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:

  1. we complete good works in order to be saved; or
  2. 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.

14 Replies to “What is the Place of Good Works?”

  1. Can you have faith but no salvation? I find that faith/good work proponents are always so quick to jump on the fact that we could be up to our eye balls in good works but that could never be enough to ever gain our salvation, not without Christ. But they don’t continue down the line to reversal, if we acknowledge that we cannot have salvation through good works alone, can we not also conclude that it is possible to have faith and not be saved? What might that look like? Perhaps as a Christian who professes that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Saviour but in the practice of their every day life they do not live that faith, they have faith but their sinful life void of good works will ensure that they will most likely (because let’s be honest, we have no idea by what matrix God will truly judge us all on and we’ve been pretty much told not to worry about it) not gain salvation. So in that instance, good works does play a part or at least is capable of trumping faith because when Paul writes that faith alone will save us, I do not think he is not being exclusionary, he is saying that faith in Jesus and in accepting Him as Christ will always truly manifest itself so profoundly that the words of James in his letter appear to be true in action that is that faith without good works is pretty much useless– because you will not obtain salvation if you do not physically manifest faith in a life of good works. I guess where a lot of people see a contradiction between Paul and James in their letters, I actually see a big circle going round and round where faith is dependent on good works which is dependent on faith which is dependent of good works, etc. And in the end it is the salvation that Christ brings from outside this circle that shatters the cycle and elevates us toward salvation.

  2. “Faith and works are both important, but faith must come first. Works do not produce faith; true faith produces works.“

    Well stated….now you need to do a contrasting “thoughts/post/prepared lessons” from the book of Galatians. And you can really get people thinking about this whole “faith/works” issue. Haha

  3. This is a good and thoughtful treatment of an important and somewhat contentious topic. I agree with your reasoning. Reliance on our own good works, with the idea that somehow we need to save ourselves through them, is a recipe for failure and unnecessary guilt, because 1) we cannot save ourselves through works without faith, and 2) we are incapable by ourselves of living as perfectly as Christ did.

    The comment from E.J. James above also raises a good point about the circular nature of the argument. For the true believer, good works reinforce and strengthen faith. Failure to do good works will poison and weaken faith. This is a religious chicken and egg problem of sorts. But it is clear that faith is first, and that good works grow out of our faith.

  4. Ephesians 2: 10 from the KJV. Good works and obedience come from the Holy Spirit in the believer. We only take responsibility for our sin, not our good works or obedience. This is called Sanctification.

  5. The initiative for salvation belongs to God. For it is only by his sanctifying grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, we are justified. No one is justified unless they believe. Those who believe are considered righteous as “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3). Righteousness comes from God and God alone.
    “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” (2 Cor 5:17-18) As a new creation we merit God’s grace as we collaborate in the building of his kingdom according to his divine plan. Simply stated, our good works, accomplished with his grace, preserves our faith. As Luther’s least favorite Saint (St. James) states, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jam 4:24) St Augustine states, “Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us.”
    Your statement, “Good works are important, but not in order to be saved” is incorrect. Good works are necessary for our salvation as they merit the graces needed for eternal life.

  6. Great post. It did raise a couple questions in my mind–since we are saved through Jesus’s sacrifice, did anyone prior to His life and resurrection receive salvation? If so, was it based on the Law of Moses? Did King David receive salvation given that he wasn’t perfect? Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

    1. This may or may not help you on understanding this, but consider these scriptures:

      “Jesus Christ (Messiah Yeshua) is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8 (ESV)

      “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” John 1:3 (ESV)

      “for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Hebrews 9:26 (ESV)

      “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you…” 1 Peter 1:20 (ESV)

      and lastly,

      “… Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 (ESV)

      God is outside of our concept of time. Yeshua’s (Jesus’) sacrifice goes in both direction in time, both backwards to creation and forwards. We live after his sacrifice so can point to it. Those before did not yet see what was coming. But that they also were save through belief, there are many examples in the “Old Testament.” Some real easy examples come to mind: Enoch and Elijah – both taken up to heaven. King David was called by God, ‘a man after my own heart.’

      The Law of God was never given for salvation. David is a perfect example of this being true. After David sinned with Bathsheba, there were no sacrifices that he could offer to “obtain” forgiveness. None at all. He had to repent and ask forgiveness, just as we do now.

      Read about the life of King David, and the Psalms he wrote, and pay attention to what he says about God, repentance, salvation, forgiveness, and even grace. Do read in a couple different translations of the Bible as you will find that some seem to try and hide words such as ‘salvation’ and ‘grace’ throughout the “Old Testament”, but they are they, through Yeshua (Jesus) though He was not yet known.

      Hope this is of some help,
      – Yosef

  7. Very true: good works do not save.

    The confusion between faith and good works stems from the Greek mindset we grow up in. The Hebrew mindset was (and is) different. In the Hebrew mindset, you did not hear or believe if you don’t do. The two, belief and doing, are intimately connected and can not be separated.

    So from a Hebrew perspective, there is no conundrum when one writer is talking about believe and be saved, and another writer emphasizes works. The two go hand in hand and both have to be there, or the person did not ‘hear’ what God said in the first place.

    – Yosef

  8. I volunteer working with homeless people not because I’m seeking a reward but to give back for the good things in my life.

  9. Exactly my feeling! I don’t believe the two- faith & works/ are mutually exclusive of one another. Your ability to break it down in a way that makes most sense is much appreciated. Thank you!

  10. A very thoughtful post and also one that illustrates lots of overlap and yet still some differences between Catholic Christian and non-Catholic Christian beliefs. Catholic teachings would agree with many points that you make: salvation and righteousness come from Jesus Christ. Faith and works are important together. Because we are Christian we ought to show that through our works.

    Catholic teachings then go further beyond this. However, not only do we do good works because of our faith, through the faith in which we received sanctifying grace, we are enabled to do good works and rise to levels of supernatural virtue. (Example: the natural virtue of prudence may be elevated to the supernatural level as a Christian gives up all that he has to follow an entirely new vocation path in serving the Lord… it makes no sense on a natural level and to the rest of the world, but to the Christian who sees beyond this life, it is an act of prudence as well as other virtues.)

    Additionally, the good works that we do are meritorious. Not by themselves and by our own doing. Only through uniting these good works with Christ and His work that merited grace for all of us. Here’s how:

    *By the grace of Baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s mystical spiritual body, the Church. We are united with Christ and one another through this sacrament.
    *Christ continues His work on earth through us and the good works that we do because we are members of His body. It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me.
    *Through these good works we merit grace because we are united with Christ and Christ works through us and Christ is the only one who can truly merit grace. Yet, this is a collaboration in the building of His kingdom and according to His divine plan, as Deacon Jason commented earlier.
    *The graces received then benefit us for our sanctification and growth in holiness enabling us to grow deeper in love with the Lord so that we would be more faithful, more capable of virtue, that we would love others and do greater good for God and neighbor. These graces may also benefit others, too, just as intercessory prayer would benefit them.

    (Sidenote: this same concept also applies to uniting one’s sufferings with Christ’s in Catholic beliefs. See Col. 1:24. Thus for a Christian, suffering is not meaningless but can be a source of grace.)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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