FAITH vs. WORKS: What Must I Do to be Saved?

by David Walker

And they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house."
Acts 16:31

One of the ongoing controversies in the church today is the issue of faith vs. works with regards to salvation. Many Christians believe that in order to be saved, besides asking Christ into their lives as Lord and Saviour, they have to follow the Old Testament Law and the Ten Commandments to the letter, with no mistakes. Then, and only then, will they receive salvation and go to heaven. Unfortunately, those that believe this are putting themselves under unnecessary and often stressful burdens. They attempt to fulfill all the fine points, and when they slip up (which, being human, is inevitable) they become discouraged and try to "make up" for it with things like penances and the like, and then redouble their efforts (avoiding certain foods, observing certain days, etc.), and basically making their lives a ritual of try, fail, penance, repeat. Although there is no way of knowing, I sometimes wonder how many people have decided not to accept Christ simply because they don't think they can live the "perfect" life that they've been told is necessary. In this paper, I will attempt to explain what I believe the Bible says on the subject, and, hopefully, to put some minds at ease.

Now, first of all, let me explain that I'm not saying becoming a Christian gives us a license to do whatever we want with no consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Christians we still have responsibilities to live holy lives in order to set examples for nonbelievers, and I believe we should still keep the Commandments and the Law to the best of our abilities. But our salvation is not dependant on observing every fine point of the Law. So when we do stumble (which we will), we don't have to worry about whether we've endangered our salvation. We simply acknowledge our sin, ask for forgiveness and strength, and go on.

The Law

O.K. Let me start by saying flat out that, as Christians, WE ARE NOT UNDER THE LAW! Now that I've got your attention (and probably offended some of you), let me explain. The Bible very clearly states that, because of what Christ did for us on the cross, we are no longer bound by the Law that was given in the Old Testament. Consider the following verses:

And the most straight-forward one:

Well then, you may ask, what is the Law for, and why is it in the Bible? Simply put, the Law was given to tell us what sin is. Romans 7:7 tells us exactly that. It states, "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet'" NKJ So one purpose of the Law is to define sin for us. Another purpose for the Law is given in Galatians 3:23-26:

So the Law was also given to serve as a "schoolmaster," but since Calvary, we are justified by faith, and no longer need the schoolmaster. Now, a schoolmaster is a teacher, so what did the Law teach us? It showed us that it is impossible to attain salvation by attempting to fulfill the Law. The Bible tells us as much:

That's all we need to see, right there! But there is more . . .

Look at it this way, suppose you've got a wall in front of you that's a mile high and as smooth as glass, and on the other side of this wall is something incredibly valuable and precious, if you can just get to it. In front of you is a door with a sign on it that says, "Well, you can either climb the wall, or you can go through my door. But before I'll let you through the door, you have to admit that you can't climb the wall." Since it's obviously impossible to climb a wall that's a mile high and as smooth as glass, it wouldn't be hard for us to say, "O.K. I can't climb the wall," and then use the door. That's the way it is with the Law. The wall is the Law; if we can get over it (keep the Law), on the other side is God and salvation, and the door is Christ. In John 10:9, Christ says, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture." When we admit we can't climb the wall (keep the Law), we rely on faith that the door will be opened. Those who have accepted Christ, and yet still believe we have to keep the Law for salvation, are like someone standing at this wall with the door open, but still trying to climb the wall! If the door is open, why are they still trying to climb the wall?

The only way we can be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ, and His sacrifice on the cross. If it were possible to be saved by our own works, and through following the Law, Christ would never have had to come to earth to die for our sins. Paul says in Galatians 2:21, "I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." So if we believe that we have to keep the Law in order to receive salvation, we are frustrating the grace of God and rejecting faith entirely! We see in Galatians 3:12, "And the law is not of faith: . . ." By attempting to fulfill the Law, we are denying faith, and, in effect, declaring that Christ's sacrifice was not enough to save us! Paul asks the Galatians in chapter 3, verse 2, "This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" After hearing the gospel, the Galatians still believed they had to fulfill the Law, and Paul was trying to straighten them out. I believe I'll stick with faith, thank you very much!

Romans 3:19 says, "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." We've already seen that, as Christians, we are no longer bound by the Law. Some people, however, still insist on putting themselves back under the Law. Now, they're welcome to try, but they'd better keep every single "jot and tittle!" Galatians 3:10 tells us, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." That's not just the Ten Commandments, but ALL the Law. In Romans 2:13 we see, "For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified." Oh, but wait! Remember Galatians 3:11? It said, ". . . no man is justified by the law in the sight of God . . ." Oops! So much for trying to be a "doer" of the Law!

This is not to say that the Law serves no purpose anymore. 2Timothy 3:16 states, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, (and) for instruction in righteousness:" We can still study the Law for instructions on how to live godly lives, we just don't have to rely on it for our salvation. Thank you, Jesus!

The Gift of Grace

One of the hardest things for some people to understand is the concept of salvation given as a free gift. They simply can't imagine that receiving salvation can be as simple as asking for it. They'll ask, "How do I earn salvation?" Easy! You don't! There's no way to "earn" salvation. Nothing you ever do will make you "deserve" salvation. It is a free gift of God, through the blood of Jesus Christ. Listen to Romans 5:15-18:

In these four verses we see salvation referred to as a "gift" six times and "free" three times! In Romans 6:23 it says, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Again, a gift!

