How do faith, grace and works fit together?
Sometimes the Scriptures can seem like faith and grace are opposed to works. In other words, sometimes it may seem that GOD is saying that good deeds don't matter, that we are saved entirely based on our faith in His grace, without regard to how we live.
Are faith and grace opposed to works?
Let me show you how faith, grace and works fit together like puzzle pieces in GOD's plan.
Welcome to part 10 of my biblical baptism series. These posts build on each other. Here are links to the previous posts.
- Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
- Defining 'baptism'
- The Baptism of John
- Why Was Jesus Baptized?
- The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
- The Baptism that Jesus Commanded
- The Biblical Purpose of Water Baptism
- Is Baptism a Public Demonstration?
When it comes to the subject of baptism and its biblical purpose, one of the most common objections people have is:
"But Scripture says that we are saved by grace through faith."
...a point with which that I wholeheartedly agree.
Harmonizing what the New Testament says about the importance of faith, grace and works can be a bit tricky.
Many people embrace the one and ignore another, but that's not right.
In this article, I will explain how these puzzle pieces fit together harmoniously.
Before we continue, we need a quick spiritual honesty check:
- What is my intent—to genuinely seek GOD's truth or reaffirm what I already believe?
- All of Scripture must harmonize or it can't be from GOD. We can't pick and choose to accept certain truths and reject others. Therefore, if something I believe is contradicted by Scripture, it is my understanding (and behavior) that needs to change, regardless of how dearly I hold to those beliefs.
The big picture
What is GOD in the process of accomplishing with life under the sun?
In short, GOD is creating a family.
For whatever reasons—some of which He has revealed, others perhaps not—GOD wants a group of people with which to share Himself and His blessings and goodness.
On an individual level, GOD wants three things from each of us:
- GOD wants us to know Him.
- GOD wants us to be with Him.
- GOD wants us to be like Him.
Unfortunately, because of humanity's sins, including our own, we live in a sin-cursed world where we wrestle between good and evil desires.
The gospel message is that GOD loves us (individually) so much that He became one of us so that He could give His life for ours in order to pay our debt—a debt that we could never pay and still continue to live.
GOD is just and therefore all sin must be punished.
The payment for sin is lifeblood.
GOD is holy and therefore guilty sinners cannot enter into His presence.
Yet, GOD is love and therefore He planned and executed that plan whereby we could be cleansed through the blood of Jesus.
GOD's highest priority for us is our salvation—our forgiveness.
For until our sins are cleansed, we cannot be a part of His family.
That being said, Jesus didn't come solely for the purpose of washing away our sins. He also came for the purpose of transforming us, giving us a second opportunity to live (in Him, or Him in us).
Too often, people miss this very important truth, focusing exclusively on "being saved."
In other words, too often we focus on what GOD can do for us rather than what GOD wants for us (to become). GOD's will is to bless us far beyond merely forgiving our sins. Forgiveness is the beginning, not the end of our journey. Once forgiven, life (in Jesus—that is, true life) begins.
While GOD does welcome and accept the new believer where he/she is when we come to Him, He has no intention of leaving them in that state. GOD's plan for us is to grow in His grace and knowledge (see 2 Pet. 3:18) and GOD Himself is the one who performs the transformation on us (see Phil 1:6; 2:12-13).
All too often it seems believers ignore this plain teaching from Scripture, continuously referring to GOD's children in disparaging terms, such as "broken," "messed up," and "screw-ups."
It is true that, on our own merit, these descriptions are accurate. But that's just it: Christians aren't on our own merit any longer, praise GOD!
Salvation by Faith
Are we saved by faith?
In Acts 15:9, Peter attested at the Jerusalem Council that Cornelius' family was purified by GOD through faith.
Paul plainly states in Rom. 1:17 and Gal. 3:11 that the just live by faith.
