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Saved - faith or works?

Jamie Johnson
20-21 October 2009


Are we saved by faith or works? I recently took a quiz on Facebook called Which famous theologian are you? My result was Jonathan Edwards. I agree with predestination and God initiating the process of salvation, which is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. I saw results of others who took the quiz and saw things like we are saved by a combination of works and faith or even by works alone. I find these as incorrect conclusions, although I am not at any place to question the salvation of the persons who buy into these views since I cannot see the heart. I will instead go to a better source -- the Bible.

Not by works

Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. When I mention faith in this document (unless otherwise specified), I am referring to faith in Christ alone (as we can place our faith in idols and in all kinds of errant things). Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "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." That is one of the clearest verses that salvation is not by works. Romans 14:23b says that "everything that does not come from faith is sin." That means I am incapable of pleasing God without faith. So, without faith, my works are sin -- even the "good" ones since they come out of selfish motives and a faithless heart.

Yet, any reasonable person knows that works have a place in the Christian walk, but not in salvation. James 2:14-26 shows that faith is accompanied by works and that a true faith will produce good works. Some try to justify a salvation-by-works perspective with verse 24: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." However, in the full context of scripture -- even those verses just mentioned in this document, one can see that salvation is by faith alone. The justification James speaks of is that doing good work justifies that one's faith is genuine. Remember, though, that the genuine faith in Jesus is what saves. One could not even hope to do genuine good work if one did not first have faith in Christ (more on that later). 1 Thessalonians 1:3 summarizes it well: "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (emphasis mine). So, works have their place. It is a bowling alley. One gutter says that we are saved by works, which is incorrect. The other says we are saved by grace, which is correct, but then errs in not doing good works which, according to James 2, is dead faith. First, God moves, then faith occurs, then good works occur.

No Good

In and of ourselves, we are no good. The scriptures are clear on this. Isaiah 64:6 says the following:

  "All of us have become like one who is unclean,
     and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
     we all shrivel up like a leaf,
     and like the wind our sins sweep us away."

Also notice that even our righteous acts (works) are like "filthy rags."

Even Paul speaks to this in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." The Greek for "love" is αγαπη (agape). This love is only in Jesus. And this fits with Romans 14:23b that anything done outside of faith is sin. Even the great things Paul mentions are worthless outside of Christ:

These are all potentially good things, but they are worthless if not based in the love of Christ, which is only available in Christ.

Psalm 53:3 speaks similarly of our inability:

"Everyone has turned away,
     they have together become corrupt;
     there is no one who does good,
     not even one."

Jeremiah 17:9 says the following:

"The heart is deceitful above all things
     and beyond cure.
     Who can understand it?"

Romans 3:21-24 confirms the above scriptures, but also emphasizes salvation by faith (belief): "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."

Initiated by God

So the key is belief. Yet, do I choose to believe God or does He choose me? God chose His elect. There is much debate about the idea of election, but Scripture is clear as shown in the many verses, which support election, predestination, or God having chosen His people. Matthew 24:24, Matthew 24:31, John 6:44, John 6:70, John 15:18-20, Romans 8:28-30, Romans 9:11, Ephesians 1:4-6, Ephesians 1:11-12, 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, Titus 1:1, 1 Peter 1:1, 1 Peter 2:9, and others. This is a topic that is more involved than the purpose of this article, but if you would like to explore it more, please read my article CALVIN AND ARMINIUS -- Predestination AND Free Will. With regards to choice, if we claim we made a choice for salvation, Who worked in our hearts to enable us to even make that choice given the aforementioned scripture above proving our depravity? Looking back, I remember making a choice for Jesus (I was quite Arminian in my thinking at that time), but I see clearly how the Holy Spirit had His hand on me to make that choice before I made it. I could not have chosen Christ without Him first working in me. Before Christ, the only choice we had was which type of sin -- subtle or overt -- to engage in.

Believe

I mentioned earlier that the key is belief. "Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). It was by faith (belief), Abram (Abraham) was saved. And Abraham's works flowed out of that. Romans 10:9 states, "That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." John 6:29 says, "Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’" John 6:40 again reveals Jesus' words: "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." And finally, one of the most famous verses of all -- John 3:16 -- starts another set of verses capturing the need for faith (belief): "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:16-18).

Do you believe? Then may you produce good works by the work of the Holy Spirit. Do you not believe? Then perhaps the Lord has brought you to this place, to these words, and is working in your heart to believe. For it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that you are saved. Then out of that may His good works flow.


Links

CALVIN AND ARMINIUS -- Predestination AND Free Will

And though I don't agree with every word from the below sources, these are some interesting readings from 1997 (Hebraic Roots of Christianity) related to salvation: