This Sunday, we’ll be looking at the issue of faith and considering these and other questions: What role does human effort play in the life of faith? What is the place of “good works”?
The New Testament often repeats that good works (deeds) are a necessary part of the Christian’s life, but different answers have been given in various branches of the Church as to what that means. The answer will determine all of earthly life for us because there really is a right and a wrong answer. We can’t afford to get off track here.
Many sincere people have believed that good works are absolutely necessary to be saved. It’s often been thought (and taught) that what Christ did on the cross was to set us free to perform good works so that those works would earn enough merits to achieve salvation. This “banking model” (putting away enough good deeds for a rainy day) is wrong. It is strongly rejected by the New Testament, particularly by the writings of the apostle Paul, who fought his entire life against this false understanding of salvation.
Works of the Law, or human good works of any kind, regardless of how self-sacrificing and costly to the one performing them, are utterly useless in producing acceptance before God. Liberation from the power and effect of sin is something accomplished once-for-all-time solely by the merits of Christ’s death on the cross. These merits are transferred to the believer in some way we don’t fully understand. Just as we can appreciate our television sets or mobile phones without understanding exactly how they work, so we can enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice for us without a perfect grasp of how it all takes place.
Let’s remember: by Jesus’ sacrificial death, human sin was dealt with decisively and forever. In some mysterious way Jesus absorbed into himself the judgment due to us because of our sin. So it could be said that the final judgment, spoken of in the Bible in various ways, has already taken place for the believer in Jesus. It’s a “done deal.” It’s past, over, finished. Now there’s some good news! The follower of Jesus should have no fear or dread of the final judgment.
This fantastic gift of mercy was a real accomplishment, apart from our subjective and shifting feelings about it, and remains a legal decision on the part of the Judge of the universe as to our standing before him. It was a “plot” hatched in the eternal mind of God to provide an absolutely foolproof plan to save sinful and rebellious humanity. From God’s point of view salvation was just too important a matter to leave up to us. The best we can do is to trip, stumble, and fall.
As far as gaining salvation is concerned, “good works” are totally and finally of no effect. None. Zero. The highest and noblest of human efforts carry no weight whatsoever in securing our right standing with our Creator. Our righteousness, the Bible teaches, is worthless in comparison to the righteousness of God that alone leads to our salvation. It’s a work that God and only God can perform and in which he allows no substitutes or exceptions.
So the question remains: If good works have no value in securing our salvation, then why do we find so many places in the Bible where they are encouraged or even demanded? Jesus expects us to do good things (Matthew 5:16). Paul admonishes us to do good deeds (Ephesians 2:10). New Testament writer James tells us that without good works evident in the life of the believer our faith is not even real (James 2:26). So, to be sure, good works play a very important role. But what does that look like?
We’ll consider these life-changing questions this Sunday.