Perhaps the greatest disagreement among the different Christian denominations is the argument concerning the relationship between "works" and "faith" and how they affect our salvation. One group states that we are saved only through "faith" and that our salvation is not dependant on any "works" we may or may not perform. The other group states that salvation requires both "faith" and "works"; one without the other leaves us incomplete and unacceptable for God's gift.
Let's look at both of these points of view a little closer. The first group uses as its reasoning the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans and Ephesians. In speaking about how we gain salvation, Paul wrote, "And if [salvation comes] by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Romans 11:6). "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).
According to these scriptures, Paul states that salvation is a "gift of God". A gift, by definition, is something received without having to pay for it. It is not something we have worked for, or even necessarily deserve. A gift requires nothing in return, and is voluntarily given out of love for the person who receives it. A gift, then, is something we get for free.
Paul further explained that if we have to do any "works" - that is, if we have to do something, or perform some act or deed in order to qualify to receive salvation - then God's gift is not something we get for free, but becomes something we have earned and therefore deserve. And if that's the case, we can boast that we earned our own salvation, thereby eliminating the need for Christ's atonement.
According to this understanding of the scriptures, it is unnecessary to be baptized, or go to church, or read the scriptures, or do good towards others in order to receive God's gift of salvation. That doesn't mean that "works" are unimportant, but they are completely irrelevant when it comes to how a person becomes saved.
The most often quoted scripture used to describe how we obtain salvation is, "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). The explanation given of this verse is that salvation comes simply by believing that Jesus is our personal Savior. No other condition is attached, no ceremonies are required, no deeds are necessary and no other action is mentioned. The only condition to receive this "gift of God" is a sincere, heart felt, proclamation of belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul further explained it this way, "For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10). When Paul and his missionary companion were imprisoned in the town of Philippi, the jailer asked them, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 17:30,31).
Such a saving belief comes from exercising one's faith. Therefore, to "believe" in Jesus Christ is the same as having "faith" in Jesus Christ. With such examples, it is logical to conclude that salvation comes only through "faith" alone and not by any "works" on our part.
Those who support this concept of salvation also go another step further. It is their contention that anyone who teaches that "works" are as necessary as "faith" to gain salvation, are actually denying the atonement of Jesus Christ, and have, in effect, denied their faith in Him. According to these people, those who teach that we must have both "faith" and "works" are teaching false doctrine, which is akin to blasphemy. Without question, those who speak blasphemy are not entitled to salvation.
The other point of view, however, also has it's basis in the scriptures. The same Apostle Paul told the Philippians, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). The Apostle James asked, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? Even so faith, if it hath not works is dead, being alone. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone" (James 2:14,17,24).
According to these scriptures, it would appear that in order for a person to be saved, they must have both "faith" and "works; one without the other cannot save a person.
To further illustrate this concept, it was Jesus Himself who said, "He that believeth in me and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:16). Since baptism is considered a "work", Jesus has linked "faith" (believing in him) with "works" (being baptized) as necessary to receive salvation. Note that Jesus also indicates that when one of these conditions is missing (in this case "belief"), salvation is not granted. The converse is also implied - belief without works is just as damning.
If a confession of "faith" is all that is necessary without doing any "works", why would Jesus make the statement, "Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21, italics added)? Again, this scripture indicates that a profession of belief by itself is not sufficient to save a person; it must also be accompanied by doing something.
Consider the saying of Jesus, "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:10). Since salvation is a gift which is given out of love, this scriptures implies that if we do not keep His commandments - which means performing "works" - then His love does not abide with us. The question can then be asked: If we do not keep His commandments, and His love no longer abides with us, can we still receive the gift of God's love - salvation? Or is it possible to be saved even if God's love is no longer with us? To most people, that doesn't seem possible.
So we see that two opposing points of view are equally supported by the scriptures. Which one is the correct view and which one misunderstands the words of the Bible? Obviously, our salvation hangs on the answer to that question.
But consider these two verses: "By the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Romans 3:20). Clearly, this one seems to say that doing something isn't what justifies us in God's sight. However, earlier Paul made this comment to the Romans: "Not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law" (Romans 2:13).
