When I say that salvation is by grace through faith and not our works (Ephesians 2:8-9), then the typical response is that “faith without works is dead” (James 2). Many Christians find it very hard to accept that we are saved by faith alone and not works.
This was a debate even among the earliest Apostles like Paul vs James/Peter/John in Acts 15 whether salvation was by faith alone OR by faith + law as well ?
James mainly wrote that faith and works are needed for salvation, and that faith alone cannot save anyone (James 2). But James was not an apostle, and yet he was a leader of the Jerusalem Church in the 1st Century and he wrote the epistle of James to the Jewish believers from the 12 tribes of Israel (James 1:1). The Israelites were under the Law for 1500 years. The Law specifically said that “righteousness” was by the ten commandments (Deuteronomy 6:25). Therefore it was very hard for people like James to accept that faith alone was needed for salvation. James also said that faith + love (keeping of law) was required for salvation. He said that breaking the law would bring judgment for the believer.
John also wrote of a similar idea, saying that a believer “must” walk like Jesus and love like Jesus, if they are truly saved (1 John 2-5). He said that Christ-like love is the evidence of faith. He said that “sin” was breaking the law.
But that is a big problem. Jesus never sinned and He loved perfectly and was the only one who obeyed the law. No other Jew had done so!
Jesus said that the law demands perfection in heart, word, and deed in Matthew 5-7.
How much “works” is required to prove salvation? If we use “works” as a measuring stick to prove salvation, then we have to be perfect like Jesus Christ. We cannot say that 10% of Christ-likeness is good enough. We cannot say that 50% is good enough! It is because Christ never sinned and is perfect in Righteousness !!! We cannot even say that 99% is good enough! If “works” are required to prove faith, then we have to be 100% sinless in our behavior like Jesus!
If we say that “faith + works” is required, then it is never going to save anyone!
If works are needed, then there is no need for Jesus to die on the cross. He could have just told people to keep the law to be saved. If so then his death was a huge waste of time!
But the problem is that nobody can be saved by faith + works! The Israelites had faith in God and still could not obey the law, and that is why nobody is righteous by the law!
This is why faith does not need works !! We are saved by faith alone!
The concept of salvation by grace through faith without works was very new and first introduced by the Apostle Paul.
What does it even mean to believe in Jesus?
Romans 4 “3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness…..God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.“
To believe in Jesus means to NOT trust in our works but to trust in Christ’s death and resurrection alone.
James in his epistle did not even mention the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, not even once. He believed in Jesus as Messiah but did not know that Christ makes us Righteous without works.
The revelation that we are made Righteous by faith apart from works, was given to the Apostle Paul who preached to the Gentiles who never knew the law. It would make no sense for believers to require faith + law for salvation if they never knew the law.
The reason James required faith + law was because he was a Jew who preached to Jews who knew the law, and they did not yet have the full understanding of the Gospel.
It was only in Acts 15, after great debate that Peter agreed with Paul that Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith and not by the law.
Acts 15 “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”…..6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke (WORKS) that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
If we are saved by grace, then works play no part at all.
Romans 11 ” 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”
James said that Abraham did the “work” of sacrificing Isaac to complete his “faith” and be declared righteous. But that is not entirely accurate. It is similar to the argument some people make that tithing is required today because Abraham tithed the spoils of war to Melchizedek before the law began.
But we have to realize one thing: Abraham’s righteousness was not fully realized until Jesus came.
Abraham believed in God’s promise of the descendants as numerous as the stars in Genesis 15 and God credited him “righteousness”. But Abraham did not receive the promise until Jesus came!
Hebrews 11 “39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Abraham became righteous only when Jesus came!
Hebrews 12 “2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
The “descendant” of Abraham was Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3 “16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ”
When Abraham believed in God’s promise, it was about believing in Jesus who would come 2000 years after Abraham!
Abraham rejoiced at the thought of Jesus coming one day to make him righteous.
John 8 “56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” 57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” 58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!””
The Righteousness of God is Jesus Christ, and not our efforts.
1 Corinthians 1 “28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.””
If we say that “works” are needed for faith, then we can boast before God in our works.
To have faith in Jesus, means that we have no reliance on our works but trust in Jesus alone.
When Abraham offered Isaac for the sacrifice, it was not a “work”. It was simply a shadow of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Hebrews 11 “17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”
You see, Abraham did not do some “work” to become righteous. He believed that God would raise his only son from the dead. God told Abraham to not sacrifice Isaac….why was that? It is because God gave up His one and only Son, Jesus Christ to be sacrificed for our sins and raised from the dead to make us righteous, if we stop trusting in our works and trust in Jesus alone!
Abraham’s faith was pointing to Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with Abraham’s works.
Therefore I believe James and John and many Christians today did not have a full revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were still looking at the shadows of the old testament (law) thinking that faith+law was needed for salvation.
Colossians 2 “17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. “
The full revelation of the Gospel of GRACE was given to the Apostle Paul who was the only apostle who preached with such clarity and detail about Jesus’ death and resurrection.
1 Corinthians 2 “2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. “
We cannot do any good works to save ourselves and that is why God loved us so much and sent Jesus to die with us and share in our death so that He saved us when He rose from the dead. We were dead but now alive, thanks to faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection!!
Ephesians 2 “4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
We did nothing to boast about it. Most people do some good works. But our works have nothing to do with salvation. We should do good works as believers, but they don’t prove our salvation, and cannot earn salvation. The thief on the cross did nothing and was saved. The Apostle Paul did many good works and wrote half the new testament, and died for the name of Christ, and yet he said that salvation is by faith and not by works.
This is why faith does not need works.
The only thing needed to save us is faith.
Romans 1 “5 Through JESUS we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the OBEDIENCE that is FAITH for his name’s sake”
Under the Old Covenant, righteousness was by obeying the Ten Commandments and 603 ordinances. But nobody can obey the Law and therefore nobody can be righteous by the law.
Under the New Covenant, Righteousness is given to us by FAITH in JESUS Christ. We believe in Jesus and we are Righteous!
John 6 “28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to BELIEVE in the one he has sent……40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and BELIEVES in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”