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Faith and Works

What is Faith?  Why is Faith without Works Dead?

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James says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). Faith without works is a dead faith because the lack of works reveals an unchanged life or a spiritually dead heart. There are many verses that say that true saving faith will result in a transformed life, that faith is demonstrated by the works we do. How we live reveals what we believe and whether the faith we profess to have is a living faith.

James 2:14–26 is sometimes taken out of context in an attempt to create a works-based system of righteousness, but that is contrary to many other passages of Scripture. James is not saying that our works make us righteous before God but that real saving faith is demonstrated by good works. Works are not the cause of salvation; works are the evidence of salvation. Faith in Christ always results in good works. The person who claims to be a Christian but lives in willful disobedience to Christ has a false or dead faith and is not saved. Paul basically says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. James contrasts two different types of faith—true faith that saves and false faith that is dead.

Many profess to be Christians, but their lives and priorities indicate otherwise. Jesus put it this way: “By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:16–23).

Notice that the message of Jesus is the same as the message of James. Obedience to God is the mark of true saving faith. James uses the examples of Abraham and Rahab to illustrate the obedience that accompanies salvation. Simply saying we believe in Jesus does not save us, nor does religious service. What saves us is the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts, and that regeneration will invariably be seen in a life of faith featuring ongoing obedience to God.

Misunderstanding the relationship of faith and works comes from not understanding what the Bible teaches about salvation. There are really two errors in regards to works and faith. The first error is “easy believism,” the teaching that, as long as a person prayed a prayer or said, “I believe in Jesus,” at some point in his life, then he is saved, no matter what. So a person who, as a child, raised his hand in a church service is considered saved, even though he has never shown any desire to walk with God since and is, in fact, living in blatant sin. This teaching, sometimes called “decisional regeneration,” is dangerous and deceptive. The idea that a profession of faith saves a person, even if he lives like the devil afterwards, assumes a new category of believer called the “carnal Christian.” This allows various ungodly lifestyles to be excused: a man may be an unrepentant adulterer, liar, or bank robber, but he’s saved; he’s just “carnal.” Yet, as we can see in James 2, an empty profession of faith—one that does not result in a life of obedience to Christ—is in reality a dead faith that cannot save.

The other error in regards to works and faith is to attempt to make works part of what justifies us before God. The mixture of works and faith to earn salvation is totally contrary to what Scripture teaches. Romans 4:5 says, “To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” James 2:26 says, “Faith without works is dead.” There is no conflict between these two passages. We are justified by grace through faith, and the natural result of faith in the heart is works that all can see. The works that follow salvation do not make us righteous before God; they simply flow from the regenerated heart as naturally as water flows from a spring.

Salvation is a sovereign act of God whereby an unregenerate sinner has the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” poured out on him (Titus 3:5), thereby causing him to be born again (John 3:3). When this happens, God gives the forgiven sinner a new heart and puts a new spirit within him (Ezekiel 36:26). God removes his sin-hardened heart of stone and fills him with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit then causes the saved person to walk in obedience to God’s Word (Ezekiel 36:26–27).

Faith without works is dead because it reveals a heart that has not been transformed by God. When we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, our lives will demonstrate that new life. Our works will be characterized by obedience to God. Unseen faith will become seen by the production of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22). Christians belong to Christ, the Good Shepherd. As His sheep we hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:26–30).

Faith without works is dead because faith results in a new creation, not a repetition of the same old patterns of sinful behavior. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

Faith without works is dead because it comes from a heart that has not been regenerated by God. Empty professions of faith have no power to change lives. Those who pay lip service to faith but who do not possess the Spirit will hear Christ Himself say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23).


Recommended Resource: Faith Alone, The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters by Thomas Schreiner

GotQuestions.org, "Why is faith without works dead?", https://www.gotquestions.org/faith-without-works-dead.html

The simple answer is that salvation by works seems right in the eyes of man. One of man’s basic desires is to be in control of his own destiny, and that includes his eternal destiny. Salvation by works appeals to man’s pride and his desire to be in control. Being saved by works appeals to that desire far more than the idea of being saved by faith alone. Also, man has an inherent sense of justice. Even the most ardent atheist believes in some type of justice and has a sense of right and wrong, even if he has no moral basis for making such judgments. Our inherent sense of right and wrong demands that if we are to be saved, our “good works” must outweigh our “bad works.” Therefore, it is natural that when man creates a religion it would involve some type of salvation by works.

