The perennial struggle of the good Christian is the relationship between faith in Jesus Christ and the life we live, or good works. Do works have a role in our salvation? Are works necessary in any capacity to inherit eternal life?
This relationship is at the root of many denominational differences. On the one hand, some churches drift toward works-based salvation, where the sinner cooperates with grace and never fully receives justification until death, if at all. This is essentially the position of the Roman Catholic Church on salvation. On the other hand, some churches drift toward a total rejection of any ethical or behavioral standard, even after salvation has taken place. This is the practical position of many evangelical/nondenominational/seeker-sensitive churches.
Are either of these positions rooted in Scripture? I’m not a proponent of always looking for a via media, because it assumes that we’ve reached the extremes on both sides and that the truth is in the middle. Who’s to say the middle way can’t be just as wrong as the extremes? If you’re asking the wrong question, every answer will be wrong, as well.
Scripture must reform our understanding of the relationship between faith and works, and the Confession is a helpful summary of Scripture’s teaching. The next paragraph on justification says,
“Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
We must be crystal clear that justification is the declaration of righteousness by God the righteous judge. In the context of asking the question, “Who can boast about being saved?”, Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). This is not a scenario where Paul only mentions faith or only mentions works; he clearly mentions both and says whether faith or works has a role in our being justified. Without hesitation, we are justified by grace through faith.
When speaking of the place of the rite of circumcision to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). He’s not speaking about the good works we normally think of, such as walking old ladies across the street. Christians are not Boy Scouts. He’s speaking of a clear command from the Old Testament, one that signified entrance into the covenant.
But under the new covenant made in Christ’s blood, Paul has the guts to say that circumcision is a practice that carries no significance. He doesn’t even argue that baptism has replaced circumcision, thereby making baptism necessary for salvation. He simply and clearly says that even religious good works don’t move the needle. Only faith whose object is Christ Jesus can do that. Faith “is the alone instrument of justification.”
Now we come to the reason why a middle-way is not all that useful. We must articulate a biblical position, not a pragmatic one.
Faith alone is the mechanism of salvation. No good works merit God’s action. But faith brings good works with it, which also have been decided in God’s foreknowledge. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
God gives faith, and God gives us good works to do. Faith does not even come from good works; it is a gift. From beginning to end, we live and move and have our being by grace. The good works we do are even prepared for us by the one who gave us faith. And we perform these good works, throughout the rest of our natural lives, still by grace, for Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Salvation never stops being completely a gift and a work of God.
If God has prepared both faith and works, and if faith comes first, then works are evidence of faith. This helps us better understand what James means when he says that faith without works is dead. James goes on to say, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17).
But what about when James ties together faith and justification? He also says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21)? And what about a few verses later when he says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v.24)?
Those two verses are often used as prooftexts that you are required to do good works to be justified. But the hinge of James’s argument is actually few verses earlier: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (v.18). James is arguing that we should not separate faith and works at all! And that is actually Paul’s argument, as well. Paul is saying that God declares us just by faith. James is saying that we demonstrate our faith by our works. Justification is both a declaration and demonstration. We must take the argument of the author in context.
You say you have faith, but it is not saving faith if it is not accompanied by the works that God has prepared or you.
Next time, we’ll try to understand how Christ’s sacrifice made our justification a reality.