(Gospel e-Letter - July 2014)
While most Christians would say that faith is necessary for salvation, there is significant disagreement about the place of works.
Some would add works to faith as the means of justification. They would not say that they are saved by works alone; they still believe in Christ, and in his death on the cross and resurrection. They would also affirm the necessity of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to perform good works so that, ultimately, they will be judged to have fulfilled the law of God and that they merit eternal life. This is basically the position of faithful Catholics.
Others will exclude works completely. Justification is by faith alone, and by that they mean that works have nothing to do with salvation whatsoever. They may encourage and desire believers to live a godly life and do good works, but if such works are absent, they still say that such a person is justified. Indeed if someone has ‘received Christ by faith’ and his life remained unchanged or even dominated by sin, even so he will spend eternity in heaven. This view, sometimes called ‘easy believism’, is not uncommon among evangelicals.
Both views are in error. The Bible teaches that salvation is ‘by grace through faith’ – and it specifically excludes our works as the basis for salvation – ‘not of yourselves, it is a gift of God’. The Bible is even more emphatic, ‘not of works lest any man should boast’. A child can understand that simple statement, but then, it can also be easily twisted. So the Scripture immediately guards against the exclusion of works by telling us that the saved are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10). Works are not the means but the fruit of salvation.
Those who professes to believe in Christ but continues to live in sexual immorality, drunkenness, resentment, dishonesty or any form of unrighteousness, will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:6,10). It does not take some gross sin to keep one out of heaven. It is enough to do nothing. Christ calls such a person slothful, and these will be the last words he will ever hear from the mouth of Christ: "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:14-30).
On the other hand, it is dangerous to rest on our works, even in part, as the basis for our justification. The Pharisee who went to the Temple to pray was a devout Jew who believed in the true and living God. He thanked God and acknowledged that his righteousness was wrought in him by God. He was basing his justification on faith and works which he performed by the grace of God. However, in Jesus’ estimation, he was trusting in himself that he was righteous. In truth he was not. Pride had blinded him to his sin and guilt; he looked to himself instead of turning his eyes to God where he could find mercy.
May God help us avoid both deadly errors – I will not depend at all on my works for justification, not now, not ever; I entrust myself solely to Christ by faith for I am convinced that God justifies me on the basis of his Son’s righteousness and the sacrifice on the cross. And since I am accepted by God and given a new heart, I dedicate myself to good works for his glory, thus showing that my faith is alive and that his saving work in me is real.