If the new birth depends on believing, not working, then where do good works fit into the Christian life?
I think Paul’s letter to Titus summarizes the “grace” attitude to good works. Consider this passage:
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men (Titus 3:1-8).
Notice two things.
On the one hand, Paul teaches salvation by grace, apart from works. He says:
- You are not saved “by works of righteousness” (v 5).
- You are “justified by His grace” (v 7).
In this passage, Paul does not specify that justification comes by grace through faith, but he implies it (cf. Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9). So, where does that leave good works?
On the other hand, believers should be focused on doing good works. In fact, a few verses earlier, Paul told Titus that grace teaches you to “live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12). And in the passage above, Paul is to the point:
- You should be “be ready for every good work” (v 1).
- Believers should be “careful to maintain good works” (v 8).
Ready and careful.
That should be your attitude towards good works.
Of course, believers can be neither.
Are you ready? You can get caught off guard by the genuine needs around you. Someone on the brink of an emotional breakdown might come to you with tears in her eyes, and all she needs is a hug and a coffee and someone to listen to her story. But instead of being a willing ear, you might panic and say you’re too busy that week. Are you ready to step up and do good works in those moments?
Are you careful? You might be lazy about doing good (cf. Titus 1:12). Honestly, doing good works takes effort, and instead of putting in that effort, you might prefer to binge-watch the latest TV show or watch the latest sports games rather than focus on loving the neighbors around you. I recently read an online theology exchange where one man said he was a “heavy thinker,” and another asked if he was also a “heavy lover”? That comment stuck with me. Am I a “heavy lover,” i.e., someone devoted to good works?
Our ministry focuses on God’s free grace. But what does that mean? On the evangelism side, that means telling people about salvation by faith apart from works. But on the discipleship side, teaching grace should also mean teaching people to be careful to maintain good works and to live godly lives in an ungodly world.
So what is the grace perspective on good works? Here’s a bumper-sticker level slogan—
Saved by grace, devoted to good works.