Are We Saved by Our Good Works?

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Image by Bonnie Kittle. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 25/Jan/2021

The Bible’s Answer

Introduction

The Bible’s answer to this question is no, we are not saved by our good works. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Like the deity of Christ, this is one of the essential biblical doctrines which cannot be rejected in Christianity. This is because like the deity of Christ, the Bible says it is necessary to believe. Every world religion and Christian-based cult¹ rejects this. When the Bible says that we are saved by grace through faith, it means that we cannot in any way merit or earn salvation by our good works. Salvation is a free gift and is received by faith alone, the moment when someone believes in the biblical Jesus’ saving work for them on the cross.

Bible Passages

  • “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
  • “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Romans 4:5)
  • “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
  • “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
  • “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:8–9)
  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
  • “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7)

What Are Justification and Grace?

Justification and grace are words that are often used in the Bible when it talks about salvation, as seen in the passages above. Justification is the act of someone being made right with God.²,³ When someone believes in Jesus, God declares them to be righteous, because Jesus’ own righteousness is imputed to the believer:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Grace is God’s unconditional love for all people which nobody deserves, and he demonstrated this by dying for us on the cross, as Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, enabling us to receive the free gift of eternal life by faith: ⁴

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Because grace is unconditional, it is not dependent on who we are, what we have done, or what we have, but is rather wholly dependent on the love of God. Grace is self-sacrificial; it does not demand, but freely gives. The Bible makes a clear distinction between grace and good works in Romans chapter 11:

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:5–6)

Here, the Bible states that if salvation were by good works, then we would not be saved by grace, because grace is not given on the basis of works. But because the Bible teaches that we are saved by God’s grace, this means that we are not saved by our good works:

But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:11)

Why It Is Impossible for Our Good Works to Save Us

It is impossible for a finite, sinful person to please an infinite, perfect God. Jesus said that God’s standard for our lives is perfection (Matthew 5:48). Clearly, though, we are all far from meeting that standard. The whole point in Jesus coming to us was because we fell short of that perfect standard:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them, (Matthew 5:17).

Jesus came to perfectly fulfil all the righteous requirements of God’s Law on our behalf, which we failed to do by sinning (Romans 3:23), and to pay the full penalty of our sins as our perfect substitute on the cross (1 Peter 3:18). The reason why it is impossible for our good works to save us is because if you break even one commandment of God, you become accountable for the whole Law, and thus fall short of God’s perfect standard for eternal life (James 2:10). Furthermore, Jesus has already accomplished everything necessary for our salvation for us, in his sinless life and death on the cross, so there is nothing else that we can add to his saving works.

If we did have to do good works to earn our way to Heaven, then Jesus’ saving works and redemption on the cross were insufficient, incomplete, and imperfect, because we would have to add to them. But the Bible condemns such a belief:

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:21)

Indeed, if we were saved by our good works, then Jesus died for no purpose. Everyone—both Christians and non-Christians—would simply be able to do enough works to get to Heaven, and Jesus’ sacrifice would not have been necessary in the first place, because it would only be added to. Just before Jesus died on the cross, his last triumphant words were “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did not say “It is only the beginning”, implying that we must contribute to his grace, but rather “It is finished”. All the work that he set out to do to save us was completed upon his death on the cross.

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12–14)

The Bible is very serious about this issue, and emphasises its sheer importance by stating that those who try and attain salvation by their own efforts, and not by relying entirely on Christ, have fallen away from grace:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)

If at the moment you believe that your good works will get you to Heaven, or that they at least contribute to your salvation in some way, then you need to repent of this false belief right now, and put your trust entirely in Jesus Christ alone, because he has already lived the perfect life you failed to live, and paid the full penalty for all your sins on the cross. As a sinner, no amount of good works you do will ever be enough to fit God’s perfect standards.

If We Are Saved by Faith Alone, Then What about Our Good Works?

An understandable question to ask is where our good works come in if we are saved purely by grace through faith. The Bible’s answer is that our good works come after we have been saved; to put it another way, they are a natural response to God’s love first given to us. The Bible talks about salvation as being a transformative event:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

This means that any true convert to Christianity—one who has been spiritually regenerated by the Holy Spirit, has accepted Jesus as their God, Saviour, and Lord, and who trusts in him alone for salvation—will naturally have the desire to cease living a life of sin, and to live in accordance with God’s will as Christ’s follower, out of love for him. Jesus said:

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21)

Here, Jesus reveals one of the ways by which we can distinguish between the people who really love him and those who just pretend to. However, it must be stressed that all loving acts carried out in Jesus’ name are always a result of Jesus’ love shown to Christians first. The Bible says: “We love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). Jesus also said that if we abide in him (which is only possible if you are saved), then the natural result is to bear fruit (good works):

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5)

The Book of Romans also addresses this issue. In chapter six, Paul teaches that because Christians are under grace (and hence saved, see: Acts 15:11), they are no longer slaves of sin, as all people are before they are saved, but are now slaves of righteousness, because they have been set free from sin:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:15–18)

Therefore, in light of the clear biblical truths above, and more, good works, or acts of obedience, are not done to earn one’s way to Heaven, but are instead done as a response to one’s salvation in Christ (and all true Christians will bear fruit). If a self-proclaimed Christian is constantly and purposely disobeying God’s commandments and leading a life of sin, and shows no sign of repentance, then this is an indication that they are not a true Christian, and have either fallen away from the faith, or were never saved to begin with.

Concluding Comments

When you commit a sin, it does not just disappear after some time. God will not forget about it after a while and pretend as if nothing happened. Similarly, when you commit a crime, the crime you committed does not simply vanish after a period of time; you are guilty of that crime for the rest of your life, and you must face the consequences of it as decided by a court of law. Doing “charitable” or “good” works will not make your guilt of having committed a crime disappear, nor will it allow you to escape punishment, even if it may lower the harshness of the sentence. In the same way, once you have committed a sin, you stand guilty before God, and doing “good works” will not make the crime that you committed against him simply disappear. If it did, then God would not be just. However, the Bible says that God is just, and because he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present, there is no escape from his justice: his eternal punishment for sin (Matthew 25:46).

But God has provided a means for you to be saved. Jesus Christ fulfilled all the requirements of God’s Law which you failed to fulfil, and he paid the full penalty for all the crimes (sins) that you have ever committed and will ever commit, in your place, because he is the only innocent person who is able to do so. He did this by dying for you on the cross and three days later being raised again from the dead. Jesus is alive today and is willing to give you the free gift that he offers: the gift of eternal life. To accept this free gift, you need to believe that he is who he said he is: the Son of God (meaning equal with God), your Lord and Saviour, who died for all your sins on the cross and who was raised again, to save you from God’s righteous judgement. Then, after you have been saved, do what the Holy Spirit encourages you to do in your heart, and follow God’s commandments.

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Jesus Christ (Luke 7:50)

Notes

1. A cult, in this article, refers to a group with unorthodox or heretical teachings which distinguish it from mainstream Christianity, or whichever religion the cult is based on.

Reference List

2. What is justification according to the Bible?, Compelling Truth, viewed 6/05/2016, <http://www.compellingtruth.org/justification.html>

3. What is Justification? What does it mean to be justified?, Got Questions Ministries, viewed 6/05/2016, <http://www.gotquestions.org/justification.html>

4. Definition of God’s grace, All About God, viewed 6/05/2016, <http://www.allaboutgod.com/definition-of-gods-grace-faq.htm>

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