Brothers and sisters, we know that a person is justified not by the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the Law, because no one will be justified by the works of the Law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.
This excerpt from the letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians includes one of the main thoughts that Paul taught. Basically put - a person is justified (meaning saved) not by what he or she does, but by the faith he or she has. This thought or idea caused a bit of a stir even in the ancient Church. We can't say for sure, but it would seem that Saint James was provoked to write an objection, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?... Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?" (James 2:14, 20).
The dispute over "faith and works" continues to this day, where quotes out of the New Testament are taken out of context and are used something like a weapon to prove an argument. What faith is this that has no works? Can there be works without faith? Isn't the salvation of a person the work exclusively of the grace of God? How can anyone be saved by their own works? These are the questions asked by one side. And these are not the wrong questions to ask and the (obvious) answers to them are also not that off the mark. The other side asks - faith without works is dead, even the demons believe and are afraid. And this also is not wrong. We often hear statements like, "Why do I need faith? What's the point of going to church? Isn't it enough to be a good and positive person, and do some good once in a while?
In order to get to the bottom of this, we first need to get a proper understanding of "faith" and "works."
It is a bit easier with the "works." From the context of Saint Paul's letters, when he talks about the "works," he means the specific works of the Law of Moses. More generally speaking, however, under the "works" we can also understand any and all works of charity, or even simply the good works. Yet, good feelings and works are possible without any conscious faith because morality is part of human nature. Different groups of people might have differing morality, but all of us have a concept of right and wrong upon which good works are based. We find great examples of kindness, mercy, and love in people from any historical period, cultures, or religions. So yes, good works are possible without any faith in the One True God.
"Faith" is a trickier. Is faith, which is mentioned by Saint Paul, possible without good works? There is only one possible answer - no, faith without good works of love and charity is impossible and inconceivable. But, what faith? The word "faith" may have many different concepts. Contemporary person understands "faith" as being confident in the existence of God. However, such faith can exist without good works. Such faith does not require anything extra.
For biblical person, meaning the person living in the biblical times, faithfulness to God meant something different - it meant faithfulness to His commandments. This faith, by definition, is incompatible without the good works. In biblical language this faith is called righteousness. Apostle Paul states that trusting one's own faith as faithfulness, meaning trusting in one's own righteousness, is a great delusion.
If we think that we can earn something, anything, from God; that we can appease Him with our own faithfulness and then make demands from Him; what we are really saying is that an absolutely free God is dependent on us, on our works, on some law, which God has to follow to satisfy our desires. And so Saint Paul rightly teaches that we can't save ourselves with some works or effort. I am not my own savior, rather God is my Savior. All I am left to do is trust Him, entrust myself to Him. Accordingly, Apostle Paul is using the word "faith" not so much as "faithfulness," but more as "trust," "hope," "confidence."
Saint Paul did not even think to separate "faith" and "works." What Apostle James said about "faith being dead without works," was true for Apostle Paul as well. Trusting the loving God in Jesus Christ, having faith in the Gospel of love and salvation, denial of oneself, rejection of one's own acts of self-righteousness, complete entrusting of oneself to the Risen Lord Jesus, opening of one's heart to the action of the Holy Spirit - all of these constitute a direct path to salvation.
Having entrusting himself to the grace of God, Saint Paul was able to exclaim, "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." Such faith is unimaginable without its consequences: love that reveals itself in our works. All of the epistles of Paul are permeated with love and exhortations to the acts of love because he thinks and writes about a live faith, not a dead one, that is gifted to us by the Source of life and love - God.
Just to reiterate, it is possible to do good works without having faith, any faith in anything; but genuine faith is impossible without good works. However, the good works are not our own from our faith, they are from God because of our faith - God Who is incomprehensible for our mind, but very accessible for our heart, which is open for His works of grace. The only answer to the grace of God we can give are the works of love and mercy. By doing these works we strengthen our faith. It's a cycle, and in some way both faith and works are gifts of God.
The above notes are based on a commentary in Russian, which can be found here.
Yours in the Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest