Are we Saved by Faith or Works? (part 3 of 3)

Note: This post is a continuation of my previous posts. Click here to start from the first post in this series. Or click here to start from the second post.

In the previous posts, we’ve looked at some of Israel’s history, how the Old Testament Law came about, and some of the difficulties that arose as Christianity emerged from Judaism. But we’re still left with the nagging question: are we saved by faith or works?

It’s time to look at what the Gospels teach on the matter. We can now take off our historian hats and put on our work gloves. Let’s get theological.

Believe in the Gospel

The Gospels are loaded with teachings on how man is saved. In one of the most quoted verses of the entire Bible, we read that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). However we are saved, we know that belief in Jesus is essential. If we don’t rely on Jesus for our salvation, we’re in trouble.

It’s tempting to stop here and conclude that all we need is faith. But we need to be careful. What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus? Let’s keep reading.

Notice what John 3:36 says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life (John 3:36, emphasis added). This verse shows a contrast between two opposite ideas: those who will see life, and those who will not; those who believe, and those who disobey. Belief and disobedience are pegged as opposites.

You see, in the modern world, we’ve reduced the word “believe” to how one can believe something like 2 + 2 = 4 (or I can’t believe it’s not butter!). But that’s not the only way it’s used in the Bible. “Believe” (in the context of John 3) is loaded with the expectation that one will act on that belief, to the point where obedience is a part of belief.1 That obedience is what we might call “good works”. So according to the Bible, to believe means to accept the Gospel as true, and to obey: to have faith and good works.

Let’s illustrate with a story. Once Jesus was approached by a rich young man who asked, “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus instructed the young man to keep the commandments, but the young man assured him that he already observes them. Then Jesus called the young man to radical action: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:16-22).

What’s happening here? Why doesn’t Jesus tell the young man to simply have faith in him? Jesus called the young man to a level of obedience that (frankly) scares people. He doesn’t call us to just have faith. He calls us to act on our faith, which includes obedience to the Ten Commandments.

Now some might be wondering how any of this jives with St. Paul when he says we are “saved by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28). With what we know of Israel’s history, and what we have seen in the Gospels, we’re finally ready to understand what Paul is really saying.

Faith and Works: Paul and James

The Law of Christ: A Superior Covenant
Many people read Paul’s writings and conclude that he believes works do not play a part in our salvation. For instance:

  • A man is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28)
  • Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal 3:11)

But to make sense of these verses, we first need to understand what Paul means by “law”. The word “law” can be misleading, since the Israelites referred to the first five books of the Old Testament as the “law”, which contains 613 individual laws. Some laws deal with the moral life (like the Ten Commandments), while others deal with the Jewish ceremonial, dietary, and judicial way of life. So when Paul says “law”, it begs the question: which laws? The Ten Commandments? The dietary laws? Every law of the Old Testament?

If we read ahead in Romans, we get the impression that Paul isn’t including the Ten Commandments when he refers to the “Law”.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:9-10).

So, based on his language, it looks as though Paul isn’t condemning all “works of the law” as unnecessary for salvation. In fact, this should call to mind Jesus’ New Commandment to “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). According to Paul, to obey Christ’s New commandment includes obeying the Ten Commandments. Then, you may ask, what does he mean when he says that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law”?

Well, let’s think back to what we know about Paul’s mission (discussed here): we know that he made it a point to fend off the heresy of the Judaizers, who claimed that Gentiles must first become Jews before they could become Christians (see Acts 15). This would require that Gentiles take on the heavy burden of life under the Jewish law, which would require that Gentile converts perform the works of a Jewish lifestyle.

When Paul refers to the “works of the law”, he isn’t condemning all good works. Instead, he is condemning reliance on the Old Covenant, which had many laws that served to distinguish the Jews from the rest of the nations. He is emphasizing that we’ve moved on to a new and superior covenant and away from the ancient customs of the Old Covenant. We used to rely on “works of the law”, now we rely entirely on the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

But let’s be clear here. We’re in a new covenant. We aren’t required to obey the Ten Commandments because the Old Law tells us to. Rather, we do it because Jesus himself told us to. We are no longer bound to the Law of Moses; we are bound to what Paul calls the Law of Christ. Jimmy Akin states this concisely in his book, The Drama of Salvation:

There is something other than the Torah [Law] that requires them [good works] of us. They may be mentioned in the Torah, but that isn’t what obligates us to do them. The reason we must do these things is that they are commanded by a higher law that is reflected both in the Torah and in the hearts of men (Rom. 2:15), and in a law that unambiguously applies to Christians: the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21, Gal 6:2).2

Paul isn’t saying that good works have nothing to do with our salvation. He is stressing that we have moved away from the Old Covenant to a new and superior Covenant. He isn’t addressing whether good works are included in the New Covenant.

