Don’t our works actually matter to God?

Q. Many times I’ve heard sermons and read that we are not saved by our works but by grace. However, in reading some passages in the New Testament, I’m not sure that is true according to Jesus. Matthew, particularly, has several of Jesus’ sermons that make me think it does matter how we live and what we do and that we can’t just ask for forgiveness and start over each day. Can you point me to passages that will bring clarity to this?

I think the simplest way to summarize the New Testament position on this subject is to explain that while it doesn’t teach we are saved by works, it does teach we are saved for works. That is, God has saved us so that we will be able to live in the way He has designed.

Paul writes in Ephesians, for example, that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Paul argues long and hard, particularly in Romans and Galatians, against the idea that people who are saved by grace can then live in any way they want, and just ask forgiveness for the sins they keep committing. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks. Paul’s opponents are legalists who are arguing that people have to be bound by rules in order to keep them from going astray. He responds that the law cannot give people the power to do what it commands; however, those who “walk by the Spirit” are able, by the Spirit’s power, to live in the way that God wants and expects.

James, for his part, argues that those who say they are saved by faith can only demonstrate this fact through their works. He challenges those who would say otherwise, “Show me your faith apart from your works.” The implication is, they can’t. James then counters, “I will show you my faith by my works.” But he’s not saying that we are saved by doing works; rather, he’s saying that if our faith does not issue in the kind of works that God has prepared for us, then it’s not saving faith.

And so it’s a parody of the gospel to say that because salvation is by grace, it doesn’t matter how we live once we become followers of Jesus; we can just keep asking for forgiveness for the sins we keep committing. It certainly does matter to God how we live after we accept his gracious offer of salvation, and God has given us the Holy Spirit to live inside us and transform us into people whose lives will consistently and increasingly reflect the righteous character of our Savior Jesus Christ.

[Also see this earlier post: “Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?]

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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