When people say that all it takes to be a Christian is to believe, they are doing a terrible and dangerous disservice. While belief is the cornerstone of the faith, using this as the official tagline creates a false representation of what it means to actually follow Christ, to be a “Little Christ” as the moniker Christian translates.
But am I covered just by going around and saying that I believe in Jesus? Does that profession of faith save me?
This is one of Christianity’s biggest debates. Does faith alone save? Or is Christianity based on works? Do my deeds on earth affect my salvation after death?” This is heavily contested, and throughout scripture you can pick out pieces here and there that support either side. Some call it the “Romans v. James” debate, as throughout Romans belief/faith is the key to salvation while James says that faith alone does not justify us.
Is there truth to both sides? Is Christianity harder than just having faith? The truth of the matter is that to follow Christ is the hardest easy thing you can do.
I will first defend this idea with the argument that you cannot take scripture piece by piece and weed out what you don’t like and keep the rest. If we are to believe that all of it is inspired by God, we cannot refuse a single letter. We must view, consider, and accept it as a whole. Which, I admit, is a tall order when you read and find what appears to be contradictions throughout (such as the one we are discussing here). Many newcomers to the faith end up rejecting Christianity outright because they cannot accept these “contradictions.” However, if you instead treat the “contradictions” as amendments or commentary you can often find reconciliation between two passages that appear to present different ideas.
I would like to present the two leading scriptures by which each side defends itself.
Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the give of God, not a result of works, so that no man may boast.”
That lays it out pretty clear. You have been SAVED through faith, and not by anything you have done or can do. Works has nothing to do with salvation.
But James 2:14-26 presents that faith cannot be real if it does not have works as its proof.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
That appears just as clear, he even gives examples through history of justification by works.
So if we must accept both of these as truth, how do we reconcile them?
The key word is faith. In Ephesians 2:8 it is by faith that we are saved. In James 2:17 faith without works is dead.
Apply some logic. A living faith (one proved by works) is what saves. A dead faith cannot save.
Works are what prove faith.
And that makes complete sense. A real faith in anything affects how we think and act. Once I am convinced to have faith that the bridge will carry my weight as I cross the river I will act on that faith. If I do not have faith in the bridge, I wont cross. This is a pretty rudimentary analogy, but valid nonetheless. The difference with Christianity is that to have faith that Jesus Christ was God himself, and therefore God himself commanded me to act in a certain way would compel me to follow those commands. My acts in accordance with God are a testament to my faith. They are a proof to it.
At the same time, however, I could live a life that was just as pleasing and in accordance with what God commands and in fact be an Atheist. An atheist could be just a charitable, forgiving, loving, etc. as any devout Christian. But he has no faith, and therefore no salvation.
Works are proof of the faith, but faith is the lone qualifier for salvation. We cannot say we have faith in God and at the same time be living differently than God commands. And to live by God is not easy. Just look at the example of Abraham.
It is the acting in accordance with God, for the purpose of being in accordance with God that in fact makes us Christians. We must act like Christ in order to be called a “Little Christ.”
And we are warned that we are following a harder path. Jesus calls it the narrow gate in Matthew 7. In Matthew 5 he warns the we will be reviled and persecuted and spoken evil of on his account. And when you look throughout the history of the apostles and the martyrs, you see men and women who were compelled to act in accordance to their faith even when it meant imprisonment or death. How much easier is it for us now in our western society to act on our faith?
Faith is not easy. To be a Christian is not easy. We are supposed to be selfless workers, and to deny the world when it conflicts with our faith. We are supposed to rejoice in the persecution we may be put under.
So don’t go around telling people that attaining salvation is as easy as believing and getting dunked. Don’t let them believe that praying a magic prayer on Sunday morning and going around and saying they believe means they have the faith they need to be saved. It is not some happy-go-lucky, feel good, warm and fuzzy acceptance of a big guy in a shiny robe who just wants to give us a hug. It is a hard and difficult changing of how we view our own lives, how we view the world we live in, and how we act within the world.