It can be a tricky thing, navigating the terrain of faith and works and thinking through how they relate. After all, it is said that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9); yet it is also said that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). So what does this mean? Aren’t these verses contradictory?
Whilst it may seem at first glance that these two verses are at odds with one another, there is a perfectly straight forward way in tackling this question. That is by asking what is faith and what does it do? To answer this question, we should look back to the Ephesians verse. This informs us that faith is a gift from God through which we are saved. Looking at the verse which follows, Ephesians 2:10, it continues: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. Paul didn’t see faith and works as opposing each other, but rather he saw works as being a visible outflow of faith, and given to us to do by God. What this means is that whilst works do not and cannot merit salvation, they are fruit of a genuine faith. If you are in Christ, then you are predestined to do good works.
This is true because God-given faith radically transforms the person in whom it operates. It instils a love of God and Christ, and a love for things which they love. It establishes a disdain for things that they hate. It brings forth a sorrowfulness for the acts that we committed which were contrary to God and a desire to never return to that way. This faith evidences that we have been given new hearts, and are now able to follow God. It means we have been rescued from the yoke of slavery to sin, and are now slaves to God and his purposes (Romans 6:16-18).
It is this living faith which drives Christians to do the things of God. It drives us to be obedient to him, not out of obligation or duty but out of love and gratitude. This is why Christians seek to carry out the commands of Christ, acknowledging that while such actions do not earn our salvation, it is something which we should strive to do because following Christ is the best thing for us to do. It is simply a love of Christ which should be our motive in anything and everything we do, which is why Christ said in John 14:23, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.”
John Calvin, the great reformer, once said “’It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone”. This is effectively what James meant in James 2:17, faith saves – but such a faith should have proof of its existence, or to put it in a regular biblical illustration, a tree should produce fruit in accordance to its conditions. A good tree should produce good, not bad, fruit. This is why a man who confesses Christ and yet continues to live a life at complete odds with God’s commandments is unlikely to have real faith, as his life is inconsistent with his claim. So where do faith and works intersect? We are saved by faith alone, no good work we do would ever be enough to merit salvation. However, good works testify to active, God-given, faith.