All Christian churches teach that we need faith for salvation — we can’t earn our way to heaven by doing good works. But does the Bible teach that faith alone is enough for salvation?
My whole life, I believed that the words “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9) meant that works didn’t matter for salvation at all — but then I dug deeper into the Bible and learned what these words really mean.
I always thought that “sola fide,” or “faith alone,” was a rock solid teaching from my Protestant childhood that I could always depend on.
Come to find out, of all of the issues I’ve researched during My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs, the issue of Sola Fide and Faith vs Works is the one I’ve had to grapple with the most.
It’s not because I have a hard time understanding the Protestant meaning of sola fide, or the Catholic teaching of faith and works. But it’s just hard to really nail down an issue as huge, messy, and complex as sola fide.
With the Eucharist, things are pretty black and white — it either is or is not the real Body and Blood of Christ. But with faith and works, figuring out exactly how the two mix together… and how much you need of both, and why… well, it can get pretty tricky!
Is salvation really only faith, not works? Is it faith and works? How do these two interact?
This issue is fundamental to Christian belief, so I set out to find what the Bible says.
What Does Sola Fide Mean Anyway?
But first let’s take a step back: If you read the title and asked yourself, “What is sola fide?”, let me explain!
Sola fide is a Latin phrase that means “faith alone,” and it was a hugely important part of the Reformation. Sola fide means that Christians receive salvation by faith alone. Martin Luther believed that the Catholic Church was teaching that salvation required both faith and works, and he disagreed.
That’s the quick 101 on the meaning of sola fide — now let’s dive in!
The Protestant View: You Gotta Have Faith (Alone!)
Traditional Protestant belief (the way I was raised) states that we are saved “sola fide,” by faith ALONE. That while good works are nice and all, they have absolutely no bearing on our salvation. That we should do them, but if we don’t, it won’t affect our salvation at all.
I use this analogy from everyday life: When you get married, it is saying the words and signing the paper that actually make you married. Whether you are a good spouse or a bad spouse after the ceremony doesn’t change the fact that you are truly married. Being a good spouse will make your life happier and easier, but it won’t make you any more married than you were before. You have the signed papers to prove that you said the words, so you’re married, end of story!
This analogy crystallized sola fide for me: If you had faith once and were saved, then you have that faith always, and you are always saved.
Does the Bible Support Sola Fide?
To answer my questions about sola fide, I began searching the Scriptures to see what the Bible REALLY says about salvation by faith alone. At first, it seemed easy to find verses that seem to support sola fide:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
And then the verse that every kid I knew memorized in Sunday School:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
At this point I thought that sola fide must be correct: These verses seemed pretty clear that we receive salvation by faith, and my analogy about marriage makes pretty good sense. It had to be faith, not works!
But, that wasn’t the last word…
Can We Really Have Faith Without Works?
As I kept reading the Bible, I found more and more verses where some type of work or good deed was an integral part of salvation — not just sola fide. The number was almost overwhelming.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:6-7, 13)
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.‘ (Matthew 19:16-17)
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)
And my favorite one of all…
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?… So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!…Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ — and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14, 17, 19, 21-26)
It’s easy to look at one verse, or even a few verses of the Bible and come to the conclusion that sola fide must be right. At first, it really looks like Ephesians 2:8-9 does teach sola fide, and that it separates faith from works.
But when you look other verses, another picture begins to emerge. And I’d say these verses make it pretty clear that sola fide is not enough, and works have to be a part of the faith equation somehow.
Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? Or is there more to learn about faith and works?
The Phrase “Sola Fide” Is Not Actually in the Bible
As I did more research, I was surprised to learn this: Nowhere in the original language of the Bible do any of the writers teach “faith alone.” Rightly or wrongly, Martin Luther actually added the word “alone” to his German translation of the Bible in Romans 3:28.
I repeat, “faith alone” is not in the original language!
And another huge thing I realized? “Faith” has to mean more than just “belief.”
After all, James 2:19 tells us that “even the demons believe” in God, which means that if just belief were enough, all the demons would be Christians too. Which doesn’t make any sense at all!
The devil’s in the details, right?
So the words “sola fide” aren’t in the Bible. But does the Bible support the broader teaching?
So Do Bible Verses Support Sola Fide?
To understand if the broader context of certain verses support sola fide, I looked at Ephesians 2 as a case study.
