According to the Bible, we are counted as righteous and will be saved not because of our works but by our faith. On the other hand, James said that faith without works is essentially dead. My question I believe is a pretty common one, asked by non-believers or non-Christians, but I’d like to hear your approach on this. If someone asked you, “If faith is all that it takes to be saved, then why are we here? If an atheist who does good works such as Bill Gates (i.e. he has a huge foundation that helps thousands of people) goes to hell, but let’s say a Christian who does corruption goes to heaven because of his faith, then such God is not a just one and is not worth worshiping.” How would you respond? Usually when I’m confronted with such questions, I respond by saying that good works that we do in this world should have a different a motivation: not in order to get to heaven but because God loves us first and that He commands us to do so to others. As a bonus, your good works will be rewarded, but this reward will only be given to people who are saved. Yet, more often than not, this type of answer will yield more questions than what it tried to answer such as, if so why would he give non-believers time to live if He can foreknowledge that these non-believers won’t convert until the end of their life. Again, I can only then say that is for God to answer and not me. Thanks and curious to hear your thoughts on this.
You are actually asking a few major questions. Giving you a well-reasoned answer to all the implied questions below is going to be really hard. If you do some searches at my web site, you will find that I have addressed all of these theological questions multiple times. In fact, we have an entire ten-hour class on this topic, titled, “Answering the Hard Questions.” It is part of our Apologetics Certificate Program. You should check it out and consider taking this course.
I will do my best in the limited time I have available right not to at least start answering your questions. First of all, we need to begin by understanding the qualities of God. Every quality God has he has in overwhelming completeness. God is holy. He is absolutely holy. God is just. His justice is absolute and has no exceptions. God is love. He cannot commit an act which is not consistent with his love. God is all-knowing. He knows what has and what will happen, as he exists outside of time (as demonstrated by his telling Moses that his name is I AM in Exodus 3:14).
Let me add that those who would reject God because they do not agree with him are behaving very unwisely. Who decided that God had to be good? Who would dare to defy God, even if they disagreed with his nature. What foolishness is this? The very idea that God needs to be “good” comes from a Christian worldview in which God is known to be good. Do we really think that God has to live up to our desire to be what we wish he was? Besides, these people are wrong. They simply do not understand the God with whom we have to do. Our God is good, he is just, and he is loving. He is also just and will exact retribution on those who do evil, but that is a good trait as well.
With that basis, let me answer your question. First of all, God is perfect and wholly without sin. He is holy and will have nothing to do with sin. His justice is absolute and, like it says in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin are death.” God has come down to earth, been incarnated in his Son Jesus Christ and offered to make atonement so that we can restore our relationship with him. He is “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26). But he sets the conditions of our salvation. We are save by faith, not by works, as you say (Ephesians 2:9-11). The question is, what kind of faith is saving faith? Is it faith which merely acknowledges that God exists and offers salvation? Clearly no. Like Paul said, “The only thing that matters is faith, expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 5:6) So, faith that is not expressed in love—in the unconditional love that marks disciples of Jesus (John 13:34), is not saving faith. James, as you mention, said that faith which is not expressed in “works” of faith is also not saving faith. “You see that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24). There is no contradiction here. God gets to determine the conditions of salvation. In a word, it is faith in him, and more specifically in his blood (Romans 3:25). But this faith absolutely must contain “works” that accompany salvation and it must be expressed in love. It also must be expressed in obedience. We are called to the obedience that comes from faith in order to receive grace (Romans 1:5). Are we talking about perfect obedience? Are we talking about perfect love and a certain number of works? No, but without these the faith is not of the sort which saves. This is what the Bible teaches.
Those who would question the Christian God that “faith is all it takes to be saved” and therefore a Christian can behave however they want—perhaps even being far more ungodly that many sincere atheists out there—is not correctly understanding the biblical teaching on salvation. Yet, the unbeliever may have a bit of a point—just a bit of a point, but a point, nevertheless. They may demand that their life is sufficiently moral and ethical to “deserve” salvation. Well, this may seem like a good argument, but it is not consistent with the nature of the God who is the actual God of the universe, who is as holy as he is loving, and as just as he is holy. He demands perfection. Therefore, no one is good. All alike have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-20), including all believers and all non-believers. So, the atheist’s criticism may seem logical, but it falls on the hard rocks of the reality of who God is. Besides, it asks God to not be holy and just—qualities that atheists themselves would insist in “God.”
Christians who engage in corruption do not go to heaven. Well, sort of. We all sin, and all of us are guilty of at least some level of “corruption” even after salvation. But those who are willfully, continually corrupt, after salvation, will not remain saved. This is what the Bible teachers, for example, in Hebrews 10:26-31. The charge that God is not just may seem logical, but if we understand God, this is a false charge, as we find described so eloquently in Ezekiel 18:25-32. God challenges us. You say that my way is not just? It is your way that is not just. God’s justice is tempered with love. This is as it should be, and it is as God is. The atheist’s complaint may sound logical, but it is not consistent.
Last, you throw in a question about foreknowledge. If God knows what we will do, then how can he hold us accountable for this? If he knows who will and who will not believe, then why not just take those other people out? This is a common question. It involves the natural human confusion between the two qualities of God–his foreknowledge and his predestination. God predestines all to salvation (1 Tim 2:4), but most choose not to accept this offer (Matthew 7:13-14). For us, trapped in a universe in which time is a linear thing–past, present, and future–it is hard to conceive of foreknowledge without predestination. If God knows what will happen, then, to us, logically, he also determines what happens. But God has given us a true freedom of will (Deuteronomy 30:19-20 and many more…). The fact that he exists outside of time and space–that he knows what we will do before we do it–does not negate the fact that he gives us a choice. God calls us to himself, but he will not force us. He makes the rain to fall on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45). He even blesses in this life those who do not choose him, but in the end, all will be called to account before him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13). This is as true as it is that I am sitting here writing this letter.
I could say a lot more, but I hope this will get you started.