Four Views on Faith and Works

On Sunday morning as we studied James 2:14-26 we did not have enough time to really wrap our minds around the four predominant views of how works relate to eternal life (predominant views in the Western branch of the Christian church – I’m not including Eastern Orthodox or Coptic Christian views since we have little interaction with them). So here’s a summary of each view in greater detail. I hold to the fourth view because I think it best lines up with scripture. But all four views can claim the support of godly, wise men and women who have studied the Word in great detail. And to be honest, I’m sure there are errors in all four views since, after all, we’re only human! But Lord willing careful and prayerful study will lead us to the view that is closest to God’s perfect truth.


1.     Roman Catholic

According to the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent (which many Catholics in America do not actually agree with, teach, or practice), obedience to God is necessary along with faith to effect justification.

“If any one saith… by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.”Council of Trent, Canon 14

This is a concept of salvation often termed “cooperationism” – man cooperates with God’s grace to attain and keep justification. This cooperation requires both faith and obedience, and in particular, obedience to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, especially baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and confession. Unlike in Protestant theology, in RC theology justification by God is still future for a believer. You will not be justified until you stand before God, and He will only justify those who followed faith with obedience. If a person is baptized into the RCC and then consistently, faithfully obeys, he or she has reason to expect to be justified at that future day of judgment (though they cannot have certainty of it since they might backslide later in life – eternal security is simply not possible in RC doctrine since justification is wholly future). If a person baptized into the RCC practices some of the sacraments some of the time and avoids mortal sins (murder, suicide, etc), they will not be condemned at death, but will enter purgatory where their temporary suffering will absolve enough of their sin to merit justification. Then they are released to the joy of heaven. If, however, a person commits mortal sins, or completely turns away from the faith, they will be condemned upon death.


2.     Arminian

In short, obedience must follow faith or eternal life will be lost. Along with the rest of Protestant Christianity, Arminianism teaches that justification is a moment-in-time declaration by God declaring the sinner to be “in the right.” This declaration is based solely on the merit of Christ’s death and is attained by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So unlike RC teaching, justification for a believer is a past reality based solely on faith, not a present process based on faith and obedience. However, unlike the two views below, this justification can be lost if the believer turns from grace. Justification in Arminianism is thus a state that a believer must endeavor to remain within, and he or she does so by obeying God through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. God provides all the resources necessary to walk in obedience, but the believer can freely choose to abandon those resources and return to a life of sin, and in so doing, annul God’s declaration of justification. Thus, eternal security is impossible in the Arminian system. As Jacob Arminius, the founder of this system states:

“It is unavoidable that the free will should concur in preserving the grace bestowed, assisted, however, by subsequent grace, and it always remains within the power of the free will to reject the grace bestowed and to refuse subsequent grace, because grace is not an omnipotent action of God which cannot be resisted by man’s free will.”[1]

John Wesley articulated the same understanding by saying that the true believer may, “make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience, that he may fall, not only foully, but finally, so as to perish forever.”[2]


3.     Calvinism

In short, obedience must follow faith or faith is proven inauthentic. Like Arminianism, Calvinism proclaims that justification is a moment-in-time declaration by God based on the merits of Christ’s death and attained by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, unlike the two views above, Calvinism teaches the absolute eternal security of the believer – once saved, always saved. This security is based in Calvinism’s high view of the sovereignty of God. God determined in eternity past to save particular individuals, and because God’s will always comes to fruition, these “elect” individuals will certainly be saved. However, like the three views above, Calvinism interprets obedience to God as necessary to escape condemnation. They therefore reconcile eternal security and the necessity of obedience by the doctrine of perseverance of the saints – all who are truly saved will persevere in the faith by obeying God through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. While believers may fall into sin for a time, it is impossible for them to finally or fully fall away. So if a person who claimed to be a believer later turns from the faith or pursues sin in an unrepentant fashion, that person is thereby evidencing that they were never of the elect and thus never justified to begin with. Therefore, they were either lying or self-deceived in their claim to faith.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) states that all believers are “more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”[3] And later, “They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”[4]


4.     Free Grace

In short, while good works should naturally follow justification, a lack of works neither annuls nor invalidates justification. Instead, a believer’s failure to produce good works brings discipline from God and loss of reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ. This view shares the most in common with Calvinism described above, agreeing with its view of justification and its belief in the eternal security of all the elect based, especially, upon John 10:27-29, Romans 8:35-39, and Ephesians 1:3-14. The essential difference centers on (1) the sovereignty of God in the sanctification of the believer, and (2) the consequence of disobedience. This view holds that God is indeed sovereign in the election, calling, justification, and future glorification of the believer. However, God and the believer cooperate together in the process of sanctification – God enables obedience and chastises disobedience, but the believer must choose to respond appropriately to both by relying on God’s enabling strength and listening to God’s chastening discipline. So what happens to the believer who does not cooperate in sanctification but instead chooses to walk in disobedience? This view holds that such a believer will incur painful consequences, but that these consequences do not include loss of justification. Instead, consistent disobedience brings [1] loss of intimate fellowship with God (John 15:10; 1 John 1:5-10), [2] loss of joy and peace in life (John 15:10-11), [3] God’s fatherly discipline, which can be as severe as physical death (1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Hebrews 12:4-11; James 5:15,20; Rev 3:19), and [4] loss of honor and reward in the future at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-15; 2 Corinthians 5:9-10; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Revelation 2:26-27).


Now it’s time for you to study the evidence, pray, and decide which view you believe best fits scripture. Don’t assume I’m right. Don’t assume any other preacher or teacher is right. Popularity, doctoral degrees, publishing contracts, Twitter popularity – none of that prevents us from making errors as we engage God’s Word. So draw near to God in prayer and dive deeply into His Word. May Paul’s charge to Timothy be true of us all…

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15



[1] Bangs, Arminius, p. 216 (emphasis mine).

[2] Richard S. Taylor, “Historical and Modern Significance of Wesleyan Theology,” in A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology: Biblical, Systematic and Practical, 2 vols., edited by Charles W. Carter, R. Duane Thompson, and Charles R. Wilson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan [Asbury], 1983), 1:63.

[3] Chapter XIII, section I (emphasis mine)

[4] Chapter XVII, section I

Tags: calvinism & arminianism, faith, james, justification, obedience, works

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