Good theology requires careful distinctions. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans and Galatians, for example, to distinguish between faith and works. But what is faith? What are works? And how do they relate to one another and to the associated concept of repentance?
Faith is whole-person trust or confidence in God. To be saved one must believe or assent to certain truths with the mind: that God exists (Heb. 11:6), that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 10:9), and so on. But since even demons believe that God is one (Jas. 2:19), it is clear that these truths must be believed from a sincere heart and with a will that consents to the truth’s demands. Saving faith involves personally receiving Christ as Lord and Savior—casting one’s allegiance with King Jesus, and resting in him alone for salvation from sin.
Saving faith involves personally receiving Christ as Lord and Savior—casting one’s allegiance with King Jesus, and resting in him alone for salvation from sin.
Repentance is a change of mind and forsaking of sin. It involves a recognition of one’s sinfulness and helplessness before God, leading to “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17) that resolves to turn from all unrighteousness. When a person turns from sin to God in faith it is called a conversion.
Works are, generally speaking, acts of obedience to God’s will or commands. When Paul writes about “works of the law” (Rom. 3:20), he especially has in mind works of mere outward conformity to God’s law or works that are performed to merit one’s justification (Gal. 5:4). But God intends for us to do good works out of sincere faith and love for him.
Scripture is clear that we are saved by faith alone, not by works: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Justification by faith alone (sola fide) was the material principle of the Protestant Reformation. One can only lay hold of Christ and the merits of his atonement through faith—not through repentance or works. Faith is thus the only formal condition for being made right with God. Wesley excludes repentance as a formal condition of justification when he says that “faith…is the ‘necessary’ condition of justification; yea, and the ‘only necessary’ condition thereof.”
However, it is impossible to have true faith without repentance. Faith presupposes repentance. They are so closely related that one might say they are two sides of the same coin. One cannot trust in Christ for salvation from sin if he is not convinced of and sorry for his sinfulness. No one turns to God who does not turn from sin. No one is saved who does not repent. Jesus said, “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). When only one is mentioned, the other is implied.
It is impossible to have true faith without repentance, and genuine faith and repentance always lead to good works of loving obedience.
Genuine faith and repentance always lead to good works of loving obedience. John the Baptist preached to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8). In Ephesians 2:8–10, Paul beautifully captures the relationship: we are “saved through faith” as “the gift of God, not a result of works,” but all who have true faith are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” True faith obeys God out of loving gratitude or thankfulness for his free gift of salvation in Christ. In Christ, the only thing that counts is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:26).
While works are not the basis of our right standing with God, they are the evidence that we have a living faith. We are not saved by works; we do not stay saved by works; but if we do not do good works, it reveals that we lack saving faith. We will be judged according to our works (Rom. 2:6), which means that God will use our works to demonstrate whether or not our faith in Christ was genuine.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY:
- [18th c.] John Wesley, “Sermon 1 – Salvation by Faith.” See also Sermons 5, 6, 35, 36, 106, 110, 113, 122 (Thomas Jackson numbering) available at wesley.nnu.edu.
- [19th c.] William Burt Pope, Compendium of Christian Theology, 367–385. Pope was the greatest Methodist theologian of the 19th century. See also Pope’s Higher Catechism of Christian Theology.
- [20th c.] Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity, 607–611. Classic Christianity is a revised, one-volume edition of Oden’s 3-volume Systematic Theology. Oden took his cues from Pope and is best known for theological retrieval: tapping the riches of the Great Christian Tradition.