Remember, Ephesians 2:8-9 is often cited as a passage that supports the faith alone teaching. What happens if we step back and look at the wider teaching here?
When I read the passage, I saw that Paul was not saying that no works are necessary for salvation, but that you can’t earn your salvation yourself by being a “good person.” Paul wasn’t actually teaching sola fide!
If we start in verse 4, we read:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Ephesians 2:4-5)
When I looked closer at this passage, I saw that Paul is actually focused on grace in our lives — he’s talking about the ability to make the decision to follow Christ in the first place.
We don’t choose Christ because we earned it through doing all the right things. The fact that we are able to believe AT ALL and in the first place is the grace of God even while we were still sinners.
When I stepped back to look at the big picture, I saw that Bible passages often used to support sola fide aren’t actually talking about sola fide.
What Paul is teaching in Ephesians 2 is that we can’t earn God’s grace. And God’s grace is necessary for us to have faith.
But does that gift of grace give us a free pass for faith and good works?
The Catholic View: Faith Without Works is Dead
Because many people mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church teaches that people are saved by their works, I met with a Catholic priest for clarification. (If you’re interested in more of that conversation, we also spoke briefly about purgatory and indulgences; you can find what I learned in this post.)
That idea about Catholics is false: Catholics don’t believe that anyone is saved by works. In fact, the Catholic Church expressly denounces the idea that people can be saved by works, apart from faith.
But they also denounce the idea that people can be saved by faith alone, apart from works.
Catholic teaching is that faith IS what saves us, but not just any kind of faith. Faith that saves has to be an active, living faith that naturally results in good works.
It doesn’t matter for our salvation if we produce one or one hundred (or even zero) good works over the course of our lifetime, because good works don’t “earn” salvation.
But we must have the kind of faith that is growing and bearing fruit in our lives. It’s not the number that matters, but the direction of our growth.
And we can’t separate faith and works because the two will naturally grow together.
The works themselves don’t save you, but they do show what kind of faith you have.
Can a Non-Catholic Believe that Faith Needs Works?
I know that hearing that faith needs works can sound really strange and even alienating to people who grew up believing in sola fide.
And it might seem even more suspicious because a Catholic priest said it. Because of this, I highly recommend listening to this fantastic video clip of Francis Chan explaining how faith and works interact.
He’s non-denominational, not Catholic, so I can’t say that for sure that it is 100% Catholic-approved, but it seems spot-on to me.
(Fast forward to 29:30 for the relevant — and sometimes humorous! — talk about faith and works.)
True Faith Means Good Fruit Will Follow
So what did I learn about the meaning of sola fide? At the end of the day it turns out that my original beliefs were a great place to start. What is true about sola fide is that works don’t save us — we are only saved by grace.
But this doesn’t mean that works don’t matter. True faith in Jesus and love for Him means that our lives will show that love to others, just like His life did.
Our works are a really great indication of what kind of faith we have — and if we even have faith at all.
And really, doesn’t this just make sense? If you REALLY, TRULY believed in Jesus, wouldn’t you naturally WANT to follow him? And of course, by follow Him, I mean keep his commandments and teachings, an outward expression of your inner faith that leads to salvation.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!! What did you grow up learning about the meaning of sola fide? Have your beliefs and your faith changed over time? Leave me a note (or a book 🙂 ) in the comments section below!
Enjoyed this post? Don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series!
The Day I Realized My Religion Got it Wrong
10 Common Catholic Church Myths that Critics Believe
Is the Eucharist Really Just a Symbol?
Who has the Ultimate Authority? A Biblical Look at Sola Scriptura
A Brief Look at the History of Christianity
What All Christians Should Know About Priests, the Pope and Confession
What Do Catholics Really Believe About Mary, Saints and Statues?
Infant Baptism or Believer’s Baptism? Which is Correct?
What is Purgatory? What are Indulgences?
Why Do Catholics….? Honest Answers to Your Burning Questions
Protestant and Catholic Beliefs Series Conclusion
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.
*This post contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you!
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic by Patrick Madrid
The demons don’t have a saving faith. A saving faith will naturally produce fruit. There are plenty of people who claim to believe and do good things but if their faith is not really true, their works are worthless. And if the faith is real, they will naturally produce fruit and be sanctified over time. So in the end it comes back to the faith. I wrote a blog on the same topic. I’ve attached the link here for a different perspective and I think a valid explanation. 🙂
I read your post–very well done! Except that I hate to break it to you–what you are arguing is pretty much exactly what the Catholic church argues 🙂 That the works don’t save us, but that if you have a REAL faith, it WILL produce good works or you probably didn’t really have faith at all. Sounds like we all agree?