These two statements, made by the same person, seem to contradict each other. In fact, both of these scriptures were written in the same letter less than one page apart! Which is it? Are we justified by doing the law or by not doing the law? Was Paul mixed up when he wrote these verses or is there an explanation?
The key to understanding this confusion is given in Romans 9:31,32. "But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law." First, it should be realized that the "law" spoken of here is the Law of Moses, and the works of the law refer to the deeds, ordinances and acts that are required to be performed by this law.
On Mount Sinai, the Lord gave Moses considerably more than just Ten Commandments. The last twenty chapters of the Book of Exodus, as well as most of the Book of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers contain specific commandments relating to almost every facet of life. The amount of commandments contained in the Law of Moses are mind boggling. Throughout the centuries, more rules were added to this list in an attempt to help people keep the Law of Moses more faithfully.
Because of the emphasis on keeping this Law, the Jews became obsessed with the mechanics of performing the many commandments. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees, in particular, were more concerned with preserving the ritual of the Law than in understanding the intent behind them. It was as though the very act of doing what God had commanded was all that mattered. To them, it was doing the act itself that made them holy in God's sight.
We must remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached first to the Jews. Although many of them accepted Christ as being the promised Messiah, they still felt that salvation came by going through the motions of these ritualistic observances contained in the Law of Moses, i.e. circumcision, sacrifices at the Temple, observing certain feast days, etc. And there was good reason to feel that way because nothing Jesus said even implied that the Law of Moses was obsolete. There is not one statement in the Bible where Jesus or his apostles belittled or invalidated even one of the Laws of Moses. It's true that some of the rules men had added were criticized, but not the Law itself. Therefore, the Christian Jews rightfully kept the Law of Moses, as did the apostles.
Then why did Paul speak out so strongly against performing the works of the Law if Jesus had not done away with them? Asked another way; why should the Christianized Jews suddenly not follow the Law of Moses any more? What justification would they have had to disobey the Law God had commanded all Israel to follow? There was no reason.
Then why was Paul so outspoken in his condemnation of the Christian Jews keeping the Law of Moses? The answer is, it was not what they were doing, but why they were doing it.
God Himself was just as critical of the Jews six hundred years earlier. He said, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord; I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he goats. Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of your assemblies, I cannot endure; it is iniquity, even the solemn assemblies. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they are an oppressive burden unto me; I am weary of bearing them. And when you spread forth your hands in prayer, imploring help, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood" (Isaiah 1:11,13-15 Amplified Version).
Who was it that commanded Israel to offer burnt sacrifices of rams and fed beasts? Who was it that instructed the people to spill the blood of bulls, lambs and male goats? Who was it that explained the use of incense in the Temple of God? Who was it that instituted the new moons, the sabbaths, and the solemn assemblies? Who was it that taught the necessity of prayer? All of these things were commandments from God contained in the Law of Moses. Then why does God tell the Jews that all of these things are an abomination to Him? If the people were doing what God had told them, why does God then condemn them for doing it?
The answer is found in the following verses beginning with 19 of the same chapter of Isaiah. The Lord told the people, "If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. [Look] how the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become an idolatrous harlot, she who was [once] full of justice! Uprightness and right standing with God once lodged in her, but now murderers. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes and runs after rewards. They judge not the fatherless nor defend them, neither does the cause of the widow come to them" (Isaiah 19-21,23 Amplified Version).
The people of Isaiah's time had become wicked and ungodly, yet they still went to the Temple and offered up sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. However, instead of it symbolizing their faith in God, it meant nothing to them; it was just a meaningless ritual. They observed the sabbath by not doing any work, but on Sunday they bitterly argued with their neighbor, on Monday they lied to their employer, on Tuesday they coveted their neighbor's wife, on Wednesday they stole from a stranger, on Thursday they bore false witness, on Friday they despised the poor, but on the Sabbath they went to church and prayed and sung hymns and praised God, acting as though they were righteous. Is it any wonder why the Lord considered the Israelites a sinful nation; a people ladened with iniquity (Isaiah 1:4) even though they were keeping the Sabbath day holy?
