Can you have faith without works?

Admittedly, the thought that Christ did everything to make us acceptable to God and we don’t do anything violently clashes with what we naturally think.

Admittedly, the thought that Christ did everything to make us acceptable to God and we don’t do anything violently clashes with what we naturally think. We just assume that we have to do something to merit God’s favor. The apostle Paul acknowledged that when he wrote:

“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”

1 Corinthians 1:23

A little bit later he added:

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

1 Corinthians 2:14

As these passages bring out, in spiritual matters, it is vitally important to rely on what Scripture says rather than on what we think.

What does Scripture say? It states that we are saved without any of our doing:

“For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast”

Ephesians 2:8-9

Some argue that Paul is referring to the works demanded by Old Testament law. But the context doesn’t allow that interpretation. Paul was writing to the Ephesian congregation, the majority of whom were not Jews and were not even familiar with Old Testament law. Instead, as he says just a few verses before, they:

“walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience”

Ephesians 2:2

They were walking or living according to the course of this world, not Old Testament law. Therefore when he continues by saying that we are not saved by works it is apparent that this means works that are considered good by all people and not just Jews.

Jesus also emphasized that we are saved by faith and not works in his famous words recorded in John 3. Read the following verses and compare the times he talks about believing with the times he talks about working.

“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God”

John 3:15-18, emphasis ours

Five times he talks about believing. But he never even mentions works. This is especially striking because the topic is everlasting or eternal life, i.e. being saved. This, Jesus says, comes solely through believing. Salvation by faith alone is the consistent message of Scripture.

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life though Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Romans 6:23

Faith Is Not a Work

But isn’t faith itself something we must do and thus a work? That sounds reasonable. But that isn’t scriptural.  Look again at Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

If God considered faith a work, that passage makes no sense. It would have to say “not of any other work except faith.” But that isn’t what it says. It says “not of works” period.

This isn’t just playing with words either. Although believing or trusting that Jesus did it all is something people do – according to Scripture, the power to do that doesn’t come from within a person. It comes from outside a person. It comes from the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 12:3).

The Bible emphasizes this in a striking way. It always pictures God as the one doing the work when someone first believes. He is the one who causes spiritually dead people to become spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:1). Another picture it uses is God giving birth to believers (John 1:13).

In still another picture, God is the one who enlightens people about the truth of salvation when they were blind to that fact (2 Corinthians 4:6). This passage is especially instructive because it compares God’s activity with his creation of light. Just as his command, “Let there be light” actually created the light at creation so also his command to believe actually creates the faith to believe.

No place is this better illustrated than in the conversion of St. Paul in Acts 9. He was the last person who wanted to believe in Jesus. Rather he was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He had made it his life’s mission to wipe out the Lord’s church.

But then Jesus literally knocked him off his high horse, and although he temporally became physically blind, his spiritual eyes were forever opened to the truth. From that moment on he dedicated his life to sharing the wonderful truth that in Christ’s one offering we can meet God’s standard of perfection! It was God who changed Paul from being a persecutor of the faith to a defender of the faith.

In these and other ways, Scripture consistently gives God the credit for bringing people to faith. Faith itself is a gift from God.


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