Works have long been a source of argument among Christians. “What place do works have in salvation?” is generally the question that gets Christians at each others throats, which is wonderfully ironic.
One of the sources for the incessant arguing is a confusion of definitions.
When Christians talk about “works,” I have discovered there are at least three different things they are talking about.
- Works of the Law
When Paul speaks about salvation being by faith and not works, he’s referring to works of the law: circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food laws, etc. “No flesh is justified by deeds of the law” is Paul’s main point. The law can’t save and was never intended to save anyone. The Law was given as a covenant between God and Israel to stay in their Promised Land. If there was a law that could give life, then Christ died in vain. I am all for people who maintain that salvation is not by works of the law.
- Works of Religion
Other Christians are talking about religious ritual when they talk about works. These kinds of works are “things you do in church.” These works include: baptism, communion, catechism, confession, etc. The Catholic Church tends to stress these. When Luther was against works and said salvation was by faith alone, he was primarily talking about Catholic works of penance. These works are not anything that helps anyone else, but rather stuff you do to make yourself have a better standing before God, in your mind. I am all for people who maintain that salvation is not by works of religion.
- Works of Love
The New Testament says Christians are supposed to do works and there are several passages that flat-out say that a lack of works means no faith. “Works” in these passages are not works of the law, nor are they works of religion. When the Bible speaks positively of works (which it does frequently), it is talking about loving acts for others. When James says “Faith without works is dead,” the works he refers to are fulfilling the Royal Law, love your neighbor as yourself. As Paul says, “faith works by love.” If I do all kinds of works but have not love, it profits me nothing. I am all for people who maintain that salvation goes hand-in-hand with people who do loving works.
Works can be either good or bad. Good works are always things done to reflect the love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We show our salvation, our new birth, our new creation in Christ Jesus, by demonstrating His love to those around us.
If these new works of love are not a growing part of who you are, you should have zero assurance of salvation. How do you know Christ is in you, unless Christ is living through you?
Works of the law and works of religion result in self-righteousness, pride, and judgmentalism. Works of love forget self and seek to please your neighbor for his good to edification. As we do to the least of these, we do to Christ.
Love is the good works the Bible wants you to do. Faith works by love. If love is not working out of you, then faith is not in you.