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I used to think that sola fide meant salvation by faith irrespective of works. Then I started reading about it and realized it means salvation by faith with works.

Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life. -- Martin Luther

We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. -- Martin Luther

In my view, its a very subtle and insignificant distinction from salvation by faith and works. Take a look at these pictures:

Faith with works Faith and works

As far as I can tell, both doctrinal traditions will save the exact same group of people.

Am I correct? Is the difference inconsequential? If so, why is so much effort put forth to distinguish the two?

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Remember 'works' is two things; 'works of the law' which does not gain salvation, and 'works' with faith which is mentioned in James. The latter 'works' is a reflection of an inward change and necessary to make your faith alive. –  Monkieboy Oct 27 '12 at 22:15
    
I don't know if a Venn diagram can adequately describe this. –  user3797 Jan 23 '13 at 17:11
    
Related: youtu.be/j_MFmoCMbzs?t=11m –  svidgen Aug 2 '13 at 17:41
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7 Answers

Since the "faith alone" viewpoint has been well represented thanks to @DavidStratton, I will propose an additional diagram that doesn't fit into either of the two in the question, This is the view posited by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I will abbreviate Eastern Orthodox as EO for the remainder of this response.

Rather than a Venn diagram including faith and works (with faith shown as being more preeminent), or a diagram with works following and slightly overlapping with faith, EO views faith and works as two sides of the same coin (and as equally important).

Two sides of the same coin

Orthodox Christianity teaches that belief in Jesus must be combined with putting that belief into action - feeding the hungry, ministering to others, etc. Both are essential. We read in the epistles:

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,' but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear" (NET, emphasis mine).

One can indeed 'believe' in Christ and yet lead a life that betrays that belief. Hence belief alone is not sufficient. Jesus said, "Not all who say 'Lord, Lord' will have a place in my Kingdom" (Matthew 7:21). Thus EO view grace and works as a synergistic process. Synergy comes from a Greek word that essentially means "cooperation" or "working together."

EO does not view grace as God's attitude towards man, it is more of a real energy or power that He gives to man freely, which enables us to have faith in Him and do works that please Him.

A great video explanation that contrasts the Protestant vs. Orthodox views of salvation is available here, and there is a good article available by Don Fairbairn that explains five perspectives commonly held by Protestants of EO and how each is justified or incorrect according to Fairbairn's beliefs. Also, the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) is very helpful in understanding EO beliefs and practices as well.

I hope you don't mind me pitching my two cents in.... ;)

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I would rather view works as the fruit which comes from the nature of the tree; make a tree good and its fruit will be good (regeneration). A "faith" without works is as useless/dead as a tree that will not produce fruit . –  Paul A. Clayton Oct 28 '12 at 20:56
    
Late addition: Faith and works "working together" might be like metabolizing and breathing--metabolizing might be considered living but the outward sign--breathing--is kind of important. :-) (It should also be noted that at least Reformed teaching is justification by works--Christ's life of perfect righteousness.) –  Paul A. Clayton Oct 28 '12 at 21:15
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+1 I like your answer because the works aspect is not clear but this does a good job, (the coin analogy) to help understand how it works. It is similar to praying for your clothes to be pressed but not actually picking up the pressing iron to perform the work. –  Monkieboy Oct 30 '12 at 13:32
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@David Stratton probably said as much in his response and the subsequently linked articles, but to be succinct, a faith without works isn't real faith. Works are a demonstration of that faith, not essential as if they are tallied somewhere, but a proof (perhaps more to yourself than anyone else) of what you really believe.

I might add that we're not saved by faith, rather by grace, but faith is the acceptance of God's gift. God does not save someone against his will. We must accept the gift, but that acceptance does not make us in any way worthy of it, as if we could demand it of God.

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Yes, the two doctrines are quite different, you cannot be saved by your works, but there must be works with your faith for you to find salvation. In other words, it's not the works that saves your soul, but without the works your faith is in vain and of none effect.

If I keep telling you that I believe the chair in front of us will hold me up, but I never sit in it, I don't really believe that the chair will hold me up do I? My faith in the chair should cause me to sit in it. The same holds true with Jesus.

Though grace by faith alone is what applies the salvation to your life (Eph 2:8), faith without works is dead (Jam 2:17-18). But we can see that spoken by Jesus too, so I'm hoping we can all agree on that (Mk 16:16).

So, the faith that exists in you should cause you to keep the commandments of The Lord (Jn 14:15; Mk 16:16), and you see those works during the process of salvation when the Church came into existence in Acts (Acts 2:37-38; Acts 8:12-17; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 19:1-6).

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+1 The professing of ones faith in Christ does require an action, as in your chair analogy, to do as Christ did. –  Monkieboy Oct 30 '12 at 13:38
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I would just like to expand on @Dan O'Day's comments regarding the catholic (lower-case c) perspective on faith and works. In the Roman rite of Christian Orthodoxy (aka Roman Catholic), the concept of salvation is explained by sola gratia (as in salvation only by grace), rather the the sola fide doctrine conceived by Martin Luther. If one is truly coporating with God in the reception of his free gift of grace, both faith and works will be evidenced (due to the salvific and empowering nature of God's grace itself). If not, only one or the other, or nethier will be visibily demonstrated from the individual professing Christianity.

