just thinking  Salvation, Faith Alone or Faith Plus Works - Part I

Is our salvation a matter of faith-plus-works or of faith alone?

I decided to look at this matter to clarify for my own mind – and for anyone else who is interested – what the New Testament teaches about it. Also, I wanted to understand what, if anything, we need to do for our salvation.

Because I was trying to understand this from the human point of view, in other words, to know what I need to do, I did not consider the various passages that refer to predestination, because it seemed to me that predestination is looking at salvation from God’s perspective. If you are interested in verses about predestination, I’ve listed some of them at the bottom of this article.

The two viewpoints, as I understand them, are that, 1) Salvation is purely a matter of faith in Christ; there are no works we can do to earn it, and 2) Salvation is a matter of faith in Christ and doing good things.

As I began studying I discovered points at which disagreement could result purely from misunderstanding. Now, I don’t mind disagreeing with people, but it seems a good first step to make sure we are not simply misunderstanding, and I began to wonder if a lot of the disagreement is, in fact, just misunderstanding. So, let me outline a few points at which confusion may result in disagreement.

1) What Do We Mean by the Concept of “Works” as it Relates to Salvation

If by “works” we mean any action whatsoever that we need to take to have salvation, then, yes, salvation is by faith and works. For example, the Lord tells us to “repent and believe.” If we consider the acts of repenting and believing to be “works,” then, yes, salvation is by faith and works.

However, that is not what I mean by “works.” What I mean is: “Any action on our part that earns us merit towards salvation.” So while repenting of my sins is critical, it doesn’t earn me any merit towards salvation.

2) What Do We Mean by the Term “Faith” as it Relates to Salvation

If by “faith” or “belief” we mean simply acknowledging that God exists, then clearly salvation is not by faith alone. After all, the demons believe in God and they tremble.

But in this discussion when I refer to “faith” I mean a repentant trust in and loving surrender of our lives to God for forgiveness of our sins through the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice. We can intellectually believe everything right about Jesus but not be saved if we do not submit to it. “I believe” includes, “I submit to.”

3) Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

To this question a person who says salvation is by faith-plus-works would say yes, but the person who says salvation is by faith alone may say yes or no, which is confusing, so let me try to clarify.

He may say “no” because he means that salvation is not attained in any way by our works.

Or, he may say “yes,” because salvation will result in works, and if there are no works there has been no salvation.

It is kind of like asking if sunshine is necessary when the sun rises. Well... sunlight does not cause the sun to rise, so you might answer “no,” but on the other hand if there is no sunlight then the sun hasn’t risen, so you might answer “yes.”


So, for this discussion I want to define “works” as “any actions on our part that earn us merit towards salvation,” and I want to define saving “faith” or “belief” as “trust in and loving surrender of our lives to God for forgiveness of our sins through the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice.” If you define these terms differently, you may, of course, reach a different conclusion.

Okay, with definitions out of the way, I now want to defend the assertion that, “Salvation is by faith alone.”

My first point is the thief on the cross next to Jesus. The thief expressed his faith in Jesus and Jesus told him he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:40-42). The thief did nothing but believe. He couldn’t do anything else because he was nailed to a cross.

But, someone might say, the thief would have done good things if he had been let down from the cross. He would have been baptized. He would have been kind to the poor. He would have been honest.

Absolutely! Salvation comes through faith and works come as a result of salvation. The thief believed – we know this by Jesus’ response – and he would have lived a better life if he had been let down from that cross. So, if I am capable of performing good works (unlike the thief on the cross) but do nothing, then I have not been saved. If I say I believe but am not trying to live a good life, then in fact I don’t believe and I need to go back to step one and believe!

I recall a quote I read ages ago that says: A man acts in accordance with what he believes, not with what he merely pretends to believe. That is exactly what I am saying.

Faith precedes action. In fact, this almost must be, for there is no reason to even attempt to remain faithful to God if we don’t believe in Him, much less in the face of trials and temptations. You don’t serve or love someone you do not believe exists.

