Faith and Works

by Joel Ramshaw (2009)

This study will seek to examine the apparent conflict throughout the New Testament on the relationship between faith and works in regard to justification. Scriptures that apparently conflict will be examined, and a basic word study of the original biblical Greek will be performed. The end-result will be to seek a way in which the scriptures can be reconciled if possible. 

The subject of faith and works is one of the most crucial issues that can be examined. What one believes on this issue affects the beliefs on the entire subject of salvation, which is the most important doctrinal subject to have a correct understanding of. Interestingly enough though, there is a large amount of disagreement within Christianity on the exact nature of how faith and works relate to our salvation.

Some have taken a stance that to be saved, one must not only believe in Christ’s atoning work, but also repent from their sinful lifestyle and commit to a life of obedience to Christ. Others, take a different stance. That is that all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus atoning death and resurrection. You are encouraged to clean up your lifestyle, but this is seen as more of an act of gaining heavenly rewards than of staying in salvation. A few people even believe that you must be very stringent in obedience in every matter, including details such as Sabbath-keeping.

So what do the scriptures say on this? It would seem that since the Bible cannot contradict itself on such important matters, the answer should be evident. Unfortunately this is not the case. There are verses that can be taken either way. Some passages such as the parable of the talents[1] suggest that believing in Jesus is not enough for salvation, but one must be doing something to serve God with their life. Other passages such as Paul’s famous statement, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast,”[2] seem to say that only faith is needed.

 On the other hand James puts in, “But do you want to know O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”[3] Another verse says, “Now ‘if the righteous man is scarcely saved, where will the sinner and ungodly appear?’” This verse seems to indicate that there is a degree of righteousness God expects to even be “barely saved.” Jesus also says, “If your hand sins cut it off, for it is better to enter into life maimed than to have two hands are be cast into hell.” This implies that certain habits of sin can keep one out of salvation, thus making repentance to righteous living a prerequisite for salvation. One the other hand when asked what one should do to do the work of God was Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”[4] It can therefore be seen that there are scriptures that can be taken either way to support each view. It is not “obvious” either way from simply examining scripture.

The next step is to take a look at the original Greek. Perhaps the words “faith” and “works” meant something different in the original languages than the meaning we take in English. The Greek word for “works” is “ergon” which means: deed, action, or manifestation.[5] The meaning is not significantly different than we have in English. The Greek word for faith is “pistiv.” This word does not simply mean “faith” however, but also has the meaning “faithfulness.”[6] This implies a measure of commitment on us as receivers of salvation. If the verses about “faith in Christ” really have a dual meaning of “faithfulness in Christ” then this could present a solution to the problem of reconciling the two passages. James is not only meaning that faith without works is dead, but more understandably is saying “faithfulness without works is dead.” That having “faith” means also having “faithfulness” or we are taking one essential aspect of salvation out, and having only a dead belief.

So what does Paul mean then when he preaches that we are not saved by works, but by faith? Is Paul saying that we can be faithful to Christ yet without works? Is James calling Paul a “foolish man” for believing that salvation was through faith alone and needs no lifestyle change? Would Paul rebuke James for being a legalistic Pharisee for preaching that works were necessary for salvation? This is where the misunderstanding comes from. We too often forget that Paul and James were two separate authors each with their own intents, vocabulary, and writing style. Could it be that the “works” Paul teaches on, and the “works” James refers to are two entirely different things? It does not make sense that James and Paul would have so quickly part theology on such a basic doctrine as salvation.

What seems to have happened is that James and Paul actually believed the exact same theology on salvation and they were preaching against two entirely different perversions of the doctrine. When digging into the books of Paul it can be seen that Paul often uses the phrase “works of the law” when he writes that works are not necessary for salvation. “Works of the law” are entirely different types of behaviours than the works James describes.[7] James tells us that “true religion is to visit orphans and widows in their time of need and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” These are the things Jesus preached were part of the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, certain sets of believers known as Judaizers were trying to say that it was necessary for Gentiles to basically “become Jews” to obtain salvation. This included circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and the rest of the Torah laws. These types of works are what Paul preached against when he sarcastically speaks (regarding circumcision), “having begun in the Spirit are you now perfected in the flesh?”

