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On the relationship of faith and works

I still confess the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Scriptures teach repeatedly that no man is or can be saved by his works. This matter is central in importance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul teaches that the Gospel is that Christ died for our sins and rose again in accordance with the Scriptures was received. This finished work of Christ is to be received by faith. Paul says as much in the same passage. The Corinthians were saved by the Gospel if when they held “fast to the word I preached to you.” Not holding the Gospel does not mean that the Corinthians lost their salvation, but betrays that they had never believed the gospel (“unless you believed in vain,” v. 2). All the Apostles of Jesus Christ preached this gospel, and all Christians had received it by faith, as Paul says in v 11: “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” In this 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenburg Church door, it is still important for us to proclaim the free gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

If people are saved by grace through faith alone, then where do good works fit in? If salvation is by grace alone, then won’t Christians live lawless lives? This has been a regular charge against the gospel of grace for nearly 2000 years (see Rom 6:15). It is a baseless charge. The Scriptures clearly teach that Christians still do good works. Indeed, our God has “prepared beforehand, that we should walk in” good works (Eph 2:10). The rich grace of Christ does not undermine good works, but gives the true and necessary foundation for these works. God’s grace is so transforming in the life of true believers that good works spring out of them like fruit from trees.

On this connection, I found a recent analogy by Martin Luther in his little book The Freedom of a Christian very helpful. Luther compares the relationship of faith to good works to the prefallen state of our first parents:

In order to make that which we have said more easily understood, we shall explain by analogies. We should think of the works of a Christian who is justified and saved by faith because of the pure and free mercy of God, just as we would think of the works which Adam and Eve did in Paradise, and all their children would have done if they had not sinned.

We read in Gen. 2 [:15] that ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.’ Now Adam was created righteous and upright and without sin by God so that he had no need of being justified and made upright through his tilling and keeping the garden; but, that he might not be idle, the Lord gave him a task to do, to cultivate and protect the garden.

This task would truly have been the freest of works, done only to please God and not to obtain righteousness, which Adam already had in full measure and which would have been the birthright of us all.

The works of a believer are like this. Through his faith he has been restored to Paradise and created anew, has no need of works that he may become or be righteous; but that he may not be idle and provide for and keep his body, he must do such works freely only to please God. Since, however, we are not wholly recreated, and our faith and love are not yet perfect, these are to be increased, not by external works, however, but of themselves.1

We ought never lose our wonder and gratitude to God for the grace he has given to us in Jesus Christ. He has saved us completely by grace, apart from our righteousness or good works. He has made us new, giving us faith to hold Christ to the end. Now we must live by faith, doing what God requires because of our love for God and our earnest desire to bring glory to him.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, trans., W. A. Lambert; rev., Harold J. Grimm, in Three Treatises (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress, Press, 1970), 296. []