My suspicion is that in many cases people who say you cannot be saved without works simply mean: “You cannot say you are saved and live an evil life. You must do good!”

To which I would reply, “Amen!”

Below I’ve listed New Testament passages that seem to speak to the issue of salvation, and some passages that simply speak generally to the importance of faith, and I have tried to explain why some difficult passages do not contradict that.

My basic answers to these difficult passages are that ...

  • Works are what happen when we believe in Jesus. When the sun comes up we get sunshine; when we believe in Jesus we do good things. In John 14:23 Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” And in Matthew 12:33-35 He says: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
  • Real believers in Jesus will, despite stumbles, despite even denying Jesus at times (see Peter) remain in their hearts faithful to Jesus. 1 Corinthians 1:8 says God will keep us strong to the end and 1 John 5:5 says that we will overcome the world if we believe in Jesus.
  • In those instances in which it appears a verse is saying that people may lose their salvation, they may in fact only be losing what they think they have. So, in Luke 8:18 Jesus says that “whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.”
  • Some passages are addressed to particular groups of people, and groups may indeed lose their part in the kingdom of God. So, suppose a church begins teaching that Jesus was merely a good man. At some point that church has stopped – as a group – being part of the kingdom of God, though the few members left who still believe in Jesus are still very much saved.
  • Some warnings of punishment refer not to hell but to life on earth. God does promise to discipline His children (Hebrews 12:4-11) for their benefit. Discipline is not hell.
  • Some passages that tell us to work for eternal life can be understood as meaning that we should believe. So, in John 6:27 Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils but food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Then He goes on in John 6:29 to explain what that work is: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”



The Verses


Matthew 1:21
An angel tells Joseph the Child that Mary conceived is from the Holy Spirit, and the Child will will be named Jesus [“Jesus” means, “the Lord saves”] because “He will save his people from their sins.”

Salvation is through Jesus; we need to believe in Him.


Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17
First John, and then Jesus, calls for people to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.

Repentance implies faith. We can’t seriously say we are sorry to a God we do not believe in. Also, repentance is part of saving faith; for we are believing in God to forgive us for our sins. Repentance does not earn us merit; it just says to God that we want to receive it.


Matthew 3:7-10
John the Baptist is unimpressed with the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism; tells them to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance, and not to lean on their ancestry. Trees that don’t bring forth fruit will be thrown into the fire.

John says fruit is in keeping with repentance – fruit is the necessary result of repentance because repenting means saying that we regret being bad and that we want to be good. Therefore, real repentance must lead to positive change in our lives.


Matthew 4:17 – See entry for Matthew 3:2


Matthew 5:3,10
Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and those who have been persecuted for righteousness.
The poor in spirit are those who humble themselves in faith before God. God grants them heaven.


Matthew 5:10
The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted.

Jesus holds forth a comforting promise to those who are persecuted for their righteousness; they have a place in heaven. The meaning of Matthew 5:10 is further revealed by comparing it to Luke 6:23, a parallel passage, which says of the persecuted that: “great is your reward in heaven.” So, when Jesus promises heaven for the persecuted He does not mean that those who are not persecuted are excluded from heaven, but rather that the persecuted will receive a great reward when they get to heaven.


Matthew 5:13
Jesus says God’s people – and it seems relevant that he is speaking primarily to Jews here – are like salt and that if they lose their saltiness, they are only worth being thrown out and trampled by men.

I doubt that being thrown out means being banished to hell because the analogy of being “thrown out” seems less emphatic than that; it seems to be more about being discarded than being punished. Further, if it referred to hell then who are these men doing the trampling? Not devils, surely, as in hell the devils themselves will be suffering, not handing out suffering.

I believe this passage means that if we – in this case particularly the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time, or, more generally, we as individuals or as churches – are not influencing the world for Christ by being faithful to Him, then we are of no use and will be discarded as tools for God’s work in the world. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul expresses this concern and says he disciplines himself so he may not be set aside from service for God.

So, I think this passage describes the earthly consequence of losing our saltiness, our godly savor. This view is supported by a corresponding verse, Luke 14:34, in which the context (Luke 14:26-27) is clearly discipleship – if you loose your saltiness you are no good as a disciple.


