Hi Sarah. Thanks for your question, which is a really good and important one.
The Bible makes it clear that no-one is good enough to deserve acceptance by God (Romans 3:9-20). On the contrary, we deserve to be condemned and punished by him (Ephesians 2:1-3). However, through Jesus’ death on the cross everyone who believes in him is"justified” (Romans 3:21-26). Justification is the technical term the Bible uses for God accepting us and pronouncing us"not guilty.” It’s the opposite of condemnation (see Romans 5:16, 5:18, and 8:33-34).
This verdict is based not on our good works (which would never be sufficient), but on those of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:16-19). God counts his obedience as ours, and our wrongdoing as his (2 Corinthians 5:21). At the cross, Jesus bore the punishment we deserve, so that we can share in the eternal life he deserves (2 Peter 2:24; John 3:16).
So our good works don’t contribute anything to our justification. It’s by faith alone that we share in what Jesus has accomplished for us. Scripture says:“To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” (Romans 4:5-6, italics mine). And again:“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” (Titus 3:5).
Nevertheless, this does not mean that works are unimportant. You are absolutely right that"faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and that what we do matters to salvation. Our works prove the reality of our faith. This is the point James makes in James 2. A faith that makes no difference to our life is not a true, saving faith.
The issue is which come first. The bible is clear about this. We are saved by faith alone and from that salvation comes the good works that shows we have been saved. Look at the theif on the cross. He did no good works yet we know he was saved because Jesus tels us that he was. And why? Because he put his faith in Jesus.
So I agree with Catholics that a person needs both faith and works. But we see those good works as evidence of our salvation, whereas the Catholic church teaches that our good works actually contribute to our salvation (see, for example, the section on"Grace and Justification” in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church). The Catholic view is that justification is a process by which God works in us to make us more and more acceptable to himself. We believe this is contrary to the teaching of Scripture that our acceptance by God depends solely on Christ’s work for us, in which we share by faith.