Likewise, in Rom. 3:28, Paul wrote:
28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
(Rom. 3:28 NIV; see also Rom. 5:1-2)
Similarly, Paul told the Galatian Christians:
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
(Gal. 2:15-16 NIV)
Faith is foundational to our relationship with GOD.
If we're going to know Him, be like Him and be with Him, then we've got to trust Him.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
(Heb. 11:6 NIV)
What is biblical faith, though?
But what is faith, exactly?
This is a most important question, and one that is all too often incorrectly answered.
Early Christians understood faith differently than modern westerners.
The Hebrew letter writer defined faith this way:
Now faith is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].
(Heb. 11:1 AMP)
I like to define faith this way:
Faith is the proof necessary to have complete confidence in that which we have not seen or experienced physically.
I have written a four-part series on the occurrences of the word "belief" in Scripture. What I learned from this study is that, in the Bible, to "believe" GOD or Jesus is to both agree with Him in the mind and to subsequently obey Him in action.
A person who agrees in the mind with what GOD says but fails to follow the message in obedience does not have faith.
In actuality, that person is an unbeliever.
Consider the follow examples from Hebrews 11:
- By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did... (Heb. 11:4 NIV)
- By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death... (Heb. 11:5 NIV)
- By faith Noah...built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (Heb. 11:7 NIV)
- By faith Abraham...obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Heb. 11:8 NIV)
- By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country... (Heb. 11:9 NIV)
- And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children... (Heb. 11:11 NIV)
- By faith Abraham...offered Isaac as a sacrifice... (Heb. 11:17 NIV)
- By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau..., blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. (Heb. 11:20-21 NIV)
The entire point of Hebrews 11 is that countless people overcame tremendous—humanly impossible, even—situations because of their faith (belief plus obedience) in GOD, and that these people didn't receive their reward on earth, because they looked for a greater reward that is heaven.
So, when the Scriptures speak of being saved "by faith," let us properly understand that this is not saying "salvation by belief alone" or "salvation at the moment you believed the message."
No where, no where following Jesus' great commission to the apostles (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16) do we see this concept taught in Scripture.
Thus, we must be careful to avoid the extremes of:
- Believing that doing good deeds is what earns GOD's favor and saves us.
- Believing that just by intellectually assenting with the message that Jesus is the Messiah—our Savior—and asking Him to save us, we are saved immediately in that moment.
(Note: Be very, very careful what translation of the Bible you are using. Some "translations," such as The Message and The New Living Translation—which are more paraphrases than actual translations—are extremely inaccurate with certain passages like Eph. 2:8 and can lead the reader to inaccurate conclusions. It is highly advisable to use multiple translations that are widely recognized as being accurate.)
Salvation by grace
Are we saved by grace?
Mercy is GOD withholding from us what we deserve (which is death and punishment).
Grace is GOD giving us what we do not deserve (which is life and Himself).
Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
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.
(Eph. 2:8-9 NIV)
Peter attested at the Jerusalem Council regarding grace's role in salvation:
11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
(Acts 15:11 NIV)
Similarly, Paul wrote the following to the Romans:
22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
(Rom. 3:22-24 NIV)
20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Rom. 5:20-21 NIV)
5 So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
(Rom. 11:5-6 NIV)
Lastly, consider Paul's statement to the Galatians:
21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
(Gal. 2:21 NIV)
The grace of GOD is the very thing that makes salvation possible.
We all deserve to be punished; we deserve to die.
But GOD has extended to us salvation by Jesus Christ.
GOD wills that every person be saved (see 2 Pet. 3:9), and to those who respond to His call, He saves them by His grace.
Salvation by grace is looking at our redemption from the Father's viewpoint.
In other words, grace is GOD's role in salvation, whereas faith is our role—recalling that faith means belief accompanied by obedient action.
How works ... um ... works
What about our actions (our deeds, works), then? What, if any, role do works play in our salvation?
Well, let's quickly review what we've seen from Scripture so far:
- No person is justified because of their own actions, for we all sin along the way (see Rom. 3:28; 5:1-2).
