The controversy of justification by faith or by works has been a hard fought battle for hundreds of years. “The Universalist teaches man is saved by grace only; the Calvinist teaches man is saved by faith only and the Catholic teaches man is saved by works. The Bible teaches man is saved by God's grace with man appropriating that grace by his faith in working or obeying what the grace of God teaches him to do to be saved” (“Salvation by Grace, Faith and Works”, O’Neal, Truth Magazine XIX: 10, January 16, 1975, pp. 150-152). God’s purpose for mankind is to be saved by His grace through the working of faith. When we reject this plain teaching, we engulf ourselves in the mire of forcing our own ideas on Bible verses that teach the exact opposite. Admittedly, there are a great deal of verses that say we are saved by faith – there are, in fact, more than 100 such scriptures. They are all true, for there is nothing that can lead to our salvation more than faith. Faith saves us because it motivates us to do what needs to be done to please God. Faith pervades all aspects of the Christian life, permeating his actions, stirring a sense of awe and wonder in the soul, teaching him to love and learn the Good News of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But it is a shame to see so many good intentioned people take verses on faith as our means of salvation and forcing them to mean “faith only” as our means of salvation. Even Martin Luther, in his personal translation of the New Testament, decided (without any evidence in the Greek text to support him) to add the word “only” to Romans 3:28, so that the text reads, “A man is justified by faith only apart from works.” The person who argues “faith only” has a lot of explaining to do, for there are more scriptures that teach the Christian about righteous living, moral decisiveness, rejection of impurity, justification by good works, and other things relating to works than there are about faith. After all, the “faith only” crowd ignores that there is at least one thing that is required of us even more than faith. “And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountain, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). “But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). So does not love alone save us? Or does not saving faith require love and hope? Based on verses like John 13:34-35, it makes just as much sense to say that we are saved by love only, not faith only or baptism only. What is so marvelous about the Gospel, however, is that it teaches so plainly that love, faith, and works all work together for our salvation, not independently or individually. “If you love me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). “And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. And the ones who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides In us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:23-24). Here, there is absolutely no distinction made between the necessity of faith, love, and works. Obedience to the commandments of God allow us to abide in Him. How can we abide in Christ if we have faith only, exclusive of our works?
“And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (Luke 7:29-30). These Pharisees and lawyers rejected the baptism of John, even though it was required of them by God. In like manner, some are rejecting the baptism taught by Christ in such passages as Mark 16:16 and Matthew 28:18-20, claiming that baptism is excluded from the true message that brings one to salvation. Somehow, they have taken the baptism out of the Gospel. Yet this makes no sense when we consider a few things. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).
· But baptism is a part of the Gospel.
· It is, in fact, a required part of the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20). For those who believe, according to Paul in Romans, the Gospel is available, including every part of it.
· Taken as a whole, the Gospel teaches us to believe wholeheartedly in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:1-4);
· To repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38);
· As a commandment (Acts 10:48);
· For the forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16);
· To come into contact with the saving blood of Christ (Romans 6:2-5).
· Rather than faith being the only thing that saves, obedience is seen as the thing that leads to saving righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).
The Nature of Faith
One of things that we face in dealing with “faith only” proponents is the difference in definitions of the word “faith.” Our very use of the word becomes a matter of contention. So what is faith? What is required of a saving faith? John 6:47 tells us that “he who believes has eternal life.” Acts 15:9 teaches, “He made no distinction between us and them cleansing their hearts by faith.” It is argued from verses like this, as well as dozens of others, that salvation happens at the moment of belief. But is there more to saving faith than just believing? There are others who believed, but were not saved. In John 12:42-43 some of the rulers believed in Christ but were unwilling to confess him before their peers. Now, no matter what one might say about their quality of belief, they did believe. If faith only saves us, then their faith should have been enough, and the grace of God strong enough to cover their lack of devotion. But what does Jesus say about those who are unwilling to confess Him before men? “Everyone therefore who shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). But what about Peter, you might ask? Even he denied Christ at one point in a moment of weakness. Well, that is true, and had he died at that moment our previous verse would lead us to believe that he would have been condemned. There were other times when Peter had moments of weakness, and Paul clearly states that the apostle was condemned before repentance (Galatians 2:11).
There are demons who believe in Christ, also, and who are willing to confess His power (James 2:19). Their faith does not seem to help them. One may object, however, by saying that their faith was just “mental assent” and that they did not demonstrate their faith with obedience. So wait! Obedience is necessary for salvation too. But this is where the “faith only” people sorely contradict themselves. Is it belief only or is it something more? The demons believed but did not obey and are thus condemned, so why does that not apply to humans as well? Either it is faith only or it is faith and works together that save. Make up your minds!
What is even more interesting in our discussion of the definition of saving faith is to take into account he fact that faith is a work itself. “Those who teach that men are not saved by any kind of works involve themselves in great difficulty. While objecting that man is saved by any kind of work, they teach that man is saved by ‘faith only.’ And the Bible teaches that faith is a work. ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent’ (John 6:29). Faith is a work of God; they teach man is saved by ‘faith only’ without any kind of works, so they deny man is saved by that by which they say he is saved” (O’Neal, p. 152).