Matthew 5:19
Whoever breaks the least of the laws and teaches others to do the same will be least in the kingdom of heaven. Keep the laws and be great.

In the Sermon on the Mount, from which this passage is taken, Jesus is talking about the true, inner law of love and mercy and of the Spirit. We cannot annul this inner law except to our hurt. Also, Jesus does not say such a person would be excluded from the kingdom of God, just that he would be the least in the kingdom.


Matthew 5:20
Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees to enter heaven.

In this passage Jesus advocates not a super-Pharisaical righteousness, but a humble trust; a difference in type from the Pharisees, not in degree. Our righteousness must be a humble and faithful surrender to Christ.


Matthew 5:22
Call your brother “fool” and you risk hell.

I think Jesus’ point is that all sins risk hell, even harsh language, and by using this example he includes everyone as a sinner – for who hasn’t used harsh language? – and shows us our need for His forgiveness.


Matthew 5:29-30, 18:1-9, Mark 9:42-48
Better to tear off an offending body part than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Jesus is saying that we should abandon anything that prevents us from turning to Him. But He is also pointing out that it isn’t some outward body part that prevents us from turning to Him, it is our hearts. So, he points unbelievers to their hearts’ condition, to their need for forgiveness; He is not saying amputation is a way to avoid hell. I believe Jesus was answering people who refuse to repent and try to avoid blame by saying something like, “Oh, well. I can’t help it. I’ve just got sticky fingers.” To this Jesus says, if I may paraphrase, “Really? Is that what is what is holding you back from repentance? Then you better cut off you hand.” It is a shocking way to make them realize both the seriousness of their sin and that it is not their hand, but their inner being, their heart, that told their hand what to do, and so it is their heart that is at fault and needs to repent.

In both Matthew 18:1-7 and Mark 9:42, Jesus first warns the people of dire consequences of sinning – particularly of causing one of his little ones to stumble – then tells them to discard anything (hands, eyes, feet), whatever causes them to sin and thereby prevents them from surrendering their hearts to Jesus.


Matthew 6:14-15
Forgive if you want to be forgiven by God.

If we really believe in Jesus then we will be forgiving. If we aren’t more forgiving than before we professed Jesus, then we were never really saved in the first place and we need to go back and surrender our lives to Jesus.

We see this principle in John 8:39, in which Jesus tells the people that if they were really Abraham’s children then they would do the things Abraham did. Also, in John 8:42, where Jesus says that “if God were your Father, you would love me.” So the point Jesus is making is that if we say we are Abraham’s, or God’s, then we will act in a way that would please Abraham or God. In the same way, here, if we really are God’s, then we will forgive as God wants us to.

Also, this passage, from the Lord’s Prayer, focuses on our daily lives. God disciplines those He loves, so if we are hard on others by refusing to forgive them, then God may well find it necessary to be hard on us by not forgiving us in order to teach us to forgive others. So, even those who are saved may need to be disciplined to build a more consistent pattern of forgiveness into their lives.


Matthew 7:1-2
Don’t judge; you will be judged by the way you judge. As you measure, it will be measured to you.

The comment about Matthew 6:14-15 also applies here, but this passage may also be understood as meaning that other people will judge us in the way we judge them. It may even mean that those who go to heaven will be judged and assigned greater or lesser positions based on how they judged on earth.


Matthew 7:13-14
Enter by the narrow gate and narrow path.

We are to enter by faith in Jesus and walk in His path.

Matthew 7:21-23
There are many who prophesied for Jesus, drove out demons in his name and performed miracles, but who never knew Jesus.

Works do not result in salvation. It isn’t that these people didn’t do enough for Jesus; it is that they never knew Jesus in the first place. Matthew 7:21 says that only those who do the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven will enter the kingdom, and John 6:29 explains what God’s will is: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”


Matthew 10:14-15
Whatever town does not receive the disciples will receive a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrah.
The disciples bring the good news of Jesus and if the people of a town do not receive that good news and believe in Jesus they are lost.


