Faith vs. Works

Is faith really all God requires?

By Stephanie Ismer

Is Faith Really All God Requires? The doctrine of salvation by faith is one of the most easily misunderstood doctrines in the Bible. The reason for the misunderstanding is the apparent contradiction — or at least, paradox — of faith and works. James famously says "faith without works is dead" and makes the point that Abraham himself (the father of those who have faith) was justified not by faith alone, but by his works when he took Isaac his son up to the altar to be sacrificed (James 2:14-24; Genesis 22).

At the same time, the Bible tells us that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). So, which is it? Are good works necessary for salvation? Or is faith really all that God requires of us?

The key to understanding the faith vs. works conundrum is to make sure that the steps of salvation are clearly understood, and that they are in the correct order. The first thing that happens is regeneration, or what Jesus called "being born again" (John 3:1-8). In Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus we find out that a person must be "born of the Spirit" before he can enter the kingdom of God. This is the first step. God reaches out with intent to save (Romans 8:29). Of course, from a practical human standpoint, there is no way to know when this first step has taken place, and we really don't need to know. But knowing that it *does* take place is important.

The next step is repentance. Now that we have been born of the Spirit, something has changed. We are now in the light; we now recognize ourselves as sinful (Acts 2:37; 1 John 1:5-10). We hear God's voice in the Bible, leading us (John 10:27). We love the truth and we reverence the word (1 John 2:4-6). And as we read and understand more about Him, we recognize that we can do nothing to attain the standard He has set (Matthew 5:48).

This is the point at which the misunderstanding most commonly occurs. In response to the knowledge we now have, we have two choices: faith, or works. We can either trust Jesus Christ's righteousness and lean on Him, or we can trust in our own ability to please God. We know that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6), and most Christians will assert that faith is what saves us, not works. However, the human heart is very easily deceived (Jeremiah 17:9). What often happens is this: lip service is paid to faith, but we still operate as if God requires us to work.

The Galatians made this mistake. In Paul's letter to them, he wrote, "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:2-3). But how can this be true, when James told the church that "faith without works is dead" and that a man must show his faith by his works? It must be that we have to prove our faith by doing works...right?

No — that is still depending on works for salvation. Whether the works come before or after the faith is irrelevant. If we are trusting on our works to save us, or to prove we are saved, we are still trusting our works, rather than Christ. So, what am I saying? Can we just keep on sinning because Christ died for us? Doesn't there have to be some change in behavior to show that we now belong to Him? Yes, but the works we do after we are born of the Spirit, repent and believe, are also God's work. Remember Ephesians 2:8-9, which says "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" and then verse ten: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

Sanctification (the process of becoming more holy, and more like Christ) occurs as a direct result of Jesus' work on the cross, for "...we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" and " a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:10, 14). This is wonderful news! It means that not only are not responsible to justify ourselves, we are not responsible to sanctify ourselves. As Christians, we will grow nearer to God as a result of His work in us — rather than as a result of our works.

This lifts a great burden off of our backs. We are now free to pursue God in love, instead of fear (1 John 4:18). If we sin, or make a mistake, or misunderstand some piece of doctrine, we are not condemned or punished, or allowed to fall (Psalm 94:18). We are gently set back on track and encouraged to move forward as we trust Him, and depend on Him (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Some will say that this kind of thinking leads to licentiousness, and that Christians who are given "free rein" will live in sin. This is not true. When a person is indwelt with God's Spirit, born of His Spirit, they are changed. Sin is no longer going to satisfy. A believer can sin, without eternal repercussion, but they are going to drag the Holy Spirit through that sin, and the Holy Spirit is going to be unhappy. Little by little, we learn not to do what grieves Him — not because we fear punishment, nor because we are trying to prove our salvation, but because we love Him and as children imitating a beloved Father, we want to walk as He walked (Ephesians 4:30; 1 John 2:4-6; 1 John 3:1-10).

Perhaps as you read this, you recognize that something is missing in your walk with God. Perhaps you realize that you have been doing things out of your own effort, or that you resent having to follow the rules and be a "good person." Maybe you do follow the rules outwardly, but secretly you are carrying around a secret guilt or sin. You are not alone. Let me encourage you to give up the fight. Stop trying to be good, stop trying to please Him. No human being will be justified by the law (Romans 3:20). Instead, "we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28). Jesus Christ is the only One who can please God, and He has done it, forever. Through Him, we are always in God's love (Romans 8:31-39). When you stop trusting yourself, and begin to trust Him fully to save you, there is a wonderful freedom — "for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).

Image Credit: Kersley Fitzgerald

TagsBiblical-Salvation  | Biblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | False-Teaching

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Published 11-10-15