I have often struggled with the relationship between faith and works in my own life. I can go from one extreme to the other. At one moment, I think I can live in sin and still expect to go to heaven. At another moment, I think I have to be good to earn God’s favor.
I have been helped by good teachers like John Gerstner, whose teaching is summarized in “A Primer on Roman Catholicism,” a short 44-page introduction to the topic.
Gerstner is very helpful in stating the distinction between reformation (read: Biblical) Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Gerstner’s basic explanation is given below in three formulas. The first two are wrong-headed. The last one is spot on. I have taken some liberties with the explanations.
Formula of Antinomianism (that means anti-law): FAITH – WORKS = JUSTIFICATION . This is often called ‘easy-believism.’ Walk forward at the invitation, mouth a prayer you don’t mean, and never doubt your salvation ever again despite the fact that there is no change whatsoever in your attitude toward sin. This idea is not Biblical. See James 1:22-27, 2:14-26.
Formula of Rome: FAITH + WORKS = JUSTIFICATION. Works are infused righteousness in the believer that are meritorious. These works, a result of God’s grace, earn salvation in a sense. God saves by faith, but he does not save those who are not inherently righteous. See Romans 4:1-8.
Formula of Reformers and the Bible: FAITH = JUSTIFICATION + WORKS. The faith that saves results in a heart set free from the guilt of sin. Guilt is what gives sin the power to rule our lives. When that guilt is removed, our hearts are motivated by gratitude and love to do good works. Good works do not play a part in earning justification, only Christ’s work does. Faith alone saves, but not a faith that is alone. See Romans 6, noting that the chapter is about things that are true, not things we are to make true.
The bottom line is: “Flee to Christ.” We are to abandon all hope in our works and run to Christ, Who is our righteousness. This kind of faith saves and gives hope. I abandon all hope in myself and rely completely on what Christ has done.
(See Dr. Gerstner explain part of this on a uTube video here.)