Are We Saved By Faith Alone? Or Must We Act?

Question from a Site Viewer

Grace alone? Through faith alone?

I’ve heard that you cannot earn God’s favor through actions, but that it is by faith alone. I have heard people say “it’s impossible to live the Christian life” or “you can’t keep the law,” that’s why we need Jesus to live this new life through us. Yet, we are also commanded to repent, which is an action, a choice I must make. If my actions are ultimately futile and don’t earn favor, then how am I supposed to repent? I know this might be a silly question but it really has me tied up in knots spiritually.

Tim’s Answer

I appreciate your question and the confusion sometimes well-meaning pastors and theologians generate in trying to defend salvation by faith alone. We cannot earn God’s favor by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). This is clear in Scripture. Salvation is always by the grace of God. But this does not mean that we have no part in the process.

All Biblical theologians and pastors will confirm that God imparts salvation to those who believe. Scripture is clear on this point (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 5:24; Acts 16:31; Romans 10:8-17; Ephesians 1:12-13). This is why so many say we are saved by faith alone.

But where Biblical theologians and pastors differ is what is the genesis of faith. Those in the Calvinist camp argue that if salvation has anything to do with us, then it becomes our works and therefore it is not all of God’s grace. They argue that even our faith is given by God so that truly there is nothing we can do to please God. He chooses who He wills to be saved and they are saved. They have no part in their election or in their salvation.

Many of us, however, do not read Scripture this way. Romans 4:1-8 is very clear in stating that faith is a different species of human action than is works. God does not consider faith to be works. One is doing; the other is believing. Righteousness has always come to humanity by believing, not by doing (Romans 4:5). Thus, Abraham was accounted to be righteous because he believed (Genesis 15:6). Faith is our response to the promises of God, accounting that God exists and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Faith is what we do. If you read through Hebrews 11, you will see that the Old Testament saints believed. This is what defined them. And because of their faith, they acted.

We also are called to believe. This is an action we must take. If we believe, we have eternal life. If we do not believe, we remain in condemnation (John 3:16-18). And we also know that the source of our faith comes from the word of God (Romans 10:17). Once we hear, then we have a choice to make, either to respond in faith or to reject in unbelief. This is our choice. God lays this out in poignant detail in Deuteronomy 30:11-20, a passage Paul quotes in Romans 10 as demonstrating righteousness by faith. He calls on us to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19). And some in Israel chose God. Joshua did (Joshua 24:15). Israel did in the days of Asa (2 Chronicles 15:3-4, 15). David did in Psalm 34:4. Those who seek Him will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).

Thus, you are right in observing that there are things we must do. God commands us to repent (Acts 17:30). He tells us in Ezekiel 18:21-22, 30 that the unrighteous one should repent and turn and live. He says the same thing in Isaiah 55:6-7 where the wicked are called to forsake their ways and return to the LORD. Over and over through the prophets of Israel, God calls, begs, pleads, and entreats His people Israel to return to Him. When He pronounces judgment, it is for the purpose of leading His people to seek repentance (Jeremiah 26:2-3; 12-13). In Jeremiah 18:7-11, God says that the instant He speaks against a nation to tear it down and destroy it, if that nation will repent God will relent of the disaster. He closes that passage with a call for every one to return from their evil ways. This is an action we must take. Paul tells us in Acts 20:20-21 that this was his constant message; that people should repent and believe. And God is still entreating people today (2 Corinthians 5:20).

If we respond, then our repentance is something God does not despise (Psalm 51:17). Jesus spoke of the Pharisee and the publican. The publican in contrite humility called out to God for mercy (Luke 18:13). Jesus said that God justified the publican (Luke 18:14).

Accordingly, I read Scripture as stating that there are actions we must take if we want to please to God. These are our actions, not God’s. God has moved first, in sending His Son to die for us even when we were still enemies. He now calls on us to respond. This is what I like to term the “theology of the invitation.” God invites us to come. And if we come, He in turn responds to our coming. We see this in Zechariah 1:3 where He invites us to return, we return, and He returns to us. We see this also in James where the sinners are called to draw near to God and He promises that if they do He will draw near to them (James 4:8). He issues the invitation; the next move is ours. For those who are unbelievers, the invitation is to come to Christ. We respond by believing in His Son. If we believe in His Son, He responds to our belief by giving us a new birth and eternal life (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8, 16). And through faith we can please Him (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith, it is impossible to please Him. All relationships with God begin with trusting Him.

But coming to Christ through faith is only the beginning. As believers, our acts of praising Him and doing good to others pleases Him (Hebrews 13:15-16). Walking in a manner worthy of Him is pleasing to Him (Colossians 1:10). Paul instructs us how to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1). And the simplest acts can please the Father when done with a heart of devotion. I am reminded in Zechariah 4:10 that God rejoiced in seeing Zerubbabel take up a plumb line to begin the work of building the second temple. The cup of cold water in the name of Christ will bring a reward (Matthew 10:42).

Now I am quick to add that nothing we do is pleasing to Him if we do it outside of the Son. As we are taught in John 15:1-8, we must abide in the Son in order to do anything pleasing to God. Our constant dependency on Him is the hallmark of the believer. But dependency is not the same as inaction. To the contrary, our dependency spurs our actions. This is the lesson we learn in Colossians 3, that great chapter on how we as Christians should live. To live life in the Spirit is not to be a milk toast, but rather it is a robust life where we take chances and seek to do great things for God, always communicating with Him, always submitting to His will, and seeking from Him both direction and power. We pray to our God, seek His guidance, and then proceed to the work.

Thus we affirm that it is impossible on our own to please God and if we try to live life without Him we will never please Him. This is the lesson of Galatians 3-5. But we also affirm that, as believers, it is possible for us to please God as we seek to walk by faith in a life of dependency on His Spirit. This is a work we must do and the work Paul calls us to do in Romans 12-15, in Ephesians 4-6, and in Colossians 3-4. It is the work Christ calls us to do in Matthew 5. It is the work Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:12, Ephesians 2:10; Titus 3:8 and many other places. It is the work of James 2 and 1 John.

The commands of Scripture come to us. It is up to us to decide what we will do with them. To those who by patient continuance in doing good God will reward them with eternal life (Romans 2:6-7, 10). To those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, God will reward them with tribulation and anguish (Romans 2:8-9). The good can only be done if we believe in God and believe that God rewards those who diligently seek Him. Without faith in God, no good is possible. But with faith in God, it is possible for us to do good; in fact this is what we are called to do (Ephesians 2:10).

I say all of this, knowing that some of my brothers and sisters read the same Scripture and reach a different conclusion. They would say that there is nothing we can do. I think they have a difficult time dealing with hundreds of passages of Scripture that indicate otherwise. Faith is always the response of people to the promise of God. Repentance is always the turning of people in response to God’s invitation. God is drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32) and His grace that brings salvation has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11-12) teaching us that we should deny ungodliness and live soberly and righteously in this world. There is a task we must do in building a relationship with God. God commands it.

Thus, I encourage you to draw near to God. Make Him the object of your eyes and your desire. Love Him with all of your heart. Pursue after Him and do not shrink back from that pursuit. Seek to represent Him well in this world. In doing so, you will be well-pleasing to Him and will be a benefit to humanity.

I also encourage you to read His word. Read both testaments and let the Spirit Himself instruct you as you read. I think you will find that your intuition on this issue is right; there are things that we must do in order to be pleasing to God.

May the Spirit direct you into truth.

a pilgrim,

faith alone