Good Works and Salvation

Imagine you are on the street witnessing to the strangers around you. You ask each person whether or not they feel they will go to heaven when they die. How many of those people do you think will say yes? Furthermore, how many of those people will justify their answer by saying they feel they are a good person? Unfortunately, being a good person is not what brings us salvation. This is one of the most believed lies in the world today. Saving faith in Christ is the only way to be reconciled to God. 

Without Christ, we are separated from God. Only He is good (Matthew 19:17). This is not saying it is impossible to do good at all. It is saying without God, it is impossible to do so. As a result, the man who is lacking in God and who hides from the Light (John 3:20), is incapable of performing an action which is truly good when judged by the righteous standard of God.

The Greek word used for “good” in Matthew 19:17 is agathos. It speaks of a good nature, honorable, distinguished, upright, and excellent. No one is like this except God (Ecclesiastes 17:20). We all have our sinful nature. This does not mean we are incapable of doing good. Of ourselves, no good can exist, but when God is the focus, good will flourish.

Before Christ came into our life, we were not capable of doing good. We were lost. This is the exact state of much of the world today. Many claim to be believers yet do not understand what faith is about. They know OF God but do not KNOW God. It is because of this fact that they are incapable of doing good. An unbeliever is capable of looking good in the eyes of the world but God does not share the same standards. While one man may see a hero, God may see a worker of iniquity (Luke 13:27).

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; (Isaiah 64:6a, NASB)

Isaiah drives home the point of how filthy our righteous deeds really are. In the original Hebrew, he uses the word `ed. The literal translation used here means “and like rags used of menstruation.” Even our greatest works, when Christ is not the center, are like the rags used to catch the blood of a menstruating woman. Works alone are worthless. They are not good. Nothing is good unless it is of God. A non-Christian can do all the “good” things they want but they will be in vain. They can donate to as many charities, visit as many retirement homes, or do as much volunteer work as they want but the works will never be purely good in nature. On the bright side, when Christ is our focus, all our works become righteous because they are based in His love.

When we are saved, we are changed forever. We have a new calling from this point on. We are no longer called to be lost in this world. We are called to be sanctified. We are called to be holy. We are called to be set aside for God (1 Thessalonians 4:7). We are created as new creatures for the very purpose of doing good for God (Ephesians 2:10). We take our holy and sanctified selves and finally do good for the first time in our lives.

A Christian and a non-Christian can perform the same exact works while being rooted in two very different motivations. They can both go to retirement homes. They can both give to charities. They can both volunteer their time to causes. Only one of these will truly be doing good. The other will be performing works no better than filthy rags. It is not the Christian that makes these works good. It is the fact that they are being performed for God. They are being performed with God and His purpose in mind, to His glory. This alone makes the works good.

Go back to the scenario I had you imagine at the beginning of this article. Remember all the people who allegedly believed in God? Remember all the people who thought they would go to heaven and be with God because they were good people? Scripture addresses these people.

"Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.' "Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets'; and He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.' "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. (Luke 13:25-28, NASB)

This is a prime example of people who thought they were doing good. They did many things in the “name of God” but none of it was for God or through God. In verse 27, the NASB uses the word evildoers. This is a very apt description because without God, nothing is good. There are many things that we would classify as good on this earth but from the perspective of God, one’s nature cannot produce these good works. Only evil results; filthy rags are the result. The only way true good can be done is if it comes from God through us. The only way we can do good is if we are created as new creatures in Christ.

As much as one thinks they are doing good in this world, they have to realize that it is only in this world where it will be recognized. Jesus says Himself that all who claim to do good (without being a new creature in Christ) are evildoers. Lest the believer begin to think truly good works will be enough to earn them heaven, keep in mind that good works is what we are commanded to do. Even if we were capable of meeting the minimum standard, why should we expect a reward of eternal life for doing nothing more than the minimum? No, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8), and we must always remember we are unworthy servants (Luke 17:10).

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