Good works aren’t bad. They are good. As Christians, we should want to do them. Just because we are not saved according to our works doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about pursuing a life of joyful obedience to God’s Word. Jesus emphatically states, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience, however frail and feeble, is evidence of our love for Christ. Far from undermining the gospel of grace, good works are the perfect complement to the gospel.
Saved Not by Good Works
To be clear, good works are bad when they are seen as the basis of salvation. A person is not saved by works but by God’s grace through faith in Christ. The Apostle Paul explains:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8–10)
Works are not meritorious. Salvation is “not your own doing” and “not a result of works.” Even the faith through which we receive salvation is a gracious gift from God. As fallen creatures, our best efforts are laced with sin. To borrow from Francis Schaeffer, how many finite buckets of good works would it take to fill the infinite gulf that exists between God and us because of our sin? Good works provide no basis for boasting because they are utterly worthless to save. The only foundation for salvation is Christ. We are saved by His works, not ours.
Saved for Good Works
Good works are not bad when they are seen as the goal of salvation, not its ground. While good works aren’t meritorious of salvation, they are a necessary component of Christian faith. As James states, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). Paul makes this same point when he contends that we are not saved by good works but that we are saved for good works.
Every word in Ephesians 2:10 is important for explaining the dynamic of good works in the Christian life. We learn that good works are the result, not the cause, of our being new creations, and they testify to the fact that we have been redeemed so that our lives might reflect the craftsmanship and character of God. Good works are also the result of our being united to Christ. Apart from Him, we can do nothing that pleases God. But in Christ, we are created to perform God-honoring acts of obedience. In Christ, we can be confident that God accepts our weak and wobbly efforts. Paul further states that good works are the result of God’s pattern for the Christian life. We need not wonder what God requires of us. He has told us in His Word. Good works are deeds done in conformity to God’s Word.
A Faith That Is Never Alone
Good works are good because they spring not from a lifeless faith but a “true and lively faith” (WCF 16.2). We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; however, the faith that saves is never alone but is accompanied by spiritual life and loving obedience. Christ is the ground of our salvation, faith is the instrument of our salvation, and works are the fruit of our salvation. Whenever the gospel takes root in our lives, it always produces Spirit-wrought fruit (Gal. 5:16–26). The Spirit enables us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling to pursue Christlike lives (Eph. 4:1–7).
The value of walking the pathway of obedience is manifold. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that there are at least six benefits of good works. First, good works manifest our gratitude to God for the gift of His Son (Col. 2:6). Second, good works bolster assurance of faith (1 John 2:1–6). Third, good works are a means of encouraging other Christians toward greater acts of Christ-centered love (Heb. 10:24). Fourth, goods works are concrete avenues for adorning the doctrine of God our Savior in life and ministry (Titus 2:7–10). Fifth, good works silence critics who devalue the goodness of biblical Christianity (1 Peter 2:12, 15). Sixth, good works glorify God by displaying His work of love in our lives (John 15:8–11).
What is our response to the gospel? An old hymn puts it nicely: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”