“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith
but does not have works? Can faith save him?”
This question presented in the Scriptures nearly 2,000 years ago remains for many Bible students a point of confusion and contention. What does God really require of those that seek to serve Him? Is my faith enough, or is there something more? Should I simply trust in God’s ability to save, or do the works of my life affect whether or not the Lord will redeem me by his grace?
Can faith alone save?
While some scriptures may appear to complicate the question, the Lord is emphatic that faith alone will not satisfy the conditions of his salvation. In the same place that the question is presented, James also makes several revealing statements about the significance of works in our salvation. He explains, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” [James 2:26]. Evidently, faith that is unfruitful, not yielding the good works characteristic of a Christian, is hardly faith at all. Faith alone, he says, is dead. The relationship between faith and works is further explained in James’ comments concerning Abraham: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” [James 2:21-22] Faith and works function together in our salvation. True faith will always bear the fruit of good works and good works legitimize true faith. So can faith alone save? James says no. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” [James 2:24].
Other passages offer the same conclusion. Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” According to Jesus himself, acknowledging him as Lord, though essential in our salvation, is not enough not to fulfill his will and find entrance into the Kingdom. The Apostle John reiterates this truth through the Spirit when he says, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” [1 John 2:4]. In this passage we make a crucial observation – to know God means to serve God, carefully following His commandments. To profess a relationship with the Lord on the grounds of faith alone, the Spirit explains, is a lie. For this reason, John explicates further in the next verse, saying, “But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. [1 John 2:5]. Interestingly, the relationship between faith and works is so close Jesus teaches that they are one in the same. John 6:29 records, “Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.’” According to Jesus, faith itself is a work!
What about Grace?
There is no doubt that obedience in the form of godly works serves an elemental part in the whole plan of salvation. James noted that by works we are justified [James 2:24] and Paul even goes so far to say that we are judged by our works. He says: “[God] will render to each one according to his deeds” [Romans 2:6]. But if this is so, what about grace?
While works certainly have a place in our salvation that is not to say that the works themselves actually save. Consider Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Being created in Christ our life’s purpose is to perform the good works designated by God. This is evident in verse 10. Yet, in the previous verses the writer explains we are saved by grace through faith, not of ourselves and not of works. A proper interpretation of this passage reveals a tremendous truth of the Scriptures. Salvation is a gift given by God according to his grace – it is not earned nor can it ever be attained by any number of good works. In this way we might say that although godly works are required for salvation works are not in themselves a means of acquiring salvation. This point may be best explained in Titus 3:4-5. Paul says, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit…” We know the Lord requires our obedience [Hebrews 5:9]; yet it is only through the mercy of God found in the sacrifice of his Son that salvation is attained. Works are required for salvation, but it is not the works themselves that save us from our sins.
Having this understanding we see that grace is not at all minimized in the Bible’s teachings on good works. No human element on it own is sufficient to obtain salvation – not works, not repentance, not baptism, not even faith. While these are all required conditions placed on our salvation, nothing can replace the essential place of God’s grace in the plan of our redemption.
Knowing that works have a vital role in the salvation of a Christian it should come as no surprise that the value of these works is a central theme of the New Testament. Paul says in Titus 3:8: “This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.” In the same book, God makes an interesting point about the nature of a Christian: “[Christ] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” [Titus 2:14]. God’s people are defined and identified by their zeal for good works! Good works are not merely a valuable compliment to our faith in Christ; they are the fruit of true faith abundant in the lives of God's children!
Faith alone will not save – the Lord says such faith is dead being alone. However, true faith manifested in godly works will invite the grace of God by which we are saved for eternity with Him!