A discussion on this subject will often come up in an attempt to witness about the gospel and surprisingly enough not only from cult members. Many other people feel they must do things to 'be good' or earn the right 'to go to heaven'. Indeed, there are some apparent indications in Scripture that on first reading would indicate that works are necessary for salvation and we must be able to answer these questions satisfactorily.
There will be those who are deeply religious that would also bring this question up because they would feel that they are saved by their good works of prayer and worship and even 'going to church'.
Sometimes these people will just be trying to justify themselves or testing us but even so in similar circumstances Jesus gave a sensible and reasoned answer (see Luke 10:25 and 29) and we should seek to do the same.
The main verses used to seek to win this argument are found in James 2:24-26 and read in the NASB,
"You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead."
These verses of course need to be compared with such ones as Romans 3:20,
"... because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight…"
And Romans 3:28,
"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
Is there a contradiction here? Do we really need to work in order to be justified and be saved? If this was the case then it would go against the great declaration of Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10,
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
Notice in these verses that Paul repeats three times that it can be nothing to do with works, otherwise we would be able to boast before God.
Which is it? Are we justified by faith or by works? It is a fundamental Christian belief that we are justified by faith and that this is a once and for all act. "Therefore having been justified by faith…" Romans 5:1
This, therefore, cannot be as a result of ongoing works and, in any case, how many works must we do in order to reach the state of justification? Nowhere are we told that and if this were the way to salvation it would seem very unfair that we never knew how much we had to do to reach the goal.
The meaning of the word justification - that God declares a sinner righteous and treats them as such - also shows that work is impossible to achieve the state of justification - we can never atone for our own sin, an essential part of being justified. Therefore, this has to be by faith because we will never be righteous in ourselves.
Having said that, it still leaves us with the problem of explaining satisfactorily to our listener the verses in James that appear to teach that we are justified by works. It actually is not a problem when you look at the context.
James 2:1 indicates that James is writing to those who already have faith in the Lord Jesus - it was not something they were working towards.
He then starts his main argument on this issue in verse 14 where he asks, what use is it if someone says he has faith but no works?
At this point James does not begin to refer to that faith (which Christians already have) in relationship to God but in relationship to fellow Christians. The ones mentioned are in need (verse 15) but, James says, you do not give them what they need (verse 16) - what use is that? Faith must be expressed.
Verse 17 sums this up by showing that such faith (that you already have), that is not also expressed by works, is dead.
Indeed, as verse 18 goes on to say, how can you show your faith without works? Belief in God (verse 19) is fine but the demons believe too; the point is that faith that is not expressed by works is useless and is no better that that which the demons have (verse 20).
Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac (verse 21) and his faith was perfected by his works (verse 22).
Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (verse 23) and so you see that a man is justified by works, and not just by faith alone. Rahab was justified by works (verse 25) and so remember faith without works is dead (verse 26).
If you have faith, it will be expressed. In other words, works are the "fruit" of Salvation and not the means to Salvation. William Fenner said,
"Good works are a good sign of faith but a rotten basis for faith".
James is examining two kinds of faith: one that leads to godly works and one that does not. One is true, and the other is false. One is dead, the other alive; hence, "faith without works is dead." - James 2:20.
This is consistent with the passages above from Romans and Ephesians. Notice especially Ephesians 2:10 that shows clearly after we are saved there are good works for us to walk in that God has prepared but these are not works that are leading us to salvation and justification.
We are saved not by works but once saved there are good works to express what has happened to us.
We cannot work to our salvation but we must work out our salvation - see Philippians 2:12.