Q. Doesn’t John 5:28-29 show that doing good works is a condition of salvation? How do you understand it?
A. Good question. Taken on its own, that can be a puzzling passage. You would think “the good” refers to good deeds, and “the evil” refers to sins. But is that right?
There’s a theme in John’s Gospel of subverting “works-salvation” assumptions and emphasizing that the one “work” God requires is to believe in Jesus for eternal life. John 5:28-29 is part of that theme. The good and evil that leads to life or condemnation is believing or disbelieving in Him.
So, Jesus is very clear from the beginning of John’s Gospel that eternal life and eternal condemnation depend on believing in Him:
“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
In John 3:36, unbelief is described as disobedience:
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
The Jews were expecting to be saved or damned based on how well they kept the Mosaic Law. But Jesus subverts that expectation, by clarifying that what’s at issue is their faith, not their behavior.
Or again, in John 6:28-29, Jesus was speaking metaphorically of doing a “work” (sing.) to get eternal life (v 27). Some people in the audience who evidently were still thinking in terms of “salvation-by-works” asked what those “works” (plural) were. And Jesus, subverting their expectation, tells them the “work” (sing.) they should do is to believe in Him:
Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
That kind of subversion is also happening in John 5:28-29.
Just a few sentences before, in verse 24, Jesus again emphasized that your eternal destiny depends on believing in Him for eternal life. If you believe, you already have eternal life as a present possession and will not be judged:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
And in the verses following 5:28-29, Jesus castigated the Jews for not believing (vv 38, 44, 46, 47). They were searching the Scriptures “because you think that in them you have eternal life.” In other words, they were studying the Law to find out even more detailed rules to follow to be saved (think of the rich young ruler). But Jesus emphasized that the real issue is whether they believed in Him or not. Even though they spent their lives meticulously trying to follow the Law, by not believing in Him, they were actually disobeying Moses:
“Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (5:45-47).
So it seems clear to me that the issue is belief, not behavior. That’s how I understand what Jesus says in John 5:28-29:
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).
Given the immediate context, and given the overall emphasis on believing in John’s Gospel, I take “the good” and “the evil” as either believing or disbelieving in Him for eternal life. If you believe, you’ve done “the good.” If you have not believed, you’re disobeying God and have done “the evil.”