Much debate is heard within discussion groups and friendly conversations over coffee about the idea that if you are “once saved, you are always saved.” In other words, if someone becomes a Christian, you receive forgiveness of sins (saved/salvation), which is a free gift that restores your relationship with God, and you can never lose that salvation. Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28, NRSV).1 This is one of the most quoted Bible verses used to support this doctrine.
Many people think this way and believe that “they have their ticket to eternity” no matter what they do — or not do. Sorry, folk, that is not how it works. We can’t keep sinning, or even become complacent, and blow it off with some form of a self-justification.
Our life on earth is a pilgrimage with our Lord and we need him to forgive us repeatedly, because we continue to sin. It is necessary for us to remember that salvation is not unconditional. The entire Bible is laced with warnings about the way we live, so we must understand what we need to do, in order to be saved and not give in to a false sense of security. Some people may try to escape the work needed by repeating the popular phrase “once saved, always saved,” but that is a great oversimplification of the process.2 (See the References & Notes at the end of this article for a link to a previous post on this subject.)3
But all we need is faith to receive the prize, right?
So, as in any relationship, we must work to keep it moving in a righteous direction. Just like in a marriage, we must also work to keep our relationship with God in good health. If we are Christians, we have faith that this salvation, with the promise of eternal life, will indeed arrive. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That is the logic behind our study. Is faith all we need, or do we need to act on our faith, too? Do we have to demonstrate our faith with works?
There do seem to be conflicts from the apostles concerning this idea of faith with ‘works’. The Apostle James said, as translated into contemporary language:
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? (James 2:14-20, TM).4
The Apostle James starts his letter with the salutation of being a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, (he was also Jesus’ real brother, too). He writes to encourage his readers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ and wants his readers to mature in their faith by living what they say they believe.5
James is right. “Just as the law of love gives no excuse for respect of persons, so the possession of faith gives no license to dispense with good works. A believer must not only demonstrate his love by ready acceptance of others, but he must also demonstrate his faith by responsible aid to others.”6 James mentions that the demons believe, but even so, “it is impossible for them to be saved. Saving faith entails more than mere knowledge.”7 James’ conclusion was that “faith by itself is ‘dead’ — not just in the sense that it is not doing what it should, but that it is not even really what it claims to be.”8
It is not that works must always be done in every circumstance, for there are always occasions when words of encouragement are all that we can offer, or all that is needed. But the real test of our words are actions that back them up, when necessary.9 Sometimes it isn’t obligatory to prepare or purchase a meal for someone, if we can help by directing them to services that can provide that meal. It isn’t how much physical work you do or how much money you spend, but how much you can help in solving the problem.
That is great, but I said there seem to be conflicts between apostles concerning this idea of faith with ‘works’, so what are they? Well, for example, these statements of James present a problem to people who are aware that Paul seemed to claim otherwise.10
The Apostle Paul says, in the book of Galatians, “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). And in Romans, he says, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28). So, why?
We must remember that Paul and James addressed different situations. “On the one hand, Paul refuted a Jewish legalism holding that one must observe the law’s requirements in order to be saved.” James, on the other hand, opposed a theological doctrine (held by some Jews scattered abroad) that was twisting faith in Christ so much that no expression of works was expected or necessary.11
“Moreover, when Paul used the word justified, he meant ‘saved’ or ‘declared righteous’, whereas James meant ‘vindicated’ or ‘authenticated’. By works, Paul meant ‘works of the law’ [Mosaic Law], whereas James meant works that faith produces.” These positions do compliment each other. So, “Paul was saying that one is declared righteous by God apart from the works of the law. James, by contrast, was saying that a person’s faith produces [good] works that vindicate his faith in Christ as genuine.” While faith and works may be distinct, they must not be separated and this means that unquestionable faith will bear the fruit of good works.12
Faith Without Works is Dead Faith
The Apostle James ended the second chapter of his book with these words: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26). This means that neither ‘works’ alone, nor ‘faith’ alone, will get you eternal life. So, it is, surely, not ‘once saved, always saved’. Once we are saved, we are expected to do good works — these works are evidence of our faith. God-talk without God-acts is not acceptable.
I came across a homemade video by a talented gentlemen, Mike Anderson, with a song on just this scripture. It is not a fancy production, but to the point and well done. Like he says at the end of the song, “That’s right. Faith without works is dead faith.” See the video listed in References & Notes.13 Sorry, I couldn’t find any other information about this man or the song. Selected lyrics (transcribed) are below.
Jesus said you would know them
That follow his commands
Jesus said you would know them
He would lead them as his lamb
The world will know you love him by the works you do
Do not merely listen to the words and deceive yourself
Do not merely listen to the words, do what it says
Faith without works is dead.
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Dockery, David S., et al., Holman Bible Handbook, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), p. 753.
- Hermann, Ray, “Hebrews 6:4 – Can We Lose Our Salvation”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 20 August 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/hebrews-64-can-we-lose-our-salvation/
- Peterson, Eugene H., The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group, 2002). Used by permission.
- “Epistle of James”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 6 February 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_of_James
- Blue, J. Ronald, “James,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Eds.) J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 825.
- Watson, R. Gregg, “James,” in CSB Study Bible: Notes, (Eds.) Edwin A. Blum and Trevin Wax, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 1968.
- Moo, Douglas, “James,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 1156.
- Ibid., p. 1157.
- Wilder, Terry L., “James”, in CSB Apologetics Study Bible, (Ed.) Ted Cabal, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 1539.
- “Faith Without Works is Dead”, Artist: Mike Anderson, uploaded 27 July 2016, (no album, author, licensing, or copyright listed; used under ‘fair use’ copyright for teaching under Section 107 of Copyright Act of 1976) – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/3nnFMQN34kk