I have been confronted a number of times in recent weeks concerning the question of the place of works in determining the quality of one's faith, and (more to the point) in determining whether or not a professing believer is actually saved at all. I jotted down the points below in hopes that it would help me to commit to my own memory an organized and thoughtful response to some of the arguments and questions commonly raised regarding this issue, and in hopes that it may help others who are struggling with the same questions.
1. We are saved by faith alone. The Bible makes this very clear. Romans 4:5-8 specifically tells us that work is not a requirement for salvation:
"But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin."
Note that Paul quotes David in specifically excluding lawkeeping as a requirement for salvation and indicating that God justifies us if we believe in Him, even though we commit deeds of lawlessness.
2. While the Scriptures do indicate that believers will bear some fruit (James 2, John 15), nowhere in Scripture do we read that this fruit must be continual or represent a "lifestyle change," nor do we read that such works actually provide proof of salvation - they only provide an indication of the current state of one's faith (and that only in the context of a correct testimony concerning Christ). Most of the specific examples of "works" given in Scripture represent isolated actions demonstrating the faith of the individual - in many cases, individuals whose lives were otherwise marked by immorality - sometimes even what we would call gross immorality (Samson, who largely dedicated his life to the pursuit of pleasure; Gideon, who fell into idolatry; Lot, who was so twisted by the culture in which he chose to make his home that he offered his daughters up to a mob of rapists; Rahab the harlot, whose "work" was to lie to the government to protect the Israelite spies, David, who fell into adultery and murder; even Abraham who gave his wife into a harem to protect his own skin - not once, but twice!). In fact, the Bible tells us that while believers should be bearing fruit, the presence or quantity of such fruit in no way constitutes assurance of salvation:
"Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’"
3. The Bible specifically excludes lawkeeping as an avenue to or proof of salvation:
"Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." Romans 3:20
"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." Romans 3:28
"knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." Galatians 2:16
"But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith." Galatians 3:11
Furthermore, the Bible specifically warns us not to try and prove our justification by deeds of the Law:
"You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." (Galatians 5:4)
4. We must be careful to interpret the Scriptures both in their immediate context and the context of the entire Bible. For example, if I read Romans 2:13 in isolation: "(for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified," I might come away with the notion that we must keep the law to be justified, but when we read on, we find Paul explaining that there actually are no doers of the Law - those who think they are lawkeepers are deluded - which leads to Paul's conclusion in the following chapter that "...by deeds of the Law no flesh shall be justified."
5. While the Sermon on the Mount contains much of the Gospel (specifically the good news that Christ fulfilled the Law: Matthew 5:17), much of the sermon should be viewed as a presentation of the "bad news" of the standard by which we will be judged as unbelievers, not as a primer on how to "do" the Gospel. This is why Christ warns repeatedly throughout the sermon that God judges our inward thoughts and intentions (Matthew 5:21-30, 6:1-18), that many "do-gooders" will be dismayed to find that Christ never knew them (Matthew 7:22-23), that our righteousness must exceed that of the most righteous people we can possibly think of, if we want to hope (in vain) of earning our way into heaven (Matthew 5:20), and that we should refrain from judging others, as to their eternal state (Matthew 7:1-5).
A note on Matthew 5:18: Those who cite this verse as evidence that we are still under the Law do not understand the Gospel. The preceding verse tells us that Christ came to fulfill the Law. On the cross, Christ uttered the words "it is finished." We don't fulfill the Law, Christ already did that.
6. When we presume to judge the eternal state of other professing believers, we are actually putting ourselves in the place of God. We are clearly and specifically admonished in Scripture that it is God's place to judge between the saved and unsaved, and the job of His angels to separate them (Matthew 13:24-30). This parable also illustrates that unbelievers and believers often look alike, so that the task of judging between them is really beyond our abilities. So, when we attempt to judge whether a person is saved by anything other than their testimony about Christ, we are being disobedient to God's instruction and we are arrogantly presuming that we have God's authority and power to judge the inner heart of man. This is not to say that we cannot be motivated out of genuine concern for a person who is visibly in rebellion toward God to approach them and make sure they have heard the a clear presentation of the Gospel; but I believe that when a person confesses Christ as Lord and Savior we must take that at face value and exhort them to good works out of thanksgiving, rather than judging them and trying to make them obey out of fear.
I pray this helps those who are confused by all of the conflicting teaching out there on this issue.