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Dear Dr. Matt:
I'm 38 years old, married, from Jacksonville, Florida.
I’m a little confused about my Christian walk? I know that Jesus taught that “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father" (Matt. 7: 21). And the Bible also establishes that in the day of Judgment, God “shall reward every man according to his works" (Matt. 16: 27). Yet, I hear my Pastor preach that “works” are unnecesary to my eternal life. Please help me understand the apparent contradiction.
In the New Testament, the word "works" has two meanings: 1) the "works" that are devoid of faith in Jesus Christ, thus, are dead works, and 2) the "works" that are enacted with heart-felt faith in Jesus Christ — these works are also called "good works" and ARE a manifestation of a person's faith, and precisely EQUAL TO having faith and believing in Jesus Christ. The Savior taught:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me,
The Apostle James taught that good works (works accomplished with heartfelt faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ) are what make a person's faith . . . perfect:
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? (James 2: 18-22).
Here's the difference between a "devil" who knows and believes that Jesus is the Son of God versus a person who has true faith is: The "devil" does NOT do heed the words of Jesus with action: "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also" (John 14:12).
Why is action an inseparable aspect of faith? Because Jesus taught that we should love God with all "heart, soul, mind, and strength" (Mark 12: 30) — in other words, those who truly believe and have faith in Jesus will Love God and have Faith in Him with everything you've got.
So to answer to your question: The exercise of your faith through a worthy Christian Walk (a.k.a., good and faithful works) is absolutely necessary to receiving salvation unto eternal life; yet those same faithful works are NOT sufficient to receiving salvation without His saving Grace. Keep reading and I will explain more about the Grace of God.
Reality versus Representation: Interpretating
To correctly interpret the words of the Bible, it is vital to understand that we must NOT shape our conception of Living Reality around the implications of words; instead, we should do the exact opposite: we must look to Living Reality first, and shape the meaning of words around it. So let's apply this principle to the proper interpretation of the Bible:
Because "faith" and "works" are two separate words, the natural assumption is that these two words represent two separate realities. The natural but erroneous assumption is that the words "faith" and "works" Represent two separate Realities: one of human intent and another of human action.
Depending upon the context of how these words are used, generally speaking, when the word "works" is used in a positive and productive sense, the Bible is speaking of a Single Living Active Reality — a good working — and another descriptive aspect of this Single Undivided Reality is being faithful.
The reason why the Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to "walk worthy" (Eph. 4: 1) and to "walk in love" (Eph. 5: 2) is because James taught this truth: "Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (James 2: 17). Thus there is no "faith" that is pleasing to God that is not manifest actively through worthy "works."
When speaking of faith & good works, the unified REALITY that Jesus spoke of in Matt. 5: 16 is this:
The two descriptive facets of "Working-Faithfully" and "Faithfully-Working" are inseparable; they are manifest in a Single Undivided Active Reality: Outward Active Works patterned after the Savior's example infused by Faithful Inward Intent of Heart. This means that the inverse of what James taught is equally true: the reciprocal truth that works without faith is dead "being alone."
So faith without works is dead indeed AND works without faith is even deader! Jesus taught this truth in Matt. 6: 1-18.
In the sense that we fulfill our side of a sacred Christian Covenant, there is absolutely NO separation in the SINGLE-REALITY described by the separate words "faith" and "works" — when these words are used in a positive and productive context.
Let's review some passages of scriptures that support a correct interpretation of the Bible:
Eternal Life is contingent upon Believing in Christ:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
What does it mean to Believe in Christ? Jesus answered this question directly.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me,
Here is an oft-quoted scripture that supposedly teaches that "works" are NOT necessary to attaining eternal life:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:
If we read this passage out of context, we will arrive at a wrong conclusion. Here is what the very NEXT verse says:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works,
If "good works" are unnecessary, then WHY is Paul saying that we are "created . . . unto good works"? Paul taught that "we are his workmanship, . . . ordained that we should walk in [good works]." The adjective before the word "works" is important, for the New Testament makes a distinction between "works" and "good works."
"Works" is a word that sometimes refers to what the Jews did: give outward demonstrations of "lip" worship (Matt. 15: 8) while failing to "believe in Christ" — thus their works were not "good works" because they denied the very author of their salvation. Therefore, the word "works," when used in a faithless context, referrs to "evil works" and "dead works."
"Good Works" are two words which represent a Single Active Reality which is also called "walk by faith" (2 Cor 5: 7). Good Works are the deeds we do that are infused with heartfelt Faith in Jesus Christ. This is precisely why the Apostle Paul speaks of the work of faith:
Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father (1 Thes. 1: 3).
Another passage that is used to support the erroneous conclusion that "good works" are unnecessary to access God's Saving Grace, is this passage from Paul to Titus:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3: 5).
Interpreting the previous passage in context, we see that within three short chapters, Paul exhorts Titus six times to be engaged in "good works." Again, WHY is Paul exhorting Titus to do "good works" if they are NOT necessary?
ANSWER: Good Works are necessary, for it is by doing the works of Christ that we are counted as believers in Christ (John 14: 12), and believing in Christ is an absolute condition to receiving the Lord's Saving Grace.
Manifesting our faith through good works IS our part of a saving Covenant. From the beginning, it is clear that to be counted among the children of God, one must be a covenant keeper:
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine (Ex. 19: 5).
The Gift of Eternal Life cannot be earned by our works that stand "alone" without heartfelt faith. If those who profess to be true followers do not abide in the "True Vine," they can "do nothing" (John 15: 1-5). After all our faithful acts of believing in Jesus, yet, it is by the Grace of God that such faithful efforts become "sufficient." His Grace makes our Covenant Keeping acceptable and "wellpleasing":
Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13: 20-21).
Paul speaks of how God's Grace lifts our "work of faith" to "sufficiency" thus becoming "wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ."
And God is able to make all grace abound toward you;
The term "good works" appears 33 times in the New Testament. Why does the New Testament admonish believers to do "good works" so many times? Because the "work of faith" IS our side of a saving covenant — Christ's New Covenant. Faithful Working and Working Faithful is what we must do to access His Saving Grace.
Matt Moody, Ph.D.
P.S. Here's a comprehensive explanation of Salvation by Grace through Faith.
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