When people say that salvation is by faith alone, they define faith incorrectly, or they ascribe faith to the wrong person. They believe that faith is merely a mental process or that it comes only from God. They often use Ephesians 2:8–9 to confirm their belief:
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.
The problem, however, is that Paul does not express in this passage that we are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, there is no indication that faith is directly from God. If we truly want to understand these verses, the best way to do so would be to refer to the conversion account of those to whom Paul writes this letter, that is, to the Ephesian Christians (Read Acts 19), as he is simply recounting their moment of acceptance of Christ. However, instead of analyzing the Ephesians’ response, I want to focus on Abraham, a biblical character Paul discusses in his letter to the Romans. If there is anyone besides Jesus that we could look to as a model of faith, that person is Abraham. I believe he is the best scriptural example to analyze because he is considered the father of all those who have faith in Christ (Rom. 4:11,16). God chose him as the one through whom all nations would be blessed, and his choice was on the basis of faith.
Paul makes an important statement in Romans 1:17 that serves as a focal point of his entire letter. He says, “For in it (that is, in the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”
This statement cited from Habakkuk 2:8, “the just shall live by faith,” can also be worded as follows: “the [just by faith] shall live.” Notice that I place brackets around “just by faith” to highlight the idea that one is made righteous by faith, and thus, receives eternal life. We therefore can all agree that faith has a significant role in justification and salvation.
After he establishes that all humankind is guilty of sin in the sight of God, Paul clarifies that neither Jew nor Gentile can use the Mosaic Law as a means of justification. He says in Romans 3:27–28, “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.” Then he uses the example of Abraham to show how one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. He says that Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:3). That is, Abraham was justified by his faith, not by God’s faith. Notice that Paul says in Romans 4:16 that the promise is for those who are of the faith of Abraham. He does not say the faith of God. Therefore, we can conclude from this account that the faith spoken of in Ephesians 2:8 is not a faith that belongs to God, but rather a faith man has in Christ through God’s word (See Romans 10:17). Note also that the original statement in Habakkuk 2:8 is that the just shall live by his faith; that is, it is the faith of the righteous person.
We can also determine from the example of Abraham that faith is not simply a mental process, but rather, it involves taking action that is rooted in trust. James says that faith is dead without works (Jas. 2:14–17):
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.
He later uses Abraham as an example (Jas. 2:21–24):
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.
Here we see that Abraham did not just mentally believe God; he took action in obeying the Lord’s command to sacrifice his only son (Gen. 22:18). Abraham’s faith and obedience went hand in hand, showing that they were not separate things. Therefore, a correct definition of faith is that which includes trust and obedience to God’s word. One cannot be saved by faith alone or by works alone because one is incomplete without the other (Jas. 2:22).
Being justified by faith and obedience does not nullify the grace of God. Paul says in Romans 4:4–5, “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.” Abraham clearly did not earn justification by his obedience, because if it were so, it would not have been a gift from God, but rather a debt owed to him. When we say that one must be baptized to be saved, we are simply stating that obedient faith in God is essential, not that it merits salvation as a work of righteousness. In Titus 3:5, Paul shows that baptism is not intended to be a work of righteousness:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The contrastive conjunction “but” distinguishes works of righteousness from the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, these two being the rebirth in baptism Jesus speaks of in John 3. Without them we cannot be justified, nor can we enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). Therefore, if justification and entrance into the kingdom is obtained in baptism, as is stated in Titus 3:5 and John 3:5, it stands that baptism as a work of faith is essential for salvation, and not mental belief alone.