Believe, Behave, or Be Free
by Brad Duncan
In the age-old debate about whether salvation through Christ requires faith or requires works, what do you think?. James Chapter 2 talks about faith vs. works, saying that faith that doesn’t lead to works like caring for orphans and widows is not really faith. James would seem to support the theory that both faith and works are needed. However, it seems plausible to consider a different option, an option where salvation through Christ requires neither faith nor works. What if something else is required, and faith and works are more the outcome of our salvation?
Let’s consider each option separately: Are we saved by faith? Are we saved by works? Or are we saved by something else?
As space allows I will address this question using several key New Testament passages:
- James 2:14-17, and surrounding passages, discussion of faith vs. works
- Matthew 25;31-46, parable of the sheep and goats
- Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26, the beatitudes
- Matthew 6:9-13, the Lord’s prayer
- I Corinthians 13: the love chapter
- John 3:16-17, the classic gospel passage
- Luke 4:14-21, the Messiah’s mission
- Matthew 22:36-40, the greatest commandment
- Matthew 28:16-20: the great commission
Are we saved by what we believe? Are we saved by faith in the redemptive work of Christ? The issue is raised in James 2. James points out that:
14My brothers and sisters, what good does it do if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t do any good things? Can this kind of faith save him? 15Suppose a believer, whether a man or a woman, needs clothes or food 16and one of you tells that person, “God be with you! Stay warm, and make sure you eat enough.” If you don’t provide for that person’s physical needs, what good does it do?17In the same way, faith by itself is dead if it doesn’t cause you to do any good things. (James 2, God’s Word)
James is saying that salvation is not so much a contract, where we believe and Jesus saves, but rather a way of life, a life of “being saved”. Trying to just follow a contractual approach,where we claim “faith is enough” flies in the face of salvation, and that faith is dead. Why? Because salvation transforms us, leading to a change of heart that, for example, would never leave a brother or sister naked or hungry.
Jesus uses a similar illustration in the parable of the sheep and the goats. He describes a group of faith-filled followers who claim that their lives were meaningful because of their faith. But Jesus chastises them, calling them “goats” and explains the reason why: their faith never went beyond apathy. They saw hurting people around them and never cared. Jesus carries this illustration to the extreme, saying that these people, though they have faith, will “go away to eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46, God’s Word). So, Jesus is resisting the contractual view of salvation, indicating that he can see men’s hearts and know whether they really mean it or not by their actions.
The famous beatitudes show a similar concept using figurative poetry. The beatitudes start with:
Blessed are those who are poor.
The kingdom of God is theirs. (Luke 6:20, God’s Word),or
Blessed are those who recognize they are spiritually helpless.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to them. (Matthew 5:3, God’s Word)
The kingdom of God or heaven (salvation), belongs to people who are materially or spiritually poor, the weak, the needy, the helpless. The helpless are not credited with salvation due to their faith, but due to their condition of need. Interestingly, though these needy folks may have faith, it is not clear that faith is required. The passage does not suggest that poor and needy folks, with little or no faith, are cursed. Luke’s version says that the cursed will instead be the well-fed and self-sufficient folks. What does this mean? What about self-sufficient people who have faith -- won’t their faith save them? The poetic nature of the beatitudes actually leads us away from a contractual view of salvation, toward something more conceptual. Salvation is a spiritual state, available to the helpless more than to the self-sufficient.
What about the Lord’s prayer, does it advocate salvation through faith?
9“This is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
let your name be kept holy.
10Let your kingdom come.
Let your will be done on earth
as it is done in heaven.
11Give us our daily bread today.
12Forgive us as we forgive others.
13Don’t allow us to be tempted.
Instead, rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)
This famous prayer advocates humility before God, following God’s will, depending on God for our physical and spiritual needs and treating others the way that God treats us. Certainly faith is implied, but this prayer is not a contract, not a negotiation. Because of God’s nature (holiness, ultimate authority, provider, forgiver, protector), we should respond appropriately. We are not commended for our faith, earning favor with God. Rather God just IS. We pray the Lord’s prayer to participate in life with the God who IS, to connect to his goodness. Is this connection what we would call faith? If so, faith is a spiritual state, not a set of beliefs, and not a contract.