Matthew 10:22
Whoever endures to the end will be saved.

This does not mean that the person who slips will be lost.

This is in the context of Jesus describing both the persecution the disciples are about to endure and also apparently the persecution of the last days. With that in mind I think His meaning becomes clearer if we put the emphasis in this sentence on the word “will.” So, “Whoever endures to the end will be saved.” In other words, In the midst of your pain and the persecution you are enduring, stay strong to the end and don’t doubt for a moment that it will be worth it! It will! You will be saved. Guaranteed!

Two more interpretations are worth mentioning:
- Believers who physically survive the final earthly tribulation – as war, disease and natural disasters make the earth virtually uninhabitable – will not, after enduring such trials for their faith in Jesus, then be left alone in a desolate world, but will be saved from that. Christ will return and that person will be saved – body, soul and spirit.

- Once believers are removed from the earth during the final days – the rapture – those who become believers after that time will live under different rules and must endure to the end or be lost.


Matthew 10:28
Fear God, who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Jesus is preparing to send out his disciples to face trials, and I think He wants to bolster their courage by contrasting the insignificant power of man, who can only kill the body, with the vast power of God, who’s power extends far beyond this life; who can destroy both soul and body in hell. It seems very unlikely, though, that Jesus is threatening the disciples, for just before this verse (Matthew 10:26) is an admonition not to be afraid of people, and just after it is an admonition (Matthew 10:29-31) not to be afraid of God, since God even cares for the sparrows, and “you are worth more than many sparrows.” More likely, if there is a threat involved, it is a threat against those who would oppose the disciples’ message and an encouragement for the disciples to fear for the souls of those who oppose them and so to preach their message well.

So, we should fear God in the sense that we should show a deep respect for God’s power and majesty, but not fear Him in the sense of worrying that He means His children any harm. Fear and fearlessness can coexist. For example, in Luke 1:50 Mary says that God’s mercy is on those who fear Him, and then just a little further on, in Luke 1:74, Zechariah says God rescues us so we can serve him without fear.


Matthew 10:32-33
Jesus says that anyone who acknowledges Him before men He will acknowledge before His Father in heaven, but anyone who disowns Him before men, Jesus will disown that person before His Father in heaven.

Jesus is speaking to the disciples before He sends them out, describing the type of people they will encounter. Those who disown Him here on Earth, in public – “before men,” as He says – He will disown before the Father.

I don’t believe this means that a person who says in a public gathering that he has nothing to do with Jesus – when he really does – is ultimately damned, otherwise Peter would have been damned for his denial of Jesus. Judas, however, also publicly disowned Jesus and he apparently was lost forever. The difference appears to be that Judas fell forever because he had never really trusted Jesus in the first place, while Peter really had trusted, and because of that Peter bounced back and again began living out his faith in public, “before men.” Faith results in works.


Matthew 10:37
If you love family more than Jesus you are not worthy of Him.

This warning comes directly after Jesus says that a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household, and apparently it means that we are not fit for service for Jesus if we surrender our commitment to Him for the sake of peace in our family. Putting family before Jesus, especially a family hostile to Jesus, is essentially putting the world before Jesus.


Matthew 10:38-39
If you don’t take your cross and follow Jesus you are not worthy of Him. Whoever finds his life will lose it; whoever loses his life will find it.

As He does throughout Matthew 10, Jesus is instructing His disciples in how they are to serve Him as they go out among the towns of Israel, and when He says that they are not worthy of Him if they do not take up their cross and follow Him, He means worthy to serve Him. I don’t think he is talking about salvation.

And when He speaks of those who find their lives and those who lose their lives, I believe He means that those who find their deep fulfillment in the things of this life, including their own families, will lose out on the joy of living for Jesus, and, in fact, will eventually lose all the things they love. But those who set the things of earth aside – at least from being at the center of their hearts – to focus on Jesus, will find a new life of joy in following Him.


Matthew 12:33-37
A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. A tree is recognized by its fruit. The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. We will have to give account of every careless word on the day of judgment.