The reason God did not accept their godly "works" is because of their evil deeds and unrighteous attitude. God condemned them, not because they kept the Law of Moses, but because they didn't keep it the right way. The various commandments He gave were meant to bring people closer to God, but, instead, they went through the motions of living the Law rather than spiritually growing from it. Instead of becoming a godly people, they became egotistical hypocrites.
Is it any wonder why God was angry with them and looked upon their "works" with disgust? This is the same way Jesus treated the Pharisees of his day. His harshest criticism was reserved for those who outwardly acted righteous but inwardly were filled with evil. It was this same type of complaint Paul made to the Christianized Jews of his day. They thought it was through performing the "works" of the Law that they were saved, but Paul's message to them was that these acts, in and of themselves, are not what determines our salvation. What saves us is our faith in God.
Does that mean then that "works" have nothing to do with salvation? If that is true, then why did God's Law to Moses require a multitude of works? Obviously, these acts must have some meaning.
It was Paul who gave us the greatest illustration of the relationship between "faith" and "works". He wrote to the Hebrews, "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain...By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house...By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went... By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son... By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau... By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph... By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents because they saw he was a proper child... By faith he [Moses] kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood least he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them... By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land... By faith the walls of Jericho fell down... By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not" (see Hebrews 11: 4-31).
Notice that in all of these instances, the person's faith was demonstrated by their works. Both Abel and his brother offered up a sacrifice, but Abel offered up a more acceptable sacrifice then Cain. Why was one accepted and the other rejected? According to Paul, one was done in faith and the other wasn't. Consider what would have been the result if Abel hadn't offer up a sacrifice as the Lord had instructed? Would he still have been considered a man of faith? I doubt it, because he wouldn't have demonstrated his faith by any works.
By faith Noah built an ark even when there was no evidence of a coming flood. Was Noah a man of faith simply because he built a large boat? Not at all. It wasn't the fact that he performed the feat of building an ark that made him righteous before God; it was the reason he constructed the ark that showed his faith. If he hadn't built the ark, or built it differently than the way God told him to, would we still call him a man of faith? Hardly. It was precisely because Noah did what God told him to do that demonstrated he was indeed a man of faith.
Abraham was asked to literally murder his only son. Because he was ready to willing do it, God counted it as a righteous act. But what if Abraham had not done what the Lord asked? What if Abraham had questioned God's reasoning, or had carried out God's order begrudgingly? Would the Lord have been so pleased with him? Hardly not.
It was important that Abraham do what God had asked him. Without such a work, Abraham would not have been so blessed. Yet it wasn't the act of attempting to kill his son that made this "work" so important, it was the reason behind the deed. Abraham did it willingly, in faith and for a righteous motive. He was willing to demonstrate to the Lord his faithfulness to Him (James 3:21). Such was also the case with Moses (Hebrews 3:2).
The Law of Moses required every Israelite to pray three times a day. As a faithful believer in God, Daniel continued to do this even when it meant he would lose his status with the King and be put to death. Yet, because of his faithfulness in keeping this law, he was blessed by God. Would God have blessed him if he didn't continue to pray? Did Daniel take the attitude that works were not important? The Biblical answer to these questions is "No."
The Law was intended to bring people to Christ (Galatians 3:24) and help them to become a righteous people (Romans 9:32). Although Israel followed it, they did not become a righteous people, because they merely went through the formalities of the law without exercising any faith or righteousness (Romans 9:31-32).
Paul tells us of the importance of performing the "ordinances of God" (Romans 13:2), however, just going through the motions means nothing if it isn't being done with faith in God for a righteous reason. Only when we keep the commandments in faith and righteousness do any of these acts take on meaning.
To illustration this principle, let's look at two people who go to church on Sunday. Each goes because that's what a Christian is supposed to do. One person, however, goes for the fellowship (the socializing); they like to look nice for everyone to see, or they seek to serve in important ways that gives them recognition. But afterwards, they go home without much of a change in the way they live. Then there is the other person who enjoys talking with others but is there primarily to learn more about God. After church, this person goes home and tries to put the newly acquired knowledge into their everyday life.
