I often hear people discussing the Bible’s teaching that we are loved and accepted by God unconditionally and that we can do nothing to earn His favour. They talk as if there is some doubt about this in people’s minds. Let’s be clear that Ephesians 2:8-9 says clearly that it is “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.” Although it goes on to discuss us being created for good works, these flow from our acceptance by God and here is a key that can harmonise the different views that people hold.
I had a Catholic person suggest to me that the works provide conditional acceptance by God, citing James 2:18, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Again, the context solves the problem, because the whole passage repeatedly suggests that good works logically follow from faith. Catholics like Mother Theresa, and Protestants, like William Booth and his Salvation Army, can all attest to the fact that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17,20).
That faith must first believe and confess that Christ is Saviour (Romans 10:9,10), but the gift of salvation is an act of God’s grace that is designed to lead to life of transformation evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of good works which all show that faith cannot be mere mental acknowledgement of doctrine. God’s love is therefore first shown to us so that it may be reflected to others as a response to our relationship with Him.
Perhaps this is why John was able to write in his letters, too, that God’s love is truly made complete in us if we obey His Word (1 John 2:5), that we do not really love God if we do not abide in the teachings of Jesus (2 John 9) and that there is no greater joy than to be “walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
The repeated teaching of the New Testament is faith first, then works to follow. There is no faith by simply acknowledging teaching, institutions such as churches, or leaders like ministers or priests; these all help, but they lead to essential personal acceptance of God’s gift of salvation and the surrender of our life to be yielded to God’s purposes each day.