The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
However, in James we are taught that faith without works is dead. “What good is it my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? …Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” James 2:14, 17, 18.
These two teachings seem to contradict each other and throughout church history there has been a debate about whether or not these are conflicting doctrines. What actually does save you: faith or works?
We tend to accept one but disregard the other. Some feel they have faith in Jesus as Savior and per Ephesians 2:8, that is enough. They become ‘couch potato’ Christians, reading the Bible, content in their faith. Others become obsessed with work, feeling that the more good works they do, the more likely they will be saved; not trusting in faith alone, perhaps having no faith, but somehow thinking that good works lead to salvation.
I was raised in a work-oriented tradition. Good works were important because an infraction could lead to a separation from God in death, so naturally I was always trying to do the right thing, more out of fear that love. It was exhausting! The idea that faith alone was sufficient for salvation was something I didn’t understand.
However, Scripture does not contradict itself, so let’s examine the Scriptures and see what Jesus has to say on this topic.
In John 3, Jesus engages in a famous conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. The conversation centers on the question of whom shall enter the kingdom of God. In the course of this conversation, Jesus declares “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus says that you must believe to be saved, which validates Paul’s teaching.
However, did Jesus address the issue of works raised by James? The parable found in Matthew 25:31-46, refers to the return of Jesus, ‘when the Son of Man comes in his glory’ (v. 31); he will separate the sheep from the goats, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. His accusation to the goats will be that “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me; I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. They also will answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’” (v.42-44). As you read this parable in full, you will see that the sheep had done all of these things. “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of theses you did not do for me.’” (v.45)
Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also discusses the concept of good works: “let your light shine before men, that they may see you good deeds, and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
There is no conflict in these teachings and the distinction seems to be in the timing of the teaching. Paul’s teaching is directed to those who may not have accepted Christ as Savior or who are struggling with the concept of salvation. On the other hand, James’ teaching is directed to those of us who do have faith in Jesus, giving us instruction on how we are to live out our faith in Christ.
The truth is that our faith in Christ, and the blessing of our salvation, will so change us that we will be a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) “created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Our faith in Christ comes first, but we will be so changed that good works will automatically flow from us and our good works will be a reflection of our faith in Christ and glorify God.
Here are questions for you to consider:
- Do your works so reflect your faith in Christ that your deeds will give glory to God?
- Are the things you do in life Christ centered or “me” centered?
- How can your life more fully reflect the teachings of Christ?