Because salvation by works appeals to man’s sinful nature, it forms the basis of almost every religion except for biblical Christianity. Proverbs 14:12 tells us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Salvation by works seems right to men, which is why it is the predominantly held viewpoint. That is exactly why biblical Christianity is so different from all other religions—it is the only religion that teaches salvation is a gift of God and not of works. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Another reason why salvation by works is the predominantly held viewpoint is that natural or unregenerate man does not fully understand the extent of his own sinfulness or of God’s holiness. Man’s heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and God is infinitely holy (Isaiah 6:3). The deceit of our hearts is the very thing that colors our perception of the extent of that deceit and is what prevents us from seeing our true state before a God whose holiness we are also unable to fully comprehend. But the truth remains that our sinfulness and God’s holiness combine to make our best efforts as “filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6; cf. 6:1–5).

The thought that man’s good works could ever balance out his bad works is a totally unbiblical concept. Not only that, but the Bible also teaches that God’s standard is nothing less than 100 percent perfection. If we stumble in keeping just one part of God’s righteous law, we are as guilty as if we had broken all of it (James 2:10). Therefore, there is no way we could ever be saved if salvation truly were dependent on works.

Another reason that salvation by works can creep into denominations that claim to be Christian or say they believe in the Bible is that they misunderstand passages like James 2:24: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” Taken in the context of the entire passage (James 2:14–26), it becomes evident that James is not saying our works make us righteous before God; instead, he is making it clear that real saving faith is demonstrated by good works. The person who claims to be a Christian but lives in willful disobedience to Christ has a false or “dead” faith and is not saved. James is making a contrast between two different types of faith—truth faith that saves and false faith that is dead.

There are simply too many verses that teach that one is not saved by works for any Christian to believe otherwise. Titus 3:4–5 is one of many such passages: “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 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.” Good works do not contribute to salvation, but they will always be characteristic of one who has been born again. Good works are not the cause of salvation; they are the evidence of it.

While salvation by works might be the predominantly held viewpoint, it is not an accurate one biblically. The Bible contains abundant evidence of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8–9).


Recommended Resource: Faith Alone, The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters by Thomas Schreiner

GotQuestions.org, "Why is salvation by works the predominantly held viewpoint?", https://www.gotquestions.org/salvation-by-works.html

We believe in eternal security, that is, once a person is born again by the power of God, he is saved forever. Jesus gives “eternal life” (John 10:28), not temporary life. But we often get questions having to do with losing faith. How is salvation maintained? What if someone had saving faith at one time in his life, but later loses faith? Are good works necessary to sustain faith? Are we really secure in Christ?

There are four basic approaches to the issues surrounding faith, works, and security. The first approach is to say that you must have faith and continued obedience to be saved. You will not know for sure that you’re saved until you die and your life is finally evaluated by God. Then you will be saved or lost based on your performance in life. This is the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the thought of many Protestants. However, this approach does not adequately explain the teaching of Scripture that we are saved by grace through faith and that salvation is something that takes place here and now—not just in the afterlife.

The second approach to the relationship of faith, works, and security says that you are saved by faith to the exclusion of works. In this line of thinking, if you profess faith in Christ and subsequently repudiate your faith or embrace gross sin, you are still saved, because you are saved no matter what you do. This approach, sometimes called “easy believism,” does not take seriously the warnings in Scripture that emphasize personal holiness and enduring faith.

The third approach to faith, works, and security states that you are saved by faith, but you must somehow maintain your salvation through a combination of faith and works—or at least you must avoid flagrant, unrepentant sin. In other words, you may be saved, justified, born again, adopted into God’s family, and indwelt with the Holy Spirit yet still fall away and ultimately be lost. While this approach does take seriously Scripture’s warnings against sin, it still does not properly account for the many passages that speak of assurance of salvation, not to mention that we are saved apart from our works.

The final approach to faith, works, and security affirms that you are saved by faith based on the merit of Jesus Christ who died for you. In a great exchange, your sin was placed on Christ, and His righteousness was placed on you. The result of being born again and indwelt with God’s Spirit is that He begins to change you from the inside out. Your inner change becomes outwardly visible by continued faith and increasing obedience. If you profess faith in Christ but offer no evidence of a changed life, we have good reason to suspect that your initial profession may not have been genuine (Matthew 7:21).

The first approach fails because it adds works to faith as the means of salvation and denies security. The second approach fails because it ignores the need for a changed life (see Ephesians 1:4). The third approach fails because it places on us the duty of maintaining salvation instead of on Christ where it belongs (see Galatians 1:1–3). The fourth and final approach is biblical. We are saved by faith, not by our own good works (Ephesians 2:8–9), yet we are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).

Many people talk about eternal security. The old Reformed term is perseverance of the saints. We persevere because the God who saves the believer is also the God who keeps the believer safe and enables him or her to continue in faith and good works (Philippians 1:6).


Recommended Resource: Faith Alone, The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters by Thomas Schreiner

GotQuestions.org, "What is the relationship of faith, works, and security in salvation?", https://www.gotquestions.org/faith-works-security.html

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