If you want to upset many evangelicals in our day, than all you need to do is mention the importance of the “W” word. That’s right, I said it...“works.”
In some churches it feels like you are cussing when you say this word. It’s understandable though. This defensive reaction in most cases is because the church has been hurt by so many false teachers who really don’t understand the biblical teaching of being saved by grace through faith alone.
The Bible is very clear that we can do nothing to earn our salvation and if we try, we are simply damning ourselves because no one will be able to fulfill the law perfectly as God requires (James 2:10).
Therefore Jesus had to come and live the perfect life for us so that when we put our faith in him and repent of sin, God transfers the blameless life of Jesus to us, giving us the benefits of living a perfect life we could never live ourselves (2 Corinthians 5: 21). This is the gospel. This is that beautiful grace we all desperately need to understand and receive.
The clear message of the Bible is that no one can earn their salvation through works. As the popular flagship verses on this subject explain, Ephesians 2:8-10, “8 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. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
It’s so easy to gloss over Ephesians 2:10 because of the beautiful and stunning truth expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9. The “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” part is the truth we often emphasize. But verse 10 goes onto explain that we are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Therefore the alarm bells should ring just as loud in us whenever we hear someone begin to say that our works don’t matter. We are not saved by our works, but our salvation must always be accompanied by our works because that is what we were created “for.” Ephesians 2:8-10 explains that we are saved “by grace,” “through faith,” and “for good works.”
God saved us by grace when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. But he did not save us just so we can sit around and believe certain facts about God. God saves us by grace so we can serve him. As the song goes in Revelation 5:10, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” We are not made into a holy priesthood for the fun of it. A priest’s job is to serve God.
In fact, the more we rely on the grace of God, the more good works we will naturally produce in our lives. A poor understanding of God’s grace results in taking advantage of the gospel. To work less because you know you are saved by grace alone is evidence that you have not been deeply transformed by grace. God’s grace will cause us to work harder and more passionately for God, not less passionately.
Look how Paul explained all this in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
He starts out in 1 Corinthians 15:9 stating “I am the least of the apostles...because I persecuted the church of God.” In verse 10, however, he shows us that he has fully embraced God’s grace, knowing he could never be right with God through good works, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” He concludes with this amazing statement, “and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Paul knew he was the least deserving, thus he knew he was the most in need of grace. Paul knew that his good works now could never outweigh his bad works from the past. No matter how many converts his preaching produced, he could never atone for the persecution he was a part of in his former life before Christ. And because of this, his dependence on God’s grace went deep. His profound understanding of his sin caused a profound desperation for the grace of God.
But knowing he could never be saved by works did not cause Paul to work less. When the grace of God took hold of him, he started to work more. Because he depended on the grace of God more than others, he was then empowered to work harder for God more than others. Likewise, the more deeply we rely on the grace of God, the more good works we will produce in our lives.
It’s right to avoid the idea that we can earn anything from God. Everything good God gives us is all by grace. We can’t earn anything by good works. However, when you truly receive the grace of God through faith, it will always cause you to work harder for God, but this time from a pure motivation. You will no longer be working to earn your salvation. When empowered by grace, you will work harder because you already are saved.
The “W” word doesn’t need to be whispered in the corners of our churches as though we were cussing. We must remind ourselves every day that we are saved by grace alone, but we must also remind ourselves that the reason we were saved is so that we can now serve God with good works.
We are not saved by our works, but works really do matter because they are the evidence that we are saved.