Are Good Works Necessary For Salvation
Without controversy, a person must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved. The great debate between Catholics and Protestants centers on the role of good works. Is bare faith sufficient for salvation, or should it also be accompanied by personal good works - such as prayer, charity, baptism and obedience to the commandments?
Catholics and Protestants agree that bare, sterile faith cannot save. Furthermore they agree that true faith is always accompanied by good works. However they part company when it comes to the purpose of such works. For Evangelicals, good works are the necessary fruit and proof of genuine faith, for which Christ will reward them at His return. For Catholics, good works preserve and increase their personal righteousness for their final justification.
To tackle this important question, let's consider the following three propositions:
Which one of these three statements is true and biblical? What is the role of good works in salvation?
It is alarming that many "Evangelicals" and "Bible-believing Christians" think that we are saved by faith and that good works are not necessary at all. Perhaps they want to affirm the Evangelical doctrine of sola fide - faith alone. But they are dead wrong. Not only do they misrepresent the historical Protestant doctrine on Justification by Faith Alone, but also and more importantly, they deny the true Gospel of Christ.
The Westminster Confession is representative of the historical Protestant doctrine of Justification:
While affirming that a person is justified "for Christ's sake alone" and not for "any other evangelical obedience" of the believer, the Reformers were eager to guard against the antinomian heresy. Saving faith is the "alone instrument of justification" and yet it is "not alone in the person justified." Saving faith is alive and manifest in good works of love.
It is true that no sinner is saved by his own works. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3:5). When Lazarus died, he could not do anything to revive himself. Only the Lord Jesus could bring him back to life by His almighty power. Yet, when Christ saved him from death, Lazarus came out, breathing, moving, and walking. This is a picture of salvation. Our works do not save us, yet saved people do good works because they are saved and have eternal life! To say that works are 'not necessary at all' is akin to saying that Lazarus did not need to breath and move after Christ called him from the grave.
James asks, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?" We answer without hesitation that such 'faith' is dead and cannot save. If faith is real and living, it is always accompanied by good works. In this sense good works are necessary.
The Lord expresses His salvation in the form of a covenant with his people: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more" (Hebrew 10:16-17).
There are two aspects to the new covenant. Firstly, God forgives all the sins of His people on the merit of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But secondly, salvation is more than forgiveness and justification. Salvation also involves the renewal of the inner man. Prior to salvation the carnal mind is hostile to God and it is not subject to His Law. In salvation, God changes all that. "I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them." The renewed man willingly obeys God's commandments - to love the Lord and his neighbour, that is, to do good works. Therefore good works are as much part of salvation as forgiveness of sins.
Who knows how many are deceived because once upon a time they 'accepted Christ' and yet they show no evidence of their professed faith? They continue walking in sin and bearing no fruit of righteousness. If a person professes to believe in Christ but continues to live in sexual immorality, drunkenness, resentment, dishonesty or any form of unrighteousness, he will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:6,10). It does not take some gross sin to keep you out of heaven. It is enough to do nothing. Christ calls such a person 'slothful' and these will be the last words he will ever hear from the mouth of Christ: "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:14-30).
Often I have received letters from Catholics protesting that the Catholic Church does not teach salvation by works. However the official Roman Catholic teaching is that works are necessary to increase merit for the attainment of eternal life.
To be fair, we must state that the Catholic religion underlines the importance of grace, faith and the work of Christ on the cross. We must also clarify that the Catholic Church does not teach that salvation is by works alone. But on the other hand, we must stress that the Catholic Church teaches that, along with faith in Christ, salvation is by personal works also.
In the Catholic system, salvation begins at baptism by which God makes the sinner righteous. Throughout his life, God helps the believer to maintain and increase this righteousness by his good works. So, the good works done by the "disposition and co-operation" of man are not merely the "fruits" but also the "cause" of justification. Ultimately, a person is accounted to have satisfied the divine law by his works done by God's help, and thus he merits eternal life. He deserves and has the right to that reward. A Catholic author plainly admits, "It is a universally accepted dogma of the Catholic Church that man, in union with the grace of the Holy Spirit must merit heaven by his good works" (Dogmatic Theology for the Laity, 1977).
The Catholic system of merit is far removed from the Gospel of grace. If our works were, even partially, the basis for our justification, then salvation is no longer by grace. The Bible defines grace as the antithesis of merit. "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt" (Romans 4:4). Grace is the very opposite of the reward deserved for someone's work. Grace is a favour that is not deserved or merited by works.
Yet Catholics are encouraged to "merit the graces" needed to obtain eternal life by their works, without realizing that in so doing they are depriving themselves of the goodness and mercy of God. How I pray that they will hear the Word of God: "To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5).
God would not justify the man who professes to believe in Christ while at the same time engages in religious works to secure his justification. In his case, works are not the evidence of faith but of the lack of faith! If he truly relies on Christ by faith, he would not seek salvation anywhere else, in other creatures or in his own efforts. God justifies him that "worketh not, but believeth"!
The proud human heart thinks that this is too good to be true! You don't get anything for free, do you? Yes, in God's reign of grace, you do! Believers are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." The Scriptures repeatedly state that a person is justified by faith, and not by works of the law - that is because of our obedience to the commandments of God.
It is tragic that human pride would not allow the sinner to come to God. His hands are full of his works and he would not let go in order to take hold of Christ by faith.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, the Bible teaches that we are not saved because of our good deeds ("not of works, lest anyone should boast"). That is only half of the story. The same passage also teaches that we are saved for a very specific purpose, namely, to do good works ("created in Christ Jesus to do good works"). Good works are not the cause, but rather the result (the purpose, the fruit) of salvation. So good works must always accompany true faith. Yet true faith rests in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation, and not in the merits of personal works. We are called to believe "in Christ"!
Both truths - salvation is not by works, but saved people do good works - are emphasized in the Scriptures. Take Titus 3:5-8 for example:
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men."
The apostle Paul affirms that we are saved is "not by works of righteousness." Yet, he does not conclude that since we're not saved by works, we should not perform them. On the contrary, he is eager to exhort believers "to be careful to maintain good works."
God cleanses those who believe in His Son from the leprosy of sin, not to sit in laziness, but to employ their hands in doing good.
Well then, each one of us must take a look at his own heart and life. Am I trying to gain heaven by my efforts, by religious works and penance? If so, I must cast away these crutches, that I may trust completely in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation, knowing that God would be merciful to me and forgive all my sins because His Son died on the cross to bear the sins of his people.
I must ask further, if I profess to believe in the Lord Jesus for salvation, is there tangible evidence in my life that my faith is for real? The true believer hates sin, lives righteously, loves God and his neighbour, and has the glory of God as his greatest desire. On the other hand, the pretender has some sort of religion but he does not really love or know God, and his life is characterized by vice and his selfish ambitions. So, is my faith real or counterfeit?
May God help each one of us to know ourselves, and to grant us the grace of salvation, which is by faith in Christ Jesus, and unto good works.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi