In my current seminary class, one of the students has been challenging the rest about mixing faith and works in the Gospel message. This mixing can be very subtle. The lecturer told of a young man whose childhood church stressed faith in Christ, but added the necessity of a deep commitment. This made him think that salvation was only for those who tried hard.
The Bible does say that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works lest any man should boast. That is, becoming a child of God is not about anything we do. God graciously bestows salvation. The agent is faith, but even that is a gift from Him. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
We are also to walk by faith, trusting God to supply all we need to live for Him. We do not earn His favor by our good deeds, for we already have His favor. In Christ, He gives us all we need and anything good that we do flows out of His life in us.
Confusion happens because good deeds sound like biblical commands. Some wonder their point. If we are saved without them, and God sees us in Christ and we are His children without them, why do we need to do them? The above mentioned student is making the point that we do not need to do them to be saved.
BUT, and this is the point of today’s readings, those who have this justified and saving relationship with Christ WILL do good things. If Christ lives in us, we cannot help it. He changes how we think and how we behave. Because we are saved, we live differently than before, not to earn God’s favor or even pay Him back. (Some Christians might fall into that mode, but it is not biblical.) Salvation is having Jesus Christ in my life, and He produces good works in us.
Jesus says we are like trees: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
The treasure is Christ, and because He lives in me, I can bear good fruit, but the process is not automatic. It requires my cooperation, for right after this, Jesus asks, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:43–49)
In another place, He describes those who listen and those who do not as a home builder: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24–29)
In another place, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words . . .” (John 14:23–24)
How I live does not earn my salvation, but clearly is a test of whether or not I have it. How I live shows what is going on in my heart. Do I love God? Do I know Jesus Christ? This is crucial. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
Living a good life could indicate a person trying to earn salvation. This effort will lead to great pride or great frustration. It cannot be done. No one earns salvation; we all fall short.
Living a good life part of the time can also characterize an effort to earn salvation, but it can also describe a genuine Christian who is sometimes disobedient. This is confusing, both to the person involved and those who observe. Judging someone’s salvation based on performance is risky and prone to error. I cannot judge my own salvation that way either, for it leads to pride and frustration. I might succeed now and then, but the more I know about God’s standards, the more I will see how I fall short.
The only basis for forgiveness and eternal life is Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life, a life God imputed to me by grace through faith. Jesus never fails, is the same yesterday, today and forever, and keeps every promise. Salvation is always about Him, not about what I do, even what I do in response to what He has done.
“How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” (Hebrews 2:3) and given freely to those He has called and redeemed. It is God’s gift of grace, not by works.