Question: "How can salvation be not of works when faith is required? Isn't believing a work?"
Answer: Our salvation depends solely upon Jesus Christ. He is our substitute, taking sin’s penalty (2 Corinthians 5:21); He is our Savior from sin (John 1:29); He is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). The work necessary to provide salvation was fully accomplished by Jesus Himself, who lived a perfect life, took God’s judgment for sin, and rose again from the dead (Hebrews 10:12).
The Bible is quite clear that our own works do not help merit salvation. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5). “Not of works” (Ephesians 2:9). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). This means that offering sacrifices, keeping the commandments, going to church, being baptized, and other good deeds are incapable of saving anyone. No matter how “good” we are, we can never measure up to God’s standard of holiness (Romans 3:23; Matthew 19:17; Isaiah 64:6).
The Bible is just as clear that salvation is conditional; God does not save everyone. The one condition for salvation is faith in Jesus Christ. Nearly 200 times in the New Testament, faith (or belief) is declared to be the sole condition for salvation (John 1:12; Acts 16:31).
One day, some people asked Jesus what they could do to please God: “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus immediately points them to faith: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent” (John 6:28-29). So, the question is about God’s requirements (plural), and Jesus’ answer is, “God’s requirement (singular) is that you BELIEVE Me.”
Grace is God’s giving us something we cannot earn or deserve. According to Romans 11:6, “work” of any kind destroys grace—the idea is that a worker earns payment, while the recipient of grace simply receives it, unearned. Since salvation is all of grace, it cannot be earned. Faith, therefore, is a non-work. Faith cannot truly be considered a “work,” or else it would destroy grace. (See also Romans 4—Abraham’s salvation was dependent on faith in God, as opposed to any work he performed.)
Suppose a unknown benefactor—someone with whom I had no previous dealings whatsoever—sent me a check for $1,000,000. The money is mine if I want it, but I still must endorse the check. In no way can signing my name be considered earning the million dollars—the endorsement is a non-work. I can never boast about becoming a millionaire through sheer effort or my own business savvy. No, the million dollars was simply a gift, and signing my name was the only way to receive it. Similarly, exercising faith is only the way to receive the generous gift of God, and faith cannot be considered a work worthy of the gift.
True faith cannot be considered a work because true faith involves a cessation of our works in the flesh. True faith has as its object Jesus and His work on our behalf. See Matthew 11:28-29 and Hebrews 4:10.
To take this a step further, true faith cannot be considered a work because even faith is a gift from God, not something we produce on our own. “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that [faith] not of yourselves: it [faith] is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him” (John 6:44). Praise the Lord for His power to save and for His grace to make salvation a reality!