Faith, Works, and Salvation
Have you ever been so scared by a passage in the Bible that you could not sleep at night? This has happened to me more than once, most recently by this passage in Matthew.
“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. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ – Matthew 7:21-23
Sometimes reading that passage makes me stop and think “Is that talking about me?” When I die, will Jesus say to me ‘Well done good and faithful servant,’ or will He say ‘Depart from me, I never knew you?'” This question can be scary, very scary.
For one, you do not want to be doing everything you can to serve God, only to find out you missed out on the most important thing, the treasure that God actually wanted from you. But also you do not want to go through life thinking that everything is fine, only to reach the final moments and find out your one way ticket to heaven was nothing more than a sham, sold to you by Satan and your betraying flesh.
What it means to be “Saved”
When a Christian says he or she is “saved”, what does that mean? What is it exactly that we are saved from?
The most obvious answer that comes to mind is that we are saved from hell, to heaven (John 3:16). But more than that, we are saved from sin, to righteousness – to good and righteous works God has called us to do (Romans 6:18, 22, 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 2:10). But one of the most important things we are saved for, is for the glory of God. That’s right, we are saved so that God can get glory (Romans 15:7, 1 Corinthians 10:31, Philippians 2:9-11).
How many people will be saved? Not many.
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13-14
Examine Your faith
Salvation is important. It brings God glory, empowers us to do the good work God has for us, and it saves us from the damnation we deserve. But it is clear that only a few will find it, and many will think they have found it but will be deceived (Matthew 7:21-23).
For this reason Paul tells us to examine ourselves to make sure that we are saved.
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified. – 2 Corinthians 13:5-6
What Faith is Not
This brings us to a crucial point. The few passages we have looked at so far makes it seem like faith and works are the same thing. But they are not.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
This passage shows us there is a difference between faith and works. Faith saves us, not works. Remember the first passage we looked at, Jesus rebuked people who were doing good works, but lacked faith, lacked a relationship with Jesus. Jesus said “I never knew you” which shows us that it is the relationship God wants from us, not our works of healing, casting out demons, building churches, or giving to the poor.
Works themselves mean nothing. Isaiah 64:6 says that our good works are worthless, that “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”
Are Works Meaningless?
Those passages make it clear that it is only by faith that we are saved, our works mean nothing. So are works not important?
Actually, works are crucial to a Christian’s faith. “Wait a second” you are thinking, “You just said works mean nothing, we are not saved by works and all our good works of righteousness are as filthy rags, how can they, at the same time, be crucial to a Christian?” It does seem a bit contradictory at first, but dig deeper in to scriptures.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? – James 2:14-20
So we are saved by faith, not by works, yet faith without works is dead and such a faith does not save you… confused yet? Just hang on a little bit longer.
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. – 1 John 2:3-6
This is a cause and effect situation here. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Which comes first, the faith or the works?
You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. – Matthew 7:16-18
And there Matthew sums this all up so nicely for us. When we accept Christ, when we put faith in Him, something real happens, we are literally changed, transformed, the old person has passed away and a new being is created (2 Corinthians 5:17). This does not mean that we never sin (that topic will be covered in another article). The only way we can be sin free is to be in a new body, as long as we are trapped in these earthly bodies we will sin (Romans 7).
But our spirit is made new and the Holy Spirit indwells within us. It is this which gives us the desires to do good works and gives us the ability to do good works. Good works do not save us but they are the evidence that we are saved.
Just as a good tree only produces good fruit, a Christian, someone who is saved by faith, produces good works. Not because the works are required for salvation or give us merit at all, but because our nature changes completely. It is something we can not help.
When I was in college – several years ago – I was a math major. In High school I could do math without a calculator. I could solve the most complex calculations in my math class with nothing more than an occasional scratch piece of paper, but I could not write to save my life.
Just recently I took an algebra class and struggled through it. I could not comprehend the math. I barely got a B in Algebra and Trig, and ended up getting a C in my pre-calculus class. But I aced every one of my English and writing classes and (so I am told) I write fairly well.
This is an example of my nature changing. I went from being a math wiz to being a writer. No amount of work on my part can change what I am. I can practice and get by at math, but it will not come as naturally as writing does to me now.
In the same way a Christian cannot defy his or her nature. When we are still stuck in sin we cannot do good works except by our effort, it was a struggle, but now, after salvation, the good works are a natural response, just like breathing.
This shows how it is possible that works are important to our faith and salvation but do not save us, because they have nothing to do with the salvation part, they are just an example of that salvation.
How do I examine myself?
So how then, do we go about examining ourselves? The only thing I can say is to pray and read the Bible. Examine your life, your actions, your check book (where you spend your money), your thoughts, everything, against scripture. Are you living in sin that needs to be repented of? Are you doing works in the church on a daily basis but missing that relationship with God? Are you doing good works but feel that it is a burden to you?
Examine yourself, see what is keeping you from having a relationship with God, what is keeping you from the Bible. Use natural works, the ones you enjoy and are not a pain to perform to see if it is a natural response or something you are (subconsciously) trying to fake.
Romans 10:17 says that “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” I cannot stress enough how important the word of God is in our seeking God. Read it every day, even more often in times of examining yourself spiritually.