It is our hearts that are judged. What we do outwardly – our words and actions – are evidence of our heart. If we really believed in Jesus, it will show.


Matthew 13:1-5 and Matthew 13:18-23 (also Mark 4:4-9 and Mark 4:14-20)
The seed sown in shallow soil springs up but then withers.

In this parable the seed is the Word of God and the soils are the various types of people who hear the Word.

When it says that the plant that sprang up in people’s lives died, does that mean those represented by the shallow soil lost their salvation?

Well, the seeds which sprouted and then withered in the heat died because “they had no root” (Matthew 13:6,21 and Mark 4:6, 17). In other words, God’s Word had no real connection to their lives. They had a sprout and maybe a few little leaves that could be seen by the world, perhaps some nice acts and happy emotions and kind words, but good as those can be, it was all superficial, there was no root to really connect God’s Word to their lives. So, no, they don’t lose their salvation because then never had it; they never really gave their lives to Jesus.


Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18-20
Jesus gives Peter (and later all the disciples) the keys of the kingdom, to bind and to loose.

In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives Peter the keys and in 18:18-20 Jesus gives the keys to all the disciples. We know this because in Matthew 18:1 we are told that all the disciples asked Jesus a question, and Jesus is responding to them.

It seems very unlikely that binding and loosing means directly assigning people to heaven or expelling them from heaven. Even Jesus said (Luke 4:43) that He “must preach the kingdom of God,” and if He needed to do so to bring people into the kingdom of God, then it is hard to believe that the apostles could simply say, “You’re in,” or “You’re out,” regardless of whether the person believes.

It seems more likely that the binding-and-loosing keys mean that the disciples may declare things – including people – to be either approved or disapproved, and when done in obedience to God, that decision is ratified in heaven.

So, in Acts 15:10 the church council loosens the Old Testament law, and at other points in the New Testament believers are bound (required) to act in certain ways.

In Matthew 18:18-19, binding and loosening is used in the context of church discipline, of embracing people into the church – the earthly kingdom of God – or expelling them from the church. On earth the kingdom of God should be pure, but practically, it is a mix of real and fake, good and bad. However, church leaders hold the keys Jesus gave them because they have the responsibility to keep the kingdom of God as pure as possible by including or, sadly, excluding people, as necessary. And, of course, people being people, sometimes this authority is abused, as in 3 John 1:9-10, which is why I say that to be valid the authority must be exercised “in obedience to God.”

Binding and loosing may also be used in the sense of deciding to which individuals or groups we should proclaim the gospel. So in the Book of Acts we see Peter repeatedly using the keys to announce the good news to the Jews (Acts 2), to the crippled beggar (Acts 3), to the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), and to the Gentiles (Acts 10). But we can also see that it may mean deciding not to proclaim salvation to people who are not ready to appreciate it, as, for example, when Jesus tells his followers not to throw their pearls to swine (Matthew 7:6).


Matthew 18:1-9 – See entry for Matthew 5:29-30


Matthew 18:3
Unless we change and become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

I think becoming like little children is believing. We must acknowledge that, like little children, we don’t know it all and aren’t good enough to enter heaven on our own; we must trust in Jesus.


Matthew 18:18-20 – See entry for Matthew 16:19


Matthew 18:24-35
In this parable of the unmerciful servant, God is described as a king who shows mercy to a servant, then punishes that same servant after he refuses to be merciful to another servant.

If we believe in Jesus, then we have surrendered our lives to Him and His leading. He shows mercy to us and then He wants us to show mercy to others. By accepting His mercy we are saying that we believe that the whole concept of mercy is a godly thing that we also must practice.

The unmerciful servant in this parable recognized that the king was merciful and pretended to believe in mercy until he got off the hook, but then he revealed his true unmerciful self. But the king saw through his deception and punished him severely.


As Jesus told the people (John 8:39), if they were really Abraham’s children then they would do the things Abraham did. In the same way, here, if we really are God’s, then we will forgive as God wants us to. If we don’t show mercy – though of course we may fail at times – then it seems very unlikely that we ever surrendered to Jesus at all.

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