Can one be saved by faith only?

Justification by faith alone is a basic doctrine of many denominations. People are taught that they are saved the moment they believe in Jesus.

Thousands base their hope of eternal salvation on this doctrine. Often they are extremely dogmatic in condemning anyone who teaches that certain acts of obedience are required for one to be saved.

Does the idea of justification by faith only originate from the Word of God or from a young monk named Martin Luther who wrote 'sola fide' in the margin of his Bible?

First it must be stated emphatically that the question is not whether we are justified by faith, but whether we are justified by faith alone. What if Luther had written, 'by faith' rather than 'faith only'?

The Scriptures clearly teach that salvation is a gift of grace, accepted by faith. We can only be saved by faith, but 'only by faith' is not at all the same as 'by faith only'!

Through a study of relevant passages we will learn that faith must be expressed by specific acts of obedience before one is saved. Justification is by faith, but not by faith only.

We are justified by faith.

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1, 2).

Salvation cannot be earned by works.

In the early church certain Jewish false teachers claimed that Gentiles had to keep the law of Moses to be saved. Paul's statements about grace and works must be understood in the context of this controversy.

Combating this false idea, he states that even Jewish Christians are saved by grace and not by keeping the law of Moses: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 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 2:15, 16).

In Romans, chapters 1 through 3, Paul establishes that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners, and can be saved only by the grace of God. Jews cannot depend on the law of Moses for salvation because it is never kept perfectly: “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).

Paul continues: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (Romans 3:21, 22a).

The Law and the Prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah who would bring righteousness to God's people. The law made it clear that Israel needed salvation from sin just as surely as did the Gentiles.

“For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:22b-26).

Because they were God's chosen people, many Jews were self-righteous and thought they were better than the Gentiles. Paul shows that this is not true. They need God's grace just as much as the Gentiles do, and they have no reason to boast.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:27, 28).

What is the difference between the 'law of works' and the 'law of faith'? In the first case one strives to earn salvation by his own works. This man bases his salvation on the principle of works. In the second case, one understands that his only hope of salvation is the grace of God. He gratefully accepts God's gift of salvation by faith. This man bases his salvation on the principle of faith.

They who falsely suppose that they can earn salvation by works, might be tempted to boast if they think they are keeping the law better than someone else.

The parable Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” illustrates this principle: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).

The first man depended on his own deeds for salvation. The second man understood that as a sinner he could only be saved by the grace of God.

The various passages where Paul says we are saved by grace and not by works relate to these two approaches to salvation.

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 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'” (Romans 4:2-8).

That this refers to works that are thought to earn salvation is clear from the reference to wages. That Abraham was justified by faith does not mean, however, that he was justified by faith only!

Faith is not complete without obedience.

In the examples of faith in Hebrews 11 we see faith in action: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance” (Hebrews 11:8); “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Hebrews 11:17). After he passed this test, God said to Abraham: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:12).

This relates to a completely different kind of works, works of obedience through faith. These works are essential for salvation because faith without appropriate obedience is incomplete.

James speaks about this kind of works when he says: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:20-24).

We see that the faith of Abraham was made complete by works. Abraham was justified by faith, but not by faith only! Faith alone without appropriate obedience saves no one.

What works of obedience are required to be saved?

In the letter to the Romans, in which Paul places great emphasis on faith and grace, he also mentions other things that are required.

Salvation is not possible without repentance.

“Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 1:4).

During his missionary journeys Paul preached that repentance is required, “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). He told the idol-worshipers at Athens: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul told King Agrippa that he “declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). Paul preached that everyone must repent!

When Paul taught that one is justified by faith, he certainly did not mean by faith alone, because he preached everywhere that repentance and the associated works are required.

Salvation is not possible without confession.

“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9, 10).

Can one be saved by faith alone, without confession? “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42, 43).

Jesus said that we must be willing to confess Him before men (Matthew 10:32, 33). Could these men-pleasers, who believed in Jesus but were afraid to confess it, be saved by faith alone? Certainly not. Salvation is not by faith alone.

When Paul said that one is justified by faith, he did not mean by faith alone because he taught that confession is also essential.

Salvation is not possible without baptism.

Anyone who thinks salvation is by faith only, without baptism, does not believe Jesus because He said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

Paul taught justification by faith, but not without baptism. After emphasizing grace in Romans, chapters 1 through 5, he tells the saints at Rome that they “had obeyed from the heart” when they were set free from sin (Romans 6:17, 18).

Earlier in the chapter, Paul had said: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4).

“As many of us as” is conditional. There are no unbaptized Christians because it is through baptism that a believer enters Christ. He is baptized into Christ. He is baptized into His death. From baptism he rises to walk in newness of life! In baptism the believer is united with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ!

A believer must call on the name of the Lord to be saved: “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

How did Paul himself call on the name of the Lord? When was he saved?

He believed on the way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him: “So I said, 'What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do'” (Acts 22:10).

In Damascus he fasted for three days. That he already believed is evident from his question, “What shall I do, Lord?” He was not yet saved, however, because Ananias told him: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

Paul had already believed for three days. Yet he had to call on the name of the Lord at baptism, being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, before his sins were washed away. He was justified by faith when his faith was made complete by the obedience of baptism.

Faith alone does not save.

As James explains: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe - and tremble!” (James 2:14-19). Can demons be saved by faith only? If not, why do some people think they can be saved by faith only?

After explaining that Abraham's faith was made complete by his works of faith, James concludes: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. ... For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:24, 26).

What have we learned from the Scriptures?

Can one be saved by faith only? We are justified by faith. Salvation cannot be earned by works. But faith must be made complete by obedience. Various deeds of obedience are required to be saved. A believer must be sorry for his sins and repent. He must confess his faith in Jesus and call on the name of the Lord by being baptized to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ. Without appropriate obedience, he does not yet have a living faith. Through obedience he accepts God's grace by faith and rises from baptism to walk in newness of life. Amen.

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

Published in The Old Paths Archive