Are Good Works Inevitable?
by Bob Wilkin
Reformed theologians suggest that good works are the inevitable result of the new birth. All believers will produce good works, they say.
Some people from the Lordship Salvation position seem to think that we in the Free Grace camp deny such teaching. While GES has no specific statement directly on this point, most members of GES would not have a problem with the above statement—at least in terms of what it actually says.
[Many of us would have a problem with how this proposition is explained, with its ramifications. We will get to that concern later.]
There is a difference between what is hypothetically possible and what is likely and reasonable.
I would say that it is hypothetically possible for a believer never to produce even one good work. However, I don't think that ever has or will occur—except in the cases of people who trust Christ at the very moment of death. (Most consider such cases outside the scope of this issue.)
Let me illustrate my point using statistics and probability.
Say we were to flip a normal coin one thousand times per day for ten years. Is it hypothetically possible that it would come up heads each and every time? Yes. Would that actually ever occur? No. The odds against such an occurrence are one in 23,650,000. You could flip coins from now till the cows come home and never get even forty heads in a row—let alone 3.65 million in a row. (The odds of forty in a row would be more than one in a trillion.)
In the same way each believer is faced with maybe a thousand choices daily. Some would be much more than fifty percent inclined to do good. Some less. This would depend on maturity and growth. However, let's assume for the sake of discussion that the odds were one in two on each choice that a believer would do good as opposed to evil. With such odds a believer who made a thousand choices in a day would likely do five hundred good deeds.
Even a very carnal new believer would do many good deeds in the course of a day. He might say a number of prayers, whether formal or informal. He might give a word of encouragement. He might give money or aid to a needy person or family. He might make many choices to be honest when he could have cheated. He might spend time with and give loving hugs to his spouse and kids. He might attend church, witness, read the Word, or do any number of acts of obedience.
I think it unlikely that any believer—unless he were in a coma or constantly high on drugs—could go through even one day without doing some good deeds. Other people may or may not observe and recognize them as good deeds, but they will occur.
The real issue in this discussion is to be found in the degree to which one's new nature will manifest itself. The question is: Is it possible for sin to dominate the life of a believer, and if so, for how long?
Reformed theologians say that sin can dominate a believer, but only for a short time. Those from the Free Grace perspective suggest that sin can dominate a believer—with no time limit attached.
Unless we diligently cultivate our faith through Bible reading and study, prayer, fellowship, worship, evangelism, and other acts of obedience, we will find that our flesh begins to dominate our behavior.
The Reformed view cannot say how long a believer might be dominated by sin. Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? The reason for this imprecision is because the doctrine itself is unscriptural. There are many verses which warn believers not to let sin have dominion over us (e.g., Rom 6:12-14; 1 Cor 3:14; 2 Cor 12:20-21; 1 Tim 1:18-20; 2 Tim 2:14-26; Jas 5:19-20; 2 Pet 3:17). There are none which say that there is a time limit on how long a believer can be dominated by sin.
(God does take disobedient believers home. In some cases, such as Leviticus 10 and Acts 5, God acts swiftly. In some cases, such as 2 Samuel 11 and 1 Corinthians 11, He does not. There is no indication in Scripture how long God might allow an errant believer to continue in sin before He would choose to take him home. He is sovereign and makes such choices as He knows are best in individual cases. He has not bound Himself to some formula.)
Victory is not guaranteed. Rewards go to the overcomers, to those whose lives are characterized by good deeds. To those who aim not just to do the good, but the best. To those who maximize their gifts and abilities for Christ.
The call of Scripture is not merely to produce good deeds. It is to maximize our lives. To whom much is given much is required.
Good works are inevitable. Even so, it is a sad possibility for a believer to be dominated by sin over a long period of time. Only if we fight the good fight, run the race with endurance, and keep the faith will we receive the victor's crown (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 4:7-8). May we live up to the motto of the Marines: Semper Fi (actually Semper Fidelis)—Always Faithful.