The New Testament records that New Covenant believers were first called Christians at Antioch. What did it mean, to these first century believers, to live the Christian life? What sets Christians apart from unbelievers and adherents to other faiths? Is it primarily what we do, or what we believe? More importantly, is God more concerned with belief or behavior? The Scriptures teach us that true Christianity involves both faith and works.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 5:23). Because of the Christian understanding of the universal nature of the sin problem, it is helpful to begin this discussion with the concept of Justification. Christians admit that the sin evident in the life of every individual renders that individual unfit for the life of worship for which they were created, and unworthy of enjoying the presence of God in eternity. Hence, God graciously made a way that all men could be restored to their privileged status of fellowship with God, and avoid the eternal death worthy of their rebellion. This is the general idea of Justification. Myer Pearlman defines justification as “a judicial term meaning to acquit, to declare righteous, to pronounce sentence of acceptance” (p.227, 1937). John Wesley is more direct, stating that “the plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, forgiveness of sins” (Rost,1996). This is the New Birth described in the gospel of John chapter three. It is the end of a life of rebellion against God, and the beginning of a life of conforming to His image. Thus, Christianity is about both New Birth and subsequent New Life. Conversion produces consecration.
How does the sinner enter into communion with God? Scripture teaches us it is by faith. In the Gospel of John chapter six, Jesus says “the work of God” is that men “believe on Him” (6:29). In this same chapter He states that everyone who sees and believes on the Christ will have everlasting life and take part in the Resurrection (6:40).
The Apostle Paul emphatically preaches that the basis on which receive God’s grace is faith. In his letter to the Romans he famously states that men are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (3:28). This is from the pen of a former Pharisee, whose zeal for the law drove him to become a persecutor of the Church. In his Epistle to the Ephesians he states, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast” (2:8,9).
John addresses the importance of faith to the Christian again in his first epistle, writing, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1). The Christian life is in its essence one of faith. There is no salvation experience without a belief in The God of Scriptures and a confidence in the work of Christ on the Cross. We are saved by faith. The writer of Hebrews even seems to indicate that Old Testament figures were saved by faith (Hebrews 11). There is no room for debate. Christians must not lose sight of the fact that justification is received through faith.
Faith becomes the foundation for character in the life of the Christian. Christians submit God’s commands because they have confidence in His wisdom. The life of the believer is patterned upon the Holy Scriptures because of belief that these Scriptures were inspired and preserved by God. It matters a great deal what one believes, because these beliefs inform our behavior. This is true of the Christian life. While faith is the means by which individuals receive God’s grace, this grace will always lead to good works. Paul expressed this idea in his letter to Titus, writing that “The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts we should live soberly, righteously, and Godly in this present world” (2:11,12). This indicates that grace is involved, not only in justification, but also in subsequently leading the believer into a life of holiness, characterized by good works. One would almost get the impression from listening to some sources that to insist upon the necessity of good works in the life of the believer is antithetical to the idea of dependence upon grace. But those who insist upon the outward evidence of inward faith are well within the boundaries of Scripture.
It is not difficult to see the necessity of good works proclaimed throughout the New Testament. In Mark 7, Christ addresses the accusations of the Pharisees concerning washing of hands, eating utensils, etc. He proclaims the spiritual truth, that it is the things which come forth from within men that defiles them. He proceeds to describe a list of things that might comes from within, defiling men. They are listed as follows: “Evil thoughts, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (7:21,22). The emphasis on good works is prominent in the synoptic gospels, but is not overlooked by John’s gospel. Readers should note the commands of Christ to specific individuals to the lame man healed at the Pool of Bethesda in chapter five, and the adulterous woman saved from execution in chapter eight. In both cases Christ commanded, “Go and sin no more” (5:14,8:11). These commands are clear appeals for repentance from sin and conversion to a life of good works. Additionally, John records the words of Jesus describing the future resurrection in which those who have done good will be partakers of the “resurrection of life” and evil doers will be partakers of the “resurrection of damnation” (5:29). These instances are examples from the Gospel which is more commonly associated with belief than works. This should be particularly noted when confronting the false narrative that the New Testament passages teaching the necessity of good works are antithetical to those teaching justification by faith.
