Good Works: Evidence of a Saving Faith
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?
Through study of Scripture, Luther found that the Roman Catholic doctrine was not the Biblical message of salvation at all."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
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.3For 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
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?
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.
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:
Looking after orphans and widows is a form of works. James said doing them are acceptable to God.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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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:
Remember Abraham? He did what God asked. Even he had to show God his faith by his works. So must we."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
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
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.