Chapter 10, Saving Faith

Good Works: Evidence of a Saving Faith

by Bernie Koerselman
    


Table of Contents


Introduction

I've known intimately two men who believed their works would save them.  Volker was my real estate partner, and Joe is my son-in-law.  Both said, "I believe that all I have to do to go to heaven is to be a good person."

Volker and I invested together for several years.  We talked about spiritual matters many times.  He was interested, willing to talk, and seemed to make progress in understanding the biblical message of salvation.  When we went to Kansas City to look at property, we visited with my cousin, a pastor there.  While talking of spiritual matters over dinner, Volker repeated his belief that he only had to be a good person in order to go to heaven.  I was aghast when my pastor cousin said, "Yes, that's what I believe too."

It took quite a while to overcome that remark, but God's power far exceeds that of the false teacher.  Through the efforts and prayers of many Christians, Volker and his wife Regina are firmly committed to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

My son-in-law Joe didn't have a saving faith in Jesus.  He thought he would see many of his friends in heaven because they were good people, though his friends didn't know Jesus.  Joe stated that God only requires that we do the best we can.  Joe believed he did that.

This story also has a good ending.  Joe committed himself to the Lord shortly before Christmas, 1984.  What a great Christmas that was!  Joe has remained committed, is growing in the Lord, and now has children (my grandchildren) who know Jesus intimately.

For millions, however, there's not a good ending.  They continue to believe that being good is adequate to enter heaven at death.  Where could such an idea have come from?  Is it biblical?
 

Salvation Is Not by Works

Probably the idea of being saved by good works came from Christendom itself.  By the time of Martin Luther and centuries before, the Roman Catholic Church taught salvation by works.  What had been true of Israel in the days of Paul had become true of the Roman Catholic Church by the time of Luther.  Paul said of Israel:
"What then shall we say?  That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.  Why not?  Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works."1
Through study of Scripture, Luther found that the Roman Catholic doctrine was not the Biblical message of salvation at all.
 

The Biblical Standard

What is the Biblical standard?  Are we to perform good works in order to enter heaven?  Again, the Bible provides the answer:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.2
Those two verses make four points:  Salvation is by God's grace; it is through faith; it is a gift from God; and it is not by works.3

If works could gain salvation, it wouldn't be a gift.  Paul spoke exactly to that: "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation."4  He also stated, "Salvation does not depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."5

As a result of Paul's teaching, some teach that works are not something the Christian should do.  They say that to do works means that we detract from the sacrifice of Jesus which alone saves us.6

Is it a biblical teaching that we are not to do works?  Just the opposite.  Paul emphasized:  "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."7

I attended a Bible study with a group of guys that really love each other.  One thing I've noticed, though, is the emphasis – almost a preoccupation – that salvation isn't by works, to the point of deemphasising the works God calls us to do.  As we've seen from Paul's teaching to the Ephesians, we are created to do good works.8

What should be our emphasis?  The writer of Hebrews said, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."9  Instead of telling each other that good deeds are not to be part of a Christian's life because it shows we are trying to earn salvation, Scripture teaches that we are to spur one another on toward good deeds.10

Are the scriptures inconsistent?  As we have seen, Ephesians 2:9 states we are not saved by works; the very next verse that we are created to do good works.  The two verses are not inconsistent, but present an important distinction.  Anyone who does good works to be saved isn't saved.11  The way of salvation is exclusive.  Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."12  He didn't say, "I am the way plus good works you must do."

Paul taught the same:  "If you confess with your mouth, `Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."13  Paul didn't insert, "and do good works."  No, it is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that salvation is obtained; we are saved through his life.14

Salvation is through the Lord Jesus only!  Our trust for salvation must only be in him.  To add anything is not to trust wholly in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Purpose of Good Works

What about the good works mentioned in Ephesians 2:10?  If good works are not to obtain salvation, what is their purpose?

 Works to Give Glory to God

When a believer is fully submitted to God, he is under the constant direction of the Holy Spirit.  God then causes people and circumstances to come into such a believer's life to be influenced by the believer in whatever way God wishes.  The believer becomes an extension of God's power, the way God works in the world, just as Jesus was the perfectly submitted Son and did and said only what God, his Father, told him to do and say.

Because of God's omniscience, he is able to plan what he will do in the future, knowing events in the future.  That's why Paul was able to say, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."15

It is our responsibility, as we do God's works to extend his kingdom, to make sure the source of the works is always made known.  We're not to seek praise or honor for what we've done.  Jesus said, "Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."16

God initiates the works we are to do, he prepares them in advance for us, and we're to show that whatever we do is through him.

Works As a Test

Good works may be a test.  If they are not a part of our Christian life, we should question whether we have a saving faith.  While such works are not done in order to be saved, they result naturally from a saving faith.17

Remember the story in which Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats?18  As you remember, the only criteria Jesus used in that parable was what the people had done – their works!  Those Jesus will praise as righteous go to eternal life; the others to eternal punishment.  No mention at all of faith is made – only actions.  James said something similar:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.19
Looking after orphans and widows is a form of works.  James said doing them are acceptable to God.

