The question of faith vs. works is one that comes up often among Christians, yet rarely is it answered in a satisfactory way. Often, the confusion about faith vs. works is greater at the end of the discussion than it is at the beginning. Most Christians agree that faith in Christ is fundamental, but then the question is how do works figure into that, if at all?
On the question of faith vs. works, we are often told that faith is all that matters. If we have faith we are saved, and the final goal and fulfillment of Christianity is salvation. So if we are saved through faith, then why be concerned about works?
Many reason that because faith is the key to eternal life (John 3.16), then works must be irrelevant. Sermons are given every Sunday where the importance of faith is stressed, and the importance of works is deprecated. In some evangelical settings, it has even become a creed that as Christians we "don't have to do anything", or that "our works don't matter".
On the other hand, there is something that seems specious with this thinking. The bible tells us that there is great work to be done, "The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest" (Luke 10.2 KJV bible).
The problem is that our natural inclination is not to work. Spiritual work requires the dedication and sacrifice of our time and efforts away from worldy pursuits. Even if we are driven by the Holy Spirit to further God's Kingdom on earth, we still have to struggle to achieve our spiritual goals at the expense of our worldy ones.
"...If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16.24-25 KJV bible). It would seem that if one refuses to work, because they are devoted to their own life, then they are being disobedient and unfaithful to Christ.
In order to understand faith vs. works, we need to understand what the bible means when it says that we are saved by faith and not by works. There are many scriptures that make clear that faith, not works, is the cornerstone of salvation.
"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2.16 KJV bible). Galatians is saying that it is not through rituals or obedience to a moral code that one can become justified in the eyes of God. Rather, it is through faith in Christ as the Son of God, who died for our sins.
This is a key point where biblical Christianity departs from many other religions and traditions. It doesn't prescribe a particular set of rituals, deeds, or actions through which one can find life and peace. Rather, faith in Christ is the foundation and root through which eternal life springs, "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3.15 KJV bible).
This "justification through faith" is a distinguishing feature of Christianity. It implies that there is no inherent righteousness or purity in man through which he can earn redemption. It is only by God's grace that the slate can be wiped clean, and one can become a new creature in Christ, having a true relationship with the Lord.
Justification through faith means that there is no kind of work or struggle in the world that has the power to redeem us from our sins, or deliver us to Christ. It is not on account of our own works or righteousness that we find Christ, but the mercy of God, after which comes the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.
"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 KJV bible), "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3.5 KJV bible).
So if faith in Christ preempts everything else in our relationship with God, then where do works fit in? Part of the confusion stems from a tendency in people's minds to separate faith from works. It is often assumed that they are unrelated; works being external actions, and faith being an internal mindset.
However, the bible tells us that there is a symbiotic relationship between faith and works. Works are a consequence and obligation of faith, and faith is sustained and perfected in works, "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works" (James 2.18 KJV bible).
We know that faith in Christ is the essence and foundation of eternal life, and that without faith we are estranged from the Lord. However, faith is also a process that prepares and matures us, not for our own purposes, but to be fruitful and productive in carrying out God's will, "If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work" (2nd Timothy 2.21 KJV bible).
So it is through faith that we become qualified and useful as vessels of righteousness, "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2.13 KJV bible). Faith is therefore more than a mindset, but a process that results in our actions and lives being made fruitful unto God.
Therefore, if works do not follow faith, the process has been broken and frustrated in us. God's will is that our faith leads to works, but if we instead focus on our own desires, we become derelict in our service to the Lord, "But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed" (James 1.25 KJV bible). We must resist any tendency to shrink back as forgetful hearers, but move forward as doers, bringing forth the mature fruits of faith.
Jesus describes this process in John 15, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit...Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me...Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples" (John 15.1-2,4,8 KJV bible).
Jesus is the true vine and we are the branches. Unless we are connected to the vine through faith, we can't bear any useful fruit. However, Jesus also tells us that the fruitless branches are taken away, so that they wither and die apart from the vine. So we must push forward in faith unto righteous works, while resisting the evil one's attempts to pull us away. Otherwise, we've allowed ourselves to become fruitless branches, to be excised by the Chief Vinedresser.
The book of James also speaks in detail about the inter-relationship that exists between faith and works, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" (James 2.14 KJV bible). This statement, "can faith save him?", seems to contradict a lot of other scriptures that tell us we are saved by faith, not by works.
However, the faith being described here is not the living faith of salvation, but empty faith. This is because living faith cannot be separated from works, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (James 2.26 KJV bible). Faith cannot survive apart from works, and it is only when faith is combined with works that it can mature and prosper.
So not only does faith push us toward works, but faith itself is sustained and completed in those works, leading unto salvation, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" (James 2.21-22 KJV bible).
Abraham's deed was an act of absolute faith in God, because he knew that God could even raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11.19). So Abraham was justified by his actions, because his actions were an embodiment of his faith. When given a choice between obeying God in faith, or not, Abraham acted on faith. So in Abraham's righteous deeds, which were wrought in faith, his faith was fulfilled.
So we see the deeper relationship that exists between faith and works. Faith is what connects us to the true vine, Jesus Christ. It is through our connection with him that we are able to bring forth righteous fruits, or works, unto God. God then prunes the branches that are fruitful, which strengthens them and allows them to bring forth even more fruit. The unfruitful branches are removed from the vine and left to wither.
Therefore, as faith is fundamental to our relationship with Christ, works are necessary to sustain and strengthen that relationship. So works are an undeniable part of salvation, and an obligation in Christ, who alone is our redeemer, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1st Corinthians 15.58 KJV bible).
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