Truth: Good works do not earn salvation.
Equally true: Good works provide the evidence of salvation.
The clear and consistent teaching of Scripture is that faith and works are intrinsically and inseparably connected.
• John the Baptist connected faith and deeds when he called for “a fruit consistent with repentance” (Luke 3:8). When the crowds asked what that meant, John replied, “The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same” (v. 10). Inner change is evidenced by tangible deeds.
• Jesus connected faith and deeds when He taught, “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit …” (Luke 6:43-45). True disciples bear the fruit of good works, which confirm their identity as true disciples.
• Paul connected faith and deeds when he affirmed that we are “saved by grace through faith … not from works,” yet we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10). We’re not saved by works, but we’re saved to do good works.
• James made the connection: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” (2:14). In this verse James used a literary device called a diatribe. A diatribe raises a question—often on the lips of an imaginary objector—for the sake of argument. In James’s case, an imaginary objector claimed to have faith but failed to demonstrate his faith by his deeds. James asked in response, “Can such faith save him?” The question is not, “Can faith save?” Yes, faith saves. The question James asked is, “Can such faith save?” (italics added for emphasis). In the Greek text of James 2:14 there’s a little article before the word “faith” that some English translations render as “such” (CSB, NIV) or “that” (ESV, NASB). It’s an important little word in that it defines a particular kind of faith—a faith without deeds. “Can such faith save?”
It should be noted that in the Greek language, a question could be asked in such a way as to indicate if a positive or negative answer was expected. The way James asked his question in verse 14 indicates he expected a negative answer. “No, that kind of faith does not save.” James wasn’t arguing against salvation by faith alone; he was arguing against a wrong definition of faith. Faith is more than knowledge; it is more than intellectual agreement (“even the demons believe,” 2:19).
• In Acts 16, the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved (v. 30). “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (v. 31), they replied. Salvation is found not in doing but in believing; faith alone saves. The jailer’s story didn’t end with verse 31, however. There was then a tangible difference in his life. Changed attitudes and actions gave evidence to his new faith (see vv. 33-34).
There’s the faith-works connection: saving faith is evidenced by transformed attitudes and observable actions. “We are saved by faith alone,” Martin Luther said, “but the faith that saves is never alone.”
Mike Livingstone works at Lifeway Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible resources.