Even though I have faith in Christ and live righteously by the standards of the world, James writes that those who break one Law are guilty of breaking the whole of it. If I have to maintain my own salvation by works, then wretched man that I am, damnation is my destiny. Apart from Christ’s works for us, there can be no salvation, because none of us can earn our salvation or earn the right to keep it.
My sister and her husband are Muslim. My sister scoffed that “Christians believe they can do anything they want if they have faith in Christ.” I said, “Doesn’t Islam teach you you need to fulfill the five pillars of Islam to be in right relationship with Allah?”
She said yes. So I replied, “Well, if you give alms, and pray 5 times a day, go on pilgrimage, and etc, and these things must be done to be in a right relationship with God, could any man do these perfectly?”
She said no. So I replied, “So, the only way that Islam can save people is if Allah is imperfect, or he has imperfect standards. Christianity teaches that God is perfect and He has perfect standards. No man can fulfill those standards, besides one: Jesus Christ who, though God, took on flesh and lived a perfectly righteous life. This satisfied God the Father’s righteous Law’s demands while paying the full penalty of all men’s sins for all time.”
All of this is made possible by faith in Christ, because such faith brings us in union with Him so that Christ pays our penalty and God judges us by His righteousness.
So, while our good works may please God, if they at any point are our basis for how we are saved then we are under His wrath unless His standards are imperfect, or He Himself is. “Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength” (Is 45:24). If God demands righteousness from man at any time, before or after faith, but man’s righteousness is like filthy rags to the One who alone is the only righteous being, then it is impossible to please Him by our own efforts. Yet, in God alone, all things are possible indeed.