Faith and Works—Do Both Matter in a Christian’s Life?
In so many religions all throughout time, individuals work toward enlightenment, salvation, or the favor of a deity. People are taught subtly—or not so subtly—that if you only do enough good deeds, you’ll be worthy/ascended/redeemed/approved, etc.
But even for those who don’t follow a religion, there’s an underlying work-toward-betterment or work-toward-goodness motivation that we can’t just deny.
And this can cause confusion among Christians about faith and works. Are we saved by faith? Or do our works justify us? Or do works not matter at all?
Turns out, both faith and works matter. But faith has to come first (James 2:14-18).
In other words, we’re not saved by good works, but for good works.
Humanity, through Adam and Eve, has opted for a life of knowing both good and evil (Genesis 3:5, 7). And this brought about sin, selfishness, fear, etc. But God promises to save us from those consequences if we have faith in what Jesus Christ did for us. And as a result of this faith, works are the natural byproduct of experiencing this ultimate demonstration of love.
The faith-works balance doesn’t have to be hard to understand. So let’s break through some of the ideas that have muddied the waters and go straight to what Scripture tells us.
We’ll look at:
- What are faith and works, according to Scripture?
- How is faith related to works?
- What are justification and sanctification?
- How to experience justification by faith
Let’s begin with some definitions.
What are faith and works, according to Scripture?
Faith is trusting that what God says and does is true, even if we can’t see proof for it yet (Hebrews 11:1). It goes beyond a belief or theory to a deep conviction that affects the way we live and how we see the world.
Works refers to behavior or actions. Or ultimately, habits. The way we consistently act.
In Scripture, we see many instances of good “works” referring to acts of service to help others (John 10:32; Acts 9:36) or obedience to God’s law of love, the Ten Commandments (Matthew 22:38-40; Galatians 5:16, 22-25).
We also see references to bad/evil/sinful/wicked “works” when describing Satan, or people following the influence of sin (Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:11; Colossians 1:21). And it seems that the worst of these bad “works” are those that also hurt or corrupt others, not just the deed-doer (Matthew 5:19).
But “works” can even go beyond physical action. We think of good deeds like volunteering at a local soup kitchen, attending church, or honoring God’s commandments. Or bad works might be punching someone, stealing money, or gossiping.
However, works can even be internal, because it still involves decisive action. Internal wicked works could be harboring hate or jealousy, or wishing ill upon another (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). But internal good works can be praying, depending on God, letting go of fears, or cultivating a quiet heart (Psalm 51:17; Matthew 6:6; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:6-7).
(See also 1 Timothy 5:24-25.)
And all our sincerely good works, whether visible or invisible, are a result of what God does in our hearts first.
More on that next.
How is faith related to works?
Think of faith and works as a sequence in God’s plan to save us from the road to nowhere that is sin and evil.
Faith in God’s power—and nothing else—leads to salvation. We trust that He has saved us, we accept the love that He has for us, and that trust and acceptance impacts our internal moral compass. As a result, our actions—the works that stem from our hearts—reflect Him.
But some Bible passages in the New Testament can seem contradictory when they’re read alone, out of the context of their chapters and books. So let’s look at those next.
Let’s start with what the apostle Paul said:
“For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28, CSB).
“Because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16, CSB).
These verses declare that justification (a fancy word for salvation) is possible by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Some verses from the book of James can muddy the waters, though:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14, CSB)
“Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26, CSB).
Do Paul and James disagree?
To find out, we need to understand these passages in the context of their times and circumstances.
Paul wrote Romans 3 for Jewish Christians. Many of these Jews believed they needed to perform certain rituals, such as circumcision, to earn salvation. They thought they had an advantage over others because of their rigid law-keeping. And Paul knew he had to correct this harmful mindset (Romans 3:9-10).
On the other hand, James wrote to Christian believers to balance Paul’s writings and emphasize that God’s Ten Commandments—principles of love toward God, self, and others—shouldn’t be thrown out just because they alone can’t save us (James 2:8-12). He pointed out what kind of faith Christians should have—a faith that results in godly works.
