A Muslim-Christian Dialogue on Salvation: The Role of Works

by Paul Martindale

One principle of effective witness with Muslims is listening and allowing them to identify the issues which they find important in the discussion. It is then up to us to formulate our biblical understanding for them in those areas.

One principle of effective witness with Muslims is listening and allowing them to identify the issues which they find important in the discussion. It is then up to us to formulate our biblical understanding for them in those areas. At a recent meeting betwaeen Muslims and Christians on the topic of salvation, the role of works became central in the ensuing discussion.

The two main objections expressed by the Muslims present centered upon the apparent lack of works necessary for salvation in Christianity and the carte blanche Christians seem to have for sin in their lives after conversion. The easy grace of God in Christianity for the believer appeared to these Muslims as a license or excuse for sinning, since it can be so easily forgiven without working for it. This was a principle which they did not find congruent with Islam and which they could not accept as an expression of authentic biblical Christianity. After listening to their objection, we were able to formulate the following description to clearly portray the role of works in salvation and show them that this was not an automatic excuse for the Christian to sin without worry of consequences.

Both the Muslims and the Christians present were in agreement on the following formulation for the role of works:

Faith + Works + Allah’s Mercy = Salvation

Faith + Grace = Salvation + Works

In Islam, the combination of three things results in salvation: the faith of the believer, the works or deeds of the believer, and Allah’s mercy at the point of judgment. In Christianity, the role of works is on the other side of the equation. For the Muslim, works leads to salvation; for the Christian, however, works grows out of salvation as a response to the grace one has received from God. Quoting from Romans 3:28 we explained that we are justified by faith “apart from observing the law.” Citing verses from the book of James (most notably 2:17 and 2:26), we contended that works will be demonstrated in the life of the believer as a normal consequence of regeneration. James even stated that someone who claims to be saved but does not demonstrate a changed life has a dead faith (2:22, 24). Thus, works is the evidence of authentic conversion and accompanies conversion, even though works plays no role in earning our justification in any way. Thus, salvation plus works must appear together in the believer’s life as an authentic sign that the faith plus grace on the other side of the equation are genuine. Works can also be understood as acts of obedience which are done as a result of a genuine faith and are evidence of our submission to the will of God. (This, of course, needs to be distinguished carefully from an empty legalistic practice of works which is done out of self-righteousness and not genuine faith.)

As a result of this formulation, the Muslims present were able to see that the role of works is taken seriously in Christianity, since works is an outcome and the evidence of salvation and submission to God. Our Muslim friends were also able to see that the Christian does not have blanket permission for sinning at will, as this would call into question the veracity of the person’s salvation as well as his or her submission to God. For the Christian, works, as the sign of an authentic conversion, also leads to assurance of salvation which is absent in Islam except for martyrs who die in battle defending Islam. Islam teaches that only at the point of Allah’s judgment can a Muslim know if he or she has been accorded salvation. Recent studies of former Muslims demonstrate that assurance of salvation was highly influential in their coming to faith in Christ (Woodberry, Shubin, and Marks 2007). Therefore, a biblical theology of works as the evidence and assurance of salvation in the believer’s life may be very attractive to a Muslim who is seeking to understand and compare his or her faith to our own.

Much of the Muslim’s misunderstanding on this point may be the result of contact with nominal Christianity and our Western style of extremely informal practice of “lifestyle” faith (Keener 1993, 696). A more formal and ritualized practice of Christianity would be more attractive to many Muslim seekers than what they see as the loose and careless informal Christian practice of most westerners. Viewing us through their Islamic framework, they often equate this with a lack of commitment and dedication on our part and call into question the authenticity of the Christian faith, reinforcing their view that Islam was given to replace and update a corrupted Christianity.  

Our dialogue with Muslims has forced us to clarify our theology of works. The biblical emphasis we place on faith and grace in salvation is certainly appropriate. However, this is not true when it is taken to the extent that the role of works in the life of the believer is ignored or becomes extinguished in our theology or praxis. For Muslims, this appears to be a central issue, and they need to see how the role of works is affirmed in Christianity. The principle of cultural congruence describes how Christianity will be attractive to Muslims when they are able to observe a large degree of similarity between what they already believe and what they perceive as our beliefs and practices (Greenlee 2006, 44). Therefore, it is essential that we understand the role of works clearly and are able to communicate this well with Muslims in a way that helps them take Christianity seriously.


Greenlee, David, ed. 2006. From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way. Waynesboro, Ga.: Authentic Media.

Keener, Craig. 1993. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Woodberry, J. Dudley, Russell G. Shubin, and G. Marks. 2007. “Why Muslims Follow Jesus: The Results of a Recent Survey of Converts from Islam.” Christianity Today 51(10). Accessed August 23, 2009 from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/october/42.80.html?start=3

Dr. Paul Martindale is lecturer in Islamic studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as well as the director of training and Islamicist for Arab World Ministries. He also serves as the academic director and professor of the Summer Institute on Islam in the Philadelphia training program. Paul spent eighteen years in cross-cultural church-planting ministry in the Arab world.  

Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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