Some people believe that if you do enough good deeds, if you follow God’s word perfectly enough, you can earn God’s forgiveness (and that if you don’t do enough good works, you’ll go to Hell). This is called “works righteousness” because it is based on a belief that our righteousness comes from the good works we do, instead of God’s grace. The problem with this belief is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). The grace of God is that even though we are all sinners, God still loves us and sent God’s only son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sin so that we could be saved. There is nothing we can do that would make God love us less, and nothing we can do on our own to earn the love and forgiveness God has already given us; works righteousness doesn’t work. But just because good works can’t “earn” us salvation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good things.
God loves us no matter what we do. Our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.) Our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith, and that faith is a gift of God that we call grace. When our sins are forgiven, our relationship with God is made right. The technical term for this is “justification.” That’s what Lutherans mean when we say we are justified by grace through faith. This is intended to be a comfort; we never have to worry that we have done enough good things to make God happy with us. Good works have nothing to do with salvation. HOWEVER, you can’t just stop there.
We are saved by God’s grace when he justifies us, but there’s more to the Christian life than just coming into a right relationship with God. Once you are justified, then it becomes a question of living out your faith. We have been given a new life through Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. There’s an old saying: “if being Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Living as a Christian is called “sanctification.” And part of living as a Christian—being sanctified—is doing good works. We don’t do good works out of fear of going to Hell; we know that God will always love us and redeem us whether we do good works or not. We do good works because we love God and God loves us; he wants us to do good things, and we want to make him happy. Doing good works is a form of praise to God, just as surely as singing hymns or praise songs is.
I’m sure you can all remember Bible passages that talk about bearing good fruit or having the fruit of the Spirit. (For example, the parable of the sower in Mark 4, John 15:4-9, Ephesians 5:8-20, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 3:8, Romans 7:4, and many others.) As Christians, the Holy Spirit works within us, and inspires us to do things that are pleasing to God. This is what it means to bear good fruit: to have the Spirit working within us, helping us to do good things. God loves us no matter what we do, but he wants us to live fruitful lives. God wants us to help others who need help. God wants us to do the right thing, not because we are afraid, but because we love God and we love our fellow human beings, and doing good works is a way of showing that love.
Christ died to forgive our sins and through that forgiveness the Holy Spirit comes to us. Forgiveness of sins is Justification, and giving the Holy Spirit is Sanctification. They’re not the same thing, though they are closely related. When Christ saves us, he calls us to live as Christians, and to live out our faith in our daily lives. Each day we are renewed in faith and love by the Holy Spirit. Doing good works is our way of responding to that call. Good works are not necessary for salvation, period. But they are necessary for living according to God’s call. We do them not out of fear, but out of love and respect.
We should also remember that even though good works won’t save us, they do give us other rewards. Here on Earth they make others happy, and they do store up treasures for us in heaven. They don’t grant us salvation, but they do give bonuses once we have been saved.
If you have any questions about the Christian faith, Christian life, or theology, please leave a comment.