Posted on July 3rd, by Doug Ponder in God. No Comments


Written by on July 3, 2013

Contrast from the Past

Nearly five hundred years ago, a young German monk named Martin Luther led a sweeping movement of reform in the church. At the center of the controversial reform movement lay the question of the salvation: Are we saved by faith alone? Or are we saved by some combination of faith and works?

Those who sided with Luther declared that God saves us and declares us to be in the right on the basis of our faith alone. Luther’s opponents, however, maintained that God saves us and declares us to be in the right on the basis of our faith and works together. Though we may not have much patience for theological debates in the 21st Century, we would be foolish not to recognize its importance. Indeed, it is vital to understanding how we can be made right with God.

My Verse Can Beat Up Your Verse

So who was right? The answer you get will depend on who you ask. Churches that trace their lineage to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers argue that we are saved by our faith alone. If you come from that background, you may known verses like these very well:

“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

“The just will live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17)

“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Meanwhile, many Catholic Christians maintain that a combination of faith and works is necessary for salvation. They point to Bible verses like these:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)

“The one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13)

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom. 2:6-8)

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

What Should We Make of This?

Is the Bible contradicting itself? Some people have thought so. Others, in their attempt to defend the unity of the Bible (a worthy pursuit), have not done justice to what the Bible actually says. They ignore one half of the Bible in order to defend the half that they like. But what if there’s another way to explain how both can be true?

There is. It’s no secret, either. The answer is that we’re saved (spared from sin and death) on the basis of our faith/trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, but our actions, our works, are a demonstration of whether we actually possess faith in Jesus. Or as many people have summarized, we’re saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. In other words, saving faith is always accompanied by works that demonstrate faith.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action (works), is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

James shows us that the claim to have faith in Jesus is demonstrated by actions done in faith. Those actions, or works, do not earn us favor with God. We don’t “earn” the gift of salvation. But our works do demonstrate our faith that Jesus has already done all that is necessary to save us from sin and death.

It works like this. I’m the biological father of my son. He is related to me genetically. If I were to take a paternal blood test, the results would show that he really is my son. But the results don’t make him my son. They simply prove or justify what is already the case. The same is true with faith and works. Our works don’t make our faith “come alive.” Rather, our works are evidence that we have been saved by Jesus through our faith in him.

Do I Have Faith in Jesus?

According to the New Testament, the clearest evidence that our heart has been changed through our faith in Jesus is that we now find the desire to obey God and the desire to serve our neighbor where formerly we found only the desire to rebel and to be selfish. It is no accident that Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love our neighbor. He intended for us to see our desire to fulfill these commands as the clearest evidence that we have come to trust in him as our Redeeming Lord.

That’s why Jesus says that he has no patience for people who call him “Lord” but refuse to do what he says (Luke 6:46). These people don’t actually trust in Jesus, and their refusal to repent (turn from) sin and listen to Jesus is a strong indication that they do not belong to him. It isn’t as though they once were saved but now are not. Rather, their actions are revealing their “true colors,” so to speak. Their works give evidence against their claim to have in Jesus, not in favor of their claim to trust in him.

In a similar way, our refusal to serve anyone but ourselves is a huge indication that we lack saving faith in Christ. In addition to what James says, as we have seen above, the apostle John adds this: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:16).  That is why James rhetorically asks, “Can such faith save them?” The obvious answer is no. The love of God and the love of their fellow man do not reside in their hearts because they do not trust in Jesus or have any desire to listen to what he says. We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone (2 Cor. 13:5).

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

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