In I Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul provides a sweeping treatise on love. In recognizing that believers are prone to simplify things into simple cause and effect, contracts of belief and reward, Paul responds with a reality check. I could sum up this chapter by saying: “Don’t fool yourselves. All of your so-called spiritual correctness is missing the point. Love is the point. Relationship, compassion, consideration for others more than self, sacrificial love, unconditional love -- these are the true substance of your salvation. You are making a big mistake if you replace this true substance with an artificial substitute like ‘faith that can move mountains’. Faith is just not where it’s at! Salvation must run deeper, transforming you into someone that loves..”
Next, in favor of “salvation by faith” comes John 3:16. Let’s consider it with the passages that follow:
16God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.17God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. 18Those who believe in him won’t be condemned. But those who don’t believe are already condemned because they don’t believe in God’s only Son.
19This is why people are condemned: The light came into the world. Yet, people loved the dark rather than the light because their actions were evil. 20People who do what is wrong hate the light and don’t come to the light. They don’t want their actions to be exposed. 21But people who do what is true come to the light so that the things they do for God may be clearly seen. (John 3, God’s Word).
This passage is part of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. It seems to lead us to the contractual view of salvation. Was Jesus over-simplifying so Nicodemus could understand? Does faith lead to salvation? Actually this passage points first to the active work of God: loving the world, giving his son, sending his Son to save rather than to condemn. It points to faith as a means to connect into God’s active work. But it provides an explanation of human nature in verse 19-20: “People are condemned because they are selfish and unloving, preferring to live in the dark than in the light, so that their selfishness can be hidden in a veil of darkness.” So, are they condemned by selfishness, not a lack of faith? This passage suggests that true believers are transformed at the heart level, leading to belief and to walking in the light. Faith is not a contract leading to salvation, as much as a description of the spiritual state of being saved. The opposite spiritual state, the path of selfishness, is described as being “condemned already”, or “judged already”. Maybe not so much from a lack of faith but from a choice for a selfish life.
Did Jesus come as the Messiah to bring salvation through faith? Jesus explains his mission differently in Luke 4:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is with me.
He has anointed me
to tell the Good News to the poor.
He has sent me
to announce forgiveness to the prisoners of sin
and the restoring of sight to the blind,
to forgive those who have been shattered by sin,
19to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4, God’s Word)
or in a more direct translation the sense seems different:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4, CEB)
In both translations the emphasis is that Jesus came to bring rescue, to literal prisoners and/or prisoners of sin. To those oppressed by external conditions and internal conditions. Do these poor, blind, shattered prisoners of sin have the faith it takes to receive rescue? Can they be saved by their faith, when in their low oppressed state they are in chains and needing rescue? Do they need to cry out with a certain measure of faith, for Jesus to open their prison doors? How much faith? What type? My point is that the purpose of the Messiah seems to be one of liberation, not of brokering a deal with sinners to secure their release. It’s as if the Messiah came carrying keys instead of contracts. He opened the doors, releasing man from the oppression of sin and from the chains we place on each other and ourselves, and when we walk free we enter into true life where faith is a fruit of freedom. In this view the will of God to save us is more significant than our will to ask for help. Faith is a result of liberation.
In the next example, Jesus sums up the law, the spiritual axiom, that applies to believers in the Greatest Commandment pair:
36“Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in Moses’ Teachings?”
37Jesus answered him, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and most important commandment. 39The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 40All of Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22, God’s Word)
Notice that Jesus did not command faith in this passage. Faith, according to the principle of love, is a secondary effect. Love is the primary work of the believer. Love for God and others. Love for others that comes from following the example of Christ and God the Father. As God gave his only Son for us out of his intense compassion for us, we should love God unselfishly, and should reflect his love in our relationships with others and in showing compassion to those in need.
Finally in the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to take good news to the world:
16The eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they bowed down in worship, though some had doubts.
18When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20Teach them to do everything I have commanded you.
