When I evangelize Koreans, the biggest barrier I encounter is Calvinism. Most Koreans come from a Calvinistic background, and the most common false teaching they believe is that salvation is by faith alone. This false teaching creates a problem because it causes them to falsely believe that they don’t have to live as a Christian should as long as they have faith. So, they claim to be a Christian and a member of the church, but their life is worldly and sinful. As a result, the way they live does nothing but creates obstacles to the work of Christ.
When I point out to them that salvation is not by faith only but by works also, an automatic response from most of them is this: “Are you saying that we can be saved by works?” What they are asking is, “Am I saying that we are saved by meritorious work?” They doubt that I am promoting work-based justification. However, the problem is that they are not accepting the truth about works. Their deception on the relationship between faith and works has blinded them.
Romans 4:1-5 teaches that works do not affect justification. In this passage, however, Paul talks about works at a particular point in a person’s salvation journey, not all through the course of it. He’s talking about works done before one is justified by faith. In other words, Paul denies that a person can be justified because of the works he has done before he receives God’s grace through faith. Cornelius in Acts 10 is an example of what Paul is talking about. He did good works as a God-fearer, but he still had to believe in Jesus and be baptized in His name to be saved. It was not his works, such as worship, almsgiving, and prayer, which he did before he was justified, but the faith that led him to salvation, a faith that responds through repentance and baptism Romans 5-6 is elaborating.
However, the idea that works do not affect our salvation is false when one applies it to the Christian’s life after justification. One important thing to note is that the works we are talking about are not the “works of the law” in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3, but the works that are the fruit of active faith in Jesus that James 2 emphasizes. The works at this point, that is after justification by faith, are necessary for the completion of our salvation. Paul repeatedly teaches Christians to do good works. According to him, God saved people for them to do good works (Eph. 2:10). So he urges us to “present [ourselves] to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). According to him, even the word of God is for producing good works: He says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is… for teaching, training, rebuking, and correcting the man of God to be complete and equipped for every good work. Furthermore, Paul declares that good works will make a difference on the judgment day: those who have done good works will go to heaven, and those who haven’t will go to hell (Rom. 2:6-11).
The origin of this teaching on the meritorious nature of work is not Paul but Jesus Christ. Jesus said His disciples are a shining light to the world when they do good works to others (Matt. 5:13-16). He warned us to hear and do His word to stand on the rock of salvation (Matt. 7:24-27). And when He depicted the judgment, He identified the line that separates the righteous from the unrighteous as works of love done to others (Matt. 25:31-46).
Is work meritorious? Absolutely! It is correct that there is no justification by works done before one is saved by grace through faith; however, never will salvation be rewarded to those who haven’t done good works after being justified. Let’s be aware of the deception of the faith only teaching and teach the truth about the relationship between faith and works.