Something that often causes confusion among Christians is the relationship between salvation, faith and good deeds.
Many believers can’t help feeling that the Bible contradicts itself on this topic. They come across passages which seem to say that salvation is by faith and not dependent on doing good deeds. But they find other passages which seem to teach that salvation is dependent on doing good deeds. And they then become confused.
So what are we to make of this? Does the Bible contradict itself on this issue? Or can we find a reasonable solution that accounts for all the data?
I believe that the latter is true. I am confident that when passages on this topic are properly interpreted, they do fit together without contradiction. And in what follows I will try to explain how this is the case.
Salvation is by faith and not by doing good deeds
To begin with, it is certainly true that the Bible presents salvation as a gift and not as something we earn. There are passages that cannot reasonably be interpreted in any other way.
In John 3:14-15, for example, Jesus states:
‘14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life.’
Jesus’ words here fit very poorly with the idea that Christians need to partly earn their salvation. Instead, salvation is presented as a gift that is simply received by faith in Christ.
In Acts 16:31, similarly, Paul and Silas tell the Philippian jailer:
‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your family.’
These words very strongly imply that Christians in no way earn salvation.
Again, in Romans 5:1 Paul says:
‘Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . .’
The justification Paul refers to here involves being declared perfectly morally upright in God’s sight. It is very difficult to reconcile this text with the idea that Christians partly earn their salvation by doing good deeds.
Ephesians 2:8-9 points in the same direction. Here Paul states:
‘8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of deeds, so that no one may boast.’
This passage is clear that salvation is not the result of performing good deeds.
Verses such as these teach us that being saved from sin and hell is something we receive by faith in Christ rather than something we earn by doing good deeds. Other passages which teach the same include John 1:12; 3:16; Romans 1:17; 3:22, 26, 28; 4:1-6, 24; 9:30-32; 10:9-11; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 24; Ephesians 1:13; Philippians 3:9; 2 Timothy 3:15.
Saving faith is not just intellectual assent
It is important to understand that saving faith is not mere intellectual assent to the basic truths of Christianity.
Probably the passage which teaches this most clearly is James 2:14-26. We should especially take note of v. 19, where James warns his readers:
‘You believe that God is one. Very impressive! Even the demons believe that – and shudder!’
James is saying that the correct beliefs of demons will not enable them to avoid God’s final punishment. And he clearly implies too that people who merely believe the right things about Christianity will likewise not be saved from hell.
When the Bible talks about saving faith, it has in view not only intellectual assent to the basic truths of Christianity, but also personal trust in Christ. Saving faith involves not only belief that Jesus is Lord, but also belief in Jesus, i.e., reaching out to Him in an attitude of personal trust.
Saving faith does not include good deeds
Roman Catholics and some others often claim that when the Bible speaks about salvation by faith, we should understand the faith to include doing good deeds. Those who take this view define saving faith as a combination of trust in Jesus and the performance of good deeds.
This idea should be rejected, however. Note how Ephesians 2:8-9, which I cited above, clearly contrasts saving faith and doing good deeds.
We should also note Romans 4:4-5, where Paul writes:
‘4 Now to the person who works, his pay is not considered to be a gift but an obligation. 5 But to the person who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is considered as uprightness.’
This passage is another that clearly contrasts having saving faith in Jesus with working, i.e., doing good deeds.
The idea that performing good deeds is a component part of saving faith should therefore not be accepted.
We can sum up the discussion so far as follows:
Christians are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. Saving faith involves personal trust in Christ and not just assent to the basic truths of Christianity. And doing good deeds is not a part of saving faith.
Only those who do good will be saved
Although the Bible teaches that salvation is by faith and not by performing good deeds, it also teaches that only those who perform good deeds will be saved.
Of course, when someone becomes a Christian, all their sins are forgiven. Therefore, if someone lives a terribly sinful life and then dies shortly after conversion, they will be saved even though they may not have had the opportunity to do many good deeds.
It is simplifying things a bit, then, to say that the Bible teaches that only those who do good deeds will be saved. If we want to be more precise, we could say that it teaches that only people whose lives are characterised by good deeds at the time they die or Jesus returns will be saved.
Numerous passages point in this direction.
In Romans 8:12-13, for example, Paul warns the Roman Christians:
‘12 So then, brothers, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, 13 for if you live according to the flesh you will die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’
This passage tells us that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are not on track for heaven.
Again, in 1 John 3:8 we are told:
‘The person who practises sin is of the devil.’
This verse is completely clear that people who have not repented of their sins are not saved. It is unthinkable that anyone who is described as ‘of the devil’ could be a saved Christian.
James 2:14-26, which I have already referred to, also clearly teaches that those who do not perform good deeds will not finally be saved.
In fact, in v. 24 of this passage James even says:
‘You see that a person is justified by deeds and not by faith alone.’
