Salvation by Faith or Works? Which is it Paul?

Title: Salvation by Faith or Works? Which is it Paul?

Text: Romans 2:6-10, 13

Time: July 13th, 2006

The Indians in early America used to say whenever a white man would lie to them, “He speaks with forked tongue.” Today, when somebody says contradictory things we say, “He’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth,” meaning that he’s saying one thing to one person, then saying another thing to another person. Now when we read through the Book of Romans, it appears that in the Chapter Two Paul is doing just that, speaking out of both sides of his mouth, or speaking with forked tongue, because he says in the first two chapters that we are saved by faith — that’s his main message, his main gospel — but then in other places it seems like he’s saying we are saved by works. How can this be? For example, in Romans 1:17, he teaches salvation by faith, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Or as the Good News Bible puts it, “For the Gospel reveals how God puts men right with himself; it is through faith, from beginning to end. As the scripture says, ‘He who is put right with God through faith shall live.” Now that’s pretty clear: salvation by faith. But then Paul says some other things that seem to contradict it. For example, in Romans 2: 6-10, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” And then finally, Paul says in Romans 2:13, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Now what Paul says in these two passages seems to contradict what Paul said in Romans 1:17. Could Paul be speaking with forked tongue? Could Paul be talking out of both sides of his mouth? I mean, “Come on Paul, which is it?” Ours souls are hanging in the balance. This is just about the biggest issue in the whole gospel: are we saved by faith or by works? Is Paul contradicting himself? Is Paul confused and therefore going around in circles? Is Paul acting like Tevia in the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” who had a bad habit of debating a person by saying, “On the one hand, on the other hand, on the one hand, on the other hand?” Can’t Paul make up his mind? Yes, Paul has made up his mind which one it is. He isn’t contradicting himself. It isn’t confusing and there is no conflict when we fully understand what Paul is saying. So let me take a few minutes and explain how Paul teaches that we are saved by faith, not works. Our status before God doesn’t depend on our good works, it depends on our faith in Christ and His atoning work on the cross. But Paul teaches us some very important things about both faith and works. Let me mention three things.

First, we are saved by faith. Romans 1:17, “For the Gospel reveals how God puts men right with himself; it is through faith, from beginning to end. As the scripture says, ‘He who is put right with God through faith shall live.” We haven’t gotten to chapter three of the Book of Romans; that’s coming up pretty soon. But that whole chapter explains salvation by faith in detail. But Romans 1:17 explains it pretty clear as well. God puts men and women right with himself through faith, from start to finish by faith. It isn’t as though we try as hard as we can through our own best efforts and then God takes us the rest of the way by faith. That’s what the Mormon cult teaches, that you have to obey the law of God as well as you can, and then if God thinks you are really trying hard enough He’ll save you the rest of the way by your faith. Of course, if you aren’t trying hard enough on your own, the Mormon’s teach, God may not save because you aren’t trying hard enough. So salvation for Mormon’s depends on their works of obedience to the law of God. Salvation by works. But that’s not what the Gospel teaches, and not what Paul teaches in Romans: “For the Gospel reveals how God puts men right with himself; it is through faith, from beginning to end.” Now some religions teach that people are saved by their works. That’s what Muslims teach in one way or another. They must submit to the law of Allah. If they don’t obey Allah they won’t be saved to Paradise. The Orthodox Jews also teach salvation by works. If you were to go to Jerusalem, in Israel, today, and ask a rabbi how one can be saved, he would probably explain how one has to obey the law or Torah of God. But Paul explains salvation by faith. In the New Living Translation of the Bible it says, “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.’” Like I said before, we’ll get into more of how Paul explains salvation by faith in the next chapter, three. But there is no way that Paul would teach salvation by faith so strongly and then just contradict himself at the same time. The whole point of chapter one and two is to prove that everybody has sinned in the sight of God. Nobody is righteous in God’s sight, certainly not the Gentile sinners, but neither the Jewish sinners, even though they try harder to be good. Trying hard not to sin, even though that is better, can lead to pride, which in the end is worse than not trying hard at all. Pride is a worse sin than most outward acts of sin. Pride is a core, spiritual sin that many of the Jews, especially the Pharisees, were guilty of committing. They were holier in outward conduct than the Gentile sinners, but they were proud of it and considered themselves righteous by their external piety. But in chapter two, Paul explains that God looks at the heart primarily not the external acts. So really, the sin of spiritual pride is worse than the external sinful acts of the Gentiles. At least the Gentiles could be seen as sinners, but the secret and hypocritical sinning Pharisees could fool people and even themselves into thinking they were righteous, when all along they too were sinners just like everybody else. That’s why everybody needs to be saved by faith because by works nobody is saved. Which brings up point two.

