The Connection Between Works And Your Salvation
Martin Luther was frustrated with Jesus’ brother, James.
James wrote that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Over this verse, the reformer threw up his proverbial hands and called James’ words an “epistle of straw.” Empty. Worthless. Not good for anything. Luther even went so far as to state that James didn’t belong in the New Testament.
Why would Luther go to such extremes over a letter that the church had long regarded as Scripture? Because he was concerned about how one is saved, justified before God. He read God’s word and saw that a person is “saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) and by God’s grace and therefore struggled with James’ apparent contradiction.
Have you ever struggled like Luther? With how your salvation—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone—is connected to your works?
If so, let me help us by asking and answering a few questions about faith and works.
Question: How is a person saved?
Answer: Nothing we do earns our salvation, our justification before God. God works our salvation through the death of Christ and His free gift of grace to all who would believe. We are indeed saved by faith alone and not by works.
Ephesians 2:8-9a “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works…”
Romans 3:24-25 “…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Question: How then do we handle passages that seem to say faith and works are linked?
James 2:17, 26 “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” “For as the body apart from the Spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
How can these verses be true? How can works be connected to saving faith?
Answer: They define saving faith as producing visible fruit in a person’s life. These verses show that true faith is accompanied by something that shows the faith as real, works. Fruit. Like a healthy raspberry bush that produces delicious berries. Fruit, or our works, is that visible evidence that our believing is not just word, but deed. They are inseparable.
James 2:22 “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.
John 15:1-5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Matthew 21:18-19 “…he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves…’May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once.”
Hebrews 12:14 “Strive for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
1 John 2:4 “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Question: How then do our works, flowing from our faith, show we are saved? (1)
Answer: Saving faith produces a new self in a regenerated person; it produces a person who pursues holiness and sanctification instead of sin—the pursuit of conformity to Christ. Pursuing this holiness means to flee sin and live in accord with God’s desire and will for our lives. Necessarily then, saving faith will produce effects in our lives, or fruit, works of the Spirit. We will live differently because of what we believe.
1 John 3:9-10 “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
There are a host of other verses in the New Testament that speak to the connection of our salvation and our works:
Works prove we are in union with Christ. (John 15:1-5)
Works are the inseparable consequence of our new birth (1 John 2:29’s inverse)
Works are the evidence of the Holy Spirit in us (Romans 8:13-14; Galatians 5:22-25)
Works are proof and assurance of our election (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
Question: How then are these works produced in our lives?
Answer: God prompts, and we respond. God enacts our sanctification by the power of His grace within us, causing us to pursue holiness actively and flee from sin. God works, and we work. Together.
Philippians 2:12b-13 “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
1 Corinthians 15:10 “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Our justification and salvation are not enacted by anything we do but wholly by what God does in giving us the gift of faith. However, if it is genuine faith, the gift of saving faith will inevitably produce works and sanctification in our lives.
Later in life, Luther changed his perspective on James. He came to understand that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17), referred not the means of our salvation but the fruit that would inevitably be present in a true believer’s life, works.
Faith, without works, is dead.
What works and visible fruit are an encouraging proof of your salvation?
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(1) Loosely referenced from JC Ryle’s Holiness pp. 24-26.