Some years ago I was talking with a young man who believed in the Calvinist idea of predestination.  He presented the idea to me that salvation could not come about by our own free choice to believe in Christ.  If this was true, he claimed, then salvation would be by works, since choosing something is in actuality a work…it is something that we can do.  Since salvation is not by works, he argued, salvation cannot come about by our choosing to accept Christ.  Therefore, he concluded, we are not saved because we choose Christ, but because God had already chosen us ahead of time.  Only this way, he claimed, can we say that salvation comes about by the grace of God and not by our own works.

Although I did not agree with this young man’s argument, it did serve to bring into my mind the realization that the relationship between faith and works, between salvation and grace, may not be as clear as I had thought it to be up to that time.  Although I had many times confidently asserted that salvation does not come about by works, I had to admit that choosing is indeed something that I can do, and therefore would seem to be indeed a work.  But is a choice really a work in the Biblical sense of the term?  Must we keep a strict line between salvation and works, and insist that our salvation can never have anything to do with a work that we do?  Must we also apply this to all other people and say that no one is ever saved or has ever been saved by the acting out of a work?  These questions are legitimate questions, I believe, and therefore must be examined in the light of the truth revealed in the Bible if we are ever to arrive at answers to them.

Now the works versus faith argument is one that I am certain all of us as believers have run into at one time or another.  Most of those of us who consider ourselves evangelicals have been taught that salvation comes about only by faith, and that works have nothing to do with salvation.  Yet is this really an accurate statement?

The basis for the idea that salvation does not come by works is found in Ephesians 2: 8-9.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  This passage, we are taught, reveals to us that salvation has nothing to do with works, but rather comes about only by faith.  It does not have to do with ourselves or anything that we have done, because in that case we would have cause to boast in our own ability to save ourselves.

The problem with this stance is that it may be too severe in giving us the idea that works can have nothing to do with our salvation.  In the case of the young Calvinist with whom I had this discussion, he used this idea to say that salvation could not even come about by our own choice to accept Christ because this would make our salvation dependent upon something we had done!  An immediately apparent problem with this argument is that this passage does not say that salvation comes about by our choice to believe.  Salvation is said to be by grace THROUGH faith, and not by faith.  Many say that salvation is “by faith,” and if this were the case, then it indeed would be by something that we can do.  However, salvation does not come about by something done on our end, but rather by something done on God’s end.  Salvation is by GRACE.  It only comes to us THROUGH faith.  In other words, the work necessary was done on God’s end when He died on the cross.  All we have to do is connect ourselves with that, so to speak, by having faith.  Even if this having faith is a work, it is not the having of faith that accomplishes the salvation, but rather the grace which God has already offered to us.

That our act of believing actually is a work is made clear by the statement of Christ in the book of John.  Jesus has crossed the sea after His miracle of feeding the five thousand, and the people have followed Him and found Him again on the other side of the sea.  After finding Him and questioning Him as to why He had left them, they then ask Him a very important question, and one which may help us to clear up the faith versus works controversy.  Let us examine the passage, starting in John 6:28.  “Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’  Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.'”  In this passage, we see that Jesus closely identifies believing and working the work of God.  Belief and faith are actually the same word in Greek, so Christ here seems to be saying that having faith in Himself is the same thing as working the work of God!  This would make salvation based, then, not on works plural, but on A work singular, that is, THE work of God, which is believing on Jesus Christ.  Thus the difference between faith and works is seen to be somewhat less than we may have previously thought.  Salvation is indeed based on grace, not on works.  Nevertheless, that salvation comes to us only by the working of a work, that is, the work of God, which is actually the work of faith.  So faith is indeed a work, and it is THE work whereby we can become acceptable to God.  Paul speaks of it thus in I Thessalonians 1:2-3, when he says, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your WORK OF FAITH, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father.”  (Emphasis mine.)  In this verse, Paul speaks of faith as a work.

Do not misunderstand me.  The fact that I believe that faith is a work does not mean that I believe in salvation by works.  I believe in salvation by grace.  But this grace comes about through THE work (not works) of God, which is the work of believing.  Thus faith and works are reconciled through Jesus Christ.

But what of the argument that is made for salvation by works?  Does this argument actually have some weight, then?  Let us examine the argument made for the necessity of works.  The main passage used to back up this argument is James 2:14-18, which reads, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’  Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  This argument continues through the end of the chapter, but this portion should be sufficient to set the argument before us.  People who believe in salvation by works point to this passage to say that faith does not save us, it cannot save us by itself alone, for faith without works is dead.  And if faith without works is dead, they say, then works must be necessary for our salvation.

If we are to solve this problem, I believe, we must take a look at what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith.”  Now, as I have mentioned above, the word for “faith” in the Greek is “pistis,” and it is actually the same word as the word translated “belief.”  Therefore, whenever we come upon the word “faith” in our Bibles we should read into it the same ideas we find in the word “belief,” and when we come to the word “believe” in the Bible we must read into it the same ideas we find in the words “have faith.”