The Added Laws: Back to the Calf
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I think it might be important to demonstrate this point in a different way. Let’s look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’… Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions (Gal 3:11,19, emphasis added).

Paul asked an important question: Why did God bother to give Israel the law in the first place if it wasn’t enough to save man? His answer: “It was added because of transgressions” (Gal 3:19). Notice that he said it was “added”. The law was “added” to what? Because of what transgressions?

Remember what happened at the golden calf incident (discussed in the first post: here). Israel just entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai after promising to keep the Ten Commandments (Ex 19:8). God called them into a familial relationship, and he gave them the Ten Commandments as the blueprint for how they should live. The people broke the covenant by creating and worshiping the golden calf. God renewed the covenant with Israel, but rules were added. These new rules made up the many rules that shaped Jewish lifestyle.3

If you were living under these added laws, you were living most of what it meant to be a Jew, which is what the Judaizers wanted Gentile Christians to do. This is exactly what Paul sought to stop. He wasn’t against following the Ten Commandments in the New Covenant. He was against those who adhered to the Old Covenant.

James and Paul
It’s important to note that the Bible does use the words “faith alone” once:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:14-17, 24).

When we read Paul and James together, we get a more complete picture of what it means to follow Christ. Through faith, we accept Jesus and his teaching as true. Through good works, we obey his words: “follow me.”

Then How does it Work?

In the end, we are left with one option: we are saved by faith and works. The two are inseparable. C.S. Lewis once said that asking whether faith or works is more important is “like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.”4

But let’s be clear: we do not earn our salvation. Christ earned it for us. Nobody will go to heaven because he was “holy enough” or “good enough”. That simply doesn’t work. But we can’t dismiss Paul’s words to Philemon to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

We can’t earn God’s favor or forgiveness. But we can choose to accept it, or turn our back on it. Through faith, we can accept Jesus’ words as true, and through obedience, we can live them out. I believe this relationship between faith and works makes the most sense when we understand that we are God’s children.

Children of God
Parents bring children into the world, supplying them with nourishment, love, and guidance. A child can’t do anything to earn the gifts of life or love given by the parents. If they must be earned, they aren’t gifts. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t house rules. All children need rules to form and shape them into being their best. Children usually don’t like rules, but rules teach them how to live. It’s tempting to think that love gives the beloved everything he or she wants, but that isn’t true. True love motivates good parents to tell their children “no”, even when it’s easier to say “yes”. Any child who is truly loved has rules.

If loving earthly parents give their children rules, why wouldn’t we expect the same of a loving, heavenly Father? For we become His children through Baptism (1 Peter 3:21, Acts 2:38, 1 John 3:1). If God truly loves us, then He wants what’s best for us. And He will hold us to rules that will help us grow in His love. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises everyone He receives as a son” (Heb 12:6).

God calls us to obedience to his commands, to form us as his beloved children. We can resist God’s love and break every rule in the book, but we’ll only be hurting ourselves, turning our backs on a Father who wants to spend eternity with us.

Does this mean that we must be perfect to go to heaven?

No. In this life, we’ll never be able to love perfectly as we’re called. But we are called to try.

Saved by Grace
Ultimately, we’re saved by God’s grace alone. Every person in heaven is only there because God has graciously and mercifully paid the price of our sins and welcomed us back into his family. Our ability to have faith and do good works is a gift from God. All we need to do is continue to cooperate with that grace. Tim Staples sums up this as he says that “we are saved by grace through the instruments of faith and obedience… It is the grace of Christ alone that saves us by our cooperating with that grace.”5

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996).

Final Thoughts

In this and the last two posts, I have just barely scratched the surface of this topic. Much (and I mean much) more could be said on the topic, and I fully intend to write on other topics pertaining to salvation in the future.

As mentioned in previous posts, the faith and works debate has been ongoing for centuries. But I believe there is a simple and correct response. We’re saved by God’s grace through our faith and works. Through faith we accept the truth of the Gospel, and with good works we respond to it. The two work together, so that we can spend eternity with our Father in heaven.

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1. This was borrowed from Steve Rays talk, By Faith Alone, presented at the 2012 Defending the Faith Conference at The University of Steubenville. The talk can be found here:

2. Akin, Jimmy. The Drama of Salvation: How God Rescues Us from Our Sins and Brings Us to Eternal Life. El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers, 2015. pp. 111-112. Print.

3. Hahn, Scott. “Covenant, Oath, and Divine Sonship in Galatians 3-4.” Kinship by Covenant: a Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 264–267. Print.

4. C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity.

5. Catholic Answers, “Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2015)