What is the relationship between faith and works? And are we saved by faith or faith plus works? Many people are confused about these things, and it’s not hard to see why:
Paul: “We are justified by faith apart from works” (Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8-9)
James: “We are justified by works and not faith alone” (Jas. 2:24)
So who’s right, Paul or James? Are we justified by faith? Or faith plus works? And if works, what are the works that count?
At first glance, it seems that Paul and James are not on the same page. This has led some to say they preached different gospels.
“Paul preached grace while James preached works.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Both Paul and James understood that we are saved and made righteous by faith alone, and without regard to anything we have done. And both spoke of works that accompany faith:
Paul: “We remember your work produced by faith” (1 Th. 1:3)
James: “Faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:17)
We are saved by faith and not our works, but faith without works is dead and useless. So…
What are the works of faith?
The Bible has a lot to say about this subject and most of what it says can be found in the many imperative statements involving faith.
What’s an imperative statement? It’s one that sounds like an order or a command or an instruction. For example:
The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)
This statement has two imperative verbs or action words; repent (change your unbelieving mind) and believe the gospel. Repenting and believing are things you do. They are works of faith.
In the New Testament alone there are more than 200 imperative statements connected with faith. (I counted them.) Some of these statements exhort us to receive Jesus (e.g., John 5:43), heed the good news of Jesus (Rom. 10:16) and turn to God in repentance (Acts 26:20).
Other scriptures encourage us to accept the word (Mark 4:20), confess Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), call on the name of the Lord (Act 2:21), eat the bread of life (John 6:50-51), be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20), submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3), and be born again (John 3:3, 7).
But the one imperative that appears far more than any other, is the instruction to believe.
Again and again we are told to believe in Jesus (John 3:15), believe that he is the Son of God (1 John 5:13), and believe that he has been raised from the dead (Rom. 10:9). In fact, this is more than an instruction – it’s a command:
This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ… (1 John 3:23)
What are we supposed to do? We are supposed to believe the good news of Jesus (Mark 1:15, 16:16). As Jesus said to the doubter:
Do not be unbelieving, but believing. (John 20:27)
The work of God
If faith is the noun – the state of being persuaded that God loves you – then believing is the verb or activity that flows from that conviction. It’s a work of faith. Indeed, believing in Jesus is the work of God:
This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. (John 6:29)
We do not believe to create faith; rather, believing is the action that reveals our faith. “Having the same spirit of faith… we also believe” (2 Cor. 4:13).
Which brings us back to James.
Why did James talk about having faith plus works? Because he was speaking to religious Jews (see Jas. 1:1) who had faith in God (Jas. 2:19) but who did not believe in the One he had sent.
Like religious people everywhere, the Jews wanted to do things for God, but they didn’t do the work of God – the one thing that God requires of all of us – which is believe in Jesus.
What you believe determines everything
You may say, “Is that it? I just have to believe? That’s easy. It’s nothing at all.”
Only it’s not nothing; it’s everything.
Don’t you see? The course of your life is not determined by what you do as much as what you believe.
What you believe defines everything about you – who you marry, what you do, where you live, and how you live. Everything, really.
Believing in Jesus is so much more than a single decision or prayer. Believing in Jesus is a bit like migrating to a new country and learning a new language, only moreso. It’s like getting adopted into a new family or getting married.
Believing in Jesus is like being born again into to a brand new life.
There are 1001 things we might do for God, but all of them count for nought if we fail to do the one thing that matters; believe in Jesus.
Just as Adam lost his life through unbelief, we receive and enjoy divine life every day by believing that Jesus is risen and we are seated with him on the throne.
Image: “The Hand of God” by Yongsung Kim
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