The faith vs. works debate often comes up in discussions of salvation. There are many who say that a person is saved based on some mixture of faith and works. Biblical Christianity teaches salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any works we do. Perhaps the best place to start is to clearly define faith and works:
What is faith? Hebrews 11:1 sets out the definition: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Faith is that which assures us that our hope is reality, even though we cannot yet see it. If we have faith, we are convinced that what we believe is real, true, and reliable. The biblical object of faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ. True faith has always been the identifying mark of the people of God.
What are works? Works are a person’s actions or deeds. Work is that which we perform for some kind of reward. We work at our jobs and expect to receive a paycheck for it. Even working on a voluntary basis has its own reward—praise from others, a feeling of good will, etc. In the context of salvation, works refers to good deeds we do, especially religious or charitable acts or the observance of the Old Testament law.
In the faith vs. works debate, the two sides maintain that either we are saved by faith (and faith alone), or we are saved by works (or, more commonly, works added to faith). Which side is correct? What is the biblical relationship between faith and works?
• Works are required for salvation—but Scripture is clear that those works are Christ’s, not ours. Jesus fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). In fact, “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross reconciled us to God (Romans 5:10), and as He died, Jesus proclaimed that the work was finished (John 19:30). Now we are invited to enter into God’s rest by faith: “Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works” (Hebrews 4:10).
• Our works do nothing to earn or maintain salvation. It was the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ that justifies sinners (Romans 3:24). “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, . . . because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). We begin by faith, and we continue in faith: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3).
• Salvation is by grace, which precludes works. Grace is, by definition, unearned, and Scripture makes it clear that God’s grace in salvation destroys the argument for human effort: “If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
• God’s requirement for salvation is faith in His Son. One of the grand themes of the Bible is that we are justified, or declared righteous, by faith (Genesis 15:6). Faith is the only means of making sinful human beings able to stand before a holy God. No amount of law-keeping or good works can accomplish it (Titus 3:5). If our works could save us, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21).
• Works are the product of faith. Those who have true faith in Jesus Christ will be “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). John the Baptist called for “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). The book of James emphasizes the nature of true saving faith as that which results in good works: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:17, 26). Grace through faith saves, and that faith is manifest in works. If someone claims to have faith yet exhibits no good works, his or her faith is “dead,” or nonexistent.
The faith vs. works debate, then, is really no debate at all. Both faith and works are integral parts of the Christian life. Biblically, faith is the cause of salvation, while works are the evidence of it.