We can all agree that we are saved by our faith in Jesus and that none of us can save ourselves. This is good, solid, basic, orthodox theology. In this sense, salvation is by faith alone. But we also all agree that works are important to salvation too—we just don’t like phrasing it that way, so we frame it in as many odd ways as we can:
“If someone says they have faith but they do no works, they don’t really believe in Jesus. Maybe they were never really saved in the first place.”
“Works aren’t necessary for salvation, and we should never do them thinking they are, but if we don’t do them we should probably wonder if we’re really saved or actually have faith.”
“Only faith gets you into heaven, but real faith becomes works, so if you don’t have works, you may not have real faith… not that works matter.”
Phrase it however you want, the truth is we all believe works are an important part of faith. We know we can’t be saved by works alone, but we also know—to quote the book of James—“faith without works is dead.”
Even though I think he agreed with this statement in application, this Bible verse bothered Martin Luther so much that he thought James should be taken out of the Bible (which is an efficient way of establishing your doctrine). The problem for Luther is, that even if you cut James out like a Jefferson Bible, you still have to deal with the all the other places works come up in the Old and New Testament—perhaps most explicitly in Jesus himself!
Indeed, God-in-flesh tells us how some will come up to him and talk about all the signs and wonders they performed by the Holy Spirit’s power, and yet Jesus will tell them that he doesn’t know who they are because they did bad works. Furthermore, on the day of judgment, Jesus makes the call between those who are in (the sheep) and those who are out (the goats) based on whether or not they did good works! These two stories alone are extreme enough to make a point, and they’re just the start.
Everyone believes works are essential to the faith, including those who don’t believe it. No Christian is comfortable with a non-repentant serial killer getting into Heaven because he passed the lie detector test when asked about his belief in Jesus. Of course, only Jesus gets to make the judgment call as to who gets in, but we are wise—not heretical—to heed his warnings and do good works.
We do not save ourselves by our works, nor do we earn God’s grace through our works. Good works do not save us from judgment—Jesus saves us from judgment. But when Jesus saves us from judgment he will take our good works into account. E.P. Sanders still says it best: “Salvation is by grace, but judgment is according to works. Works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation.”
*This devotional was created out of the themes of Matthew 25:31-46 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net.