A student wrote me with a good question that I remember struggling through in the past as well. Scripture teaches that we each need to receive the Lord Jesus as our personal Savior in order to actually be saved. Scripture also teaches that salvation is 100% a free gift of God. It is 100% grace and 0% works. So the question is, why isn't faith a work? If it is something that we must do, why wouldn't it be considered a work?
I wrote this as a reply and I'm posting it for other people it might be helpful to.
First off, I think we can be really clear that faith is not a work. We can know this because the Bible repeatedly contrasts faith and works:
Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, thought faith--and this is not from yourselves--it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast."
Galatians 2:15-16, "We... know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ Jesus. So, too, we have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."
Romans 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law."
So, I think it is clear that faith is not a work according to the Bible. But why not? Isn't it something we DO? What makes it different than, let's say, going through some ceremony or something else that people could do?
I think that one of the passages that helped me the most on this was Romans 4:4-5, "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness." What I noticed here is that for Paul, saving faith means that we need to stop working. That is, we need to stop working in order to earn or contribute to our salvation. To trust 100% in Christ means by necessity that we are trusting 0% in human effort. It has to mean that because if a person is trusting 10% in their own effort, it means they are only depending on Christ 90%. Saving faith means shifting all of our trust on to Christ alone for salvation. That is why a certain kind of faith is the way God saves us, rather than something else. Since faith means reliance or trusting, salvation by faith alone gives God all the glory since it means that we are relying 0% on human merit and 100% on Him.
The type of faith that saves needs to be faith in which we “let go” of anything else that we are depending on to save us. It is like the guy hanging onto the tree branch off the cliff. We need to stop depending on the branch and let go so that God can save us.
And that is why this type of faith is not a work. This type of faith is a repudiation of our work. It is a repudiation of our own merit. This type of faith is declaring ourselves to be spiritually bankrupt before God, depending on Him alone to save us. And this isn’t the “chapter 11” type of temporary bankruptcy in which a company gets some help, reorganizes it’s assets and then moves out of bankruptcy. This is “chapter 7” bankruptcy, the kind in which a company declares that it is done and without hope.
Saving faith is the kind of faith that says, “I have no other argument. I have no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.”
I’m convinced this is also what Paul meant in Philippians 3:3-8 when he talked about his own salvation. He had said that if anyone could be saved depending on human effort, it would have been him. He was as dedicated as a person could get. But then he wrote, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ... I consider them rubbish [literally "dung"] that I might gain Christ." Paul ceased depending on his own righteousness and started depending on Jesus' work alone to make him right with God. Instead of depending on his own spiritual merit badges, Paul changed his mind and considered them as worthless as dung as far as gaining righteousness. He continues in verses 8-9, “…I consider them rubbish [dung] that [in order that] I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [works], but that which is [received] through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is [received] by faith.”
This similar to what Paul says about his fellow Jews who did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. In Romans 10:2 Paul says that "they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge." They were fired up and "committed" to God, but something was wrong. Being fired up for God is not the same thing as having saving faith. In the next verse, Romans 10:3, Paul explains what was wrong. "Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." Their problem was that they were trying to establish their own righteousness. That is, they were trying to do their part to earn their own salvation. They were trying to become right with God by their own efforts.
Now, in John 6:28-29, the people asked Jesus, “What must we do to work the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.” Yes, in this passage Jesus calls believing a “work.” But I think we need to think of it as a “work” in quotation marks. The people were asking Jesus what they needed to “do” to be right with God. The main point of Jesus’ reply was that all they had to “do” was to put their faith in Him. He wasn’t teaching that believing is something that earns salvation.
The book of Galatians shows us how much God dislikes the idea that salvation could be combined with works. Paul starts this book by writing in chapter 1:6-7a, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” In Galatia, the “different gospel”, which was not gospel at all, was the teaching that people had to believe Christ and be circumcised [a work] to be saved.
Depending on Christ + 0 = the true gospel of salvation
Depending on Christ + anything else = a different, false gospel
If we have a backup plan to save us, it is an insult to God. Let me give you an example that I think is helpful. Imagine that you are at a racetrack and a professional driver offers to take you around the track in his car. However he tells you that you don’t have to buckle up since there is no chance that he is going to get into an accident. If you buckle up, just to be safe, it means that you actually don’t fully trust that he will not get into an accident. After all, no matter how good of a driver he is, he can’t know for certain that an accident won’t happen. By putting on the seat belt, you prove that you do not 100% trust him.
Now imagine that Jesus is the driver. Since He is God and knows the future, He can actually tell you with 100% certainty that there is no way there will be an accident. Now, if He tells you not to put your seat belt on, what would it be saying to Him if you put it on anyway? It would show that you don’t really believe Him.
This is why it doesn’t make any sense to think that salvation could be by a combination of faith and works. If we depend on human merit at all, it means that we do not really trust Jesus to save us. It means that we think that Jesus’ perfect life and His death on the cross in our place might not actually be enough! It is crazy arrogant to think that need to add anything to what Jesus did. It is an insult to Him to think that we need a backup plan in case He doesn’t keep is promise to come through for us.
Anyway, I hope this was a bit of help. On an even deeper level, I believe that we are so dead in sin that none of us would choose to receive Christ as Savior unless God first did a work to change our hearts. Romans 3:11 says there is no one who seeks God. If God hadn't done a work in my heart first, I would have willingly continued to push Him away forever. Even saving faith itself is a gift of God, therefore God gets all the glory. This is a second layer that explains why faith isn't a work; because it doesn't originate in us. Not all who are saved understand or completely agree with this, but it is true that all who are saved have stopped trusting in their own merit and instead trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
Faith is not a work because it doesn’t earn anything, it just receives what Christ earned in our place.