What is the biblical understanding of faith vs. works?
In Ephesians 2:8–9 we read, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
It is clear from this verse alone that salvation is specifically, intentionally, and only a result of God's grace and not a result of anything that a person does. Why? So that a person may not boast about their own righteousness and good works, claiming they are saved because of them. In Romans Chapter 1, Paul paints a painful picture of mankind's heart, saying we refuse to acknowledge God and are evil in every way (Romans 1:28–32). Again, in Romans 3, Paul outlines the condition of mankind saying, "As it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.' 'Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.' 'The venom of asps is under their lips.' 'Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.' 'Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.' 'There is no fear of God before their eyes'" (Romans 3:10–18).
Mankind is absolutely incapable of actually being good. Even Christians are inherently wicked in our hearts; it is part of our nature (Romans 5:12). The difference is in the change that the Holy Spirit works in us to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). It is because of His work in us that we are becoming more like Christ and less like the natural human condition.
Where people tend to get confused is how good works are the result of being saved, rather than being saved as a result of good works. In James 2:14 we read, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?" At a glance, this verse seems to suggest that one is not saved by faith alone, but rather by faith and good works. The immediate problem with this understanding is that it would contradict so many other passages that make it clear that salvation is by God's grace through faith, not as a result of our works (for example, John 3:16–18; Romans 1:17; 3:23–30; 4:1–5; 5:1; 6:23; Galatians 2:16; 3:11, 23–29; Hebrews 7:11–28; 10:1–23).
Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:8–9 is the quintessential declaration of salvation by grace through faith. Notice that immediately after his statement, Paul points out that salvation leads to good works: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). James is not contradicting salvation by grace through faith; rather, he is pointing out that faith is not mere intellectual assent. True faith is seen in the fruit it produces (James 2:18–26).
As with all interpretations of Scripture, we must view every verse in its immediate context, its context within the book, and its context within the whole of Scripture. As demonstrated above, it is clear that one is not saved by works since Scripture talks about salvation by faith apart from our own works time and time again. If we look at the immediate context of James 2:14 we see that James is talking about works as a result of saving faith. When a person is saved, he is changed (2 Corinthians 5:16–21; Philippians 2:12–13; Ephesians 4:17–32; Colossians 3:1–17). James is distinguishing the kind of faith that leads to salvation by highlighting the resulting works because of that salvation. Notice what else James has to say just a few verses later, "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" (James 2:18–19).
There are two key points we should take away from these two verses and their immediate context to verse 14. First, James is saying that his faith is on display through his works. He is not saying that he is saved because of them, but rather that because he is truly saved his works are a testimony to his salvation. Jesus said, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). This is what James is referring to; that his light shines forth through his works. Just as Jesus didn't say, do good works so that you will be saved and have a light to shine, neither is James saying this. We can further solidify this by looking at the next verse. James says that you believe God is one, and that is good, but even demons believe that (James 2:19). If we consider carefully his discussion here, what becomes clear is that James is talking about the difference between saving faith and simple acknowledgement of God. The distinguishing difference between the two? Good works. The works do not result in salvation, the salvation results in works.
Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In other words, we cannot do anything good apart from the work of Christ in us, which comes through the Holy Spirit (Philippians 1:6; 2:12–13; Romans 8:28–30). When we are truly saved, the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling within us and begins to change us, making us more like Jesus (Ephesians 1:3–14). The result of these changes produces good works, which are also referred to as good fruit. Jesus said, "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit" (Luke 6:43) And since we cannot do anything good apart from Jesus, the good fruit we bear is really His fruit. We call this the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–24).
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1) and "without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Works are the result of saving faith. This is the biblical understanding of faith and works; that faith results in good works, but good works do not produce faith, and especially not the faith that is necessary for salvation.
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