What good work did the thief on the cross perform to get him into heaven?
No, I’m not saying you HAVE to do good works or that good works are what get you into Heaven at all. You could do 0 good works or 1,000 good works–the number makes absolutely no difference at all. What I’m saying is that it isn’t enough to just believe and then continue on with your life as normal. Like I mentioned in the post, even Satan and his demons believe–so simply knowing isn’t enough. As for the thief on the cross, he never had a chance to change his life one way or the other, but Jesus knew his heart and knew that it was truly changed. I believe, if given a chance, he would have come down from that cross a different man. It’s a tricky distinction, but does that make sense?
You should really look into the Ancient Orthodox Christian faith. It is the fullness of Christianity and more and more Americans are discovering it. God bless you. OrthodoxMom blog.
How is it different from Catholicism?
Great piece! Many accuse Mormons of also believing that you are saved by works.
But, I think something you need to look into Brittany is the difference between justification and sanctification. Works would justify us. That is how the Mosaic law was set up – on the laws of justice. However, we all fail and come short. Which is where we need the mercy and grace of gos to actually save us, as we cannot save ourselves.
Now sanctification is different than justification. I am not personally 100% clear on the differences, but they are different. Just as exaltation is different from both justification and sanctification.
Faith alone will not save. But works alone will not save. One scripture you did not mention is when Christ talks about many who will say unto him Lord, Lord, and he will know them not. This is exactly what Christ said on the matter! Belief alone will not save. It is the foot in the door. It is the first step. But where is the commitment? God wants us to love and serve him more than all, and obey his commandments. Ignoring works is blasphemous.
Thanks, Katelyn! I can definitely see how this concept trips up people on both sides. You really have to be clear when talking about it and explain all of the different nuances or it’s way to easy to jump to the wrong conclusions if both sides aren’t really discussing and listening.
I *think* justification means that we are made right in terms of payment, and sanctification means we are atually made right internally or washed clean so to speak? (Okay, I just looked it up to make sure before I hit publish and that’s right lol)
I have really been studying on this and struggling to understand. I have always believed once saved always saved unless you deny Christ as the savior. I understand that works should be the product of belief and it is in fact a long journey for most of us. It isn’t like you get saved and are instantly transformed and completely change. It takes time. Transformation is really a process. I guess the part I struggle with is that we are all going to go through things, seasons, and sometimes fall away in some cases. In those seasons, I do not think we are damned if we die while still in the growing process…. if that makes sense. But I do not know. And truly, I think only God can possibly judge that. I hope we all make it <3 It can be very confusing really.
It IS confusing and I can definitely see how both sides get into fights over it! I agree with you, too, that there will be seasons. But God knows where our heart is ultimately, and if it really is going away or if it’s just a season.
I believe that we are saved by God’s grace ( a free GIFT) but after the initial belief in Christ we must maintain our salvation.
Hmm…. I think that would still count as us relying on our own effort though – if we were the ones responsible for maintaining.
The best way I’ve heard it explained is simply that we are saved by faith, but that it’s an active faith – a faith that naturally produces good works.
It’s definitely a tricky subject! How much is us? How much is God? Where do you draw the line?
Thanks for your thoughts!
If the good works of unsavede are like a filthy rags in front of God than why should I act good.. troubling myself knowing that there is no benefits for the unsaved people like me.. As the scripture is quite clear that definitely I will be contempt for eternal Bcoz i fail to av faith in Jesua..?? Pls help me is there any benefits perform by the unsaved people are of any good towards God???
Yes, our “works” (the thing we try to do to make ourselves “good enough”) are like filthy rags BUT that doesn’t mean WE are filthy rags! It just means we could never measure up on our own strength. But the beauty of the Gospel is that we don’t have to! Romans 5:8 tells us “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Bible is FULL of verses that say how much God LOVES us and adores us. Not because we deserve it, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who HE is. God is love, and He has chosen to pour that love out on us! All we have to do is accept it.
Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[a] Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 10:9 “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
This doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter at all though. We are saved through God’s love, mercy and grace. BUT then we have a responsibility to behave like it after the fact. (Not in order to earn our salvation — we cant — but because once we are Christians, that should be our natural response)
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