The Pauline Epistles speak harmoniously of the prominence of good works in the life of the Christian. For instance, Ephesians 2:10, immediately following a clear statement of the doctrine of justification by faith, states that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Furthermore, in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts Christians to know how to conduct themselves in a way that is pleasing to God. He then calls for Christians to avoid sexual immorality, dishonesty, be industrious and give generously to the needy (1 Thess. 4). These are all describing good works in the Christian life.
And no discussion of this topic is complete without mentioning the content of James’ epistle. In 2:14, James asks rhetorically if professed faith devoid of works is profitable. He then asks, “Can faith save him?” The Scriptural answer in this context is no. This man’s faith cannot save him. After an illustration, James then states that faith without works is dead. This is the dead faith that cannot justify. Many stumble at this truth, feeling that it contradicts justification by faith. Some will ask if the necessity of works means that God’s grace is insufficient without man’s efforts. Never let it be said to be so. Rather, it is all of grace! Man responds to God’s grace by faith. Christians are led into good works by God’s grace. These works are not a basis on which Christians can commend themselves to God, but they are a necessary proof of salvation. True justifying faith results in obedience to God (i.e. good works). They are proof that the Christian is continuing in faith. By contrast, faith that lacks the quality of being “lived out” is dead and unprofitable.
Good works in the Christian life are the product of faith, and the proof of true faith, but it should not be said that good works are merely the product and proof. The basis of salvation is God’s grace not man’s work. But man’s work has a prominent role in his salvation. Where does this effort of man come into the picture? Does the truth of justification by faith allow for Christians who have genuinely been converted to rest comfortably knowing that their salvation is complete and their eternal destination cannot be altered by their actions? The Scriptures clearly say no. Paul writes to the Christians at Philippi and says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Phil. 2:12 KJV). What is this working out? It is easily seen that sinners cannot work enough to earn salvation. Saints cannot work enough to deserve God’s gift of grace. But grace that has been freely given and received is to be appreciated. How do we show that we value and appreciate God’s gift of salvation and the sacrifice of Christ that merited it? By continuing in good works. The writer of Hebrews leaves no question about the saint turns back to sin and no longer regards the sacrifice of Christ. That former believer, at one time sanctified, becomes destined for the wrath of God reserved for God’s adversaries, and is more deserving of judgement than those who were punished under the Old Covenant because of their disregard of Christ’s sacrifice, (see Hebrews 10:26-31). The professing Christian who takes his salvation for granted and speaks smugly of his security should take heed to these Scriptural teachings.
In summary, Christians should take care not fall into the trap of pitting one New Testament writer against another in a theological debate. To do so is to undermine the doctrine of Inspiration. It is important to remember that while there are many human writers, there is one Divine Author, who is the ultimate authority on every issue. Many have fallen into this trap regarding the writings of Paul and James concerning the respective roles of faith and works. But as demonstrated above there is harmony on this issue throughout the Gospels, Pauline Epistles, and General Epistles.
The danger that Christians must avoid is emphasizing one of these truths at the expense of the other. It would be easy to read James 2:24 without any regard to context and say that Christians must achieve their salvation by earning it through good works. On the other extreme one could read Romans 4:5 isolated from the rest of Scripture and attempt to justify a sinful lifestyle as long as the brazen sinner grants an intellectual assent to the existence of God, deity of Christ, and truth of God’s Word. Both would be a dangerous distortion. As with other issues, the Scripture presents a much more balanced view than what some might conclude through careless reading. Every believer should be immersed in the Scriptures. This will lead us to a balanced, healthy understanding of the role of faith and works in the life of the believer.
Pearlman, M. (1937). Knowing the doctrines of the Bible. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.
Rost, S. (1996). A Heritage of great evangelical teaching. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.