What are good works, and how do they fit in with the Gospel?
Good works, in short, are anything that God declares as good; it is God’s Law for everything. All of the Law can be summed up in this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.
Now, the Gospel is the free gift of life in God, through faith in Christ. It cannot be merited through any kinds of work, but comes only by God’s grace, through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Yet, God’s Word also insists that good works are necessary. In a word, our salvation does not depend on anything we do, but we must do good.
Scripture says a lot about salvation and good works, and the relation can appear confusing if not understood in its fullness. For example, in Romans 3:28 it says: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” But in James 2:17 it is written: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Are these statements then contrary? Not at all!
I think the best summary the Bible offers to explain the relationship between good works and salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10: “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.”
From this, we can learn many things, and I would particularly highlight:
1. We are God’s workmanship. God is the sovereign creator of all things. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.
2. We are created in Christ Jesus. We do not create ourselves in Christ, but God creates us in Christ. It does not depend on any kind of human means or decision, for it is entirely the gift and will of God. Man, being spiritually dead in sin is completely unable to do anything to quicken himself. Just as some dry bones cannot bring themselves to life, or a baby cannot ask to be born, we do not choose God to bring about life, but God chooses us. By God’s grace alone, we are born again through faith. By this, we may love God because He first loved us.
3. We are created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing good, which has been prepared by God. Just as salvation is not from ourselves, neither are good works. It is by the fruit of God the Holy Spirit that good works abound, which is faith in God, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and central to all of this, evangelising; spreading the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Notice how in all respects with regards to what is good and holy, man is always passive and God is always active. Our Lord Jesus explains this when he tells us in Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
And this is at the core of what is commanded of us, that is the whole Church, as found in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
What this means for all of us individually, is that in everything, we should live for God with thankfulness, for this is our good and proper dwelling.
Through all these things we can understand that we do not do good works in order to be saved. Indeed, we cannot. Nor do we do good works because God depends on us to do it. God does not need anything from us, for He is almighty. But rather, we do good works for the sake of God’s love for us and our neighbours. Therefore, let us do good works with all sincerity and love through the freedom we have in Christ, and not be burdened, for the yoke of Jesus is easy, and His burden is light.
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