Faith Versus Works

THE APOSTLE PAUL, in Romans 4:4,5, JB. Phillips Translation, says: “If a man works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as a fair reward. But if a man, irrespective of his work, has faith in him who justifies the sinful, then that man’s faith is counted as righteousness.” This scripture shows a contrast between works and faith, and traditionally over the last two thousand years there has been somewhat of a competition between these two principles of conduct. Which is most important, faith or works? We have heard a lot about faith, but faith was not emphasized as a topic in the Old Testament. It was works. In fact, the word ‘faith’ appears only twice in the Old Testament.

Exodus 24:7 can be used to establish the date when ‘works’ began to be spoken of, and when the Law Covenant was set up. “He [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” Whether or not the people of Israel could actually perform this promise is not relevant. Rather, the emphasis is on the basis that was set up to establish communication between them and God. God said, Do these things; and they said, We will do them.

Of course, we know that the blessings which they received from the hand of the Lord did depend upon their degree of doing what they said they would do under the Law Covenant. The Pharisees developed a strict set of rules which they thought obligated God to bless them if they would merely follow the procedures. It was very foreign to them to think that anybody could go to God in simple faith. Yet that was the teaching of Paul in his letter to the Romans. Paul had undergone a remarkable transformation. He had been converted from a Pharisee who believed that if one followed the Law, somehow God would be obligated to bless you. But that is not what he wrote to the Romans, as we shall see.


Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, discovered faith to be the basis for justification with God, and not works. To a large extent this was a reaction to the Catholic church’s dominant teaching of that time, that one could buy his way into favor with God. The church was selling indulgences which it claimed would free individuals who had died at an earlier time. The hope was that when one died, somebody would buy indulgences for them. Many Christians were doing this, but Luther knew that this was absolutely wrong.

The words that had much influence on him came from Romans 1:16,17. When Luther first read these words, they condemned him. The New International Version translates these particular words in the right way: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 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’.”

What ‘condemned’ Luther was the fact that, in his heart, he knew that he was not righteous. And if he was not righteous, how could he live by faith because the scripture was so clear on this point? It was only later that he came to understand that the righteousness of God was not something that condemned man, but rather was offered to man as a gift. Thus, by accepting Christ’s righteousness, he was not counted as a sinner. This was made clear in Ephesians 2:8, where Paul again says, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”


Justification by faith offered the sinner a new standing with God. What does this faith involve? The Scriptures are very clear that it is faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died as a ransom—or a corresponding price—for father Adam, to save all humanity. If, by accepting this sacrifice as benefiting us personally, then we are saved from sin and from death. “A man is not justified by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the Law, because by observing the Law no one will be justified.”—Gal. 2:16,17, NIV

The 16th chapter of Acts records an experience of Silas and Paul, who were fastened in prison stocks, when an earthquake set them free. The prison keeper, sure that this meant his death, went in and found that they were all there—no one had escaped. He threw himself down before Paul and Silas and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (vs. 30) Paul and Silas answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”—vs. 31

The jailer was a Gentile, and Paul, in answering him, did not use any of the teachings of the Pharisees. There was nothing said about keeping new moons and Sabbaths, circumcision, the ritual washing of the hands, or fasting. Only pure, simple faith—and through faith comes blessings from God for his children, for indeed we are his children through faith. “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26) “Without faith it is impossible to please him [God].”—Heb. 11:6


Is there nothing to be said for works? For an answer to this question we turn to the Book of James, which says: “Faith without works is dead. Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar? … The scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” So you see “how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”—James 2:20-24

In Romans 4:3 Paul writes about Abraham and says that he was not justified by works: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” So the casual reader could say, “There is a contradiction!” But, of course, there is no contradiction! Abraham believed God and had faith. He showed his willingness to sacrifice his most precious possession—his only son!

Are works important? They are! Every message to the seven churches has the phrase, “I know your works.” (Rev chapters 2,3) Works are indicative of the depth of one’s faith. When we read the message to the church of Laodicea, and we see this phrase: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot,” we learn much about that church’s faith.—Rev. 3:15

The Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the church at Rome, saying: “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.” (Rom. 2:6,7) In Hebrews we read about heroes of faith such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and others. They all did something noble to demonstrate their faith. Noah built an ark; Abraham left his own country for an unknown one; Moses left the palace court of Egypt; Rahab protected the spies. These had strong faith which moved them to do great things: “Through faith [they] subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”—Heb. 11:33,34


There can be a problem with a concentration upon works, because one can deceive himself into thinking God is obligated to bless him because he has performed such righteous works. This is, of course, the way the Pharisees thought.

The strict moralists in the time of our Lord were the Pharisees. More than anyone else they thought that if they lived by their demanding code they would be acceptable to God. But their self-righteousness did not count for anything. “To some who were confident of their own, righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable. Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like all other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.” Then our Lord relates the moral of the story, saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”—Luke 18:9-14, NIV

We read of the time when Jesus told his disciples that the service they render, whatever it is, is like that of a slave who is serving an earthly master. Whatever it is that they do, at best it is what is expected of them. One does not earn a special reward. Jesus says, “So you also, when you have obeyed all the orders given you, must say, ‘there is no merit in our service’. So with each one of us, we have merely done our duty.”—Luke 17:10, Weymouth Translation


We have the illustration of the vineyard workers. (Matt. 20:1-16) The owner of the vineyard needed many laborers. He went to the marketplace early in the morning to find laborers. He told them to go to the vineyard and he would give them a day’s wage. The exact monetary amount is not important. A few hours later he found more laborers. He did not tell them what he would pay them, but said, Go, and they went.

He did this again and again all day long, until there was only one hour left of the day, when he found that there were still people waiting to be hired. He told them also to go to work. When the day was over, they lined up to be paid. He for some reason, decided he would pay the last workers first, giving them a day’s wage. Think of the reaction of the people who had worked all day long. They may have thought they would receive a larger sum. But, lo and behold, they only received the same wage as everybody else—a day’s wage.

This, of course, led to discontent on the part of the few who had worked all day long. The owner, in response to criticism, says: “My friend, I’m not being unjust to you. Wasn’t our agreement for a silver coin a day? Take your money and go home. It is my wish to give the latecomer as much as I give you. May I not do what I like with what belongs to me? Must you be jealous because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:13-15, Phillips Translation) Some might agree that there was discrimination. However, anyone can be as generous as they want to be toward their employees, for there is no law against generosity.

We may look at this parable and say it teaches that there is no special reward for hard work. That is exactly what the parable teaches. If anyone believes that what they do for the Lord obligates God, or guarantees them a reward, he is going to be disappointed. That is what the scribes and Pharisees thought in their hearts and in their minds.

But the Scriptures say, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”—Matt. 7:21-23

This passage of scripture teaches that no one will gain the reward of the kingdom strictly because of works. Faith must be combined with works, even as we read: “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”—James 2:17


In Exodus 19:5,6, the Lord God speaks: “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. … Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” In the preceding verse, God said that he had brought Israel unto himself, and what follows is fellowship with God. We obtain that fellowship by obeying his voice.

It was Moses’ faith that brought Israel to the position of entering into a covenant relationship with God. God asked for obedience. His will must be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Just as with Israel so long ago, what we do shows whether our whole heart has accepted his will or not, and whether we are willing to follow Jesus and to sacrifice everything to the doing of his will. We are exhorted to be “a peculiar people, zealous of good works,” a people of faith, zealous of good works!—Titus 2:14

Dawn Bible Students Association
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