Saved by Christ, by Faith, or by Good Deeds?

Saved by Christ, by Faith, or by Good Deeds?


You Write: “You can’t be saved without good deeds? You mean they help save us?”


This is a very good—and important—question and I’m glad that you asked it!

Probably some of this depends on what we mean by the question. Ever since the Reformation, some in the Protestant world have contended that we are merely saved by an inner or mental belief in Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior. There are dozens of verses of Scripture that could be produced that say this in one way or another. For example, Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31a). We can definitely say that “belief” (or faith) saves.

You asked two related questions:

  1. Can one be saved without good deeds? (We assume you mean that the person in question is capable of doing good deeds. If a person has a disease so that he can’t move a muscle, this is something else. But even there, one could pray and praise God.)
  1. Do good deeds “help” to save us?

We’ve easily established above that one is saved by faith or by belief. But what kind of faith? Some would say that they are referring to a simple matter of accepting certain facts about Jesus—that He is Savior, Lord, or the Son of God. We know that this isn’t true. As James points out, even the demons “believe” certain facts about Jesus and they are not saved (James 2:19).

But the faith that saves goes beyond an acceptance of facts about Jesus—or a historical or mental faith. It includes trust in Jesus. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). As the bronze serpent was lifted up so that the sinful Israelites could be saved physically, so Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross so that those who believe in Him—trust in Him—will have eternal life. We must turn away from our sins and rely or trust in Jesus to save us through His death on the cross (Romans 5:6-11; 6:23). As Paul says, we should “not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

But even beyond credence and beyond reliance, the sinner must commit himself to Jesus Christ. He must accept Jesus as Lord and God, and must act on this (Romans 10:9-10). As Paul points out, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Consider also that many times in Scripture faith in Christ is coupled with obedience. In other words, the faith that saves is an “obedient faith” or a “faith-filled obedience.” You might what to notice Hebrews 5:9, where the writer says that Christ “became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” The reverse of believing in Jesus as the Son of God is to not obey Him (see John 3:36). (See also Acts 14:1-2 in the Greek.)

Maybe you have wondered why Scripture so often says that we are saved by faith and also saved by obedience. We are also told to do certain actions that would give evidence of our faith. Maybe this is why Jesus says that those who do not obey the Son will receive the wrath of God (John 3:36). Scripture often speaks of saving faith as a working or obedient faith, thus Paul writes of a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

In the Bible, not only do we read of the necessity of obedience but of the need of a love that expresses itself in obedience (John 14:15, 21, 23-24; cf. 1 John 5:2-3). Love and faith are inward responses to God and Christ Jesus, but they manifest themselves in outward obedience or outward works or deeds. If someone says that he has faith but has no deeds, James asks, “Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). He goes on to say that “faith without works is useless” (v. 20). Thus, “faith without works is dead” (v. 26). “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24).

Consider a few more scriptures:

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word He will never see death” (John 8:51).
  • “. . . the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17).
  • “When you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (Hebrews 10:36).
  • “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).

We can see from these verses and others like them that obedience to God is very important and we can’t be saved without them. While some may disparage works, they really are important and not optional. Some oppose obedience and works so much that their lives are filled with sin of various kinds—and they wrongly assume that they are still saved!

If we are not saved by merely a mental faith or inactive faith and we are saved by a trusting faith, and this faith is an obedient faith, how does Christ fit into this? Let’s notice a few more verses:

  • “He [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5a).
  • “. . . and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
  • “[God] who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9).

These verses do show that we are saved by God in Christ and not by our own efforts and human works. The key here is “basis.” We are saved by Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins:

  • “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
  • “. . . being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
  • “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  • “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19a).

Verses like this could be multiplied. The point is that God saves, justifies, redeems, and reconciles us through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death. This is the basis of our salvation. In this sense, we are not saved by faith (Acts 16:30), by repentance (Luke 13:3, 5), by baptism (Acts 22:16), by works (James 2:24, 26), or by obedience (Hebrews 5:9). But our response, in the ways above, are only our response to what God has done for us through Jesus, His Son, through the atoning death on the cross!

The last question asked is interesting—and important: I would not want to affirm that “works” (deeds) “help” us to be saved, as the inquirer has suggested. On the other hand, if one refuses to work or do deeds of obedience, he cannot be saved. Why? Is it because there is some inherent merit in the obedience? No, it is just the fact that true faith is a working faith, an obedient faith.

If we are not saved on the basis of the works or deeds that we do, then what about our faith? We are not saved on the basis of our faith either. Faith can be only a saving faith if the faith is directed to the object of that faith—namely, Jesus Christ and His justifying cross event. Faith has value only because it is focused on Christ and not because of its existence, per se. If our obedience and our faith are not the basis of our salvation, what is? God “displayed publicly” the Lord Jesus Christ “as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:25). Propitiation has to do with the means that God used to deal with our sins. God is propitiated through Christ’s death on the cross. This cross event is called the “redemption” (v. 24).

The basis of our salvation is Jesus Christ Himself, especially seen as the means of redemption. Thus, works do not “help” us to save ourselves. And neither does faith “help” us to be saved. It is true that we can’t be saved without the faith that works, but this is only a means to connect us to Jesus Christ who is personally the “basis” of our salvation, our forgiveness, or our redemption.

Richard Hollerman


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