- No person is justified based on law-keeping, because no one keeps the law perfectly (see Gal. 2:15-21).
- Salvation is GOD's gift, by His grace, and not because of our works (see Eph. 2:8-9).
What, then, does the New Testament tell us about the importance of works/actions?
Jesus' teachings on works
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
(Matt. 7:21-23 NIV)
50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
(John 8:50-51 NIV)
15 “If you love me, keep my commands...21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”...23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
(John 14:15, 21, 23-24 NIV)
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)
Clearly, from these few examples alone, we see that obedience is extremely important to Jesus.
In fact, unless we obey Jesus, He says we don't love Him nor will we enter the kingdom of heaven.
By definition, becoming a Christian means that you are becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is a follower—an imitator. Following and imitating implies action—obedience to teaching and instructions.
Yet many people point to the verses that speak of salvation by faith and salvation by grace and Jesus' statement that "It is finished!" upon the cross and they say, "See, all the work has been done."
The implication of this statement is that our actions do not matter in terms of our salvation—that all we must do is believe and GOD has done all the rest.
But this laissez faire attitude doesn't harmonize with Scripture.
Paul's teachings on works
Consider the attitude of the apostle Paul regarding his own salvation.
If any Christian had reason to be confident in their salvation, it would have been Paul.
Yet he wrote the Corinthian Christians:
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
(1 Cor. 9:24-27 NIV)
In fact, earlier in his life, Paul was so concerned about the accuracy of the gospel he was preaching, even after three years of training from Jesus Himself (see Gal. 1:11, 17-18), he went to Jerusalem to see the other apostles where he presented the gospel to them as he had been presenting it to the lost (see Gal. 2:1-2).
Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians about the importance of continued obedience in their salvation, saying:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! ...
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
(Phil. 2:5-8, 12-13 NIV)
James' teachings on works
Lest there be any remaining doubt in our mind, consider the instruction of James.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
(Jam. 2:14-24 NIV)
In these verses, James clearly shows that our actions (our works, deeds) are the fruit of our faith.
"Faith" without accompanying action will not save.
In other words, obedience is the fruit of faith.
Abraham was justified and counted righteous because of his faith, yet if he had only believed GOD and not offered Isaac (that is, not obeyed GOD), he would not have been righteous or had faith.
It is incredibly important to note that, while Scripture says we are saved by faith and by grace, nowhere does it say we are saved by faith alone or grace alone. This is a lie from the evil one intended to keep souls from GOD.
At first glance, a surface reading of certain Scriptures could lead one to believe that faith, grace, and works are opposed to or mutually exclusive of one another, with each claiming to be the sole key to our salvation.
But a deeper, holistic look reveals that they are more like puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together.
For, without GOD's grace, salvation would be impossible because of our sinful nature.
Without faith, one would never believe the message of GOD's salvation through Jesus.
And without obedient action, our faith is dead and we cannot accept the gift GOD has given to us by His grace.
With regard to works, we should never have an attitude that we can somehow "offset" or "outdo" our mistakes (sins, evil deeds) with a greater number of good deeds.
There is no scale of measurements whereby the side containing more deeds—good or evil—is the one that determines one's eternal fate—heaven or hell.
The gospel message says that you and I can never be good enough, because once we've sinned just a single time, GOD's justice demands our lifeblood as payment for that one sin. No, it is only by grace that we even get the opportunity of salvation.
Likewise, we should never have the attitude that GOD doesn't care what we do, that His grace will just cover all sin we commit regardless of our attitude (see Rom. 6:1-2; Heb. 10:26).
Instead, the proper attitude is that we obey GOD not in order to force Him to owe us the free gift of salvation, but in order to show our faith and appreciation for the fact that He has extended to us this free gift.
Thus, Peter's words to Cornelius serve as a fitting conclusion to our study:
34 Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. 35 But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.
(Acts 10:34-35 NKJV)
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Read Part 11 here:
Continue to part 11, "Is Baptism Required?"