Have you ever sometimes observed two Christians debating over a particular point of theology? Both are quoting verses at each other as if God speaks more out of one side of His mouth then the other! One says, “Well, what about . . . ” and quotes some Bible verse in support of his cause. Then the other replies, “But did you ever read . . . ” and quotes his supporting verse; Neither one stops to consider the implications of their contest. Are both right? In Scripture, does God say one thing in one place, and the opposite in another?
This is the same I feel with those who argue over the relationship of faith and works to salvation. One argues that the apostle James says “You see that a man is justified by works, and not faith alone,” and the other counters, “However, the apostle Paul says, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift from God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.'” If one means we are saved by works, and the other that we are saved without works, and both mean salvation and works in the same sense, then both cannot be true.
Two of the more common errors that have plagued the Church throughout history are salvation by works, and antinomianism. Salvation by works means being save by human effort. Various forms of this error are: Salvation by keeping the law; Salvation by baptism; Salvation by obedience and continuance in the faith; And many more. But the Bible teaches as clearly as words make possible that salvation is by grace through faith, and not of works. Paul, in writing to the church at Ephesus says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift from God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9). Speaking of Abraham’s salvation Paul writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2). In Romans 11:2, Paul explains, “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:5-6). To his young friend Timothy, Paul says: “Who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9). To show that no works of any kind can justify, Paul says God justifies ungodly: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
The second error is saying that good works are “unnecessary in a salvation accomplished by God’s grace.” This is the error known as antinomianism. There are various forms of antinomianism. One in particular is the idea that because Christ’s death has forever paid the price of sin, and since this forgiveness is ours only through faith, then the Christian is free to live as he pleases. He may choose to be obedient and follow Christ, or he may choose not to follow Him. The former is a “disciple,” the latter a “Carnal Christian.” But in each case, their salvation is as certain. The Bible, however, teaches that good works are indispensable to salvation. The writer of Hebrews puts it like this, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The Apostle Paul writes, “Who gave himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deed” (Titus 2:14). “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for Good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). And our Lord Jesus Christ warns, “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
It may seem confusing to some that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, and that good works are indispensable to salvation. But as Gorden H. Clark explains: “The relation between faith and works is really very simple and easy to understand, even though from age to age so many people entertain confused notions about it. The relation is that faith is the cause of good works and good works are the effect of faith. This simple causal relation removes the notion that good works are the basis of our justification and, as well, the notion that good works are unnecessary in a salvation accomplished by sovereign grace.” We do not do “good works” to merit God’s grace, but we do good works because we have received the grace of God. The Good works we do are from a heart that has been radically changed by the grace of God. This is what James has in mind when in writing about the relationship of faith and works: “But someone may well say, you have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works'” (James 2:18). And, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so to also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). For James, salvation is impossible without good works because good works are the evidence of a true living faith.
Not only do good works give evidence of a true and living faith, but they also express our love and gratitude toward God. Our Lord makes it simple: “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we love Christ, then we will do “good works.”
Good works also glorify God. Our Lord said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Our one aim in this world should be to glorify our Father. Jesus tells us this is accomplished through the good works of His people.
The good works we do will also strengthen our assurance that we are saved. Throughout Scripture we find examples of those who profess Christ, but later turn out not to be saved. One example is Demas. Although Demas was at first Paul’s fellow worker in the gospel, he later abandons both Paul and Christ (2 Timothy 4:10). Another example is found in Acts 8:13, where it states “And even Simon himself believed” and was baptized. However, as the story unfolds, Simon was clearly not a true believer. So how are we to have assurance we are saved? One way in particular is by our good works. Our good works helps to assure us that we are saved.
Peter put it like this: “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you” (2 Peter 1:10-11). “These things” that we are to do Peter lists in verses 5-7. By doing “these things,” say Peter, we gain assurance of God’s calling and election.
We must keep two things in mind when it comes to faith and works in our salvation. First, we are justified (made right with God) through faith in Christ alone. Second, the faith of those who are saved is never alone. Whom God justifies, He also sanctifies. In keeping these two Biblical teachings in mind you will avoid two errors that have plague the church throughout history– Salvation by works, and antinomianism.