In Romans, many perceive a false dichotomy between faith and works. Many misunderstand this, even great minds have done so, to conclude that the opposite of “works” is “not working”. This is a gross error because faith that doesn’t work, isn’t any kind of saving faith, Rom 1:5; 16:26; Jas 2:14,17,24,26. Let me illustrate. Paul said,
“4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Rom 4
Both the man who works for salvation and the man who believes for salvation are both working. Said another way, the first man believes in God but he works to earn or deserve salvation. To him God isn’t a God of forgiveness and grace. He sees his works which can include fleshly attributes and deeds as deserving of salvation. If he is a first century Jew, he is quite sure that because of his lineage and because of his personal righteousness that God owes him salvation. This man is blind because he doesn’t see His filth and that his sins have made him wretched and poor. But it cannot be said that he doesn’t believe in God. The problem is that his trust in his own works, makes his belief as if unbelief because his trust is not in the favor or grace of God. Therefore when Paul contrast works and belief, he is speaking of a certain kind of works and belief. The first man trust not in God for the gift of salvation because he trust that his works merit his salvation.
What about the second man who believes. He too works. Though Paul says in vs.5, “But to the one who does not work”, he works just as the first man believes. It’s a bit challenging to understanding, but the works of the first doesn’t preclude or exclude belief, and the belief of the second man doesn’t preclude or exclude works. As the first man believes in God but trust in his works for salvation, so the second man believes in God’s grace and trust not in his works for salvation.
Does the second man work? Yes, he must work. From the moment of believing in the Son, he is working, John 6:27-29. To confess Christ, to say a prayer, to turn from sin and bring fruits of repentance, and to be baptized are works that are essential. All of these things a person does who trust in God’s saving grace. Without obedience, there is not saving faith. Without obedience, there is not trust in God’s grace.
The “faith alone” denominational person clings to the idea that “faith without works” is alive and pleasing to God. James begs to differ. A sinner’s salvation is acquired by faith in God. The salvation can only be received as a gift. This is the case because no matter how good we are, we fall short of God’s glory, Rom 3:9,23. Hence, working for salvation, i.e. not trusting in God for salvation, is a non-starter. It won’t work.
Here’s what to do to be saved. Believe that the righteousness of Christ can make you whole. Understand that you can never be good enough to deserve eternal life. So in obedient faith, listen to Jesus and respond to Him in faith. Confess His name in faith. Turn from your sins in faith. Be immersed in the watery grave of baptism in faith. Trust only in God for your salvation. God will wash you of your sins because of your faith in Him. This is how to be counted as righteous before God, just as Abraham was.