their obedience to God. They were justified before men by their works. But make no mistake, it was their faith that preceded their obedience that justified them before God.

Justification by faith alone is the only we can know peace and cast out fear

If the book of James were the only book of the Bible that spoke on the subject of our salvation then we might come away with the impression that we are saved by our faith and by our works. But when we compare the book of James to the rest of the New Testament we know this cannot be the case.  To say this is the case would bring Christ himself and  the other Apostles into direct conflict with James and we know that God’s Word never contradicts.

Therefore we must interpret James by the overwhelming weight of the New Testament witness that we are justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

I have had many good Christian friends, both Protestant and Catholic who are on the other side of the aisle on this issue of the relationship between works and grace. What I have told them is “There is no peace if our salvation is based both on our faith and our works.”

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” – Romans 5:1 (KJV)

When you believe that your works are also a part of your salvation then you will never truly know peace but will instead always be fearful of losing your salvation.  God tells us though that when we are in Christ we should no longer have “a spirit of fear”:

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – II Timothy 1:7 (KJV)

It should not be fear of losing our salvation that that compels us as believers to follow God and do good works – but instead it is our love for Christ and our appreciation for what he has done for us.

“14 For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:

15 And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.” – II Corinthians 5:14-15 (KJV)

There is no doubt that there are some “hard sayings” in the Scriptures.  But we must remember that the clearest statements of Scripture always interpret the less clear statements and the weight of Scripture interprets Scripture. So if the vast majority of clear statements in the Scripture say one thing and another passages seems to say something different we must interpret those passages in light of the majority of the Scriptures.

We should never allow the hard sayings of Scripture to cause us to doubt our salvation or be in constant fear that we will lose salvation. Instead we must embrace the love of God the casts out fear.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” – I John 4:18 (KJV)

For fuller discussion of the Gospel itself see my article “What is the Gospel?

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