At first sight this seems to strongly contradict Romans 5:1 that we looked at above, which clearly implies that justification is by faith and not by doing good deeds.
Another passage that at first glance also seems to contradict Romans 5:1 is Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus teaches about the Day of Judgment. Here are verses 34-36:
‘34 Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me in. 36 I was naked, and you clothed Me. I was ill, and you visited Me. I was in prison, and you came to Me.”’
Note the causal word ‘for’ in v. 35. In this passage those who reach final salvation in heaven are said to do so because they have performed good deeds!
Some of the other passages which teach that only those who perform good deeds are on track for heaven are John 3:20-21; 5:28-29; 8:42; 10:27-28; 12:25; Acts 11:18; Romans 2:5-10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 6:7-8; Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 3:9, 14-15; 5:18; Revelation 21:8; 22:12, 15.
Reconciling both groups of passages
The Bible is very clear, therefore, that performing good deeds is in some sense necessary for salvation. How, then, do we reconcile passages which teach this with the earlier group of passages we looked at, which teach that salvation is by faith and not by doing good deeds?
I believe we can reconcile these passages if we suppose that they are all describing the same thing but some are doing so more technically and precisely than others. (As far as James is concerned, the issue is actually much more complex than this. Nevertheless, I would still maintain that one key point to understand about this verse is that it involves a relatively untechnical way of describing things.)
If we speak technically and precisely, we can say that salvation is by faith and not by performing good deeds, and that although saving faith is always accompanied by good deeds, the good deeds are not themselves a means of salvation. Many biblical passages, especially in Paul’s letters and John’s Gospel, express things along these lines.
However, if we speak relatively untechnically and more loosely, we can simply say that salvation is conditional on a person having the package that contains faith and good deeds. Here there is no attempt to analyse the contents of this package or to distinguish the roles of the faith and the good deeds. They are just seen as things that go together. Many biblical passages express things along these lines.
Let me give an analogy that I hope will help to better illustrate what I am saying.
Suppose a cargo is being transported on a train. One person, A, might say that the engine of the train alone is doing the work in transporting the cargo, and that the rest of the train is doing no work but is simply attached to the engine. That would be a correct way of putting things. However, another person, B, might just say that the train is doing the work in transporting the cargo. That would also be a correct way of putting things.
Importantly, A and B would have an identical understanding of what is happening, despite their different ways of expressing this. A expresses things more technically and precisely than B. However, the difference is only in how things are expressed, not in what A and B believe that the train is actually doing.
This analogy isn’t meant to correspond in detail to the discussion on the relationship between salvation, faith and good deeds. I am not suggesting that each part of the train corresponds to faith or good deeds or something else. I am simply using the example of a train to illustrate how a situation can be expressed with different degrees of technicality and precision.
If we think precisely about what is going on in salvation, we can say that a person is saved by faith and not by doing good deeds, and that the saving faith will be expressed in the performance of good deeds. Many biblical passages involve this kind of precision.
However, if we speak more loosely, we can simply say that salvation is by faith and good deeds. Or we can say that salvation is conditional upon faith and good deeds. Or we can just assume that faith exists and say that salvation is conditional upon performing good deeds. Many biblical passages involve untechnical expressions of these kinds.
This solution fits with evangelicalism
I should stress that my solution here is in line with the standard evangelical understanding of this issue, since I am agreeing with these key evangelical points:
(1) Salvation is properly understood to be by faith and not by performing good deeds.
(2) Performing good deeds is not included in what we mean by saving faith.
(3) If someone has saving faith, that faith will always be expressed in the performance of good deeds.
Running into difficulties
As I have already noted, many Christians run into difficulties when trying to understand biblical teaching on this issue. And often this is because they have failed to understand that biblical language can at times be relatively more or less technical. Frequently, because Christians (rightly) hold Scripture in such high regard, they simply assume that every scriptural statement is made with full technical precision.
This, however, is a mistake. It is perfectly legitimate to speak about matters loosely and untechnically at times, and Jesus and the biblical authors clearly believed this. In fact, there are times when imprecision in the Bible goes far beyond what we are used to in the modern West.
If we insist on taking the biblical passages on saving faith and those on doing good deeds with full technical precision, we are going to end up with a big problem. Either we will have to say that some passages contradict each other. Or we are going to have to force some passages to say something that they really don’t.
However, once we allow that Jesus and the biblical authors could speak with different levels of technicality, the problem disappears or is at least greatly reduced. We can much more easily reconcile passages without forcing interpretations.
Some passages, which speak technically and precisely, teach us that salvation is by faith and not by performing good deeds. And these passages expect the reader to assume that saving faith will always express itself in good deeds.
Other passages, which speak less technically and less precisely, teach us that we will saved by performing good deeds or because we perform good deeds.