Our Christian culture seems to have an aversion to anything works-related. It seems that anytime you bring up the idea that one has to actually do something (“bear fruit” in Jesusese) to show that one is a Christian, the response is less than generous. Shouts of “Legalism!” and “Works-based salvation!” abound and the true calling of the Christian becomes garbled and lost amidst the clarifications and reiterations of “We are saved by faith alone!”
I’m not denying the validity of the whole sola fide thing, but is this really, completely, what Jesus Himself taught? Is this even really what Scripture teaches?
I do agree that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our own actions. This is true. But, from Scripture, it is also true that “people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone” (James). So what do we do? How are we saved by faith alone and not by faith alone? How does this work? I think Jesus helps make this clear.
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31b-32 TNIV)
According to Jesus, we are truly Jesus’ disciples if we adhere to His teachings. This seems like a simple enough idea. But, in light of the tension in Scripture cited in the above paragraphs, it seems to put the burden of proof onto the idea that we are saved by what we do. But is this really what Jesus, and for that matter the rest of Scripture, is saying?
I think it is something far more complex than that. It is not an either/or thing, but rather a both/and thing. We are saved both by faith alone and by our deeds.
Jesus says, first,
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.
A true disciple looks like his teacher. This is why Jesus said that His followers would do even greater works than He did one He had ascended. He was saying that people would know who His followers were by what they did. It is not their works that save them, but, rather, their works identify the inward reality. They are His followers and therefore do as He does. But Jesus goes deeper.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Mere agreement with the Teacher doesn’t make us His follower. Rather, we are made His follower when we act like He does. And, in acting as He does, and when we do those works that He did, we realize that He was who He said that He was. At this time, we know the truth, and we are free to do as He did knowing that He is God.
So here is how the whole salvation thing works:
We do as Jesus did and therefore show that we are His followers. As we do as He did, we come to realize that He really was worth following. We see Him in His glorified state, as God, and we take His yoke upon ourselves. We know the truth, and that truth sets us free to do as Jesus did and therefore show that we are His followers. As we do as He did, we come to realize that He really was worth following…etc., etc.
Salvation is more than a one-time event. It is a way of life. This is why I say, over and over again, that Jesus came to do more than just die on the cross for our sins. He also came to show us how to live. He is the way [we are to live], the truth [that sets us free], and the perfect life that we always dreamed of.