Let’s Talk about Faith and Works

Life Bible Fellowship Church

Why is this an important topic?

Christians regularly debate the relationship between faith and works in the Christian life. Sometimes the discussion pits Catholics against Protestants. Other times it is simply an internal struggle as believers look to walk a tightrope without falling off on either side.

If we fall off the tightrope on one side, we fall squarely into legalism. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were marked by legalism, which is a fixation upon rules and on earning God’s favor through behavior. Legalism is a real danger. Galatians 3:3 says, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” In other words, we are foolish if we try to gain bragging rights before God through our good works. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Legalism is a real danger, and many Christians today seem more concerned with God’s “rules” than with God himself.

If we fall off the tightrope on the other side, we fall squarely into license. This means that we don’t worry about our behavior at all because we believe that we have been given license to do whatever we want. Paul depicts this reasoning in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” In other words, should we just sin as much as we want, since God loves to forgive us? I have heard Christians say that they are not worried about their sinful behaviors because they know that God will forgive them. According to Paul this is a false and dangerous way to think. In Romans 6:2 he responds to the question of whether we should just go on sinning by saying, “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Just as legalism poses a real danger, license poses a real danger because we deceive ourselves when we think that our sinful behavior has no impact on our relationship with God.

What role do good works have in the Christian life?

What we see in the Bible is that we don’t perform good works in order to be saved (Galatians 2:16). Instead we perform good works because we are saved. We are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11). We are Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 28:19) and so we resemble him. We walk in obedience to Jesus’ commands—especially his command to love one another—as a sign of the newness that Jesus has brought about in our lives (John 13:35).

Good works are not the reason we are saved, but they are the evidence that we are saved. This is what James is getting at in James 2:24 when he says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” These words are troubling because Paul says that we are saved by faith alone. Are James and Paul at odds? No, they are not. Both are saying that a faith with no works is evidence of a fake faith. They are simply saying this in slightly different ways.

Let me give an illustration. Let’s say that faith is a car. Paul looks at the frame of a car that has no engine and he says, “That is no car at all. If it has no engine, it is not a car.” James looks at the frame of a car with no engine and he says, “I’ll grant you that it’s a car, but it’s a useless car.” Both are saying that the “car” with no engine is useless. They are just using slightly different ways to say this. Both Paul and James are saying that “faith” with no works is a useless faith. They are just using slightly different ways to say this.

Where this leaves us is that we do good works not in order to try to prove ourselves to God, but in order to live out our new identity. We don’t have to do good works; we get to do good works. We experience greater closeness to God and greater joy and impact in our lives when we walk in the good works that God prepared beforehand for us (Ephesians 2:10). We don’t want to miss out on closeness with God because we are dabbling around with the instant gratification of lust and jealousy and greed and laziness. So we put death to sin and we lean into obedience. And when we do this we are a sign to the world of the goodness and power of Jesus.

What if I lack good works?

If a Christian looks at their life and sees a lack of good works, one of two things may be happening.

One possibility is that the person is not truly a child of God. There are many people who spend time in Christian circles and in churches, but who have never taken the step of placing their faith in Jesus. The solution to this is not to try harder to muster up good works. The solution is to humbly embrace Jesus by faith. Jesus loves saving sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), whether they are the godless sinning loudly or the “moral” sinning respectably.

A second possibility is that the person is a child of God who simply needs more growth. The Holy Spirit convicts us (John 16:8), and the purpose of this conviction is not to throw us into despair, but to lead us to fruitful lives. When Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) he is using an insightful illustration. Fruit grows gradually. The only step of obedience that a Christian can take is the next step of obedience. So, if you are concerned that your works aren’t strong evidence of the newness that Jesus brings, take the next step of obedience. Do it with joy and faith that God’s reward is always better than what we sacrifice in order to follow him (Hebrews 11:6).

And, chances are, when you taste and see how good it is to walk with a clean conscience in obedient closeness to Jesus, you’re going to want more. And the more God brings about newness in you, the more others will see your good works as a sign of the God who saved you (1 Peter 2:12).

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