Ephesians 2:8-9: "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." I can't say it enough! We receive salvation as a gift, not through our works.

There's no way to "earn" it. If there was, it wouldn't be a gift. Romans 4:4-5: "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."

There's no way we can ever do enough good things to "deserve" it. Titus 3:5, "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."

Some Common Objections

Now I know that some of you are thinking, "Oh, yeah? Well what about the second chapter of James? Hmmm?" O.K. Let's take a look at some of the verses:

You may be saying, "Aha! I TOLD you so!" And at first glance these verses seem to contradict the "salvation by faith alone" stance. However, we've already seen that the Bible clearly says that we are not, and cannot be, justified by the works of the Law. And the Bible, as the inspired word of God, will never contradict itself. So what is the explanation for this apparent discrepancy? Simply that the "works" James is talking about are not the works of the law, but rather the works of righteousness and the good works that we do as Christians. They cannot be the works of the Law because of the examples James uses to make his point. He uses Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and yet nowhere in the Law does it tell the men of Israel to sacrifice their firstborn. Abraham obeyed God because of his faith in Him, not because of the Law. Likewise with Rahab; the Law did not tell her to help the men spying on her city. Her faith, that the God of Israel would be merciful to her if she helped them, was her salvation. Therefore, the works James is talking about cannot be the works of the Law, and can only be our good works and works of righteousness.

You see, our works are an outward expression of our faith. As Christians, God expects, and has even planned for, us to do good works. Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Once we accept Christ into our lives as Lord and Saviour, we receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts, and our "works" follow. With our good works we demonstrate our faith to each other and to non-believers. As a matter of fact, if we are truly saved, and have submitted our lives to Christ, we won't even be able to stop ourselves from doing good works! If a "Christian" isn't doing the works, maybe he or she was never truly born again at all. (Of course, it's not our place to judge them, only the Lord knows for sure.) Titus 1:16 describes people in this category: "They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate." Or, it may be that they have yet to truly submit their life and will to Christ's. Perhaps they are still struggling with the flesh and worldly temptations. Regardless, we see that by our works we prove (justify) our faith and salvation.

Actually, there are several reasons to do good works:

In that last verse we see that a man's works do not determine his salvation, simply his rewards, or lack thereof. Even if a Christian has, for some reason, failed to do good and lasting works; as long as they have not abandoned the faith, he or she will still be saved, "yet so as by fire."

Another passage commonly used to disprove the "salvation by faith alone" stance is found in the fifth chapter of Matthew. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-19, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Til heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Usually, this is where the person arguing on the side of the Law stops, and if that were all there was to this section, it would present a problem. However, in the very next verse, Jesus says, "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." This last verse (v. 20) presents a problem to those who try to fulfill the Law, because the Pharisees were notorious for keeping every little detail of the Law. However, the righteousness Jesus was talking about is the inner righteousness of our heart, mind, and soul. (Remember, Jesus told us that we can commit sin in our mind and in our heart without ever taking any physical action at all.) Unfortunately, that doesn't really help us either because in Romans 3:10 we see, "As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one." And verse 23 of the same chapter, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."

So once again, we seem to have a contradiction, until we realize that when Jesus said the Law would not pass until all was fulfilled, He was talking about His fulfillment of the Law through His sinless life, and subsequent sacrifice on the cross. Jesus, Himself, explains this in Luke 24:44, "And He said unto them, 'These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled (past tense), which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.'" Jesus' sinless life, crucifixion, and resurrection were the fulfillment of the law. We are all guilty of breaking some point in the Law (and are therefore guilty of all), but we do not teach the breaking of the commandments. Only one person in history has taught the Law, and kept every single "jot and tittle" of it, both in actions AND in thought, and that person is indeed great in the kingdom of heaven, for He is Jesus. But in Romans 3:21-22, we see how we also can be considered righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven: "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:" So again we see that our salvation is by faith and not works.

I hope I have cleared up a few things for some who are reading this. Perhaps some of you have put off giving your life to Christ because you don't believe you can live a "perfect" life. Or, if you've already made that commitment, maybe you've been tormenting yourself because you've stumbled and are afraid you might have endangered your salvation. In either case, I hope I have given you a little peace of mind. In order for us to be saved, all we have to do is repent of our sins, ask for forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, ask Him into your life as your Lord and Saviour, and believe that He is just and true to keep His word. If you have done this already, you are saved. No Law, no works, just faith. And when (not if) we do stumble, we simply confess our sins to God, ask for forgiveness and strength, and go on and try a little harder.

Just remember: Simply because we are not under the Law anymore, does not relieve us of our obligation to live holy lives, and to set a good example for non-believers and any brothers or sisters in Christ that may not be as strong in the faith. If we're going to "talk the talk," then we have a responsibility to "walk the walk" to the best of our abilities. Additionally, the Law and the Commandments handed down by the Lord were given to us, in large part, for our own good and to help us grow and mature spiritually. So even though our salvation does not depend upon the Law, it's still in our own best interests to observe the laws and commandments as thoroughly as we can. I will go into more detail on this in another paper, The Law is dead! Long live the Law! (coming soon)

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