“And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.” (Matthew 28, God’s Word)
In the ministry of Jesus, the global expansion of the kingdom was the singular vision. From the time of his birth, his objective was the entire world. Think of the angelic message in Luke 2:10
“I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.”
In the Great Commission, Jesus is saying that the mission of the disciples has now been clearly revealed. They should continue the ministry of Jesus, and carry out his vision to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God to the entire world. More than anything else, this brings to mind a continuation of the work of Christ, the liberation of captives, the healing of sick, the invasion of dark places, the teaching of principles of Jesus like loving enemies, showing compassion, avoiding judgmental attitudes and religious elitism. The Great Commission calls us to continue the work of the Messiah. What did he do? That’s what we should do. His work is not finished -- his work continues through us. As a result it is imperative that we understand the mission of the Messiah, and continue his work appropriately. If Jesus brought the keys to captives, so should we. Jesus did not bring the captives a contract to negotiate for their release, so neither should we. We don’t make deals -- we make disciples. Bring freedom, and faith will result.
What then of works? While faith is an important aspect of the spiritual condition of those that receive salvation, it seems to be more of a result than a cause. An attribute of the saved. In that way, the word “believer” correctly describes the saved. But maybe we are not saved by our faith. Maybe we are saved by something else. Could it possibly be works? Is it in some way our acts of compassion toward others? Our lack of judgmental attitudes? Our love? Our tolerance for differences? Fundamentally we know that Jesus did not teach that actions lead to God’s favor. Much like faith, our kind behavior and loving attitudes are a clear sign of our salvation, but is salvation a reward for this behavior? Briefly revisiting the passages listed above, what do they say about works?
James 2 explains it well. As a believer, we should act like Jesus, showing compassion to those in need. It is contradictory to do otherwise. Claiming to have faith, but acting inconsistent with our faith, is deceptive. We fool ourselves and try to fool others, that we are sincere in our salvation, but we are still consumed by selfishness.
In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus provides a stern criticism of those that believe in Jesus and salvation, but don’t act like it. Jesus would seem in this passage to say that he despises empty faith, self-righteousness that is accompanied by selfishness. Jesus is opposed to those people, regardless of their faith, who fail to show compassion to “the least of these.” Jesus is explaining that if you want to please him, you should act like he does. This could be the interpreted as salvation by works! However, in the light of other teachings of Christ, we should not conclude that this salvation is not a contract in which our works result in God’s favor. In fact Jesus does not say that. He describes the actual lifestyle and fruit of sincere believers, in contrast to those that choose a selfish lifestyle but claim to believe. Jesus does not actually say what is the original cause of this transformation. How did the sheep, become sheep? Did they believe something, did they do something? That is not mentioned in this passage, only the lifestyle of compassion that resulted. In other words, works of compassion and love, are characteristic trademarks of believers. But these works are not necessarily the root of salvation.
What about the beatitudes? Do these say that only the compassionate will be saved? This passage says that those that show mercy and compassion will be blessed, happy. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, the self-sufficient are cursed, unhappy, and woe comes to them. This would seem to suggest that people who do good things will be saved. However the beatitudes also have a very different component that baffles believers: the poor will see the kingdom of God. The spiritually helpless with be the ones regarded as God’s children. The beatitudes do not advocate salvation that is earned, but rather than cannot be earned. The aspect of compassion in the beatitudes is describing God’s nature, not man’s. When we follow Jesus, taking on God’s nature, then we are happy and blessed. When we follow our own selfish desires to the lifestyle that results, we are unhappy and cursed. But as described in John 3:20,21 previously, it seems that this curse is something we do to ourselves, as a natural fruit of selfishness.
