I am a member of the Missouri Synod denomination, although I really don't like to see the denominations as "seperations." I like to see us all as Christians -- just Christians with different ideas. Anyway I had read that faith without works is dead. Which I do agree with. I have always been taught that it is by Jesus's perfect sacrafice for us and our faith in Him that we are saved, and that our own righteousness or good works won't get us to heaven.
I guess I have always looked at it that we should do our best to please the Lord and do what's right by Him, but in the end it is only our faith in Him that will save us.
My question would then be what exactly is meant by works? Is it "simpiler" things like prayer and avoiding sin to the best of our abilities or does it move to "bigger things" (missionary work, volunteering, etc.)?
At its simplest, "works" is anything that you put effort into accomplishing. When you realize that, then you should see that even faith is a work. You have to choose to trust. It is mental effort, but it is still effort. "Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent"" (John 6:28-29).
We know by instinct that all works are not the same. Yet, typically those who say, "We are saved by faith alone and not of works," are playing word games with what they consider to be a work. Usually every thing is lumped into work so as to claim that no man can do anything to be saved. They see it as God does everything and the person really has no choice. But notice in the exchange Jesus had in John 6:28-29 that "works" is qualified. What are the works God expects of us?
You can read the Bible from cover to cover and realize that God never saved people who did nothing. God has always demanded that people do things. Those things, in and of themselves, could never result in God owing the person salvation, but without some effort on the person's part, he would never gain salvation either. For example, you acknowledge that faith is necessary for salvation; in fact, you went further to say it was the only thing needed. But that is a falsehood. One can believe and not be saved. "You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe - -and tremble!" (James 2:19). Demons believe, but that belief doesn't lead to their salvation. Another way to say this is that faith alone does not earn salvation.
A common verse quoted is "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). First, take note that Paul did not say "faith alone." But what I want you to notice is that most people take this verse out of context. By stopping at verse nine the word "works" is undefined. Those who claim that people can do nothing then impose their definition that it is all works. But notice the very next verse: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Paul isn't eliminating all works. Like James, Paul is saying there are works that must be done. "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). But those works are of God's devising and not man's. Paul is saying that all the effort that I might put in will never earn me salvation. But Paul is not saying that God gives out salvation for free, without effort on man's part. God gives us something we can never earn for a "cost" far below its true price.
That is why salvation is referred to as a gift from God (an undeserved favor). By asking man for faith, a faith that is willing to obey God (John 14:15), God will give eternal life in return, even though what was done could never come close to qualifying as a purchase price for eternal life. "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:10). Yet, those who preach salvation by faith alone imply that the only good servant is the one who does nothing. In fact, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 proves that one cannot be saved by doing nothing or doing the minimal.
With that as an introduction, I have two articles that go into this topic in greater depth if you would care to consider them:
Now, in regards to denominations, what you are saying is that God doesn't care what a person believes or what a person does, so long as they intend it to be for God. Often we forget that religion is about God and not about ourselves. It is God who defines what He wants. It is man's duty to be obedient to the Lord's wishes. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, Whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). To claim it doesn't matter, you must first prove that God doesn't care. I think you'll have a hard time with that.
"I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ" (Galatians 1:6-10).
"Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Corinthians 1:10-13).
Let me recommend another article: Cafeteria-Style Religion.
I appreciate your honest answer. I am sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. I believe God does indeed care about our ideas. I simply think that in our effort to do what's right by God various people interpretted the Bible differently and tried to set up a "church" that they felt was the closest to what God wanted. When it comes to people and religion I don't like to think that they changed the rules malicously, but that they misunderstood as people often do.
I guess I never really thought too deeply about what "works" are. Don't get me wrong. I realize we have to do good on this Earth because it's pleasing to God and that is what we should be striving for, pleasing God. But our faith in Jesus Christ is what's most important to God.
However I believe I do understand where you are coming from. Without works we can easily fall into compliancy figuring that God will simply forgive us as long as we have faith is Jesus. Basically making no effort to change our ways.
Since you understand that God does care, and that God has told us what He wants, it is up to men then to compare a group's claims of following God to what God actually said. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1).
As James said, "But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18).
"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (I John 5:2-3).
To say that faith is what is most important to God is to claim to know the mind of God. God has said that we must believe, that it is not optional (Hebrews 11:6), but God didn't say that as long as someone has faith the rest of His commands can be treated as extra credit. Rather than trying to rate God's commands to find the minimum requirement, focus on living by God's commands.