Are good works necessary or do we only need faith? This is a question Paul debated with Peter and James (Acts 15; Gal 2:11-21); Luther, Melanchthon and others debated with the Roman Catholic Church; and even Lutherans debate.
Faith and works are different aspects of our Christian life. "Faith" can mean the content of what we believe, but when we speak of "faith and works" it means the faith by which we trust in Jesus Christ. Faith is something God works in us by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel which "is the power of God for the salvation of every who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
Although faith is the work of God alone, "works" or "good works" are what we, whom God has renewed, do for our neighbour with His help. God's mandate for us to do good works is set forth clearly in the Ten Commandments where He commands us to love Him and others. Good works are what Christians are created to do (Eph. 2:10). Just as a good tree bears good fruit, good works are the fruit of faith. Although the world might recognize certain works to be good, ultimately only Christians can do works that are good in God's eyes. Jesus said "if a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
It may seem odd, then, to ask "Are good works necessary?" The answer is yes! But if we refocus the question: "Are works necessary for salvation?" this is where the debate begins. The Bible seems to give contradictory answers. Paul writes "we hold that one is justified (declared righteous) by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28; similarly Gal. 2:16). James, however, writes "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24).
The concerns James and Paul are addressing are different. James is concerned with those who say that because faith alone saves, works are not necessary at all. His point is that true faith always produces works. Paul agrees with this. Although he says "for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Eph. 2:8-9), he goes on to say "for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
So "Are works necessary?" The answer is yes, but they do not contribute in any way to our salvation. As an old saying goes: "We are justified by faith alone, but justifying faith is never alone."
Lutherans affirm this position in the Augsburg Confession against the Roman Catholic position of salvation by faith and works. Article XX (Concerning Faith and Works) is mainly a response to the accusation that Lutherans prohibited good works. The response was that the proper understanding of salvation through faith alone actually makes good works possible. As long as one relies on works for salvation, faith in Christ is not necessary, nor was His death for our sins. Ironically, this makes works impossible since they are the fruit of faith.
Article IV of the Formula of Concord also defines in what sense good works are "necessary." On one hand "it should be understood when the word 'necessary' is used, it should not be understood as coercion but only as the order of the unchangeable will of God, to which we are bound" (SD IV: 16). Good works are done from a "free spirit." On the other hand it was affirmed this does not mean Christians "have free choice whether they want or wish to do them or refrain from doing them or even to act against God's law" (SD IV: 20). As saints, Christians willingly seek to do the will of God. However, we are also sinners who struggle to do good works as Paul complains: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Rom. 7:19).
This biblical and confessional understanding of faith and works impacts our life as believers by giving it purpose and peace. Christians have purpose, striving to serve God and our neighbour in everything we do, whether in our vocation as spouse, parent, citizen, or in acts of service for the church. When we fail to do what God would want, this doctrine gives us peace because our salvation does not depend upon our works but on Jesus' work for us on the cross. Looking to God in faith, we receive the forgiveness of sins through Word and Sacrament. Having received God's grace, we strive to do good works.
The proper understanding of "faith and works" is important to the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith because it makes it a confession of faith in Christ alone. Without it, our Christian faith becomes just another religion which cannot bring peace, and in which works are done neither for God nor the good of others, but only for oneself.