Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. One who has no faith in Christ will be condemned. The question that I've often thought to myself, since the Bible says “faith comes by hearing [the word of God]”, is “Could God have thought up a 'better' plan so that more people could get into heaven?” Why is faith necessary?
The Bible tells us the answer clearly, I think...
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. (Ephesians 2:9-10)
Faith, here, is contrasted with works. If it's of faith, then it's “not of works”. This idea is found all throughout Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, that mankind cannot save themselves no matter how hard they strive. Salvation is “not of works”. To understand why salvation must be by faith, we need to begin to grasp just how important it is to God that we understand this principle.
What does it mean for something to be “of faith” or “of works”. Works are things we do to earn favour with God. Faith is trusting God for salvation, knowing that our works are insufficient. To get a proper perspective on our works, consider a child who brings a drawing home to their father that they drew in kindergarten. The child has done their very best, and yet we often need to be told what this picture is even supposed to be! Our works are always like that. Man does have a righteousness of his own, but compared to the “mark” of God’s righteousness, our works are like scribblings... incredibly poor attempts at trying to imitate God’s true righteousness. The Bible says “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23). Works “proceed from faith” when we do them because of our faith – because of what we believe God desires of us. We can do good works because we think that people will like us because of them, or because we think God would never hold it against such a good person as we think we are; but this is not faith. Our works are still little to speak of. This is why faith is essential. Unless faith is the motivation for our works they are essentially sin, because it is the right motivation which God desires. Motive is everything to God, and faith must be the motive. That is to say, are all of our actions justified by the Scriptures we put our faith in; or by our knowledge of God’s will which we gain from Scripture?
Perhaps this is best illustrated by a conversation I once had with an atheist friend of mine. He aired his own disgust for Christianity by pointing out that Christians only do good out of selfish motives. That is, they are only motivated to good in order to get to heaven, or receive blessings from God. I had to agree that such a motive for good works would indeed be amiss; but true Christianity isn't like that! Since salvation is by grace we cannot work for it. Our motives cannot be to gain anything since salvation is freely given. Rather, we do good out of genuine love without any expectation of something in return.
No man can save themselves... how would that even be possible, for it takes divine power and the perfect righteousness of Christ to save a man. If we think we can save ourselves, then we believe a lie. It is for our sakes that salvation is through faith, to ensure that we realize and understand that we cannot save ourselves. There are only three alternatives; faith, works, or “automatic” salvation in which we simply do nothing at all. It is impossible to be perfect in our works, so works will not save us. But why can't salvation be "automatic"? This would deny the just character of God. Justice not only gives a just punishment to the wicked, but will give a just reward for the faithful. God cannot automatically save the wicked apart from faith for that would be unjust.
Looking back at our Ephesians 2 passage, we learn something else that is very important. This is that faith, itself, is a gift of God. We cannot even boast that we, from within ourselves, built up enough faith to believe in God. We have discussed in previous posts how “no one seeks for God”. Rather, God comes to us and draws us to Himself, and He alone gives us the faith to believe in Him. The question is, what will you do with the faith that God begins to plant in your heart?
Let's consider a parable of Jesus...
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:3-9)
Jesus explains the parable...
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matthew 13:19-23)
When we're given faith we need to hold onto it and persevere to the end, not allowing things like persecution or the cares of this world to rob us of that faith. In the gospel of John, for example, Jesus was speaking to many who had been following Him but they did not understand what He was saying. They had hoped that He was the Saviour, but now they possibly thought that He was just a madman. And so they left Him and ceased to follow Him. Then we read...
So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)