Yesterday at a home school co-op class my 13-year-old daughter, Leilani, overheard some kids talking about faith and works. They were telling someone that there was no way to do enough works to go to heaven. Going to heaven, they said, was based on faith in Jesus only.
My daughter was puzzled, and she came to me and asked two things.
- Doesn’t this mean that a person can live however they want and go to heaven?
- Does this mean that a person like Gandhi, who did so much good, is going to hell?
I will leave the Gandhi discussion for a different blog. I just want to pass on the conversation we had about “faith only.”
Me: Your friends probably believe that works are necessary, but that they are produced by faith, so only faith is necessary.
Leilani: That doesn’t make any sense. Doesn’t that mean that works are still necessary? After all, a person without works won’t be saved, and a person with works will be saved. So works are still necessary.
Me: I am not going to try to defend their doctrine. I tried to do that with your grandmother (my mom) thirty years ago, and I ended up feeling like an idiot at the end of the conversation. The conversation went like this.
Me (thirty years ago): I’ve learned that we are saved by faith alone, mom.
Grandma/Mom: So you’re telling me that a person can do whatever they want and still go to heaven because they have faith?
Me (thirty years ago): No, of course not. Faith will produce good works. So if you don’t have works, you don’t have faith.
Grandma/Mom: So good works are necessary.
Me (thirty years ago): No, we’re saved by faith only.
Grandma/Mom: So a person can do whatever they want and still go to heaven because they have faith?
Me (yesteday to my daughter): That conversation with grandma went on in circles, and I felt more and more like an idiot. I had to stick to “faith alone,” though, because that’s what we believed. I am not going to repeat the conversation and feel like an idiot again.
Leilani: Does the Bible really say we go to heaven if we just believe? It doesn’t make sense to me.
Me: Here, read this. (I handed her my phone with its Bible app opened to James 2:14.) Read verses 14 through 26.
Leilani: Here’s the answer! It says it right here in verse 17! “Faith without works is dead.” Boom! Faith alone doesn’t work! What do they say about this verse?
Me: Don’t stop there. Jump down to verse 24.
Leilani: I’m using this verse from now on! We’re “justified by works and not by faith alone.” What do they say about this?
Me: Are you ready?
Me: They say that we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.
Leilani: (confused look on her face) What?
Me: James was just saying we’re not saved by faith that IS alone, but we are saved by faith alone.
Leilani: (Begins laughing loudly, then continues in a condescending tone.) Dad, adding a verb does not change the meaning of this verse.
Me: What do you mean?
Leilani: (laughing again) Faith that is alone and faith alone are the same thing.
Me: (Can’t think of anything to say because I agree, so I laugh, too.) Martin Luther found a better way to get past James 2:24.
Leilani: What did he say?
Me: He said James’ letter is an epistle of straw that has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.
I suppose a lot of Protestants would want me to find a way to explain to my daughter that we are saved by faith alone, but that faith will always produce works. The problem is that Protestants are the only Christian religion in history to believe such a thing, so I’m not going to do that.
Leilani understands that faith obtains forgiveness of sins for us (Acts 10:43), but she also understands that if we live according to the flesh we will die spiritually (Rom. 8:12), that we will reap corruption rather than eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9), and that we will not receive any inheritance in the kingdom of God and his King (Eph. 5:5).
Thus, as James says, if we are talking about “going to heaven” (which isn’t correct terminology, either), we are justified by works and not by faith only.
Like Paul says, if we are talking about being born again only, then we are justified by faith apart from works. Of course, even Paul, when talking about “going to heaven” (correct terminology, “inheriting the kingdom”), says we need to patiently continue to do good (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:8-9).
Setting Aside My Concerns
While this is all true, here’s the word God has for me (or at least what I think God has for me) this week:
You are fond of contention and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation. In the Scriptures you will never find righteous men being rejected by those who are holy. The righteous were rejected, but only by the unholy and wicked. (Clement of Rome. c. AD 95. Paraphrased)
I could argue that this subject does pertain to salvation, but that’s not really true. What pertains to salvation is whether or not you do good works. Just because a person chooses an unbiblcal method of expressing our requirement to do good works doesn’t mean that person is not doing good works. It is the good works that matter, not the way we express the need for good works. One can contradict both the Bible and church history and say, “We go to heaven by faith alone,” but as long as that person is actually doing the good works that are required to inherit the kingdom of God—and teaching others to do the same—they will inherit the kingdom of God.
“Faith, if it does not have works, is dead because it is alone. … Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”—James, brother of Jesus