If we believe that we need to follow the Jewish Laws in order to stay in salvation, then we are missing out on the entire point of salvation. There would be no difference in lifestyle than there was previously in Judaism. The whole point of salvation is that we are not longer under the curse of the law. When Paul speaks against “works” other passages show that his phrase “works” is short for “works of the law.” Paul is not teaching that we can suddenly slack off our works of love and obedience once we are saved. He is simply teaching against following the Old Testament laws that we are no longer obligated to keep.

There is an extra grace for mistakes in the New Testament, but not if that grace is presumed upon to live a wanton lifestyle. 2 Peter chapter two is clear that people who live like this are storing up wrath against themselves in the judgement.[8] In the apostles day there were a brand of false teachers called antinomians who taught that sin was no longer a problem since because of Christ we have unlimited grace.[9] The apostles had to preach fiercely against these teachers to counteract this heresy. This heresy of antinomianism is beginning to remerge in this modern day and age. The idea that living a godly lifestyle is an option that God wants but does not at all require.

The fact is, when someone tells Christ that they love Him, if they really mean it they will want to obey Him to please Him, rather than do the exact opposite and live a selfish lifestyle. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love Me you will keep My commandments.” If we do not therefore commit to obeying Christ’s teachings, we are telling Him that we do not love Him. This is a very scary place to be in.

So the solution can be seen that we do not need to perform the “dead works” of the Jewish law in order to remain in salvation. We do however, need to repent and commit to a lifestyle of obedience. The heart attitude is what is important though. And there cannot be a good heart attitude towards God without good works always following this.

The thief on the cross did not have time to live a good life before God, but it was his heart attitude of repentance from sin that mattered. He did not just believe in Christ, but he had genuine remorse over his sin. In fact, even in his difficult circumstance, out of his repentant heart he did a good work and confessed Christ to the other thief. That work was not at all necessary for salvation, but it goes to show how when there is a repentant heart there will always be good works following. Repentance is not a statement, it is an attitude of the inner heart.

When Paul says that salvation is by faith alone, he does not mean that it is a free ticket that we take, then live our selfish life with our faith packed away in our wallet, and check it in for eternal life when we die. No, to have saving faith… “faithfulness,” we must be seeking to obey God. Rather than seek the minimum requirements anyways, we should be giving our all to Him in thanks because He gave His all to us. John says “He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”[10] Though we should give our all for Christ, this not a requirement for salvation, but having a repentant heart is what is really necessary.

            Salvation itself comes when we simply express a heart of repentance and trust in Christ, not the works. The fact is though, that repentance is completely different than just “believing” that Jesus is Lord. Repentant is a lifestyle change that must involve being transformed to do good to others. Seeking to sin as much as possible while barely committed enough to remain saved is not at all true repentance. This is a false repentance that has no power to save. True repentance seeks to obey Christ, not to “earn” salvation, but to thank and respect Him for what He has done.

Paul and James were not at all at odds with each other, but as it can be seen they were discussion two entirely different types of “works.” They also both would have understood that “faith” also meant “faithfulness” and saving faith is when both of these work together. They were not at all at odds with one another. Neither were their teachings. Faith and works are not two competing aspects of salvation, but rather they are mutual and complementary. Though salvation is completely by grace, we need to be faithful to Christ in order for Him to give us that grace.

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[1] Matthew 25:14-30.

[2] Ephesians 2:8-9.

[3] James 2:20.

[4] John 6:29.

[5] Bauer Arndt Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 307.

[6] Ibed 668.

[7] Tremper Longman III, and David E. Garland, Hebrews ~ Revelation, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 239.

[8] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Paul, The Daily Study Bible, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 391.

[9] P.G. Matthew ThM, “Antinomianism,” Grace Valley Christian Center, (accessed December 14, 2009).

[10] 1 John 2:4.