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.

*Photo by Jon Zenor, Copyright 2010 Jon Zenor Photography.*

The link between wealth and salvation

Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” – Luke 19:8-10

Both this passage and Luke 18:18-27 mention a link between wealth, what you do with that wealth, and your salvation. What is this link, and what does it tell us about our salvation?

Two noticeable events take place in this passage. The first is Zaccheus declaring that he is giving away over half his money, and the other is that Jesus announces that he is saved. At first glance appears like a cause and effect, the cause being that Zaccheus gives away his wealth, and the effect is that Jesus declares that he is saved.

This idea also looks to be backed up by the passage in Luke 18 where a rich man asks Jesus how he can have salvation and Jesus replies saying to give away all of his wealth. The rich man then walks away sad and Jesus says to his disciples that it is impossible for the rich to get into heaven.

There is something you have to remember about reading the Bible though. You cannot take certain passages in the Bible and base doctrines on those passages, you have to take the Bible as a whole. A lot of times concepts are explained and then later on they are refined or more detail is given.

So then how do we reconcile this with verses such as Ephesians 2:8-9?

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

The passage in James 2 ties these two concepts together perfectly and clears any cloud of confusion that some may have. James says “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? … Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14,17)

A person is not saved by any work they do, no matter what it is, because our sin is so great to God that no amount of our “good works” could make up for it. It is only through our faith in Jesus Christ that we can have salvation, and by nothing else. But when you have faith, you will have good works as a response to your faith. It is not something you have to make yourself do, it is out of an act of love.

I love my wife, and because I love her I do things for her, help her out around the house when she isn’t feeling well, or buy her her favorite chocolate as a surprise when I am at the store.  These acts do not make her love, the acts do not make her my wife, they are just acts of kindness that I do in response to my love for her.  Faith in Christ works the same way.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

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

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. – James 2:21-26

Abraham was not saved because of his actions. Abraham took action because of his faith, they work hand in hand. If Abraham did not have faith, then he would not have acted.

Zaccheus was saved that day, but not because he gave away his wealth, but because he had faith in Christ. Once Zaccheus had faith his wealth was meaningless to him because he had Jesus. Zaccheus acted out of response to his faith in Christ. Jesus then announced that he was saved because Zaccheus had faith, and he also had evidence of faith in his works.

The rich ruler in Luke 18 wanted Jesus, but he wanted his riches more. He did not have faith or he would not have cared about his riches.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. – Matthew 13:44

When you are saved through your faith in Christ you have a heart for God, and a heart for others. At that point the things of this world should seem meaningless as you pursue Christ and the kingdom.

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. – James 1:27

If you have wealth, how are you using that for the kingdom of God? Are you just spoiling yourself? Are you staying “unspotted from the world”? As a professing follower of Christ you should be pursuing the things God wants you to pursue, and if you are not then why not? Do you put Christ before your family even? (Luke 14:26)

Are you really putting Christ first in your life?

If Jesus confronted you today, would he say “today salvation has come to this house” or would he say “how hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God”?

The choice is yours.

Saving Faith

We all know that it is faith alone in Christ’s sacrifice that saves us, not any work we do. This does not mean, however, that to have faith means that you don’t have to do anything to show it.

James 2:1414 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

James is not contradicting the Biblical teaching that we are saved by faith and not by any works. It’s true that no amount of good works can save you at all. But, what kind of faith does one have if it is never evidenced by works?

Do you see the difference?

Jesus gives us a life changing spirit when we accept Him, so how can someone truly believe and not be affected by that spirit?

Paul even recognized the need for good works when he wrote 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.

One way to say it is “Faith alone saves, but faith that saves is not alone.”

James 2:15-1715 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,
16 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?
17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Someone who has the love of God filling them will desire to help out a fellow Christian. It does no good to just offer religious advice and then send them on their way. Faith needs to take action, and more than just prayer. Yes it’s true that if we pray for someone God will provide for them, but sometimes he expects US to be that provision.

When someone is in need, prayer alone is not the answer. We need to step up and help out, especially with the most basic of needs. “Be warmed and filled” shows that the person in question knew what the needs were, they just refused to help meet those needs.

If someone has faith, but doesn’t put action to that faith, then what good is it? God has work for us and we need to do it. God filled us with love and we need to display it.

James 2:18-1918 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.
19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe, and tremble!

Some people may say that some have the gift of works, and others the gift of faith, or that some are called to works, but this is wrong! Faith is demonstrated through works.

The appeal of James is clear and logical; we can’t “see” someone’s faith, but we can see their works; you can’t see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by works.

Demons believe in God, but they don’t have an active faith. We need to have an active faith.

James 2:20-2420 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
21 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?
23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Abraham was justified by faith way before he was asked to act upon it. The action did not develop Abraham’s faith, but it was an evidence of it. If Abraham did not have faith then he would not have had that action. Works and faith need to work hand in hand. Works must accompany a genuine faith because genuine faith is always connected with regeneration.

As Charles Spurgeon said: “The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul.”

James 2:24-2625 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Rahab is another example of someone who was not saved by their actions, but their actions proved that they were saved.
Rahab demonstrated her trust in the God of Israel by hiding the spies and seeking salvation from their God (Joshua 2:8-13), yet her faith did something; her belief in the God of Israel would not have saved her if she had not done something with that faith.

The lesson from Abraham is clear: if we believe in God, we will do what He tells us to do. The lesson from Rahab is also clear: if we believe in God, we will help His people, even at our own expense

Just as you can have a body without life, you can also have faith without works. Both are dead and mean nothing.

Our faith must be accompanied by good works.