Are we sure that good works play no role in saving us?

June 2, 2018

In last Sunday’s sermon I covered Galatians 3:15-20. In this scripture Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham—that in him “shall all the nations be blessed,” which is nothing less than the gospel that scripture “preached beforehand” (v. 8)—is on the basis of faith alone, not works. In v. 15, Paul gives a “human example”: “even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.”

In my sermon, I compared Paul’s “man-made covenant” to a will—as in “last will and testament.” This is a fair comparison: the Greek word that Paul uses for “covenant” (diathēkē) can literally refer to a will. While it’s true that potential heirs can take actions before the will is ratified to influence the percentage of the estate they inherit, once the will is ratified (and the person who wrote the will dies), this covenant can’t be changed. It doesn’t depend at all on what someone does or doesn’t do.

Given that this is true even for “man-made” covenants, Paul asks, how much more true is it for a covenant between God and his people? The Law, given through Moses 430 years after God’s covenant of faith with Abraham, “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (v. 17). Therefore God’s people will continue to be justified by faith alone, and not works of the Law—or, by extension, any other human works. We are saved by faith alone!

Paul’s point is clear enough (to us traditional Protestants, at least). And yet…

What about those places in the gospels themselves in which it seems like we have to add works to faith in order to be saved? In my sermon I shared three short examples, each of which speaks of the very “inheritance” (i.e., the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham) that Paul himself refers to in v. 18.

The Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23). Notice here that the man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him, in so many words, keep the Ten Commandments. He replies, “Yes, but I’ve done that since I was a child.” But is that true? Has the man kept the Ten Commandments? Of course not! Jesus knows that this man hasn’t come to terms with the breadth and depth of his sinfulness.

Think, for example, of the way that Jesus intensifies the meaning of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount: Anger is on the same spectrum as murder; lust (and elsewhere, divorce) is on the same spectrum as adultery. The same sinful condition of one’s heart, in other words, gives rise to both sins. So we are not “keeping” the Ten Commandments by merely observing the law outwardly. What matters is not the mere outward observance, but the condition of our hearts.

As Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-19). This is also the point of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14).

So Jesus exposes the Rich Young Ruler’s “heart condition” by asking him to do what was impossible for him: to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man’s problem was not simply that he possessed lots of money—it’s likely, after all, that the man was generous in almsgiving; and I’m sure he tithed. The man’s main problem was that he had made something else his savior and lord other than Jesus: his wealth. So it’s not so much that the man couldn’t be saved; it’s that he wouldn’t be saved so long as he continued in his idolatry.

Jesus’ apparent harshness to this man—couldn’t he have asked the man for something less than 100 percent?—was a mercy in disguise: he wanted to uncover the man’s sin, thereby giving him his best shot at repentance. And none of us knows whether or not the man eventually did repent. Jesus holds out hope: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37Notice that the lawyer’s question is the same as the Rich Young Ruler’s: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, moral genius that he is, gives the world one of its greatest moral teachings… yet one of whose points can be so easily lost! What I mean is this: Many people take this parable to be moralistic and works-oriented: “Be like the Good Samaritan who stops to help; don’t be like those bad religious hypocrites. Your enemy is your neighbor; love him too.”

But remember: Jesus tells this story in response to a question about “inheriting eternal life.” Since I fail every day to live out the kind of sacrificial, Christ-like love that the Good Samaritan exemplifies, am I in trouble?

No—because notice the verse at the center of the parable: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). This compassion preceded everything else he did. Getting back to Jesus’ point above, it’s not so much that the Good Samaritan performed these good works for his injured enemy; it’s why he did so! He had compassion, which is a condition of one’s heart. You can’t fake compassion; you either have it or you don’t. And no one can know whether you have it—even if you perform the same good works that the Samaritan performed.

What we need for “inheriting eternal life,” therefore, is not good works but a transformed heart, made possible only by faith, the evidence of which will be good works.

Don’t misunderstand: In one sense, we need good works to be saved: On Judgment Day, our good works will be offered as evidence of the authenticity of our faith in Christ. But these good works play no role in saving us. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43, for example, did nothing prior to Jesus pronouncing his salvation. Justification—being made right with God—precedes our good works, which are made possible only by a Spirit-transformed heart (by which we have compassion) that comes through faith. Before Jesus told the thief that he was going to be with him in Paradise, he would have known—hypothetically—that if the thief had been able to come down off the cross, and survive his many injuries, he would have had good works to show for himself. Why? Because the thief’s heart was transformed, irrespective of anything that he did.

This is why the apostle Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) What are we examining ourselves to see? That our lives show evidence that we are “in the faith.” And this evidence is good works.

Finally, I concluded my sermon with the most difficult test case—a quasi-parable about Final Judgment that most emphatically seems to tell us that good works play a role in saving us: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Again, like the Good Samaritan, is Jesus’ point to say, “You must do the good works that the righteous people do—those designated as ‘sheep’—in order to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'” (v. 34)? If so, am I in trouble—because I fail to be righteous all the time! 

No. Jesus can’t merely be saying, “Be like a sheep and not a goat,” because notice v. 37 and following: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?…” The “sheep,” please notice, were completely unaware that they were doing these good works for Christ, or to Christ, or on Christ’s behalf: “Lord, when did we see you…?”

The righteous, in other words, are unself-conscious about their good works. They are not doing these works because they know they ought to—because they’re really doing it for Jesus, after all, and they want to inherit eternal life.