Works As Obedience

Are we to conclude that works are a means to salvation?  No, but good works show obedience to the teachings and commands of Christ.  Note the kinds of actions mentioned by Jesus and James.  The righteous fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, clothed the needy, looked after the sick, visited those in prison, and looked after orphans and widows.

Is there something all of those actions have in common?  Isn't it love?  The primary command of Jesus is to love.  To obey that command means to do those good works which are an expression of the love of Jesus within us.  If we don't display Christ's love in similar ways, is it because we don't have the love of Jesus in us?

Works to Prove Repentance

The first recorded commandment by Jesus, as he began his ministry was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."20  We know that repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to God.  This is a matter of commitment and the heart.  Is there any way we are to show or prove our repentance to God?  Paul thought so.  When he summed up his ministry to King Agrippa, he said: "First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."21

God wants more than words.  God isn't satisfied for us only to say we have faith; he's not satisfied when we simply say we repent.  He wants proof through our actions.

Works of Service

Paul taught the Ephesians about the various jobs we have as Christians.  "He gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."22

Instead of saying the Christian is not to do works, Paul said the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are to prepare God's people for works of service.  The purpose is fourfold: (1) to build up the body, (2) to reach unity in the faith and (3) in the knowledge of Jesus, and (4) to become mature.

That doesn't describe the Christian church today, does it?  We haven't reached unity in the faith or in the knowledge of Jesus.  Professing Christians seem more noted for lack of knowledge of Scripture than their maturity in Christ.  No wonder God's body, his church, has not been built up.  We've not prepared the children of God for works of service!23

Works As a Witness

Lifestyle evangelism draws others to the Lord Jesus because one's lifestyle is attractive and inviting.  To accomplish that, our good deeds must be positive and beneficial so that people are drawn to Christ and God is praised.

Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."24  "Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."25

Good deeds were emphasized by the New Testament writers.  Peter said, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."26  James said, "Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom."27

Works for Lasting Reward

Scripture has much to say about wealth and those who are rich.  Rarely is it good.  The problem of the wealthy is that it's too easy to put their faith in wealth and not in God.

Paul wrote Timothy about the wealthy.  He told him: "Command the wealthy to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share."28

Again the emphasis is on doing good deeds.

Works As Evidence of Faith

When Paul instructed Timothy about caring for widows who were in need, he limited the care to those who met certain criteria.  One of them was that the widow be "well known for her good deeds."29  Apparently Paul intended to limit the resources of the church to those who were truly of the faith and not those who simply professed the faith to secure benefits of the fellowship.

When Paul described desirable characteristics for women in the church, he said they should be seen, not for their dress, but for good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God.30

Martin Luther disliked the teachings of James because the Roman Catholic Church emphasized works, and Luther recognized such teachings as error.  Because James insisted that works are an essential evidence of a saving faith, Luther found the teaching offensive.  Perhaps what Luther didn't clearly understand was that it was not works that James said would save, but only that works were a necessary visible part of a saving faith.  James explained:

"Dear brothers, what's the use of saying that you have faith and are Christians if you aren't proving it by helping others?  Will that kind of faith save anyone?  If you have a friend who is in need of food and clothing, and you say to him, `Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat hearty,' and then don't give him clothes or food, what good does that do?

"So you see, it isn't enough just to have faith.  You must also do good to prove that you have it.  Faith that doesn't show itself by good works is no faith at all – it is dead and useless.

"But someone may well argue, `You say the way to God is by faith alone, plus nothing; well, I say that good works are important too, for without good works you can't prove whether you have faith or not; but anyone can see that I have faith by the way I act.'31

"Are there still some among you who hold that `only believing' is enough?  Believing in one God?  Well, remember that the demons believe this too – so strongly that they tremble in terror!  Fool!  When will you ever learn that `believing' is useless without doing what God wants you to?  Faith that does not result in good deeds is not real faith."32

Remember Abraham?  He did what God asked. Even he had to show God his faith by his works.  So must we.
 

What Works Would Impress God?

Can we impress God with our good works?  If we could, what kind of good works would they be?  One kind would probably involve our wealth and possessions.  If we gave away a lot of our money and possessions, perhaps that would impress God and he would grant us salvation.  Or perhaps our works should create physical hardship.  If we suffer physically in order to gain salvation, perhaps that would influence God favorably.  Paul described both those scenarios:  "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."33

Paul used the extreme of good works, giving all to the poor and suffering unto death.  Even though the person gave all his possessions and his life as well, the person would gain nothing, if he didn't have love.  Love is the primary commandment of Jesus.  If we love our brother as Jesus loves us, if we love our neighbor as ourselves, if we love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, then we are obedient to the teachings and commands of Jesus.

If we don't love, but do the extreme of good works, such as giving all of our wealth to the poor, suffering unto death, we have gained nothing.  If we don't love, we are disobedient to the teachings and commands of Jesus and in rebellion against God.

We can only conclude that there are no works which will impress God and gain salvation for the doer.  Only a saving faith, displayed through obedience and love, fruit and works, justifies us before Almighty God.

