Question: "What is the relationship of faith, works, and security in salvation?"
Answer: We believe in eternal security, that is, once a person is born again by the power of God, he is saved forever. Jesus gives “eternal life” (John 10:28), not temporary life. But we often get questions having to do with losing faith. How is salvation maintained? What if someone had saving faith at one time in his life, but later loses faith? Are good works necessary to sustain faith? Are we really secure in Christ?
There are four basic approaches to the issues surrounding faith, works, and security. The first approach is to say that you must have faith and continued obedience to be saved. You will not know for sure that you’re saved until you die and your life is finally evaluated by God. Then you will be saved or lost based on your performance in life. This is the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the thought of many Protestants. However, this approach does not adequately explain the teaching of Scripture that we are saved by grace through faith and that salvation is something that takes place here and now—not just in the afterlife.
The second approach to the relationship of faith, works, and security says that you are saved by faith to the exclusion of works. In this line of thinking, if you profess faith in Christ and subsequently repudiate your faith or embrace gross sin, you are still saved, because you are saved no matter what you do. This approach, sometimes called “easy believism,” does not take seriously the warnings in Scripture that emphasize personal holiness and enduring faith.
The third approach to faith, works, and security states that you are saved by faith, but you must somehow maintain your salvation through a combination of faith and works—or at least you must avoid flagrant, unrepentant sin. In other words, you may be saved, justified, born again, adopted into God’s family, and indwelt with the Holy Spirit yet still fall away and ultimately be lost. While this approach does take seriously Scripture’s warnings against sin, it still does not properly account for the many passages that speak of assurance of salvation, not to mention that we are saved apart from our works.
The final approach to faith, works, and security affirms that you are saved by faith based on the merit of Jesus Christ who died for you. In a great exchange, your sin was placed on Christ, and His righteousness was placed on you. The result of being born again and indwelt with God’s Spirit is that He begins to change you from the inside out. Your inner change becomes outwardly visible by continued faith and increasing obedience. If you profess faith in Christ but offer no evidence of a changed life, we have good reason to suspect that your initial profession may not have been genuine (Matthew 7:21).
The first approach fails because it adds works to faith as the means of salvation and denies security. The second approach fails because it ignores the need for a changed life (see Ephesians 1:4). The third approach fails because it places on us the duty of maintaining salvation instead of on Christ where it belongs (see Galatians 1:1–3). The fourth and final approach is biblical. We are saved by faith, not by our own good works (Ephesians 2:8–9), yet we are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).
Many people talk about eternal security. The old Reformed term is perseverance of the saints. We persevere because the God who saves the believer is also the God who keeps the believer safe and enables him or her to continue in faith and good works (Philippians 1:6).