What is the Relationship Between Faith and Works?

Does the Bible’s mention of works contradict salvation by grace alone?

Jesus came to save the world. He spoke about faith. He spoke about works. What is their relationship? Does the Bible’s mention of works contradict salvation by grace alone?

Certainly not. First, note from the context of Ephesians 2 what it means to be saved. Salvation is not merely physical resurrection. Notice the spiritual terms in the passage describing what God rescues us from. It says we are “dead in sins” and “children of disobedience” (2:1–2). Salvation includes both being “quickened with Christ” and “sitting together in heavenly places” (2:5–6). Sitting together in heavenly places with Christ pictures full and complete spiritual salvation. Since Jesus is sitting at the Father’s right hand (Mark 16:19, 1 Peter 3:22), this means we also will live eternally with Heavenly Father.

In this context of salvation completed by Christ, note how Ephesians 2:8-10 mentions works twice: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, emphasis added).

Complete salvation is not of works. It is a gift of God!

Some say these works are the ones prescribed for the Old Testament Jews, interpreting this passage to mean that kosher laws, animal sacrifices, etc., do not save us. However, the author wrote this letter to  Gentiles (non-Jews). Works in this context are not about Jewish laws. Instead, they are things that everyone (both Jew and Gentile) would consider good—things like being a faithful spouse and doing good to others. These things don’t save us.

But we can’t ignore works. The passage highlights them as important. Reread the last sentence and notice the order. First, through faith, God creates a person in Christ Jesus, and then they are to do good works.

Works are not the reason God gives one complete salvation. Works are the result of one receiving full salvation.

Assigning works their proper role is an eternal life and death issue. God does not look kindly on anybody who, in any way, relies on their works to receive eternal life with him. Instead of blessing them, he curses them. Referring to those who sought salvation by obedience to the law, the author of Galatians said, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10).

Note how inclusive this is. Good intentions are not enough. A person must keep the commandments. All of them. All the time. If they fail in any part, they are cursed.

In the gospel of John, Jesus taught that works are the product of complete salvation, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Good Works Are Pictured As Fruit

In other words, works are the fruit, not the root of salvation. Just as the life-giving vine gives its connected branches the ability to bear fruit, so too does Jesus. Those who abide in him who gives life bear fruit.

Consider the order. The branch doesn’t first bear fruit and then becomes part of the vine. That’s a ridiculous thought—one nobody would ever consider. Likewise, Jesus says nobody can do anything before abiding in him. In the previous verse, Jesus said, “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15:4).

To bear fruit means a person must abide in Jesus. They are connected to and receive life from him. To abide is to have faith that trusts that Jesus has already done everything necessary to make you worthy to live eternally with God.

One only produces fruit when Jesus, the vine, connects to them.

Good works are the fruit, not the root, of salvation.

We naturally think we must be good and do good to receive eternal life with God. After all, there’s nothing free in the world. So why would God save people who weren’t good? While we inherently think this way, Scripture speaks differently. The Bible says that both resurrection and eternal life with God are his gift to us.

Since God knows we will struggle to understand this gift, he repeatedly emphasizes that we can contribute absolutely nothing to our salvation. “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6).

The Unique Roles of Grace and Works

Adding works to God’s grace destroys it. Let’s compare salvation by God’s grace to a priceless masterpiece painting given to us. Imagine what you would do to such a masterpiece if you decided to add to it by painting a small flower in the corner. You would ruin it. So also, when we add any of our works to God’s perfect work of salvation, we wreck it.

Are good works unimportant?

Far from it. In their proper place, they are very important. Scripture frequently encourages us to do good. The key is having the right motivation. Scripture condemns people if they do good works to be saved. But it encourages good works done out of gratitude for being saved.

Jesus put it so simply, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

However, we can’t love him until we first experience his love—especially his saving love. Another simple passage says, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Consider the motivation to be good of an orphan who desperately wants to be part of a family. One day, a loving couple comes to the orphanage and adopts him. They don’t take him home first and see if it will work. They don’t examine his school record to see if he is worthy. They simply adopt him. The boy didn’t even know them before this and thus didn’t do anything to gain their acceptance. They make him their son with no strings attached.

Imagine how the boy felt as he experienced their acceptance and love. His dream had come true! The reality was even better than he had ever imagined.

How do you think he acted toward the couple? Do you think he ignored all their rules because, after all, he was now part of their family? Of course not. That’s not how love responds. That’s not how grateful people act. We can be sure he would try his hardest to obey and please them.

Now let’s change the scenario. How would that orphan have acted if the couple said they would decide on the adoption after a month? We can be sure he would have been on his best behavior because he yearned to be part of a family. But what would he think each night as he lay in bed? “Did I do enough? Am I good enough? Maybe they don’t like me.” His motivation to obey wouldn’t be gratitude and love. Rather he would be trying to earn his acceptance and live in constant fear.

This is how many people feel who think they must do something to live eternally with God. Anxiety and fear are their regular companions.

In striking contrast, overwhelming joy and gratitude are the predominant feelings of those who believe God gives them eternal life as a gift. Their joy and gratitude flow out into godly living. As Paul said,

“the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). “Constraineth” is another word for compel.

Christ’s Love Compels Good Works

Some people think that if salvation is a gift, people will act as if they have a license to sin. That, however, is not how love and gratitude work. A loving husband would never think of being unfaithful to his wife even if he knew she would never find out. He would be repulsed even at such a suggestion. So also, the person who loves God is appalled at the idea of having a license to sin. On the contrary, they will try their hardest to keep his commandments out of gratitude and love.

But when the saved do sin, they also know their continued acceptance by God doesn’t depend on them. No, God’s acceptance depends on what Jesus has already done.

Jesus’ work has saved you. Now live as one who is loved!


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