But what does the Bible mean when it uses the word “faith”?  The answer to this, I believe, is found in Romans 10:17, which states, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  This tells us two facts about faith.  First of all, faith has to do with hearing something.  Don’t get too caught up in the idea of physically hearing a sound, though.  Hearing in this sense can include reading or otherwise perceiving with the senses.  So faith is by perceiving God’s Word, whether by sight or by sound, which is the second thing that this passage tells us about faith.  But if faith comes only by God’s Word, then apart from His Word no faith can be exercised.  In other words, in order for you to have faith, you have to have a word from God first to have faith in.  Many have failed to understand this, and thus we have much confusion about faith among otherwise sincere believers.  I’ve heard people say that we could walk on water if we just had enough faith, or we could be healed of all diseases if we would just have faith.  What people who say these things don’t understand is that in order to have faith, God has to speak to you first.  In order to move a mountain, all you need is faith the size of a grain of mustard seed.  But there is another requirement that must be met, or even mustard-seed-sized faith is impossible.  That requirement is that GOD MUST HAVE TOLD YOU TO MOVE THE MOUNTAIN FIRST!  Then, even with the smallest faith, you can tell the mountain to be cast into the sea and it will be so.  But until God tells you to move it, you could have faith the size of the mountain itself and not budge it an inch.  This is the truth about faith, and it is something we should all keep in mind when studying what the Bible has to say on the matter.

But I believe there is a third thing that is necessary before faith can truly be faith.  That is, faith must be acted upon.  It would not matter how much I believed that I could move a mountain at God’s command.  If He told me to tell a mountain to be cast into the sea and I said that I believed that I could do it, and yet I refused to speak to the mountain and tell it to move, I would not have had faith.  Is this not obvious?  If God tells me to speak, then I have not had faith until I speak!  It was the same way with Abraham.  When God told him to sacrifice his son, he did not have faith until he took up the knife to slay him.  Then God knew that he had faith, and that he loved Him above all others.  So this is another principle we need to remember about faith…when God’s word to us requires action, then we have not truly believed that word until we have done the action that it required.

This brings us back to the book of James.  When James says that “faith without works is dead,” he is setting forth the same principle I was talking about above.  Abraham knew all the promises God had made about his son Isaac.  Yet his faith towards God was really put to the test when God asked him to kill the very son that He had given him as a part of the promise.  And when Abraham showed that he was willing to do so, trusting God to be able to do anything, even raise the dead, to keep His promise, then he had truly displayed his faith in God, and God counted it to him for righteousness.  In other words, Abraham not only believed God, but he also acted according to what God had said.  If he had said he believed God yet had been unable to obey His words, how would he ever have displayed his faith?  As James says, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”  There is no way to truly show that you believe God other than to do what He tells you to do!  This is the only way that faith in His words can truly be displayed.  So faith requires works in order to be truly shown as faith.

Otis Q. Sellers used to say that “Faith is taking God at His Word and acting accordingly.”  This sums up what I am trying to express.  We have to understand that there are many things in the Bible that require no action from us other than to be in agreement with them.  If the Bible says that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” then my proper response is merely to believe it.  Yet if I had believed until I read this verse that the universe had created itself in a big bang, then this verse would require more of me, as it would require me to change the way I think about the universe.  Thus, I must think according to what the Bible says.  There are other things that are more trivial.  For example, if the Bible tells me that David was the youngest son of Jesse, then I should file this away as a fact and never doubt it.  This does not require much of me other than my true belief.  Yet if the Bible says, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit,” this requires some action on my part.  If I go out and get drunk, then I have not had faith in the passage, and my works have displayed my lack of faith.  Yet if, upon reading that passage, I resolve never to get drunk and carry through on that resolution, then I have had faith in the passage.  There is no doubt about it…this passage requires a definite work in order for me to have had faith in it.

Thus we see that James was correct when he said, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”  (James 2:26)  This in no way conflicts with the passage in Ephesians 2:8-9, which states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  This is speaking of salvation from our sins.  We know that there is nothing that we can do to obey the Word of God in regard to our sins short of believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and His atoning work on our behalf.  In this case, the proper response demanded by faith is merely believing.  This belief, though, could be called a work, even THE work, of God, as Christ Himself stated.  Belief in Christ is the only proper response of faith to what God has to say about our sin.  But this does not mean that every response of faith must be one devoid of works.  As I pointed out above, many times our faith requires an action on our part before we can be said to have truly had faith.  This means that, when a word from God demands something on our part and we fail to fulfill it, then, even as James said, “…faith without works is dead.”  (James 2:17b)

But what of those who try to save themselves by works other than faith?  What of those who believe that church attendance or good deeds or donations to the poor or charity work or a multitude of other deeds will be enough to make them good in God’s eyes and bring them eternal life?  To these we would repeat the words of the apostle Paul, that such need to understand “…the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.”  (Hebrews 6:1b)  All such works are dead, and no dead thing can bring eternal life!  There is only one work that is a living work, and that is THE work of God, the work of faith toward God.  This is the work we must turn to for salvation, not any good thing we might do.

So are we saved by works or by faith?  Neither!  We are saved by grace through faith.  Is this faith a work?  Yes, it is.  In fact, it is THE work of God.  Does that mean that works can save you?  No, only grace can save you.  Does that mean faith can save you?  No, again, only grace can save you.  Does grace come by works or by faith?  It comes by both!  It comes by the work of having faith.  No other work could ever suffice than the work of believing on the One God sent.  No other faith could ever be manifested to men for the forgiveness of sins than that which is in the person of God’s Son.  And no other grace could ever be greater than that which reveals pardon, redemption, reconciliation, and glorification for the lowly sinner.  These truths go hand in hand, but we can only appreciate them in their full glory when we understand how they work together in the wonderful plan of our God and Savior.  I pray that this message will help you see how faith, works, salvation, and grace are truly related.