And so it is with us. Indeed, the moment the thought crosses our minds, “I need to serve ‘the least of these’ because I’m really serving Jesus,” we are—in that moment—failing to be like the righteous in the parable.

Does this make sense?

Being a “sheep” is like being a Good Samaritan: It springs from compassion—a condition of the heart—which is made possible by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as we believe in Jesus Christ. Faith must come first. Faith justifies us, after which these good actions follow.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been trying to make this point about the relationship between faith and works in a dozen different ways over the years. This is my latest attempt. I hope this helps you!

7 Responses to “Are we sure that good works play no role in saving us?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Well said.

    You know my views on this; it’s all Faith. Works are evidence only.

    Re the Ten Commandments and the Rich Young Ruler. I suppose one could theoretically be found righteous on the basis of keeping them all perfectly, but the point is that we cannot. A just God would have to find us lacking. It’s God’s Grace that saves us.

    Wasn’t the primary point of the Good Samaritan story for Jesus to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor”?
    That raises another question. I have heard some theologians argue that each parable has one main point, and that we shouldn’t try to read multiple lessons into them. Do you agree with this?

    • brentwhite Says:

      That is the “main” point of the Good Samaritan; but one of the points, I believe, is what I said. Parables are usually so rich; I’m reluctant to say—along with these theologians—that there’s only one point. One _main_ point, sure.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Notice that the occasion on which Jesus tells the parable is in response to the ultimate question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I think there are multiple lessons as well. Just wanted your input.

    Jesus was the ultimate teacher in that he taught by his life’s example, by stories and parables, and by direct instruction.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Been off on vacation with the family and just back in the office today. Had a great time! And no car trouble!

    I agree that no amount of works can save us. And also that salvation, as a matter of grace to us, is by faith instead. Also, I agree that salvation is a matter of a “changed heart.” And that good works will necessarily follow if the heart has been “changed” by the Holy Spirit.

    The only question I have is, WHY does the Spirit choose to bestow His salvation on US in particular? Does it have anything to do with the “state of our heart” BEFORE the “saving” is bestowed?

    As you of course know from my prior correspondences about this point, I have a hard time with the idea that there is nothing in particular which is different between those to whom salvation is bestowed and those to whom it is not. So what do I think has to be different? It could be several things, but one possible candidate is humility itself. The tax collector realized that he did not deserve salvation, and looked to God to bestow it, as opposed to the Pharisee who thought he had achieved it based on his own merit.

    However, there may be something else as well. We may have to be willing to “put God first” above all other things that call for our allegiance. Thus, as to the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus’ response, it seems to me, may not simply have been a matter of pointing out to the Ruler that he was not as good as he thought he was. Jesus may have been placing before him a CHOICE BETWEEN his love of riches and his love of God. Why else would Jesus say, after the Ruler walked away, “How hard it is for those with riches to be saved!”?

    Thus, although not a matter of “earning” his salvation, perhaps it was necessary for him to be willing to “give up something” to get it. God looks at each person’s “heart, out of which come the issues of life,” to see where one’s allegiance is directed. I readily agree that this cannot be a matter of “100%,” which none of us can achieve. Hence the grace. But, I think that, in general, this would involve a “change of direction,” which is what I take to be the meaning of “repentance.” Repentance is preached by John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul (in a statement in Acts) as a matter of salvific import. In this regard, we must read ALL passages on the subject of salvation cumulatively.

    In some instances, perhaps this “willingness” can be something that is “anticipated” as opposed to being “previously exercised.” But it is still the case, it seems to me, that this “change of allegiance” is a requirement, and that it is not a mere matter of the Holy Spirit bestowing it. Otherwise, we have, as I have often contended, a matter of “arbitrariness.”

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    But Tom, is your argument here that one must “deserve” salvation? That’s doesn’t seem much different from “earning” it. I know that I surely don’t deserve to be saved. Sure, I’ve done some nice things in my life and I really try to please the Lord, but my shortcomings are so much greater…….

    For me, It’s all grace.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, I see your point, but I think there is a significant difference between a “prerequisite,” as it were, and “earning.” “Earning” suggests to me that I think I am “good enough” to “warrant” my salvation “on my own steam.” We certainly have to recognize that we fall far short of God’s “holiness,” “without which no one will see God.” Thus, “holiness” is entirely a matter of something that God “imputes” to me as a matter of Christ’s substitution on our behalf on the cross. So I certainly don’t think I either “earn” or “deserve” salvation.

      But that still does not mean I don’t have to “do anything” (of whatever variety, whether “have faith” or otherwise) to get it. It is more like a measure of how much greater what God does than what I do. Recall the illustration of the king (or master) who forgives the multi-million dollar debt, but then revokes that forgiveness when a hundred dollar debt is not forgiven. I don’t think that is teaching losing salvation, but I do think it points out that, while we can’t possibly earn the “forgiveness,” there is something “in us” (i.e., in the illustration, a willingness to forgive others the incomparably minor offenses against ourselves) that “plays a role” in our receipt of the forgiveness.

      So my discussion is an admittedly weak attempt to “tease out” what God is “looking for.” I don’t find that a matter of thinking that I “deserve” something. It is all a matter of grace that God chooses to save ANYBODY. Again, however, this does not mean that there is nothing God is looking for in deciding upon whom to bestow that “unmerited” grace.

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