A person committed to good works may not have a saving faith.34  There are many dedicated, caring, generous people.  But Scripture unequivocally states that salvation is only through a saving faith and made possible only by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  It is Christ's sacrifice alone which makes us holy, blameless, and free from accusation in the presence of God, not our works.35
 

Fulfillment of End-Time Prophecy?

Referring to his second coming, Jesus asked, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"36

What did he mean?  For a long time I wondered about his question.  I think I understand now.  Our present time in history is close to the negative fulfillment of Christ's question.
 

Church Misses the Mark

Much of the church misses the mark of a saving faith two ways.  They miss the object of their faith – the Lord Jesus Christ.  Instead they preach Jesus as Savior.  They miss the second part by preaching a do-nothing, all-by-grace faith.  As has been proved, a saving faith is visible through love, obedience, fruit and good works.
 

What Must the Church Do?

I believe the church must take a serious reappraisal of itself.  It must repent of following false doctrines instead of the clear teachings of God's Word.  It must preach that salvation is found in the Lord Jesus Christ and is available only to those who believe in (confess) Jesus Christ as their personal Lord.  The church must faithfully proclaim that a saving faith is not hidden and is not invisible.  Just the opposite, a saving faith can be seen by all.  It is like light, evidencing the love of God through the fruit of his Spirit.  The church must teach that the true believer's life is characterized by obedience to the teachings and commands of Jesus Christ his Lord, that a mature believer will bear much fruit that will last, and that the true believer's life will be known for good works.37

Footnotes

1. Romans 9:30-32.
2. Ephesians 2:8-9.
3. Some may think of good works to obtain salvation, but in the brilliant light of God's holiness and righteousness, all are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). This is not to say that when we do those good works which God created us to do (Ephesians 2:10) that he is not pleased with us and our works.
4. Romans 4:4.
5. Romans 9:16.
6. The first section says that we are not saved through Christ's death, but through his life!
(Romans 5:10).
7. Ephesians 2:10. As a practical example of those works which God prepared in advance for us, Paul spoke of Epaphroditus who almost died for the work of Christ (Philippians 2:30).
8. Remember that true believers are new creations in Christ.
9. Hebrews 10:24.
10. Paul did exactly that with Archippus. He told him, "See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord" (Colossians 4:17).
11. Such a person tries to add to faith which is the exclusive means of securing eternal life. In effect, such a person exercises unbelief, showing his belief that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord is not sufficient, that salvation requires more.
That was the situation with the Galatian church. They had received Christ as Lord, exactly as Paul instructed. The power of the Spirit was present. But Judaizers who came from Jerusalem told the Galatian church that to be saved they also had to follow rules and regulations of Judaism.
Then Paul used his strongest language. "Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! " (Galatians 1:7-8).
12. John 14:6.
13. Romans 10:9.
14. Romans 5:10.
15. Ephesians 2:10.
16. John 3:21.
17. Works are the same as obedience, for example, the obedience that comes from faith. Likewise, the good works that come from faith.
18. Matthew 25:31-46.
19. James 1:27.
20. Matthew 4:17.
21. Acts 26:20.
22. Ephesians 4:11-13.
23. Each Christian is described as a part of the body of Christ of which Jesus is the head (see
1 Cor. 12:12-26). Paul relates that to our work for the body of Christ, "From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Consider our present-day church. Has each part done its work? Has the body grown and built itself up in love? I wonder what the Lord will say.
24. Matthew 5:16.
25. John 3:21.
26. 1 Peter 2:12.
27. James 3:13.
28. 1 Timothy 6:17-18.
29. 1 Timothy 5:10.
30. 1 Timothy 2:10.
31. Is it important that our faith be seen, whether we can prove we have it? Jesus said it was important: "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5: 14-16). Our good deeds are one way in which we give light to a dark world. Likewise, Paul said it was important to prove repentance by our deeds (Acts 26:20).
32. James 2:14-20 [TLB].
33. 1 Corinthians 13:3.
34. Mother Theresa has been in the news. A Christian radio station accepted calls about her. One caller said that if she didn't have faith in Jesus Christ, she had no salvation, no matter how many good works she did.
I was astonished at the derision heaped on that brother. The callers were indignant that anyone could say that this "saint" would not have salvation. However, he did not say she did not have salvation, only that her good works would not save her.
As we've seen in this discussion, works will not save. Even if Mother Theresa has love as the motive for her good works, if she doesn't have faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord, she does not have salvation. If she doesn't have a saving faith, the love she displays could be a form of works to gain salvation, instead of the love resulting from the obedience which comes from faith (Romans 1:4). In fact, if that were the case, she would be a prime tool in Satan's hand to try to convince people that salvation is possible through good works.
I do not say that Mother Teresa is not a fellow-servant of the Lord Jesus Christ or that Jesus Christ is not her Lord. I don't know. I pray Jesus is her Lord.
35. Colossians 1:22.
36. Luke 18:8.
37. Ephesians 2:10. Paul used an interesting application of good works as an evidence of a sincere saving faith when giving instructions for the care of widows in the early church. He instructed: "No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds"
( I Timothy 5:9-10).