Both people perform the same outward "work" of going to church, but each is going for a different reason. One is simply going through the motions and getting nothing out of it; the other person goes because they want to get closer to God. The latter is doing what the Lord expects because they want to please God; their actions then become an expression of their love and faith in Him. The former is doing what the Lord expects, but not because of any great desire to please Him; their motivation is mostly for selfish reasons.
The same can be said for any other principle of the gospel, whether it be baptism, tithing, reading the scriptures, doing good to others, or any other "work".
The question can be asked: Does going to church or doing any other "work" save or not save us? The answer is, "Neither." It's not what we do but why we do what we do that counts. There is no difference between doing wrong, doing nothing, or doing the right thing for the wrong reason. They are all an expression of our lack of faith. Paul explained it this way: "They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate" (Titus 1:16).
Those who profess they know God - i.e. they know He is their personal Savior - but then are disobedient to His commandments and do the things He tells us not to do, according to Paul, they are the ones who actually deny God.
While it is true that we are saved because of our faith in Jesus Christ and not because of any "work" we may do, if we do not demonstrate our faith by the things we do, then our belief in Christ is not a living faith, and as such, has no power to save us. On the other hand, if what we do is not done out of faith in God, our works are useless and equally lack the power to provide us salvation. Both are needed to please God, and when God is pleased then it pleases Him to save us by His graciousness (I Corinthians 1:21), not just because we have performed good deeds but because we have done them to show that we really do have faith in Him.
It is interesting to note, however, that the apostle Paul is the only person who speaks in terms of salvation being of grace and not of works.
Of course, Paul is not the author of salvation - Jesus Christ is. Paul is merely trying to explain to others what Jesus has said. On several occasions Jesus was specifically asked, "Master what must I do to inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:17, Luke 10:25, 18:18)? He clearly answered this question by stating that in order to achieve salvation we must keep the commandments, and He specifically listed most of the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
Shortly after the death of Jesus, the apostles - who had traveled with Jesus and had been personally instructed for three years by Him (of whom Paul was not one of them) - were again specifically asked what they had to do to be saved (Acts 2:37). Did they tell the people to only believe in Jesus? Did they tell them there was nothing they could do by their own efforts to be saved? Again, they clearly said just the opposite. They told the people that to be saved they had to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38).
The Apostle James said that we are justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). Nowhere in the writings of the apostles Peter or John do we find any indication that salvation comes only through believing in Jesus Christ.
Paul is the only one who speaks about salvation as being a gift - i.e., without doing any works. The problem that complicates the situation is that there are so many places in the New Testament where it mentions salvation as a gift rather than from our works that it seems the scriptures are full of this doctrine. But it must be remembered that the great majority of the New Testament in our Bible was written by Paul and all of these statements were made by him, and only by him.
Therefore, it would seem that Paul is contradicting what every other person, including Jesus Christ Himself, had to say about what is necessary for salvation.
But is he? Let's take a closer look at this subject.
If salvation is truly a "gift" - that is, we don't have to "do" anything for it; there are no conditions or requirements to receive it - then why do we have to believe in Jesus? Isn't "belief" a condition for receiving this "gift"?
Some explain it by saying that the gift is indeed free, but we have to go to Him to get it. But that still means we have to do something in order to receive it. We have to go to Him or else we don't get the free gift; if we don't make the effort to go to Him, we get nothing. So, even believing in Jesus takes an act of doing something on our part - which is the definition of "work".
Let's look at it another way. At Christmas we give gifts to other people. These are truly free. We give them without any expectation of getting anything in return, but we give the gift to the person. We don't expect the person to come to us to get it; we either take it to them, or mail it to them. It is considered bad manners, under normal circumstances, to require the person to come to us to receive their gift. If we make the person come to us, then our gift is not truly free because we are expecting them to do something to get it.
If salvation is truly a free gift, then we shouldn't have to do anything to receive it - including believing in Jesus.
