How Do Faith, Grace, and Works Relate to Each Other?
How saving faith is a fruitful faith
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?"
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
And the Protestant Reformation was on.
The reformation was a rediscovery that reconciliation with God is not something that we achieve through human works but receive through saving faith.
One of the chief slogans of the protestant Reformation was the Latin phrase sola fide, which means faith alone. This emphasis on salvation being by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was a response to what the church reformers perceived to be an error in the Roman Catholic church, which held to a formula that faith in Jesus’s works + our works = salvation.
The Roman church would later make it official at the Council of Trent, where sola fide was declared anathema and condemned as heretical.
In fact, the rediscovery of grace became one of the most controversial moments in human history. Nevertheless, the protestants were adamant that the Bible taught sinners are justified not by our religious works or religious good deeds, but only by the works — the obedience and sacrifice — of Jesus for us. Thus, the Reformer’s formula, in contrast to Rome’s, was “faith = salvation → works.”
How do faith, grace, and works relate to each other?
The question is an important one. Getting this straight is not just a matter of theological importance, but of practical importance; not just for becoming a Christian, but for living as a Christian.
Am I really saved by grace alone through faith alone? Or is there something I must do to secure my good standing with God as a forgiven, accepted, and loved son or daughter? And if I am saved by grace alone, then what role do works play in the Christian life? If they don’t save me or sustain me, then why should I be at all concerned with whether there is any practical change in my life because of being a disciple of Jesus?
“What about works?” This is the question asked in James 2:14,
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
James expects a negative answer. “No, faith that does not produce any signs of good fruit in my life is not saving faith.” If a fruit tree doesn’t produce any fruit, the logical conclusion is that the tree is dead.
The same is true with fruitless faith.
Concerning faith, it may be helpful to distinguish between the faith of assent and the faith of trust.
To assent to something is to affirm something to be true intellectually. To trust is to affirm something to be true existentially, or personally.
You may have heard the story about Blondin the Great, the famous high-wire walker who performed all over the world from the 1850s to the 1890s. One of his favorite walks was crossing Niagara Falls, which he performed over three hundred times (never with a safety net)—the first attempt drew 25,000 spectators. He would carry all sorts of objects across and back, even packing a stove on his back and cooking an omelet on the rope. On one occasion, he pushed a wheelbarrow across and back. Then he asked the crowd if they believed he could carry a man in the wheelbarrow across and back. “Yes, of course!” the crowd answered in enthusiastic agreement.
“Okay, then who will be the first to get in?”
Those who claimed to believe but wouldn’t get in had a faith of assent. But he who would get in the wheelbarrow is the one who truly had the faith of trust.
The same principle is true spiritually.
We can believe that Jesus lived, died, and even rose from the dead. But until I personally receive and fully rest upon the implications of that life, death, and resurrection, my faith is mere assent rather than genuine trust.
In places like the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, Jesus implies that saving faith is a fruitful faith.
While James uses the term “works,” the concepts are the same, whether we call the produce of faith works, deeds, or fruit.
Now, if faith is the root of our lives, works or deeds are the fruit. But good fruit is dependent on the roots being planted in good soil — the soil of the gospel. To describe this dynamic, Jesus uses the image of a branch abiding in a living vine. When the branch abides in the vine, it produces fruit. When the branch doesn’t abide in the Vine, there is no fruit, revealing evidence of a disconnect.
This is the problem James exposes in verses 15-17. We’ll pick up there in the next lesson.
Family Discussion Questions
If salvation is by grace alone, what is the purpose or role of works in the Christian life?
How does the story of Blondin help you understand the difference between a faith of assent and a faith of trust?
Why is saving faith a fruitful faith?
Why is it important to understand the dynamic between faith, grace, and works in the Christian faith, both in terms of becoming a Christian and living as a Christian?
A Suggested Prayer
Just as the reformers rediscovered grace, may we, too, rediscover the wonder of your grace in our lives. Help us savor the sweetness of being saved by your grace alone, and long to live our lives in a way that honors you as the giver of life and producer of fruit. Make our roots of faith run deep in the gospel, and as we abide in Jesus, produce good fruit in and through us–for your glory as our Justifier and Sanctifier.
For we pray in Jesus' name, Amen.