Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is taken, and edited, from one section of the article, “We Believe In: Assurance of Salvation,” in the Autumn 1990 issue of The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society. See Resources With A Focus on Grace for ordering back issues.
The reader of John’s Gospel will note how often it is mentioned that the one who believes in Jesus has eternal life. Not once, however, does the inspired writer suggest that this guarantee can be disallowed if there are no good works in a believer’s life.
Of course, there is every reason to believe that there will be good works in the life of each believer in Christ. The idea that one may believe in Him and live for years totally unaffected by the amazing miracle of regeneration, or by the instruction and/or discipline of God his heavenly Father, is a fantastic notion-even bizarre. We reject it categorically.
But this is not at all the point. The issue here is assurance. And with this, works can play no decisive role whatsoever.
We should have known this fact all along. After all, did not the Apostle Paul write:
But to him who does not work (italics added) but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. . . (Rom 4:5)?
In the face of this assertion, how can anyone suppose that “works” must nevertheless be the real grounds on which I am assured of my salvation? That is, how can good works be indispensable to my certainty that I am justified without works?
What nonsense! It is as though God had said, “My justification is for the person who does not work, but assurance of my justification is only for someone who does!” Any form of theology that reduces to that stands self-condemned.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul declares that salvation is God’s free gift and that it is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8,9). But according to many teachers today-both of the Arminian and “lordship” persuasions-assurance IS “of works”! It is not surprising that such theology reinvigorates man’s latent desire to boast. For, on this view, my “good works” become the badge of my acceptance before God and they are the basis on which I can judge others as “unworthy” of the name of Christian. Let there be no mistake, where such views are held they are often accompanied by spiritual pride and by a harsh, judgmental spirit toward those who do not “measure up.”
It is pure sophistry to argue that what is meant in such theology is only that works are produced by grace and are simply its necessary results. On the contrary, if I cannot get to heaven apart from the regular performance of good works, those works become as much a condition for heaven as faith itself. Many theologians who hold to the kind of synthesis we are discussing, honestly admit that good works are a condition for heaven! But in so saying, they run their ship aground against Rom 4:4 and 11:6, and indeed against the whole biblical doctrine of grace.
We said earlier that we believe that all born-again Christians will do good works. We believe it, however, because it appears to be the only rational inference from the scriptural data. But, let it also be said clearly, it is an inference. No text of Scripture (certainly not Jas 2:14-26!) declares that all believers will perform good works, much less that they cannot be sure of heaven unless they do. No text says that!
The “bottom line” is simple: If I seek assurance through examining my good deeds, one of two things must necessarily result: (1) I will minimize the depth of my own sinfulness and the extent to which- even as a Christian-I fall short of the glory of God, or (2) I will see my deep sinfulness as hopelessly contrary to any conviction that I am saved.
Those who travel the first route are traveling the highway of self-righteousness . They are utterly blind to the reality that they are evil people whose lives are still infinitely remote from the perfect holiness of God. The claim they make that their lives are “good enough” to verify their salvation clashes blatantly with our Lord’s assertion: “No one is good but One, that is, God (Luke 18:19).” Such claims to goodness are the very essence of Pharisaism and are perfectly exemplified by the Pharisee who prayed:
“God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector (Luke 18:11).”
But he was like other men. He was not good!
Those, however, who follow the second route and decide that they are too sinful to claim to be saved are traveling a highway that leads to frustration and despair. In many such individuals the road also ends in depression.
No. Good works can never be a fundamental ground of assurance. It is logically and theologically absurd to claim that a salvation which is apart from works, is not recognizable except by works. God’s Word teaches no such thing. Assurance must always rest on the promises God’s Word makes to the believer (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; Acts 16:31; Eph 2:8-9; etc.).