If Jesus had said that only men get to have salvation, or only people who die after becoming seventy years old, or only those who are born in Israel, then we could say that salvation is truly a free gift. Why? Because there is nothing we can do by our own effort to make ourselves become males, or make ourselves live to be older than seventy or make ourselves born in Israel. We have no control over those conditions.
If Jesus said that salvation is given only to those who live in Israel, or who have graduated from High School, or who know carpentry, or who believe in Him, then it wouldn't be a free gift. Why? Because, by our own efforts we can make ourselves live in Israel, we can make ourselves graduate from High School, and we can make ourselves learn carpentry. By the same reasoning, we can decide for ourselves to make the effort to believe in Jesus. It becomes a conscious decision on our part to do what Jesus asks of us - to believe on Him. We have it within our own power to do it or not do it. Therefore, believing is a "work".
Then why does Paul say salvation comes as a gift and not because of our works? Because it does.
Jesus decides who gets the benefit of His atonement. We can never do anything that qualifies us to be forgiven of our sins. No matter what we do - believing in Jesus, being baptized, keeping the Ten Commandments, loving our neighbor - nothing removes the stain of our sins from us. Nothing that we do requires Jesus to cleanse us from our sins. Nothing we can do gives us the right to demand that Jesus has to forgive us. Jesus forgives whom He wants; it's totally His decision.
But Jesus is fair, Jesus is just, and Jesus is kind.
It would be unfair to forgive people without a reason. It would be unjust to arbitrarily forgive one person and not another. It would be unkind not to make us aware of what will help Him decide whom to forgive. So Jesus tells us what sort of things He is looking for to help Him make that determination. That is the only way to be fair, just, and kind. And because He keeps His word, we know that if we do what He asks, He will forgive us.
Since Jesus is a person who keeps His word, if He says we must be baptized in order to be saved, then we must be baptized. If he says we must keep certain commandments, then we must keep those commandments. If He says that we must endure to the end in faithfulness (Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13), then we must do what He says. If not, then Jesus is a liar if He still grants us salvation.
But even if we do these things, does that give us the right to be forgiven? Not at all. We can do everything exactly the way He asks, and He still doesn't have to forgive us. We can't demand that He must allow us to enter into heaven; we have no "rights". He bought us with His blood, and we are totally at His mercy, regardless of what we do, or don't do.
Some may argue that if Jesus has told us the conditions by which He will forgive us, then He has to forgive us if we meet those conditions. That is true; He has promised to forgive the sins of those who keep His commandments, but how many of us keep all of His commandments all the time? None of us. So, even though He has said what it will take for us to be saved, none of us fully measure up to that standard.
But Jesus is fair, and just, and kind. It isn't absolutely necessary for us to keep all the commandments all the time in order to be forgiven. He judges us on the intent of our heart. He makes His decision based on our sincerity. He considers our motives. So in the end, He forgives us, not so much for what we do or don't do, but on the basis of our faithfulness to Him. Salvation is given out of the kindness of His own heart. In other words, His forgiveness is not something we have earned because we have done what He has asked. Instead, it is, truly, a gift.
However, the key to receiving this gift is to "believe" in Jesus Christ. But what exactly does that mean?
Because the New Testament was first written in Greek, perhaps, it would be helpful to understand the meaning of the original word. The Greek word which we translate into English as "believe" is "pisteuo" which means "to adhere to, to trust in, and to rely on." Implied with this word is the idea of having faith in, giving allegiance to, and committing ourselves to Christ.
Much is made of John 3:16 which seems to indicate that all a person has to do to gain eternal life is just believe on Jesus (also John 6:40,47, I Tim. 1:16). However, the Greek word for believe is an active word. The correct interpretation of these scriptures is that only when we adhere to the things which Jesus has told us and trust in His words and rely upon His promise are we really believing in Him.
Jesus said it best when He stated, "Ye shall know them by their fruits [works]. Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man" (Matthew 7:16,24, italics added).
If men are known by their deeds, then the Lord likewise knows who has real faith in Him by the "works" they do. Where there is no "work" there is no "faith". According to Jesus, those who understand this principle are the ones who are truly wise men.