Is salvation by faith alone, or is salvation by faith plus works? This is perhaps the most important question in all of Christian theology. This question was the cause of the Reformation, the split between Protestantism and Catholicism. This question is a key difference between biblical Christianity and most of the cults. Is salvation through faith alone or through faith plus human works? Stated another way, am I saved by trusting in Jesus, or do I have to believe in Jesus and, in addition, do certain things?
The works in addition to faith needed for salvation differ in various religious circles. Many groups point to water baptism as a work that must be added to faith for salvation—if you’re not baptized, you’re not saved. Some go even further: you must be baptized by the right minister, using the right method, saying the right words.
Others suggest different rites to be observed in order to be saved, but the formula is always faith + [fill in the blank]. Salvation is through faith + receiving Mass, faith + going to confession, faith + tithing, etc.
Many passages of the Bible teach that salvation is through faith alone, not faith plus works. Ephesians 2:8–9, for example, is clearly worded and unequivocal: “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.” Of great importance is the word grace, which refers to God’s blessings on the undeserving. The very idea of grace negates all attempts to earn salvation. Paul makes that argument when teaching on God’s choosing of the remnant of Israel: “Since it is through God’s kindness, then it is not by their good works. For in that case, God’s grace would not be what it really is—free and undeserved” (Romans 11:6, NLT).
Other passages that clearly teach salvation through faith alone include Acts 16:31; Romans 3:28; 4:5; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; 3:24; Ephesians 1:13; and Philippians 3:9.
There are a few Bible passages that, at first glance, seem to teach salvation through faith plus works. One such is James 2:24, which appears to say that justification is by faith plus works: “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” This apparent problem is solved by examining the whole of James’ argument in his epistle. James is refuting the idea that a person can have saving faith without producing any good works (see James 2:17–18). Genuine faith in Christ, James says, will produce a changed life and result in good works (James 2:20–26). James is not saying that justification is by faith plus works, but that a person who is truly justified by faith will have good works in his or her life. The works are an outward show of genuine faith in Christ (James 2:14, 17, 20, 26)—and it’s that outward show that “justifies” the believer in the sight of other people.
Paul says those who have true faith in Jesus Christ will be “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). To return to Ephesians 2, immediately after teaching that we are saved through faith, not through works (Ephesians 2:8–9), Paul says that we were created “to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith, and that faith is made manifest in good works. The works follow the faith and are a proof of it.
If we’re going to say that we are saved by works, we must qualify whose works. We are not saved by our own works, however meritorious they are in our own eyes. We are saved solely by the work of Christ on our behalf. His death and His resurrection are the works that save us. We receive our Savior by faith (John 1:12).