The Reformed Protestant understanding of the relationship between faith and works is that salvation comes by faith in Christ alone, and the good works performed by believers aren’t the basis of salvation but should be understood as the necessary evidence of that salvation.
The question of the relationship between faith and works is central to the division between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Throughout the Bible, we see that salvation is received not on the basis of works but on the basis of faith in God alone. Jesus himself emphasizes this through many parables and sayings, and Paul argues explicitly against the inclusion of works in the basis of our salvation. James, though arguing that justification is by works “and not by faith alone,” can be harmonized with the rest of the New Testament when it is realized that James still expects us to sin—he is combatting faith without works, not faith alone as the basis of salvation. So, the entirety of the New Testament teaches that we are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies necessarily flowers into good works.
One of the most important questions in biblical theology is the relationship between faith and works. Indeed, different understandings of the role of faith and works have divided faithful Protestants from Roman Catholics since the time of the Reformation. I will present here a traditional Reformed understanding of faith and works from the Scriptures.
Faith and Works in the Teaching of Jesus
The notion that we are saved by faith alone is anchored in the teaching of Jesus. For instance, Jesus commends the faith of the centurion, noting that he did not find such faith in Israel (Matt. 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). We see in the account of the sinful woman who broke into Jesus’s dinner with Simon the Pharisee a stunning reminder of saving faith (Luke 7:36–50). This woman was well-known for her sin, and she expressed her sorrow with the tears that fell on Jesus’s feet, with her hair with which she washed them dry, and with the kisses and perfume lavished on his feet. Jesus commended her love, but her love flowed out of the forgiveness freely received. Hence, the story concludes with the declaration, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). We have a dramatic indication in this story that forgiveness is by faith alone, and such faith brings peace.
The story of the Pharisee and tax collector also indicates that forgiveness and justification are not granted to the Pharisee who was so proud of his acts of religious devotion (Luke 18:9–14). Instead, Jesus pronounces that the one who is right before God is the tax collector who realizes that his only hope is God’s mercy. Jesus also teaches that blessing belongs to the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), to those who mourn over their sin (Matt. 5:4), to those who are humble (Matt. 5:5), to those who hunger for a righteousness that isn’t their own (Matt. 5:6). Jesus’s meals with sinners and tax collectors (e.g., Matt. 9:9–13) point to the same truth. Such meals in the ancient world signified social acceptance, and by eating with tax collectors Jesus communicated acceptance, forgiveness, and love to those who had repented of their sins.
The Gospel of John emphasizes the importance of faith, using the verb “believe” (pisteuō) 98 times to underscore the importance of faith. At one point the Jews ask what they have to do to perform God’s works (John 6:28). Jesus replies that they are to “believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). John emphasizes repeatedly that those who believe enjoy eternal life (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24, etc.). One is not saved by working for God but by believing in God.
Faith and Works in the Epistles of Paul
Paul teaches that justification and the gift of the Spirit are received by faith instead of by works of law (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). Luther rightly translates Romans 3:28 to say that we are justified “by faith alone,” and not by works of law. Some have argued that “works of law” refers to the ceremonial law or to the boundary markers of the law, but it is much more natural to understand works of law to refer to the whole law. In other words, justification doesn’t come through doing the law but by faith.
Such a reading is confirmed by other texts which teach that justification is by faith instead of works. English readers may fail to notice that Paul shifts from “works of law” in Romans 3 to “works” in Romans 4. We see in Romans 4 that Abraham was not justified by works but by faith (Rom. 4:1–5). The word “works” is fitting with respect to Abraham since he didn’t live under the Mosaic law. The case of Abraham validates the reading proposed for Romans 3 above. Justification can’t be obtained by works but only by faith. Works or works of law can’t bring justification since all people without exception are sinners (Rom. 1:18–3:20; Gal. 3:10). It is a staple of Pauline teaching that justification is by faith instead of through works (Phil. 3:2–9; Eph. 2:8–9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5).
We should not think that the intrinsic virtue of faith saves, as if faith is our righteousness, as if faith is a good work. What saves is the object of faith, which for Paul is Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen one (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:18–21; Gal. 1:4; 2:21; 3:13). Faith unites believers to Christ, who became sin for our sakes, who has taken the curse we deserve, who has absorbed the wrath in our place. Paul clearly teaches, then, that salvation comes by believing not achieving, by resting in Christ instead of working for him, by trusting instead of performing.
Works and Salvation
This raises the question, however, of the role of works in salvation, for we see in a number of texts that works are necessary for eternal life. For instance, Jesus teaches that those who refuse to forgive others will not be forgiven by God (Matt. 6:14–15; 18:31–35), that those who practice lawlessness will not enter the kingdom (Matt. 7:21–23), that only those who bear good fruit are truly saved (Mark 4:1–20), that only true disciples belong to him (Luke 9:57–62; 14:25–35), and that those who practice good will be raised to life (John 5:29).
We find the same emphasis in Acts. Those who want to escape God’s wrath must repent of their sin (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30), and they must “do works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26:21). Simon, for instance, isn’t truly saved since he hasn’t truly repented of his sins (Acts 8:9–24). Paul also says that those who practice the things of the flesh will not enter God’s kingdom (Gal. 5:19–21; cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–11). God is impartial and fair; those who do good will be rewarded with eternal life and those who practice evil will face final judgment (Rom. 2:6–11). Only those who sow to the Spirit will enjoy eternal life, while those who sow to the flesh will be destroyed (Gal. 6:8). Paul reminds his readers that God avenges evil (1 Thess. 4:6), that those who do what is good will be rewarded (2 Cor. 5:10).
Paul and James
James, at first glance, seems to contradict Paul’s theology of justification. Paul affirms that believers are justified by faith and not by works. James says that justification is by works “and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). James refers to the same verse about Abraham’s faith (James 2:23; Gen. 15:6) that Paul cites (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6), but he seems to apply the verse in a radically different way, arguing that the works which followed Abraham’s faith justified him, while Paul contends that Abraham was justified by his faith, and not by his works.
Some scholars claim that Paul and James contradict one another, but such a view contradicts the inspiration of Scripture, and there is a plausible solution to our dilemma. We have already seen that both Jesus and Paul teach salvation by faith, and yet also emphasize the necessity of good works for salvation. The good works necessary for salvation can’t be the basis of one’s salvation since God is infinitely holy and demands perfection. Thus, the good works performed by believers aren’t the basis of salvation but should be understood as the necessary evidence of salvation. Such works are the fruit and product of our new life in Jesus Christ. We have an important confirmation that James himself believed this, for he says in James 3:2 that “we all stumble in many ways.” James means by this that we all sin in many ways. And he makes this comment immediately after insisting on justification by works (James 2:24)! Apparently, the works that justify are quite imperfect, and thus they could never be the basis of our justification since God demands perfection. Since we continue to stumble in a myriad of ways, our works function as the evidence and indication that we have a new life. Justification is by faith alone, as we put our trust in Christ alone, and thus our salvation is by grace alone and for the glory of God alone, and our good works demonstrate that we are trusting in Christ for our salvation.
- J. Gresham Machen, “Faith and Works”
- J. I. Packer, “Good Works Are an Expression of Faith”
- John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness
- Ligon Duncan, “Faith Works”
- N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said
- R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone
- Tom Nettles, “Justification”
- Tom Schreiner, Faith Alone. See a review here. See a brief book summary here. See an author interview here and a related interview here.
- Tom Schreiner, “Do Paul and James Disagree on Justification by Faith Alone?”
- Tom Schreiner, “Justification by Works and Sola Fide”
- Robert Sungenis, Not by Faith Alone