Love Wins – Faith vs Works vs Religion

Highlighting character does not diminish faith

Shouldn’t Faith Produce Works
Shouldn’t Religion Encourage It

In his book, Love Wins, Rob Bell mentioned several things Christians should do. Many of those “do’s” involve social, charitable, environmental and ecological activities and he was accused of teaching salvation by works because of it.

A first reading might give that impression but once you get over the initial “whaaaat?”, and you’ve had a chance to investigate further you realize Rob said nothing of the kind.

In fact, he made it quite clear that salvation is strictly a unilateral proposition. God’s part only, no human part required, except of course, repentance and faith.

A couple of quotes to wet your appetite:

Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear. But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well. p187

Yea, you read that right. “Good” people can be just as separated from God as “bad” ones so, no, Rob doesn’t endorse a “good works” approach to salvation and to further prove that he also said:

Forgiveness is unilateral. p189

“Unilateral” meaning only one side is doing the forgiving and in this case it is God not us.

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So lets be clear. Rob is NOT teaching salvation by works. Yes, he does emphasize character building but that’s not strange. Everyone does that! He emphasizes it more than most but maybe he’s right and most are wrong.

The fact is, Rob was touching on arguments that haveLove Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived divided the Christian community since the beginning of the New Testament age: Faith vs Works vs Religion. These ideas have been batted back and forth for the last two millennia.

When it comes to the question, “How does a person get saved?” there are two prominent answers:

  • One group believes faith in Jesus is all that is required for salvation – conservative Bible churches promote this.
  • A second group believes works must be added to faith.

And among the works-plus-faith group, there are several variations to consider:

  • The works in some cases are only secular – social justice, charity, ecology, etc.
  • In other cases the required works are only religious – baptism, Communion, prayers, confessions, church attendance, offerings, marriage, etc.
  • And some encourage a combination of both secular and religious works.

Obviously, in some cases a person “Works” so hard to keep up with the required actions there is little room or time left for faith. And to complicate things even further…

  • Several in the works-plus-faith group add the dimension of religion to the debate when they suggest “THEIR” religious ceremonies are the only right ones.

In other words, if you were not baptized in their denomination or married in their church then you are neither baptized nor married and you, therefore, are not saved.

But the Faith vs Works vs Religion issue is confusing because even the “faith only” group believe that works should be evident. The thinking is, the right kind of faith will produce appropriate kinds of actions. So the faith only people expect, look for and assess people on the basis of works.

And there is practical justification for this. Because you can’t see into a person’s heart to know for certain that Jesus is there, you must rely on external evidence to determine if their heart and life has truly changed. There is truth in that but if external evidence is overemphasized it tends to overshadow faith.

“Faith only” groups who talk more about works than faith (eat this not that, go here not there, wear this not that, etc.) stand the chance of sending the wrong message. Works becomes more prominent than faith and people respond by putting on the appearance to gain acceptance while in reality faking the faith part. Outward appearance becomes more important than inward condition.

A person will fake it very sincerely but still fake it, only because being accepted by the group gets confused with being accepted by God. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when people demonstrate the apparent evidences but are unaware of faith.

Apollos (Acts 18:25) and the disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1) are New Testament examples of this very thing.

That doesn’t mean it is difficult to get saved. What it means is that it is sometimes difficult to unravel the tangled up messages that church people send. Faith will always produce works and religious groups will always encourage this. It is impossible not to mention the works but we must be very careful to put it all in the right perspective.

Works are only the evidence and never the means of salvation.

We must also be careful not to make quick accusations when someone, like Rob, joins in the discussion and says things that fall outside the normal list of evidences.

The point is, works/evidence are expected even in the faith only group. They look for and encourage works. They name and list the expected works. Anyone not demonstrating these works – whether religious or secular – may be judged as “not really saved” further aggravating the issue.

The discussion, however, doesn’t need to be so complicated. Repentance, something the Bible clearly says precedes salvation, is a change of mind. That change involves what you think, the way you think and your perspective on life generally. Not only will the overall effect of those changes naturally alter your whole attitude about life, they are also evidences of salvation. But the outliving of that attitude may take a little time. The heart changes immediately at salvation but life may lag behind.

A repentant addict will honestly admit to their addiction and will want to be free of it even if they struggle to let go completely. They may need help to gain release and they may struggle even with help but the desire, the intention, the effort are evident.

Is that “work?” Not really. But it is evidence that a change has occurred.

Can a person be genuinely saved and not at least want to change? Shouldn’t we make the effort to become better people and when we talk about how to change are we guilty of preaching salvation by works? I don’t think so.

What all of this proves is that it is very easy to hear the right message but draw the wrong conclusion. It is difficult to talk about salvation by faith without addressing character, life style, morality and one biblical writer James, the brother of Jesus, actually made this point:

Faith without works is dead. James 2:20

Not your soul but “Faith” is dead without works.

James was focused on the nature of faith. Genuine faith is expressed by a heart that has truly repented and a repentant heart will effect life change as well. You can’t exercise the right kind of faith without becoming a different kind of person. Not a perfect person, or an absolutely right person, but a different person.

And a genuine Christian will never stop trying to change or if they do they will be frustrated out of their mind. We will never be perfect in this life. There will always be room for improvement. It is a continual process.

And that is another reason why the message can get confused. It takes a split second to embrace Jesus by faith but it takes a life time to live out the resulting changes.

The opposite is also true. We may shy away from the change topic for fear of misrepresenting “faith” but there is really no excuse for neglecting change. It is the one capability that separates humanity from the rest of creation. We can and should change. Nothing else in creation has that capacity.

So, yes, Rob did place great emphasis on character and life change in Love Wins but I don’t think he should be punished for it. Maybe he is on the right track.

Remember this. Salvation is simple but, once secured, it opens a door to a life time of change which may at times seem hard, even impossible.


Check out what Rob Bell believes here.

See a review of Love Wins, chapter 1, here.

See a discussion on the “Age of Accountability” here.

The Love Wins Companion offers valuable information for anyone wanting to explore further: insights and commentary by qualified individuals, in-depth exploration of significant Bible passages, detailed chapter summaries of Love Wins with questions and guides for discussion, historical evidence demonstrating the breadth and diversity of Christian ideas about heaven and hell and more.


In The Reason For God Timothy Keller confronts head on the questions that skeptics are asking, yet without a confrontational style. It is sensible, rational and engaging. A must read for every thinking person, Christian or not. His approach to hard questions about God not only provides answers it encourages us to develop analytical thinking skills. Also available is a DVD with discussion guide for small group interaction.


  1. Sandy Bittrick says

    Thanks for your website. I wished more Christians would think about what the Bible says in a logical manner. After all we are told to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.

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