Does the Lord’s prayer advocate salvation by works? No, rather it advocates salvation by dependence on God, leading to following God’s will. Does I Corinthians 13, with all its talk about love, imply salvation by works, where “works” means having a heart of compassion? What about the Greatest Commandment? Is it vaguely possible that we are saved by having a compassionate heart? Love is such a necessary ingredient of following Christ, that it is in fact hard to distinguish compassion from salvation. If a person “Loves God, and Loves others”, doesn’t that mean they have chosen to be saved? Doesn’t that imply that the person is a true believer? The teachings of Jesus show us the way to sort out the cause and effect that implied in these passages: Jesus says “Follow me. You will receive life, a life of liberation from sin and selfishness. You will love God and others. If you think you can please God some other way, you are fooling yourself.” The initiation of salvation is the life offered to followers, and the act of following. When prisoners are freed from captivity, they simply have to follow their liberator out of their prison to find a new life. Is this faith? Is it works? Or is it something else?
So far in this essay I have challenged the notion that salvation really comes from faith or works, like a contract where salvation is the reward for a person’s faith or faith+works. Faith and works are trademarks of the saved, so I would suggest that faith and works may result from salvation, from knowing and following Jesus. Or maybe being a person of faith that does good works is more like a predisposition, makes us more likely to accept what God offers. I don’t know the conditions of the soul that lead a person to be saved. What I do know is WHO saves them. The keys to life are not faith and works. The keys are brought by the liberator.
Taking a final pass through the Bible references above, there is a group of people that have a background role in the story. First, in James 2, a third group of people present themselves. The first group: those with faith but short on good works, the second group: those with faith that leads to good works, and a third group who makes a short appearance: the brother or sister who is naked or hungry. This passage follows shortly after James makes a sweeping statement about “pure religion” in James 1:27:
27Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world. (James 1, God’s Word)
This third group of people are the recipients of the kindness of others, the needy, naked, hungry and orphaned. Some of them are already believers, “brothers and sisters.” But in James 1 they are simply “orphans and widows.” Are any orphans, any widows, worthy of compassion, or only the ones with faith or actions leading to salvation? James doesn’t say. They are the weak and needy of unknown faith. But they are the primary object of pure Christianity! Why? How? Perhaps more exploration is needed.
This group of weak and needy are also revealed as the third group in the parable of the sheep and goats. They are the least of these, the seemingly unimportant, the (literally) hungry, thirsty, homeless and naked.
They also appear in the beatitudes. They are the poor, the hungry, the crying, the oppressed. The meaning is poetic in that passage and could equally mean those that literally need compassion, and those that are aware of their spiritual poverty and need for God.
In the Lord’s prayer this group is hinted at. The mention of “others” is in reference to forgiveness. Believers should forgive others. Do these others deserve forgiveness? Are they believers who have transgressed other believers? There is also the encouragement in this prayer for all believers to trust in God for their provision, their daily bread. The poor should depend on God to provide for them, because he is compassionate, and his will is done on Earth as it is in heaven. Taken in measure with other passages about compassion, believers should help God share compassion with the poor (God doesn’t only work solo in providing daily bread).
What about liberation in the Lord’s prayer? Are captives freed? Take a look:
- Our Father in heaven, let your name be kept holy. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven:
- The kingdom has come to Earth, so that God’s will can be done here and not just in heaven. God’s will? That we love others and love him, in a contagious way that spreads to all the world. This spreading of love will unleash kindness on the world. Contagious love is the best way to liberate people from selfishness and from the pain caused by others
- Give us our daily bread today.
- God will be our provider, rescuing us from physical need and suffering. Note that this is not absolute. Praying this prayer does not end human hunger. What does this mean? God is working to provide for the needy, and he is building his kingdom of compassion that can spread his good work.
- Forgive us as we forgive others.
- Liberate us from the pain caused by the sin of others, especially the darkness in our hearts that comes from a lack of forgiveness.
- Similarly, liberate us from the pain caused by our own sins. Forgiveness is spiritual liberation. We are free to live, in spite of our sin and human tendency toward selfishness.
- Don’t allow us to be tempted.
- Liberate us from spiritual failure, helping us to avoid traps and hazards that would lead us to fall into selfishness again.
- Instead, rescue us from the evil one.
- Liberate us from the deceiver and all his evil intent! Clearly in this last line of the Lord’s prayer, God is named specifically as the rescuer.
In I Corinthians 13, the concept of the “other” is implied in the word love. To love requires an object of love. Who should believers love? To whom should they show compassion (charity, unconditional love, which is the type of love indicated in this passage)? The recipient is once again the seemingly unimportant, the undeserving, the one needing love, the one of unknown faith and works. If the love in I Corinthians 13 is reserved for believers or for the deserving, its significance is reduced. No, this type of love is unconditional.
In John 3:16, the concept of the needy other is represented with the word “the world”. God loved “the world”, meaning mankind, who is desperately in need of God’s love. God loved those that love him back, and those that do not. He shines his light equally on the good and evil. Mankind can respond by walking with God in the light, or can continue walking in darkness. God loves all of us, including some that have faith and do good works, and certainly some that have no faith at all and live selfishly.
In Luke 4, the quotation from Isaiah 61 reveals the needy as captives needing liberation, as poor and blind people who need the Messiah to heal them and rescue them, releasing them from bondage, both spiritually and physically. The ministry of Jesus starting in Luke 4 was an active demonstration of this role of the Messiah, and he healed countless needy people, forgiving their sins, and proclaiming that he was there to bring them the good news from God. Did these poor and needy recipients of the favor of Jesus have a measure of faith that merited salvation? Did they do good works? Did Jesus always and only heal those that had sufficient faith? We don’t know, but we do know that the faith of the crowds of people is not mentioned as a positive attribute. In fact, in Luke 7, Jesus says to the crowd that a Roman centurion has more faith than he has found “in all of Israel.” Certainly Jesus did not go forth on his healing ministry solely driven by the faith of the needy in Israel.
Finally, who are the “others” that are the recipients of love commanded in the Greatest Commandment? And who are the recipients of the good news in the Great Commission? The ubiquitous “other”. The one who needs God. The one who receives love from believers, the one who hears the good news. As the angels declared, in Luke 2:10, this good news is “wonderful, joyous news for all people.” All people, those with faith. Those with good works. Those with great needs.
Taken together, these passages lead us back to the question: How do needy people, the people of all the world, receive the compassion of God? Must they earn this compassion with either faith or works? What we see in the gospel is a God who IS by his very being, compassion itself. What we see is the example of Christ who demonstrated God’s compassion to the needy. We see very little from Christ pointing toward requirements. Instead we see an image of a liberator, declared in the Old Testament prophets, who came with the keys of freedom. “Be Free” he says, and “Follow Me.” Receive the compassion of God. Imitate the compassion of God by loving him and by loving others. Take the keys of freedom to the entire world.
So, where do I stand? Is faith required in order to receive salvation? Does faith have to be strong enough to transform us, revealing itself through works, in order to be saved? If so, how much faith, what type? How little is too little to be denied? How much is so much that we are guaranteed a reward? Jesus said that we must have faith like little children, or faith like a Roman centurian, or like a little mustard seed, to come to Jesus -- a tiny, immature, incomplete, simple faith. And yet the “goats” in the parable had great faith but could not come to Jesus. If no faith is too small to come to Jesus, and no faith is so great that a reward can be guaranteed, then faith is not necessarily the requirement for salvation. Faith is somehow a part of salvation, maybe the result of it, maybe the state of being saved.
Look at the meaning of the word “salvation.” It means the act of being saved, freed, liberated, rescued. What is salvation, but simply freedom? Why must it be something more? Salvation is the work of the Messiah. The good news for all people. The liberator comes carrying the keys to freedom, not a contract. When he opens the door liberating us, we simply follow. And by following we learn faith. We learn how to love. We learn how to be free.
In conclusion, the reader may say, “Yes, but, it takes faith to follow. It takes a heart that wants to please God to be receptive to the gospel. So faith and works, in some tiny measure, are required, then the person is saved, than the more significant faith and works are found. Salvation has to start somewhere in the heart of the believer.” If you are saying this, maybe you are right. But if it’s that simple, it’s no requirement at all. Maybe being saved is simply a choice to walk out the door of our prison, because the one who brought the keys to our freedom has come. We can stay in the cell, or we can follow him out. It’s not a requirement, it’s a rescue.