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Only Paul taught salvation by faith alone. Messiah Jesus taught that whoever believed in him would do the same works that he had done [Jn.14]. The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Mt. 25 is by works as is the great white throne judgment in Rev.20. Rev.19 tells us that 'the fine linen white and clean is the righteous deeds of the saints' and Jesus taught that the man without a wedding garment was thrown into the outer darkness. James had to correct Paul by saying: "But will you know O vain man, that faith without works is dead. " James2:19

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I think you're answering the wrong question. The question isn't who taught what or what is "right", but what the difference between the two views would be. We're actually pretty picky about that around here. Please consider editing your answer to actually address the question without soap-boxing your view (which, particularly from your first scentence, is disputed so you're going to need some references too to show who's view you are representing). See also What makes a good supported answer? –  Caleb Oct 27 '12 at 15:12
    
Also, please state which view point you are speaking from, the use of 'outer darkness' makes me think you are talking from a Mormon perspective, is this true? –  Monkieboy Oct 30 '12 at 13:41
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First a disclaimer, I come from the camp that salvation is by faith alone. The answer will be coming from my perspective, since the question seems to be geared toward those who hold this view. It also intentionally goes against the definition of Christianity as accepted for the sake of this community because I think that it's the only way to address the question. I fully expect opposing answers and down-votes, but I'm also attempting to answer the question to the best of my ability because it's important.

The difference is very important. It's not inconsequential at all.

The reason it is important comes down to three things (in addition to what I read in the Scriptures):

  1. Pride
  2. Giving the glory to God, who deserves it.
  3. The command to worship God in spirit and in truth. (Emphasis mine.)

Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

To my view, and those who hold it, if we are attempting to add works to faith, then we are not depending solely on God or the saving grace of Jesus. We are depending at least somewhat on ourselves. Since we're told that we are saved by faith along apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28) if we try to add our own works on top of it, we're not obeying in faith.

We're placing part of the faith in ourselves, and (this may be harsh) we're calling God a liar by rejecting His clear word on the subject. In essence, we're worshiping a "god" of our own making - one we've created in our mind, which is, by definition, idolatry.

This is not to say that works aren't important. Works are a sign that we have already been saved by faith, and something we do out of gratitude. I personally would argue that someone who is not showing good works is probably not truly saved because they are not showing the fruit of salvation. But I wouldn't be dogmatic about it because I don't know the heart or state of salvation of anyone.

There's a good article on the subject here.

I'm adding this later as an illustration that may make the answer of whether it's a "minor detail" more precise.

Expanding on what I said about taking credit for our own salvation as being pride. Pride is in and of itself a sin. God hates pride.

Even a little bit of taking credit for our owns salvation is like having a "little bit" of sin. It's not something that can be seen in shades of gray. It really is an all-or-nothing black-or-white issue. Our pastor often uses an illustration in which he holds up a clear glass of water and asks if anyone would object to drinking it. Then he asks, "OK, let's add just one drop of urine to it. How many of you would drink it then?" It's gross, yes. Disgusting. But that's the point. God's holiness is so supreme that even the smallest hint of sin is sickening to Him. Adding the least bit of our own "works" to His gift pollutes the gift.

In Isaiah 64:6, we read that all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. Not our sin, our righteousness - the very best we are capable of is worthless to Him. How could we possibly hope to add to our own salvation when the best we can do is no good at all?

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BTW, I don't think your answer does go against the site's definition of Christian... since you're addressing salvation, and the site's definition says nothing about who is or is not saved. And many (myself included) think that, while there is a clear overlap between "Christian" and "saved", there are also clearly people who fall into each category, but not both. I'd love to post a Venn diagram, so I can seem more nerdy, and in line with the diagram in the question, but alas... I cannot upload images into comments :) –  Flimzy Oct 29 '11 at 19:20
    
I created a long response to your answer in chat: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1796/faith-works-and-salvation –  JustinY Nov 16 '11 at 4:46
    
+1 I am 100% behind this answer especially as you have stated that the good works that are done should be the fruit of salvation not an effort by the person to make themselves righteous by following a legalistic regime. –  Monkieboy Oct 30 '12 at 13:29
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James 2:14-17 NKJV:

14What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Emphasis added)

So your Euler-Wenn diagrams seem wrong...

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A quote is not an answer. You have not explained how or why you believe the Venn diagram is wrong. –  Flimzy Oct 30 '11 at 2:12
    
The logic says of the above excerpt that Faith is included in Works. This is in line with Paul's vision of salvation (Romans 2:14-29). Therefore none of the two diagrams is true in my oppinion. Moreover, as an orthodox I am reluctant to preach. I can give pointers but I will never say that I have the supreme truth (what if I am possessed and I say blasphemies). This is why I gave pointers - this is for the other to discover more and ask the wise ones, not me. –  exigus Oct 30 '11 at 8:13
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Your explanation seems to me to suggest that the first Venn diagram is the correct one, not that neither is correct. But really this question isn't about which Venn diagram is correct--it's about whether the distinction between the Venn diagrams is important. And neither your answer nor your comment seem to address this. Although I suppose that pointing out that the basis of the question is flawed would be valid, if that's the stand you're trying to take. But again, simply quoting scripture here is not sufficient to make that point. –  Flimzy Oct 31 '11 at 6:48
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