“Of Him all the prophets beat witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). Here it is argued that Cornelius was obviously saved prior to his water baptism in Acts 10:47, because the salvation seems to be instantaneous to some people. But is this the “be all, end all” of verses on forgiveness? Is this all the Bible says about receiving forgiveness of sins? The expression is also connected with baptism (Acts 2:38, 22:16) and repentance (Acts 2:38). Seeing that other verses talk about receiving forgiveness of sins, we need to conclude that “believing” in Acts 10:43 includes believing all that Jesus taught concerning salvation (Mark 16:16). The Bible does not contradict itself, and when it says that two or three supposedly different things lead to the same result, we need to assume they are connected. True and honest faith will look at every verse on a subject and seek to find a connection between them, not isolate them and ignore the ones that seem contradictory to a person’s preconceived ideas. It makes about as much sense to say that belief alone causes forgiveness of sins as it does to say that righteous words alone cause our justification before God (Matthew 12:37).
Acts 10:44 is the next verse that people will go to justify salvation by faith alone. Here it is argued that Cornelius was saved prior to baptism because the Holy Spirit came upon him. But this misses the point:
· The Holy Spirit did not come upon Cornelius to save him, because he was ready to believe the message that Peter would preach to him (Acts 10:33). He did not need more convincing.
· It was, instead, Peter and the other Jewish Christians who needed to be convinced that it was acceptable in God’s eyes to baptize Gentiles. The Holy Spirit was not doing this for Cornelius’ sake, but for the sake of Jews who would have misgiving about Gentile Christians. God wants to show that if Gentiles are deserving of the Holy Spirit, then how much more should they be welcomed into salvation and fellowship with Jewish Christians!
· “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47). God is waving a big red flag in front of the Jewish Christian’s faces, letting them know that it is okay for Gentiles to be baptized.
· Are the “gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38 and the Holy Spirit coming upon Cornelius the same thing? Some try to link them together, showing that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the mark of a saved person. But they are not the same thing. The gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 is salvation and forgiveness of sins, and was not necessarily miraculous. The miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit does not always mean that God is pleased with the person. Surely, the power of God was seen in Balaam in Numbers 22-24, but this man was despicable to God. The power of the Holy Spirit came upon Samson (Judges 13-15), yet he hardly lived an exemplary life. God may choose to use a person a teaching tool for somebody else. But just because God grants miraculous powers to somebody does not mean that person is saved.
· “And he commanded them to be baptized…” (Acts 10:48). Is baptism necessary for salvation? Let us consider a few things very clearly. First, baptism is a command (10:48), and no amount of fancy argumentation can remove this truth. If we fail to keep God’s commandments, He does not know us. “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps the word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected” (1 John 2:3-6). So, if God commanded baptism, and we cannot be saved if we fail to keep His commandments, then baptism is essential for salvation. Anybody who believes that “faith alone” saves is the “liar” of this section of scripture.
Acts 15:6-11 is used in an attempt to prove that baptism is not essential to salvation, but please note what the scripture is actually saying. “The verse is teaching that Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way. Now what did Jews and Gentiles both have to do to be saved? Jews had to be baptized (Acts 2:38), and so did Gentiles (Acts 10:47). Note that in the case of Cornelius, even after the Holy Spirit had come upon him in a miraculous sense, Cornelius still had to be baptized, it was not an optional matter, rather, water baptism was commanded. In addition, the above verse states that the heart is purified by faith. Other passages link this purification of the heart with baptism (1 Corinthians 6:11 states, “You were washed, but you were sanctified”; Hebrews 10:22 “Having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”; 1 Peter 3:21 “Baptism now saves you, not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience”)” (“God’s Purpose”, Mark Dunagan, www.beavertonchurchofchrist.net).
But one might argue that the verse clearly makes “faith” the thing that cleanses our hearts. Well, let us consider this to see if faith can act alone in the matter of purification. To have a pure heart, Paul states that one must “walk” in a pure fashion, performing deeds of “goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Ephesians 5:7-21). The word faith is not mentioned even once in this scripture, and yet nobody doubts that faith is the impetus to all of it. To be purified, the church at Corinth had to repent of its misdeeds (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Again, there is no mention of faith, but surely it is faith working in all of these things. Faith without works is dead, writes James in James 2:14-26. In purification, faith goes hand in hand with the pursuit of righteousness, godliness, love, perseverance, and gentleness in 1 Timothy 6:11. Only one verse later, he writes, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). Faith is a “fight” – an action. Faith is, in every sense of the word, a work. So when the Gentiles and Jews are cleansed by faith in Acts 15:9, how can one possibly ignore the plain and simple truth that a purifying faith is one that is demonstrated by good works such as confession (Romans 10:9-10), repentance (Luke 19:1-10), and baptism (1 Corinthians 6:11)?