Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).
Some reformed Christians have problems with verses such as this. They either ignore them or accuse of legalism anyone who dares to refer to them. But since ‘good works’ are exhorted throughout the New Testament we must teach them if, with Paul, we desire to ‘declare … the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).
If we set ‘grace’ against ‘good works’ we are in trouble. How do we deal with Scriptures like the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, where the criterion for inheriting the kingdom of God is not whether we are five-point Calvinists but whether we visited the sick and fed the hungry? Or how do we handle Christ’s own command: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16)?
An interesting case is Paul’s letter to Titus. Here ‘grace’ is mentioned twice in the body of the epistle – four times if we include the opening and closing greetings. But ‘good works’ are commended six times. Titus is exhorted ‘to be a pattern of good works’ and ‘to affirm constantly that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works’ (2:7; 3:8).
Do we dare to ‘affirm’ these things ‘constantly’ from our reformed pulpits? Are our ministries really as biblical as we think?
To crown it all, Paul asserts that ‘Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself his own special people zealous for good works’ – adding significantly, ‘Speak these things, exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise you’ (2:13-15).
Good advice – for the well-spring of all good works is nothing other than ‘the grace of God that brings salvation’ (2:11).
What are works?
The underlying problem is one of theological confusion. We are so concerned to reject legalism and justification by works that we forget that in Scripture ‘works’ can mean three totally different things.
There are the ‘works of the flesh’, meaning the sinful acts of unregenerate men (Galatians 5:19-21). There are ‘the works of the law’ – actions which, though good in themselves, cannot justify a man in God’s sight because they are never perfectly performed (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). And there are the ‘good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2:10).
This last quotation comes from a passage that is definitive on the subject of grace and good works. Every preacher and ministerial student should write a sermon on this passage and repeat it annually!
The fruit of grace
Ephesians 2:1-10 provides a mighty affirmation of salvation by grace. Not only does Paul state that salvation is by grace alone but he gives no less than seven reasons why it must be so, namely, because:
1. Man by nature is ‘dead in trespasses’ and can do nothing to acquire spiritual life (vv. 1-5).
2. Without grace man abides under God’s wrath (v.3).
3. Salvation stems from the undeserved mercy and love of God (v.4).
4. A sinner cannot be saved unless God makes him alive together with Christ (v.5).
5. The purpose of salvation is to ‘show the exceeding riches of his grace … in Christ Jesus’ (v.7).
6. Along with the faith that appropriates it, salvation is ‘the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast’ (vv. 8-9).
7. As saved sinners ‘we are his workmanship [not our own] created in Christ Jesus’ (v.10).
Then comes the bombshell – believers are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (v.10). All who are ‘appointed to eternal life’ (Acts 13:48) are also appointed to live lives that abound in good works.
Such works are the evidence, the fruit and the necessary outworking of grace. Grace and good works are not in conflict but are indissolubly joined in the eternal purposes of God. We need to be reminded constantly that this is so.