By Victor Knowles
“Faith and works should travel side by side, step answering to step, like the legs of men walking. First faith, and then works; and then faith again, and then works again—until they can scarcely distinguish which is the one and which is the other,” observed William Booth (1829-1912). Booth was a minister who preached to a small church in the slums of London. He put his faith into action, founding the Salvation Army in 1865. Today the Salvation Army can be found in 100 countries.
Some people, however, seem to want to pit faith and works against one another, as though they were archrivals (like the Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees) or even mortal enemies (such as the Axis powers vs. the Allied powers in World War II). But biblical faith does not pick a quarrel with works, nor do biblical works have a bone of contention with faith. According to Scripture, faith and works are mutually compatible: they are in one accord, they perfectly understand one another, and they have each other’s backs.
Jesus on Faith and Works
Why should we be surprised to discover that faith and works are friends and not foes? The Christian life is not a matter of faith vs. works but rather faith and works. Faith is not the good guy and works the bad guy (like Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, Superman vs. Lex Luther, or Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader).
Jesus had much to say about the necessity of faith. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15). But when his disciples asked him what they must do to do the works God required, Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (6:29). He told the unbelieving Pharisees, “if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (8:24). The Pharisees failed to do the work of God—to believe in the Messiah he sent.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Christ himself was a man who “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38).
The exact phrase “good works” (or “good deeds”) appears more than a dozen times in Scripture, and not once is the phrase used in a negative or pejorative sense. Jesus showed “many good works” in his short lifetime (John 10:32). Dorcas was a Christian woman who was “full of good works and charitable deeds” (Acts 9:36, New King James Version). Believers are encouraged to spur one another on to good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) and live such good lives that even pagans will see their good works and glorify God (1 Peter 1:12).
Good works are a necessary and commendable part of the Christian life. Jesus said that when he comes again he will be looking for faith (Luke 18:8) and will reward every person according to their works (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12).
Paul on Faith and Works
The first time I went ice skating, I had to exercise faith. If the ice was too thin, all the faith in the world would not save me from breaking through. As it turned out, the ice was thick enough to bear my weight, but I still had to skate out on the pond to reap any joy. Faith involves risk. Christ is strong enough to bear our weight if we place our faith upon him. But we still have to take that risk.
The apostle Paul had much to say about faith and works. We are justified by faith in Christ apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28). He points to the faith of Abraham: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Our salvation does not come from working but by trusting God (vv. 4-7). A sinner is not justified by observing the law but by putting his faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:5). This was the consistent testimony of a man who had once been extremely zealous for works of the law.
But Paul did not put down good works. He clearly stated that those who are saved by grace, through faith, are “created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). The only thing that counts, said Paul, is a faith that expresses itself through love (Galatians 5:6). Faith is the root and works are the fruit.
Biblical faith produces biblical works. While Paul understood that we are not saved by “works of righteousness” (Titus 3:5, NKJV), he still admonished Christians to “be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (v. 8). Christ redeemed us “to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (2:14). Paul not only praised good deeds, he encouraged everyone to engage in them
(1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18), not to obtain salvation but to bear witness of their salvation.
James on Faith and Works
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God.” This is the consistent testimony of the writer James. “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14). James in not opposed to faith—far from it! This is the brother of Christ we are talking about. Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). James put his faith in Jesus and gladly included himself as one of the “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1).
James made a strong case for living the Christian life, not just saying, “I have faith. I am a believer.” James put forth a challenge: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:18). Faith must be practical. Faith must be helpful. Faith must be demonstrated. Others will believe what we say about Jesus when they can see that he truly makes a difference in the way we live and the things we do.
Jack Cottrell wrote, “James reminds us that works cannot be excluded from the picture since they are the inevitable result of faith—a point Paul himself makes in Romans 6:1ff. What, then, actually justifies us? Faith without works? No, says James. Faith plus works? No, says Paul. A faith that works? Yes, say Paul and James” (The Faith Once For All, College Press, 2002).
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri. www.poeministries.org