In the gospel of John we find this rather strange verse. The scene follows both the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water. Now Jesus is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee and the Israelites have found him once more and they pose this question to him.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29 NIV)
We are immediately confronted by a unique use of the word “work.” When we read this verse, Ephesians 2:8-9 comes to mind where it is quite clearly stated that we are saved by grace and not by works. Yet we find Jesus saying that there is a work that we must do in order to be saved.
The distinction is being made between the cause of our salvation and what we are responsible to do in order to be saved. Ephesians 2:8-9 is discussing the basis of our acceptance with the Father. This acceptance is based solely on the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins. We cannot add anything to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Romans 3:28). John 6:28-29 speaks of our responsibility to believe the gospel message. Here the emphasis is on what we are called to do. But it is the work of Christ on the cross that saves us. We are called to trust in the work of Jesus for our salvation.
So… while believing is something that we must do, in that sense it is a work, it is not the basis for our acceptance with the Father. We are not capable of doing what God requires for our acceptance, which is perfect obedience to the law of God (Galatians 3:11). Our salvation is always all of God and yet at the same time we are responsible to believe, even though our faith is also called a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). As believers we are in love with a most remarkable God.