Scripture is clear over and over again that salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus alone, and not by works (John 3:16-17, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 10:9-10, among others). With this in mind, the question arises as to what role works play in the Christian life. The book of James is probably the most instructive to this question.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
If we truly believe in Jesus, then our actions will reflect that belief. Someone who has dead faith is most likely someone who in reality does not have any faith at all. In James 2:24 he goes a step further and writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not faith alone.” However, the primary way that James uses the greek word for “justify” (dikaioo) throughout the book of James is by emphasizing the way in which works demonstrate someone has been justified (saved), not that our works themselves save us.
In other words, our salvation ultimately comes from grace through faith alone, and it is through our works that we demonstrate that we have been saved. Jesus states in Matthew 7:16 that it is by their fruit that we will recognize believers.
As we see in Luke 23:39-43, Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him “today, you will be with me in paradise.” As the thief on the cross was near death, he didn’t have the time or ability to do any good works, yet Jesus told the thief that he would see him in heaven. This is because it was his faith that saved him.
This means that we must make it personal. What does your fruit (actions) say about you? Since we all fall short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23), we all areas where are lives do not fully line up to how Christ has called us to live. Thankfully, forgiveness and salvation do not come from anything we can do, but as free gift from God.
So what role does works play in a Christians life? They come as a response to God’s undeserved grace and love to us. Even when we do not want to follow Jesus in a particular moment or area in our life, we do so not because we will earn something from God, but out of response for what he has already done for us. Good works can affirm that a believer in Jesus is actually a believer in Jesus, but they can’t earn anybody anything from God.
We are saved through faith, and our life should be a reflection of our faith.