What is the Place of Good Works?
I just finished writing a series of lessons from Proverbs that I will teach to our group at youth camp next week. Many of the proverbs were written by Solomon to his sons to encourage wise and upright living in the sight of God and others. Many commentators have acknowledged that the proverbs are a practical commentary-of-sorts on the Old Testament law.
The proverbs tell God-followers how to live—how to please Him in our everyday actions. Many proverbs compare and contrast the “righteous” and the “wicked.” In fact, the Hebrew words for righteous and wicked are used 66 and 78 times (respectively) in Proverbs. The righteous and the wicked are contrasted eleven times in chapter 10 alone. The point is that we should display righteous, God-fearing actions rather than wicked, sinful actions.
But this raises a theological question: Where does our righteousness come from? Does it come from our actions, our lifestyles, our good deeds? Or does it come from Jesus, our perfect and sinless Savior who shed His blood on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin and who rose victorious three days later?
The issue really boils down to this question: What is the place of good works in our salvation? There seem to be two options:
- we complete good works in order to be saved; or
- we complete good works because we are
To some, the Bible is confusing when it comes to this question. The great reformer Martin Luther wasn’t so sure that the book of James should be included in the New Testament canon because of what it said about works (James 2:14-26). Ephesians 2:8 says that we are saved by grace and through faith, and James 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. (Luther also saw a contradiction between James and his favorite passage, Romans 1:16-17.)
So is it faith alone? Is it works alone? Or is it faith + works? Following the fact that salvation is by grace through faith, Ephesians 2:9 clearly states that salvation does not come from works, so that we will have nothing to boast about. Salvation does not come from works. We could never do enough good things to earn our salvation. If we could and if we did, we would probably brag about it, which makes no sense. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that our righteousness comes only from Jesus, who died for our sins. This means that it does not come from any good work we may do.
“He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” -2 Corinthians 5:21
So why does the Bible also emphasize good works? Well, because they are important too. Continuing on in Ephesians 2, verse 10 says, “For we are His creation/workmanship—created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” Good works are important, but not in order to be saved. They are important after we are saved. We don’t do good deeds to get saved, we do good deeds because we are saved.
This is where the teaching of James comes into play. Faith without works is dead. If you say you have faith and you claim to be a Christian, but your life says otherwise, the proof is in the pudding. If you are a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led believer in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, good works will be a natural overflow.
And this teaching is not original to Paul or James; it goes back to Jesus. In the parable of the sower/seeds/soils (Luke 8:4-15), the seed that falls on the good soil is the one that survives and produces a crop (Luke 8:8). Jesus likens this to those who hear the gospel and cling to it and, as a result, “bear fruit” (Luke 8:15). If you are a Christian, you will bear fruit. You will do good works—not to be saved, but because you are saved.
In conclusion, we have to get things in the right order. Faith and works are both important, but faith must come first. Works do not produce faith; true faith produces works.