The Bible clearly shows that salvation (justification) is by faith- not by works. But it also clearly shows that faith is made complete by works. It is vital to keep these things in order (faith before works), but it’s also vital to keep these things together (faith demonstrated by works).
Let me show the necessity of works in conjunction with faith by quoting and explaining a few important verses.
For God Loved the World – John 3:16 in context
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he was approached by a religious man at night. That man, Nicodemus, was interested in Jesus’ teaching and open to letting Jesus explain who he was and what he wanted to teach his followers. During their conversation, Jesus told him this:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God” (John 3:14-21).
While Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, he makes it clear that everyone who believes in him will be saved. In the same breath, he says that when a person believes in him, he comes to the light, so that his “works may be shown to be accomplished by God” (3:21). This means that a person who believes in Jesus is given the ability and responsibility to do good works. Belief and works go hand-in-hand.
To be clear, the works a person does before they are saved are called “evil” and “dead works” (see John 7:7 and Hebrews 6:1). The works a person does after believing in Jesus should be “good,” that is, shown to be accomplished by God. A person who merely professes faith, but does not have works, does not have true faith. But more on that later.
This is the Work of God – John 6:26-29 + John 14:12
A little while later, Jesus was approached by a crowd of Jews. He had just fed “the 5,000” and they were hungry again- and ready to make him their king so he could give them more food. In his conversation with this group, he gave them a warning and an admonition:
“Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.”
“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “This is the work of God—that you believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:26-29 CSB).
The warning is this: there are works you can do that will not produce eternal results, stay away from these works.
The admonition is this: do the work of God- that is, believe in me.
Now, it may seem that this passage shows that works are not necessary for a believer to pursue. But actually, we will see from the next passage that Jesus was just refining their understanding of faith and works. He did not say, “do not work.” Rather, he said, “Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life.”
Later, Jesus made a statement to his disciples that may help us understand the relationship of faith and works. Clearly, Jesus wanted his disciples to believe in him. From this verse, we see that he did not want them to stop there. He told them,
“Truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 CSB).
You can see from this verse that Jesus expected his followers not just to make a profession of faith, but also to imitate his lifestyle- to do the works that he did. Faith leads to salvation but works flow out of healthy faith.
The Philippian Jailer – Acts 16:25-34
Leaving the gospels, let’s consider, briefly, the story of the Philippian Jailer. This story is frequently taught that salvation is by faith alone- which it is. But, let’s pay special attention to what the jailer does after being saved. Here’s some of the story:
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the jail were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains came loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open, he drew his sword and was going to kill himself, since he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, because we’re all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. He escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house. He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized. He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had come to believe in God with his entire household” (Acts 16:25-34 CSB)
While it is clear that the jailer did not have to do any works in order to be saved- and that he was saved by believing in Jesus- he immediately put his faith into action after being saved. After believing, he took care of Paul and Silas, received baptism, and enjoyed a fellowship meal with a small group of believers. (This looks like what other believers did, as recorded in Acts 2:42. And “hospitality” is consistent with Paul’s list of “Christian Ethics” in Romans 12:9-21.)
“Jesus is Lord” – Romans 10:9-10 + Romans 12:1-2
Now that I have mentioned Romans, let’s take a look at a couple passages in this book. The first one may lead you to believe that salvation is the results of words and a heart attitude- and it is. But the second will show that believers put their faith in action by living in a way that is consistent with their profession.
Paul explains the way to justification in the following verses:
“If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation” (Romans 10:9-10 CSB).
It is clear that when a person confesses that “Jesus is Lord” while, simultaneously, believing that God raised him from the dead, they are saved. I would, however, like to point out that the concept of calling Jesus “Lord” implies action. This concept expresses the relationship of a master to a servant. Jesus is the master, or Lord, and the confessor is the servant. The job of a servant is to do the will (that is, work) of the master. So, by confessing, “Jesus is Lord,” a believer agrees to do the good works Jesus asks them to do. It is by doing these good works that they can be sure that their confession is honest.
If that conclusion isn’t satisfying, then please consider the following verses:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2 CSB).
Toward the end of Romans, after expressing many deep and wonderful truths, particularly mentioning many ways in which God shows mercy to sinners, Paul shows his readers an appropriate, Christian response. The response: “present your bodies [to God] as a living sacrifice.” In other words, ask God what good works he wants you to do and then do them.
Saved by Grace Through Faith – Ephesians 2:8-10 in context
Having considered three passages that require a pretty intense level of interpretation, let’s move on to a very clear passage in Ephesians. In this one, Paul makes it clear that salvation is a gift of God- by grace through faith. In the same breath, he states that God has work for believers to do. Here it is:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Ephesians 2:1-10 CSB).
In this passage we see that we were once [spiritually] dead in our sins. This made us unable to do any works that God would consider “good.” Instead, we did works in the service of the devil- the “ruler of the power of the air.” But, because God is merciful, he saved us! He brought us to life, spiritually and ensured eternal blessings for us. But then, in claiming us as his “workmanship” he indicated that he had prepared works ahead of time for us to do. As a result of our faith, we are now able to enter into those good works that he has prepared for us. If we do not do those works, can we really say that we have been shown mercy, brought to life, and raised up with Christ?
Not by Works of Righteousness – Titus 3:4-8
Paul, again, in his letter to Titus shows the relationship between faith and works. In this passage, he shows that salvation is not by works- but by faith. And in the same breath, communicates that those who believe in God have work to do. Read it here:
“But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy—through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out his Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that, having been justified by his grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. These are good and profitable for everyone” (Titus 3:4-8).
Did you see what Paul said in the second-to-last sentence? He says that Titus is to insist that believers “devote themselves to good works!” Faith saves. Work does not. But a profession of faith that is not supported by works is not saving faith. This is made particularly clear in the next, and final, passage.
Faith without Works – James 2:14-26
James has long been put on the “back-burner” by believers because of passages like this:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder. Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works in receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26 CSB).
When well-intentioned people, Martin Luther, included, read this passage, they say, “that doesn’t fit into my theology very well.” And that’s too bad because if we leave it out, we are in danger of having a half-formed theology. But if we slow down, we will come to see that Paul and James agree: salvation is by grace through faith- but faith that is real does. And faith that does not do is dead.
In the Gospels, Jesus shows that those who believe in him will be saved. He also shows that those who believe in him will show their faith by their works.
In Acts, Luke shows a jailer who was saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. He then shows that this jailer overflowed with good “works” after being saved.
In Romans, Paul tells his readers to say, “Jesus is Lord” and believe that God raised him from the dead. A few chapter later, he urges them to “present their bodies as a living sacrifice” to God.
In Ephesians, Paul shows that people are saved “by grace through faith… not of works.” He then reminds them that they were created for good works!
In Titus, Paul reminds his son in the faith to preach salvation by faith- not of works of righteousness. And then, immediately after, urges Titus to urge the believers around him to “devote themselves to good works.”
James, writing primarily to Jewish believers, urges them to show the genuineness of their faith- which led to their salvation- by their works.
Sinners are saved when they put their faith in Jesus. But the difference between a sinner and a true believer is not mere profession. A believer does the works of God as an overflow of their faith.