Who Needs Works?

It seems to be a matter of common sense to say that good people will go to heaven and evil people will go to hell. Something would be terribly wrong if God could send an innocent, sincere, charitable, helpful person to hell. Yet sometimes people suggest that a person’s salvation depends upon his faith alone, and not upon the good things he does, or how he lives, or whether he obeys the Ten Commandments. The Bible never mentions “faith alone” except in one passage which says “faith alone is dead” (James 2:24). The concept first came into existence during the Reformation, when Luther and other Protestants split away from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s concept of how a person gets to heaven was different from what had been taught by the Catholic Church. Luther’s phrase “faith alone” emphasized this difference.

In the early Christian Church there was no controversy about whether a person could be saved by faith alone without obeying the Lord and living well. Early Christians knew that loving the Lord meant obeying His commandments (Matthew 19:17; John 14:21; 15:10), and that salvation depended on bearing fruit, that is, doing good works (Matthew 7:19; 16:27; 21:43; Luke 3:9; John 5:29; 15:1-16; Revelation 20:13; 22:12). In fact there are so many passages which say that a good life is necessary, that it would be quite a contradiction if the Bible did say that faith alone is enough.

Probably the closest the Bible comes to mentioning “faith alone” is Paul’s phrase, “man is justified by faith without the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Sometimes this phrase has been used to defend or promote the idea that man is saved by faith alone. But if we look at Paul’s statement in context we can see that Paul was simply saying that you can be saved without being a Jew (read Romans 3:28-31). Some early Christians felt that to be a good Christian, one should obey all the ritual laws of the Jewish Church. “Certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). Now Paul knew that it made no difference to the Lord whether a person was circumcised or not, so he made it clear that it is not necessary to keep the laws about washing, sacrifices, offerings, holy days, diet, and circumcision (Romans 3; 2:25-28; Hebrews 8-10). For example, Paul criticized Peter because Peter (following Jewish law) was unwilling to eat and fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles. Paul then said, “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). It is very clear from the context that he was referring to the laws that distinguish Gentiles from Jews, that is, the laws about circumcision, diet and other rituals. In another passage Paul makes it very clear what laws we do not need to obey.

“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ…. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:11, 16-17)

The passage goes on to say that the laws we don’t need to keep are “regulations—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’—which all concern things which perish with the using” (Colossians 2:20-22). In Hebrews we read that the laws which have been superseded regard gifts and sacrifices “which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances” (Hebrews 8:9-10).

Again and again Paul points to circumcision (and consequently the laws that ritually distinguish Jews from Gentiles) as being the kind of works that are not needed to make one righteous.

“Does this blessedness then come only on the circumcised, and not on the uncircumcised also?” (Romans 4:9)

“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

“In Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working by love” (Galatians 5:6).

Paul says in this last quote not “faith alone,” but “faith which works by love.” Faith, works and love are all necessary—but the works must be works of faith and love, not the works of Jewish ritual law.

These and other references make it clear that when Paul said a man is saved by faith without the works of the law, he meant that a person is saved without circumcision and other ritualistic works. There are other laws, which relate not to ritual but to living well, as for example the Ten Commandments and laws such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Paul made it clear that it was necessary to keep these laws in order to be saved. He said, “Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, not adulterers, nor homosexuals… nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10; see also Galatians 5:19-20). Paul had no thought at all of doing away with the law: “Do we abrogate the law through faith? Far from it! We establish the law” (Romans 3:31). He knew that salvation depended on action, not just on faith: “Not the hearers of the law shall be justified by God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). And he taught that every loving person will obey God’s law: “Love does no harm to a neighbor: therefore love is the fulfillment of he law” (Romans 13:10).

It is clear from the passages above that according to Paul, we must keep the Lord’s commandments and live a good life in order to be saved. This agrees completely with what other disciples said about living well. What could be more direct that this statement of James:

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it?… Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…. By works a person is justified, and not by faith alone” (James 2:14-24).

When James is speaking of works he means doing things like feeding and clothing the poor (James 2:15). Yet Paul was just as eager to feed the poor, but didn’t think circumcision was needed (Galatians 2:10-14).

John showed that you can’t have faith unless you love others when he said, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). He also taught that we can and should obey God’s commands: “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).

For any Christian, the way to eternal life is to follow Jesus and do as He says. And what He says is very plain: “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). This is not only the way to life, but the way to happiness: “If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:17). It is the way to love the Lord: “He who has My commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (John 14:21). And it is the way to be His friend: “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14).