Are we saved by faith or by works?
This subject is one of the many controversial subjects that plague the church today and has done so for many centuries. There are those religions (Jehovah Witnesses for example) that will quote a verse in the book of James;
"But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?" James 2:20
If you read this verse to mean that a person needs to DO good works in order to be justified (as it often is read this way), then you are not considering the context of the verse correctly. If you do that, then yes, the verse would in fact say that one needs to do 'proven' works in order for his faith to be a saving faith. To complicate matters even more, the ones (such as myself) who will tell you that we are saved by faith alone agree that the above statement " proven works in order for his faith to be a saving faith" is true, however as we will see this happens in another way that is not by our own doings.
Rather than just considering the one verse (verse 20), consider all the verses surrounding it, starting in verse 14 and going to verse 26 in this book of James;
"14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made
perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." James 2:14-26 (emphasis added)
If you read these verses carefully, you will see that it saying that the 'works' is something that occurs as a result of having true faith. Not the other way around. To show this look at verse 23 were it says because Abraham believed and it was accounted to him for righteousness, not because of what he was about to do. Abraham did not say, I'll do this good work and kill my only son so I can 'get in good' with God. Abraham did not want to give up his only son. He loved his son more than anything, but because he believed God (his faith) is what 'counted him for righteousness'. How could he do this 'work' of sacrificing his only son without having faith? This work he was about to do was a result of Abraham's faith.
Notice also in verse 22 it says Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? Faith and the good works that it produces do work together. If someone says "I have faith" but continues to live a life that is an abomination to God, what good is it? Also if a person shows what appears to have good works, but in the next breath denouces any faith in God, what good is that? Verse 14 asks what does it profit a man if he has faith without works? This verse is stating that a 'professed' faith that is not genuine will show itself without works.
Once we come to faith we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the good works come becasue of it. This is what is meant when Jesus tells us about false profits and that "you will know them by their fruits" (Mathew 7:14-15)
This argument for being justified by faith or works of the law has been an issue since the beginning. Take a look at Paul's writings to the church of Galatia, in the book of Galations where he asks about receiving of the Holy Spirit (receiving faith);
"This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?" Gal. 3: 2-3
Paul continues to affirm that it is by faith we are justified. He even quotes the verse above (James 2:23) when it speaks about Abraham;
“Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the
works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Gal. 2:5-6
In the book of Romans, this subject of Abraham is brought up again as is the affirmation of justification by faith;
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. Rom 4:2-4
So as we can see, it is by faith alone (true faith) that we are saved by the gift of grace from God. If it were by the works of sinful man, then our prideful attitude of "hey look at what I did" would become evident which would lead to ones 'bragging rights';
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." Eph. 2:8-9 (emphasis added)
In the book of John, The disciples asked Jesus about 'works' and what works were acceptable to God;
Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” John 6: 28-29
We are not saved just by saying "yes, I have faith". It is a saving faith only if it is burned into the heart. A faith that produces the 'works' that is being described in these verses in James . This is what is meant in verse 18 above when it says; "....Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." How is the faith shown by my works? It is evident to other people by one who has true saving faith. This is the answer to the question posed in verse 14 where James asks; What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? In other words, what does it profit a man if he 'says' he has faith yet his life shows otherwise. An example of this is a person who says, "yes I go to church, I believe in God," yet their lives are full of things such as sexual immorality, lawlessness or other abominable sins. Are they 'saved' just because they say they 'believe'? No, this is a lie. True faith comes from a regenative heart which produces good works'. Not by the things we do for the purposes of trying to prove our faith to others. This true faith, this regenative heart can only come by intercession from Jesus Christ. It is a gift of grace from God alone.