Controversy has raged at many periods in Christianity about how one is “saved”, that is, accepted by God, sure of eternal life on the day of reckoning. Some have said that faith alone can save. Others have put more stress on good works. Fortunately, this controversy is not so keen today, perhaps in part because of a growing consensus about the relation of good works to faith.
It would seem quite clear that the starting point is faith, faith in God, belief in His Son. Among Christ’s last words were these: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved…”(Mark16:16). Throughout His ministry on earth, He repeated the same thought dozens of times with variations. Clearly, if Christ’s words mean anything at all, they mean that salvation begins with faith.
Saint Paul and the other Apostles understood this and reinforced the theme again and again in their Epistles. Saint Paul spoke of “justification by faith” or “sanctification by faith” at least five times, meaning that by faith we are accounted righteous by God. We recall that when the rich young man asked how he could gain eternal life, the Lord said to him, in effect, that he should cast away all earthly idols and believe and follow him.
Now, faith in Christ is not a pro forma thing. It is not signing a pledge on the dotted line and filing it away as evidence. It is not membership in a Christian Church which one attends every Sunday. It is not even an intellectual conviction. It is rather a unified commitment of mind, heart and will to God, a commitment which permeates and changes our lives, our attitudes and our actions. God accepts that kind of commitment and accounts us righteous for it. And that accounting, and the grace which God thereby bestows on us, is the beginning of salvation.
Where then do good works come in? Saint James has given us the shortest and most concise answer: “Even so, faith, if it hath no good works, is dead…” Faith has no reality, is meaningless, unless it so permeates our lives that it results in good works, that is, deeds and actions arising out of righteous motives out of faith in the love of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. The moral here is the old and simple one that actions speak louder than words. No matter how much we may profess our faith and say the Creeds, it is a dead letter unless it works through us in a regenerative way and shines forth in our lives.
Theologians may develop this theme at endless and confusing length. But it is really not so tangled and difficult. “Lord, I believe” comes first. If we really believe and demonstrate it by the fruits of faith (good works), God accepts this faith, imperfect as it may be, and accounts it to us for righteousness, sending us the gift of grace to strengthen our faith, to increase our good works, and finally to “save” us from sin and death and gain for us eternal life.