After all, demons believe in God’s existence and power, even though they live in constant rebellion against God (verse 18). So belief in God’s existence isn’t the same as faith.
True faith has much more to it.
It changes the way we live. It leads to actions consistent with our beliefs. And any works of love we do are simply evidence that God is working in our lives (Galatians 5:6; 1 John 2:3).
Even basic psychology attests that humans generally act according to their beliefs.
In fact, it’s rather difficult to do otherwise. (And what would be the point?)
Our conviction about something—or lack of it—will eventually and inevitably come through in our actions.
Salvation isn’t about figuring out the right pattern of actions to demonstrate our faith. When we have genuine faith in Jesus and a desire to honor Him, our actions will naturally reveal that. Some call it “saving faith” or “living faith.”
That’s why Jesus emphasized in Matthew 7 that we’d be able to recognize true Christians “by their fruit”—the consistent actions that result from God’s Spirit working in their lives—just like we recognize the species of a tree by the kind of fruit it regularly produces (Galatians 5:22–23).
Now, as faith and works are becoming clearer in our minds, let’s talk about a few Christian terms that can sometimes be confusing.
What are “justification” and “sanctification”?
The concept of justification refers to the process of Jesus’ perfect life taking on the penalty that is meant for humanity’s decision to defy God’s way in favor of our own (2 Corinthians 5:21). When God looks at us, He only sees Jesus’ perfection—not all our mistakes and shortcomings.
Christ’s ultimate, loving sacrifice on the cross paid the debt that resulted from our sinfulness. And through that, we are justified before God. So justification is something only Jesus can do.
Sanctification is what follows justification. It’s the process of the Holy Spirit working in us to refine our lives, reveal more about God to us, and help us deepen our relationship with Him.
So justification starts the process. We receive Jesus’ sinless life (Philippians 3:9)—a clean slate. Then this change on the inside (2 Corinthians 5:17) results in a change on the outside as God begins His work in us—sanctification.
But sanctification isn’t something we do any more than justification is. It also happens by faith (Romans 7:14-25; Philippians 3:9).
Jesus is the one who sanctifies us completely (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). He works in us “both to desire and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NASB).
So how do these concepts tie in with faith and works?
How justification and sanctification help us understand faith and works
Faith and works are woven within justification and sanctification. Justification is an experience that happens by faith in Jesus Christ, rather than our own works. Sanctification is the process that follows. It involves works that give evidence for our faith and what God is doing in us.
So why can’t works justify us?
Because we’re born with a sinful nature, as a result of the decision in Eden. So when we’re in auto-pilot mode, this sinful nature pulls us toward selfishness. Even when we do the right thing, it’s often out of a selfish motive (Romans 3:9-10), such as wanting to help someone or giving money to a charity because of how it’ll make us look good.
But good news—God isn’t expecting us to get our act together before we come to Him. He wants us to accept His salvation just as we are.
Then, when we are justified by faith, we receive a fresh start and give God permission to begin working in our lives.
Look at how the apostle Paul puts it:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10, NKJV).
If we could be justified or saved by our works, that would result in pride. And we would be more focused on our own efforts than on letting God work within us. But when we open ourselves up to let God do it all, we forego any of that pride and depend on God—since He is the only source of goodness there is.
This understanding of justification by faith was a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation. We can thank Martin Luther for the way that he championed this truth throughout his life.
As a devout monk, Luther tried to do everything possible to earn God’s favor—even beating himself for his sins—but he felt it was never enough. After wrestling with passages of Scripture, he finally found freedom in the truth that faith alone in Christ is what will save him.
However, he also understood that justification by faith doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want.
After all, it wouldn’t make sense to go back to our old lives when God has given us new lives (Romans 6:1-4).
Think about it. If we believe a book will be interesting, we’ll read it. If we believe a person is fun and nice, we’ll probably talk to them more. If we believe we might make a better first impression at a job interview if we get a fresh haircut…then we’ll probably make that happen!
The point is, we act on our beliefs all the time.
