I have heard, even recently, well meaning Christians claim that the Old Testament was all about Law and the New Testament was all about Grace. In line with this, I also have heard it claimed that Paul was all about salvation by faith as opposed to “the Jews” who were all about salvation by works. If that were true, Paul could not have written this passage in Romans:
6 For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.
The reality is that when we try to falsely separate faith and works, we end up with a system that is not completely Christian. No one can earn their way into heaven. This is true. But no one can simply believe their way into heaven, either. Our faith and beliefs have to be strong enough to change the way we live, the way we act and interact in the world.
When people separate faith and works, it gives them an excuse to continue sinning and to avoid the struggle against sin. “After all,” they say, “I am not saved by what I do, only by what I believe.” This leads to an attitude that thinks as long as we have confessed Christ as Lord and Savior, we can act in ways that are explicitly opposed to his lordship and contrary to the salvation he offers, and we will still be fine.
For me, this goes back to my starting point for all theology: God is not dumb. If Christ came to destroy sin and give us new life in him by being born of the Spirit, how can we think we can willingly continue living in the old way and as if we had not experienced that new birth? God does not expect someone to be completely perfect all at once, but God does expect struggle against sin, dependence upon him, and growth in grace. In this way, we live out the reality of being in Christ and having the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us.