Dr. M. R. DeHann, a highly respected Bible teacher of yesteryear, made this observation in his little book Law or Grace:
“The greatest deception which Satan, the enemy of our souls, has foisted upon humanity is the false, but appealing doctrine, that man can do something to earn his own salvation by keeping the law of God. The second greatest error is the teaching that we do not have to do anything after we are saved. The first error says that it makes no difference what you believe, just so you live right. The second error teaches that it makes no difference how you live, just as long as you believe right.”
The subject of “works” in the life of the Christian has become a highly volatile issue among many today. In fact, many sincere believers seem to be divided over the issue. Here are some observations from the Bible on this subject.
Should Believers Practice Good Works?
There is no doubt that Christians are to do good works. Christians are created in Christ for this very purpose.
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)
At the moment that faith is placed in Christ, the one believing is spiritually immersed into a permanent union with the body of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). The believer is instantly and forever changed! The believer becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), receives new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1; 1 Jn. 5:11-13), and a new righteousness in Christ (Phil. 3:9). The believer also receives a new relationship with God in Christ (Gal. 3:26-27). We become children of the living God! And finally we become citizens of heaven in Christ (Phil. 3:20-21). We become pilgrims and strangers in this earth. We live here, but we do not belong here (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11). We are here as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
Also, at the moment of this fantastic transformation, God the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence in our bodies. Our bodies become the dwelling place of God (1 Cor. 6:19).
However, God by His infinite wisdom did not choose to remove us from this sin filled planet, which is occupied by Satan and his evil army (Job. 1:7; Job 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4). Nor did He choose to eradicate the sinful fleshly Adamic nature within us (Eph. 4:20-32; Rom. 7:15). Rather, God chose to place us upon this earth and, with all that is against us, use us to glorify Him.
Will a Believer Work for God?
“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12, emphasis added)
Paul did not ask us to work for our salvation but to work out the salvation that God has already placed within us. This is the process that the Bible calls “sanctification.” Our sanctification is gained the same way as our justification, by God’s grace alone
“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:29-31)
In other words God is the one who places us in Christ and we are sanctified “in Him.” God has predetermined the good works that will do. Notice that Paul brings this to light in this next verse.
“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)
God is sovereign in our lives. This goes back to Ephesians 2:10 which says that God has foreordained the works that we will do. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, mentions this dual process.
“What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:5-10)
Paul pictures the body of Christ as a plant which is to be cultivated. Believers are to cultivate the field, but it is God who produces the fruit. This is why Paul calls Christians “fellow workers” with God.
Equipped for the Work
God has equipped us to work in His field. He has given us His Word to teach us what to do.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:17)
God has also given us sufficient tools with which to do the job of cultivating His field.
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11-13)
We are each given a supernatural ability for service in order to help build up the body of Christ. We are to discover our unique giftedness and to begin to use it in His body.
“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (1 Pet. 4:10).
It is interesting that the gift of teaching/preaching is called a work (1 Tim. 5:17). Evangelism is also called a work (2 Tim. 4:5), and even the gift of giving is called a work (2 Cor. 8:7). We are given the responsibility to be stewards of God’s grace. Our stewardship is to perform the ministry task that we have been assigned! In other words God has not only told us that we are going to do good works but He has told us what good works need to be done and He has also equipped us to do them.
Fruitful “Good Works” vs. Fleshly “Acts”
It is often impossible to tell the difference between God’s good works resulting from a relationship with Christ and human works that are produced by the flesh. The flesh produces good works counterfeiting the work of the Spirit.
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isa. 64:6)
It is quite possible for unbelievers, through tradition and self –righteousness, to live respectable moral lives and to produce plenty of “fleshly good deeds.” These righteous acts (works) may look exactly like the fruit that comes from God through believers. These non-Christian good deeds may even appear to exceed the Christians’ works.
“Good works” form the basis upon which godless religion is founded. But appearances are deceiving. Satan, the master of illusion, is in the business of blinding people to the gospel of grace by using a barrage of counterfeit good deeds (Gen. 11:1-9). His major plan of deception may be to produce as much human good as he possibly can in order to confuse. It is extremely difficult for the world system to tell the difference. In any given local assembly there are both. This is why it is not wise for us to compare ourselves with others.
“For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.” (2 Cor. 12:10)
Nor are we ever to allow ourselves to become judges of other believer’s works. God does not give us that divine responsibility, much less the means. We are not to play the role of the Holy Spirit for anyone. We are not given the responsibility to be “fruit inspectors” for other Christians or even for ourselves (Prov. 21:2).
“In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this. But He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time. Until the Lord comes who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the heart. And then each one will have praise of God.” (1 Cor. 4:3-5)
There are unbelievers who may use their good deeds to masquerade as Christians. And there are true believers who may be out of God’s will. There are also true believers who are still in the process of being sanctified. They may not as yet come to the place where they understand fully exactly what God wants them to do.
There are many immature believers in various stages of Christian growth. They are still taking in God’s word and “working out their own salvation.” Because they are babes, they often act like babies. They at times live out of fellowship with Christ, but they are still believers. But it is God’s responsibility to bring them to maturity (Phil. 1:6).
When people acknowledge that they have trusted in Jesus Christ alone to save them, then we are to love them, teach them, and live an example around them. The Word of God wielded by the Holy Spirit is to become the critic. It is living and powerful and more than sufficient for the task (Heb. 4:12-13). God reserves the exclusive right to judge.
The grace that God has provided to us in Christ gives us sufficient freedom to grow up and become productive for God, free from the unbiblical expectations and judgment calls of others. His grace provides the freedom to fail and yet not become a failure. God is the Potter and we are the clay.
Think of this. If we were judging salvation by observing lifestyles, then there would have been times that we would have questioned the salvation of the likes of David, Abraham, Jacob, and certainly Judah.
The overwhelming challenge for every believer is to present our bodies a living sacrifice to Christ (Rom. 12:1-2) and to maintain a close, personal, private, intimate relationship with Christ (Rom. 6:6-12; Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16; Gal. 5:16-22; Jn. 15:1-8; 1 Jn. 1:7).
We Will Be Held Accountable
Each of us who knows Jesus Christ will stand before Him and be held accountable for our own spiritual production.
“For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.’ So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” (Rom. 14:5-8)
Every life will be used of God! No life will be wasted— saved, lost. We will all face a day of reckoning before our Creator. Unbelievers will stand before God condemned because they have not believed in Christ and will face various degrees of eternal punishment based upon their deeds. Believers will never face the judgment of hell but rather a judgment that will determine eternal reward or loss. This judgment will focus on how the believer carried out their stewardship responsibility.
“But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load. Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” (Gal. 6:4-10)
“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” (Col. 3:23-24)
But the final outcome is all in God’s hands.
So should a believer produce good works? Yes! Will a believer produce good works? The answer is also, yes. God has a plan for every believer on this planet and He will not be frustrated.
“Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand. For the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Rom. 14:4)