So it only makes sense that if we believe in and accept what Jesus did for us, it would have at least some effect on our lives! (Otherwise…we might question if we actually believe it or not.)
See, God designed us to do works of love—to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14). And we inherently thrive when we live other-centered lives. To live in any other way goes against what we were created to be and do.
Thus, God wasn’t being arbitrary when He gave us the Ten Commandments. And He wasn’t giving us a list of demands to “appease” Him. Far from it. Instead, these are His way of saying, “This is how you’ll live the most meaningful and satisfying life.”
Sanctification is God restoring us to that ideal. He puts the principles of His law of love into our hearts (Hebrews 8:10), and we see evidence of this in our works—the way we treat others, our habits, and what we do when no one’s looking.
So what is it like to start this process?
How to experience justification by faith
Experiencing justification by faith is about deciding to start a journey with Jesus.
You may feel like you don’t know much yet. Or maybe you’re unsure whether you even want to start that journey.
But you won’t lose anything by considering these steps:
Discover God’s love for you
God doesn’t ask you to start any journey with Him without understanding what you’re getting into. He wants you to choose Him because you want to, not because you feel obligated or afraid.
That’s why the first step in the journey is getting to know Him for who He is—a God of selfless love who gave everything to get you out of the mess of sin and make it possible for you to have a relationship with Him (John 3:16; 1 John 4:18).
As you get to know Him, you might start to feel self-conscious. You wonder if you’re good enough for Him.
That’s when you need to remember…
Don’t wait to get your act together
Come to God as you are. You may only see your mistakes…but God invites you to come for that very reason. He can work in your life and change you (Philippians 2:13).
Think about it. What if someone dear to your heart wouldn’t spend time with you because they worried they weren’t good enough for you, or that they wouldn’t live up to your standards? How would that make you feel?
And what if you knew you could help them with what they were going through? But instead, they figured it’d be better if they solved a few more of their problems before they made any contact with you?
You’d probably want to tell them they don’t have to worry about all their shortcomings. In fact, as far as your relationship with them is concerned, those shortcomings are irrelevant! They’re one of your loved ones—you long to be with them, no matter what they’re going through.
And we’re the loved ones of God—His children that He lovingly created. So there’s nothing you need to do/finish/solve/reform before accepting His gift and beginning a relationship with Him.
Choose to receive the incredible gift of salvation by faith
This can be a simple prayer in which you tell Him that you accept His life in your place, and you choose to receive His transforming love and power.
You may feel like you don’t have much faith at the moment. But that’s okay. You can tell God that, too (Mark 9:24). Your prayer is simply telling both God and yourself, “OK…let’s give this a try!”
The good news is that He’s given us all a “measure of faith” to get started (Romans 12:3, NKJV).
Believe that God accepts you and has renewed your life
When we receive the gift of salvation, God makes us new (2 Corinthians 5:17). You might not feel any different right away, but you can move forward believing it’s true. God’s Holy Spirit is working in your life!
Grow in your relationship with God
Then, you have the opportunity to continue getting to know this God who has changed your life. You were designed for the joys of a relationship with Him. And learning more about the God of the universe can be enriching and fascinating. Feel free to be curious in your journey with God—ask Him anything!
Here are some ways you can build that relationship:
- Reading His messages to you in the Bible
- Talking to Him about what’s on your heart
- Spending time with a faith community
And as you see things in your life that need to change, or that you’re nervous about, tell God about it. Ask Him for strength and guidance—which He promises to provide (James 1:5).
Be encouraged—He who has started a good work in you will complete it (Philippians 1:6).
God designed us so that our lives would reflect our beliefs
Faith and works—turns out, they’re compatible, if not inseparable. And that’s because we were made for our outward expressions to reflect our inner convictions.
Understanding faith and works in this way keeps us from falling into the idea that we have to get our act together to be worthy of God’s gift of salvation. Or the idea that obedience doesn’t matter.
When we are justified by the grace of God, we begin a new life of faith, reflected in our actions. A life of faith that brings us into harmony with God’s original design for us. Then, we can live for the glory of God.
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