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Saved by Faith Alone?

January 23, AD2017

It has been going on ever since the Protestant Reformation in 1517, five hundred years ago.  The bible verses in question are when Paul says that we also believe in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law  (Gal 2:16), and when James says that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). Since the divinely inspired Word of God can’t contradict itself, many people over the centuries have spent countless hours trying to account for this apparent dichotomy.

Saved by Grace Through Faith

The simple answer is that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), and not by works.  However, one has to remember that it is not enough to simply say “I believe,” and then do nothing (deathbed conversions are a separate matter).  The bible says, “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father.” (Matthew 7:21).

Therefore, it must be assumed that works are indeed a necessary component of one’s faith, just like a coin has both a head and a tail.  Too many people think that faith just means giving God lip service only, by just saying “I believe.” But the bible condemns that in the following verse: “This generation honors me with their lips, while their heart is far from me”, (Matthew 15:8).

Another thing to remember is that the Jews of Paul’s day had many observances (works) of the law that they had to keep, like not eating pork, ritual hand-washing, not eating meat with blood in it, not touching anything unclean, etc.  Paul may have been referring to these ritualistic works when he used the term “dead works” (Hebrews 9:14).  In fact, in Romans 3:20, Paul says, “Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” which is apparently a very clear distinction between works of the law and doing good deeds as a result of your faith.

Martin Luther

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther took it upon himself to change the understanding of the Bible around to fit his own particular theology.  Not only did he throw out seven complete books of the Old Testament and parts of two other books, he also implied that Christians are saved by faith alone, because of Romans 3:28, which states,“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law“, rather than the way it was taught for over 1100 years.   He even inserted the word “alone” into Romans 3:28 when he translated it into German, so that it reads, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law“.

One has to wonder about the wisdom of changing the interpretation of the divinely inspired Word of God to fit your own theology, especially after 11 centuries.  The only time you actually do see the words faith and alone together in a sentence is in James 2:24, where James says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”. (James 2:24)

Why is this important?  In the story about Judgment Day, (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the only questions that Jesus asks the multitude concern works:

  1.   Did you feed the hungry?
  2.   Did you clothe the naked?
  3.   Did you give a drink to the thirsty, etc.

If they answered “no” to these works in Matthew 25, then Jesus said that they were going to hell.  Nowhere does Jesus ask, “Did you accept me as your personal Lord and Savior?” The Book of James, in the Bible, says that your faith must be justified by works (James 2:24), which sounds much different from what Paul says in Galatians 2:16 about “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law(In the former, James refers to faith being justified by works; In the latter, Paul says that we are justified by faith. So, once you have the faith and are justified by it, then your faith, in turn, must be justified by works).

Just as it’s not enough to tell your wife that you love her, and never do anything for her, it’s also true of your faith relationship with Jesus. Faith and performing good works for your fellow man go together like body and soul. You simply aren’t alive unless both body and soul are united (James 2:26). Good works, then, become the animating force of our faith. First, you need faith in Christ, and then good works (not works of the Jewish law) to justify that faith.  Faith and works in tandem have a symbiotic relationship that results in eternal salvation and heaven.  Remember, when all is said and done, we are nothing more that servants of God (Romans 6:22).  Any servant has a LOT of work to do.

Another important reminder is that when Jesus cured someone, he sometimes said, “Your faith has healed you.”  So, since we all want to be healed of something, how does one get more faith?  One great way is by performing good works as a result of your faith in Christ, in order to please God.  Just like a weightlifter can’t get more muscles by merely saying that he believes in weightlifting, just so, a Christian doesn’t get more faith by merely saying that he believes in Jesus.  Unless Jesus increases our faith through His will alone, a person has to actually do something to increase it, like praying for more faith, receiving the sacraments more frequently, going through a trial, or by performing good works as a result of his faith, in order to please God. It’s also hard to have impure thoughts and to do evil things if your primary goal in life is to please God, so think of the reasons for doing good works for the glory of God in three ways:

  1. To prevent yourself from performing evil
  2. To build up your own faith
  3. To build up the Kingdom of God

The last one is the most important.  After all, if we are to imitate Jesus who performed many good works, then it is a natural thing to do good works as a true Christian.  There is one cautionary note about performing good works.  If our motive is for personal praise and not to build up the Kingdom of God, then Jesus says that we are already rewarded in this world and will not be rewarded in heaven (Matthew 6:1)

One very important passage in the Bible that specifically spells out the necessity of good works as a result of the grace that God gives us all and the resultant faith in Jesus Christ  is Matthew 25:41-46:

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

In summary, Martin Luther was wrong to change the interpretation of Holy Scripture in the sixteenth century to imply that we are saved by “faith alone.” In fact, James says that your faith must be justified by works (James 2:24).  True faith in Jesus Christ will naturally lead you to perform good works by imitating the life of Jesus.  In Ephesians 2:10, Paul says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Always keep in mind the two definitions of the word “work” as used in the Bible — One meaning refers to a work of the old Jewish law (does one no good), and the other definition refers to a good deed (VERY beneficial) which can make your faith come alive.

Sometimes Catholics are accused of trying to “work” our way into heaven, by doing good deeds.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  That is putting the cart before the horse.  The grace one gets from the sacraments enables Catholics to do more good works.  We don’t do good works to receive more grace.  Rather, we do good works as a result of our faith in Jesus. Colossians 1:10 says that good works are the fruit of our faith: “to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Earlier, in Matthew 7:19, Jesus told us all how important it was for trees to bear fruit, or they will be thrown into the fire: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Doing good works, then, can be seen as bearing good fruit. Of course, since Jesus is the vine and we are only the branches, in reality, it is Christ doing the good works through us, his branches, so there should be NO room for boasting about any good works that we do.

Another verse that talks about how we are justified through good works is Romans 2:6“For he will render to every man according to his works”

Other verses that indicate the importance of good works done as a result of our faith are:

Revelation 20:12-13:12: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13: And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done.

Phillipians 2:12:Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out  your own salvation with fear and trembling;

Titus 3:8:  The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men.

1 Timothy 6:18: They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous,

Matthew 5:16: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

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About the Author:

Retired engineer from Texas, because the cowboy thing on the ranch growing up didn't work out. Actually rode the Vomit Comet at NASA in Houston once, being totally weightless for 20 minutes! Married with two kids and Vinnie the Wonder Dog. I love the Church and what it stands for. Without the sacraments, I am nothing.

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  • Guy McClung

    Ray-As usual, up to your fine standards-many thanks for all the work [NO pun intended] and the research. Those who currently are spreading the centuries-old “mercy heresy” -your sins don’t matter, God’s mercy will take care of all that – are saying, in another way, your works dont matter – “Go and sin on more”; and they are saying to ignore the Scriptures and Jesus’s own words that we will be judged. I have actually heard a pastor from a pulpit here tell the folks be happy, “You will not be judged when you die.” So ironic a few moments later we all recited the Creed. This pulpit was in what is known as a “catholic community.” The gift of faith doesn’t make you a robot – what it does is make it easier for you, acting freely, to choose to do the “works.” Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

    • Ray Sullivan

      Amen Guy….Sin matters, a lot, as does bearing good fruit. Matthew 25:31-46 is a great refresher course on who gets into heaven and who does not…

  • Dhaniele

    It is amazing how many quotes contradict Luther’s theories. My favorite short one is: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:15).

  • james

    I would think that anyone who has been given the gift of faith is on auto pilot so far as works of mercy.

    • Ray Sullivan

      Nice thought, but so many look upon works as being evil, namely, one Martin Luther…

    • james

      Don’t be so hard on him, Ray, he provided the CC with some much needed karma.