Second, nobody can be saved by good works. But then why does it seem that Paul is explaining how to be saved by good works in Romans 2:6-10, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” If we can’t be saved by our good works, why does Paul explain how to be saved by them? Answer: because if you could be saved by good works, you’d have to do them perfectly. If you could be saved by obedience to the law, you’d have to obey the law perfectly. Of course, nobody does, and therefore nobody can be saved through works of the law. Now here’s a trick question: who was the one person who actually was saved by good works? This person was actually saved by fulfilling the law perfectly, who was that? Answer: Jesus. Remember when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan? What did the voice of God the Father say from heaven? “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is the only person who God the Father could ever say He was fully pleased, because Jesus is the only person who ever lived a sinless life. He obeyed and fulfilled the law of God perfectly, and thus earned salvation, His own and ours too. But aside from Jesus, nobody will be saved through obedience and good works. That’s Paul’s point. “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” Yes, but for us and everyone, it won’t be good, because what we’ve done is sinned. What we’ve done was failed at keeping the whole law from our hearts, from our minds, from our bodies, from our words, we’ve failed to keep the commands, laws and God’s will. That’s just the point. Yes, for those who obey God’s will, they’ll receive eternal life, they’ll be saved. But in fact, nobody can, nobody does. But for the record, Paul is saying, “If you could do right, you could be saved.” And then of course, if you don’t fully obey God’s law, you can’t be saved either. So you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, to put it bluntly. If you try to obey the law of God, you’ll fail, so you won’t be saved that way. Of course, if you don’t try to obey God’s law, you won’t be saved. The Gentiles didn’t try to obey God’s laws, so they aren’t saved. The Jews tried to obey God’s law, at least in its outward form, but they failed, so they aren’t saved either. Nobody is saved, no matter what they do, or don’t do. Paul says in Romans 2:13, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Again, that’s the problem: nobody does in fact obey the law of God, so nobody in fact will be declared righteous by God for doing so, except of course Jesus. So there is no contradiction in Paul teaching salvation by faith and then explaining salvation by works. There is only one real option available for everyone: salvation by faith. Salvation by works is a theoretical possibility, so Paul mentions it, but it is in reality impossible. So Paul is perfectly consistent in his teachings, and there is no confusion. But there is another sense in which Paul may be talking about that teaches not salvation by works, but salvation with works. That’s the third point.

Third, we are saved by faith with works. We are not saved by works, that’s impossible, but we should be saved with works, that is, faith that produces good works in our life naturally. This is what Jesus means when he says you will know a tree by its fruit. If a person is truly saved by faith, truly saved, they will produce good works in their life, not good works that save, good works that express or prove salvation. This is where a lot of Christians today, especially Protestants, especially people who talk about salvation by faith, miss something important. If my faith doesn’t produce good works in my life, I don’t have saving faith. Some people have so emphasized salvation by faith that they forget to check the results of salvation, that is, they don’t check the fruit on the tree. If a person is claiming to be saved by faith, they should be producing good works, not perfect works, but good works as a result. If they aren’t, and there are a lot of so-called saved people who aren’t, then they probably aren’t really saved. This is the whole point of the second chapter of the Book of James, that famous passage where James says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” For some people this is a big controversy. James is contradicting Paul. No he isn’t. He’s just saying, if your life doesn’t have good works, then you don’t have saving faith, period. Why does he have to say that? Because there were people back then, just as there are today, who go around claiming to have saving faith, but show no evidences of any change of heart, show no evidence of any good works, in fact, live lives of sin and unrighteousness, all the while claiming that they are saved by faith. James says, “No, show me your saving faith by your good works.” And he’s right. But now what does Paul say about good works? He says the same thing. He mentions good works in Romans 2 not to point people to them for salvation, but first to show how impossible it is to be saved by them, but second, to show that once a person is saved, these are the kind of works that should follow their salvation. “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life,” Romans 2:7. We aren’t saved by doing these things, but these things should characterize our life after we are saved by faith. If we don’t find ourselves persisting in doing good, seeking God’s glory, seeking to honor God, and living with eternity in our hearts, we should question whether we have truly been saved. Paul says elsewhere, “Examine yourselves to see if you are of the faith,” 2 Corinthians 13:5. We need to examine our own fruit. Am I bearing righteous fruit, now that I’m saved? If not, I need to get saved and stop fooling myself with empty faith. Paul also says, “Glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good,” Romans 2:10. Salvation by faith should produce these very things in our life so that we are saved with these things not by them. We are saved by faith, but that faith should produce these things in our life.

I hope you understand now that the Apostle Paul is not teaching both salvation by faith and salvation by works. He is teaching salvation by faith. There are other parts of the Bible that may also seem to contradict the teaching of salvation by faith, but in reality they don’t contradict it, they only teach salvation from another angle. I mentioned James before. Lots of people think that James teaches against Paul; he doesn’t. But James is teaching about salvation from another angle; he’s teaching about it coming from what it produces: good works. And Paul is teaching about salvation by its entrance: faith. The church today suffers a lot of confusion over this topic of salvation coming from two errors. One, there are still a lot of churches that don’t teach salvation by faith. I know because I was raised in a main-line Protestant church that didn’t teach salvation by faith. It taught that if you were good you could go to heaven. But that’s not what Paul teaches, in fact, just the opposite. It’s salvation by good works, yet many churches still teach salvation by works. Probably many churches in this city of Jamestown today still teach salvation by works. But there is another error that’s just as bad, or even worse, because the people who teach this error think they’ve correct the first error of salvation by works. Two, there are a lot of Protestant church today that teach a kind of faith that doesn’t produce good works. In other words, they want to make sure they don’t teach salvation by works, they know that’s wrong, so they don’t want to teach that. But in making sure they don’t teach salvation by works, they teach a wrong kind of faith: salvation without works. They teach that a person is saved by faith, and even faith that doesn’t produce any change in the heart or good works in life. They want to make sure that they are not teaching that our works save us, but they go so far to the extreme in the opposite direction that they actually teach a distorted faith that almost says good works aren’t even important. But as the New Testament teaches, we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is not alone – it produces good works. How do you know if you have true, saving faith? Check to see if your heart has been changed, and check to see if you are starting to do good works. If a person is truly saved by faith, they will start acting different. They will start producing the fruit of repentance and faith. Just like John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, ” Mark 3:8. In other words, you claim to repent? Prove it. Show me your new life, your good works that come from your claim. And we should say the same to people today who claim salvation by faith yet who lack any visible evidence of salvation: “Show us the fruit of your repentance and faith. Give proof of your profession of faith.”

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