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Are Good Works Guaranteed?

 
 
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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Imagine that you have a loved one who professes to know Jesus Christ as their Savior.  You watch patiently, but as more time passes you grow concerned.  There seems to be absolutely no good works (or very little) that you can see in their life.  You begin to pray for them, but how do you pray?  Does the lack of visible good works mean something is wrong with their faith and that their eternal salvation is not genuine?  Or, does it simply mean that they are not walking with the Lord Jesus Christ?  These are the questions that surround the issue of whether or not every single believer is guaranteed to produce some measure of real, visible good works.

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that a person could honestly spend a lifetime answering these questions with all of the different passages from the Word of God that speak to this topic.  At the very forefront of this subject is a passage from the book of Ephesians.  Most Christians recognize the important words found in chapter 2 regarding our salvation, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).  Here we recognize the simplicity of God’s plan of redemption.  Our salvation is possible because of His grace and we receive it by faith.  Works clearly have nothing to do with our eternal redemption.  Let us not forget the very next verse.  There we read, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).  Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are created by God for a purpose, that we should produce good works.  It is very instructive that this verse does not teach that believers will always, automatically produce good works.  Good works are a part of God’s plan for us as believers in Christ.  However, “He has not guaranteed that all who trust in Jesus Christ will persevere in good works (our progressive sanctification). That depends on our obedience.”[1]

Obedience to Christ

Obedience to Christ is the real issue.  Paul told Titus, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8).  If good works are guaranteed for the believer in Christ then why would Paul even write such a command to be, “careful to maintain good works?”

At the heart of the issue is the significant difference between justification and progressive sanctification.  “To justify is to declare one righteous. It is a judicial term indicating that a verdict of acquittal has been announced, and so excluding all possibility of condemnation. Indeed, in Scripture, justification is invariably set over against condemnation.”[2] One key passage on our justification is found in Romans 3:21-26.  It is there that we find the Apostle Paul writing about the righteousness of God.  “In this context the righteousness of God is not an attribute of God, but an act of God whereby He declares a sinner righteous. This is righteousness from God.”[3] Paul makes it extremely clear in verse 22 that this declaration of righteousness comes to us, “through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (Rom. 2:22).  Why is it by faith?  Why must God act on our behalf to redeem us?  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  No man can earn his salvation.  Our salvation is free for us, but it cost Jesus dearly.  This is why Paul testifies, “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).  Paul concludes verse 26 with the glorious statement that God is, “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  Taking this back to our discussion of good works, we see that justification is God declaring us righteous and we receive it by faith.  No amount of good works could ever result in us being declared righteous before God.  It is common among those who teach Lordship Salvation to believe that a person must produce a certain measure of good works in order for their faith in Christ to be considered genuine.  If a certain amount of good works are guaranteed for the genuine believer, how much is enough?  Scripture doesn’t speak to this.  This is why we must remember that being declared righteous by God is not because of our works, but by His grace through faith in what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us.

Sanctification

When we speak of sanctification, we need to be much more specific in our definition.  “The word sanctify means to set apart (it has the same root as the words saint and holy).”[4] The three aspects of sanctification include, positional which is the same as justification, progressive which refers to Christian growth or the spiritual maturity process, and perfect which is the same as glorification.  Our concern for this discussion is in regard to progressive sanctification.

This brings us back to our earlier discussion of good works in the life of the believer.  We as Christians are to become more set apart in our lives.  “As obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).  The problem becomes that it is more than possible to remain a babe in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-4).  It is also possible for a believer in Christ to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:18).  This is why Paul told the churches of Galatia, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ we will have to one day give an account of our works before Christ.  Speaking of the Judgment Seat of Christ, Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15).   Some of our works will be burned up and some will endure.  Works of eternal value will remain.  Verse 15 is a critical verse to understand.  Here Paul is telling us that a believer can have his works burned up because they are not of eternal value, but yet this person will still be saved.  Once again it points us to the understanding that, even for us as believers, not all of our works have eternal value before God.

I think a further point should be added, that just because we cannot witness good works in the life of a believer, it does not mean they are not growing in their faith.  We are reminded from the Old Testament, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:10).  Only God can truly discern what is taking place in the heart and mind of a person.  This is why the Apostle Paul went on to tell the church at Corinth that when Jesus comes He will, “reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Cor. 4:5b).

Knowing that believers are not guaranteed to produce visible good works should help us.  Rather than let it be a discouragement, we should use this truth as we seek to help others.  If someone clearly understands the Gospel and professes to have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, a lack of good works does not mean that we should assume they are not eternally redeemed.  At this point we should turn our attention towards discipleship.  We should encourage them to walk with the Spirit and not according to the flesh.  It becomes an issue of not trying to encourage the person to get saved, but instead encouraging the person to walk with Jesus Christ!

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Endnotes

[1] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Eph. 2:10.

[2] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1972).

[3] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), Rom. 3:21.

[4] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1972)

 

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