Are we saved by faith alone, by works or both? It’s an old and rancorous debate that has no end in site. It’s often a confusing debate as people on both sides of the argument often start off wrong about what people on the other side of the fence truly believe. There are even versus in the Bible which appear to contradict each other. James 2:26 tells us faith without works is dead, but Romans 10:9, tells us that if we confess our belief in Jesus Christ and believe in our hearts, we are saved.
Christians believe in both of those verses but the apparent contradiction remains a source of argument between different types of Christians. Those who claim we are saved by faith alone are stuck with James’s Biblical truth that faith is dead unless it’s accompanied with works, which begets an uncomfortable question. Are they saved with a dead faith?
Those who stress works are stuck with Paul’s Biblical truth, that we are saved by mere confession of, and belief in Jesus Christ. Why, if good works are necessary, would Paul not mention them in a verse that specifically addresses the needs of salvation? Possibly because of an understanding that a genuine belief in Christ would naturally lead to the good works that Christ himself taught us to do in all of the gospels.
Catholics will normally stress good works but agree that faith is necessary for salvation. The whole idea of doing good works in the name of God shows a preexisting faith in God anyway. We’ve been told by Jesus Christ to help the poor. We do so because we have faith in Christ and so we follow his way to the best of our faulty ability. Faith in God comes first, good works came second, specifically because of faith. Faith begets good works.
Other believers would make a greater point of stressing faith but I’ve never met a non Catholic Christian who told me that faith wouldn’t or shouldn’t beget good works. Non Catholics who take up this argument will normally argue that works are not technically necessary to be saved but after salvation has occurred, good works should be forthcoming.
Both sides essentially agree that faith and works go hand in hand then, so the difference is actually smaller than the argument we make out of it. The debate might be harmless when kept in it’s proper perspective. In the process of trying to win arguments however, both sides can miss other theological questions that can might resolve the original question of faith versus works.
What are the real dynamics that go on between good works and faith for example, and how can one help strengthen the other? Experience teaches that faith can produce good works, even if those works are small to begin with. It’s also reasonable that good works, once we start doing them can increase a our faith and once faith is increased, it will go on to spawn more good works, which will again increase faith, then more works, more faith, etc. Faith and works end up pushing each other to the next level, creating a cycle of ever increasing divine energy on our fallen earth.
The common sense results of giving just $5.00 a week to a homeless person makes for a good example of how the process can work. We know it helps the homeless person but what does it do for us? It starts with faith in God’s call to help the poor. When we perform the good work our faith is actually exercised in a physical way that transforms our fallen realm, albeit in a small way. We give muscle to our faith by exercising it with good works.
Life on earth is made easier for the homeless man but additionally, the giver of that $5.00 has made a tiny step into the Kingdom of Heaven by casting aside a tiny, $5.00 portion of his personal Kingdom on Earth. He has begun to overcome greed. He has rejected a small portion of the fallen world, made himself less carnal and more spiritual by serving God over mammon.
Carnal greed may actually return for a time with selfish serving thoughts of what we could have done for ourselves with that $5.00. For someone on a tight budget, it could have been the last $5.00 needed to to take a girlfriend to the movies or dinner. But in the long term, a greater sense of satisfaction will overpower our short term selfishness. We will realize that helping others with basic needs is more important than a few hours of entertainment for ourselves. We will feel a little better about ourselves for a longer period of time than the movie would have lasted anyway and this process of spiritual learning will make it easier to part with another $5.00 next time.
From the execution of that one little work, we will gain faith in the fact that we don’t need as much money as we thought we did, and that it’s not so bad to part with bits and pieces of our little worldly kingdoms. We will learn that it’s actually much easier than what our selfish, carnal side wanted us to believe. It’s a case of faith initially causing a good work and then the good work causing greater faith.
Now, armed with a greater faith, it is only natural that we would move on to greater good works. We have the beginning of a divine cycle. Good works were initially spawned by a pre-existing faith, which motivated a good work, which in turn spawned greater faith.
Paul is satisfied because without faith, the good works in the name of God would have never occurred. James is also satisfied because without good works, the faith would have remained inactive and dead.
In the course of trying to win theological arguments and quoting verses that support either faith or works, it’s easy to overlook a few truths known to all Christians. Both testaments of the Bible have plenty of verses that support both faith and works and zero verses that forbid either one. The lesson is clear. We’re supposed to practice both and we all know it. We also know, but sometimes seem to forget that spending too much time trying to win arguments for faith or works leaves us a lot less time to actually put either one into practice.