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Q&A: Do parts of the Bible teach works righteousness?

The Reformation cry is grace alone, but don’t some Bible passages seem to say that Jesus will look at our good works instead?

When Jesus comes again on the Last Day, everyone’s body and soul will be joined together again for judgment.

Saved by grace through faith

Jesus describes judgment day: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28,29).

Taken out of the context of the rest of Scripture, it almost seems like we are judged on the basis of our deeds instead of faith. But Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace, through faith, and apart from works. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). We are saved by grace through God’s gift of faith.

But can we see faith? In one sense, no. Faith is a matter of the heart known only to God. However, in another sense, yes. Faith can be seen in what we do. We are saved by faith alone, not works. But faith is never alone. There will always be evidence of that faith in what we do (cf. James 2:18,26).

Fruits are a display of faith

Jesus will say to believers on the Last Day: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:34,35).

Since faith cannot be seen in the heart, Jesus will point to how faith showed itself in actions. Notice what is missing in Jesus’ listing. There is no mention of sin! Why not? Because all the imperfections in those actions have been washed away! All that remains is the good done out of love for Jesus.

There is sin in every one of my good works because I am sinful. Without God, I never have a perfectly pure motive. When my child wakes up at 3 A.M., is my first thought, Praise the Lord, a chance to serve my Savior? No! Unfortunately, my first thought is, Seriously? You’re awake already? I just want to sleep! But I will still help my child, even if one of my motives is not 100 percent God-pleasing. But on the Last Day, Jesus will display that work as evidence of faith, because he goes on to say, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Further evidence that we are saved by grace alone comes in Matthew 25:41-45. Jesus says that unbelievers did not do works of love for him. Certainly, unbelievers feed their children and care for them when sick, but because they reject Jesus’ forgiveness, only sin remains in all of their works. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

Finally, Jesus doesn’t say, “For you gave millions of dollars to the poor, started a charity, changed the world.” No, he points to giving food and drink and helping the sick. The satirist P. J. O’Rourke said, “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.” The dishes, not great works of philanthropy, are the types of works Jesus lists.

Our Christian lives, motivated by our “grace alone” salvation, do not go unnoticed by our Savior!

Have a question, ask it here!

Author: David Scharf
Volume 110, Number 10
Issue: October 2023

Q&A Bible study open bible 2023 Dave Scharf

It all is a gift of grace!

The law demands perfection, but we are far from it. We can only say, “Jesus, I can’t be what you want me to be. I am not perfect.” The church father Augustine once prayed something along the lines of, “God, give me whatever you demand of me, then demand anything you want.” In other words, if God demands perfection, then he must supply it. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” But don’t forget how that passage goes on: “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Everything having to do with salvation is a gift of God from start to finish!

Salvation is a gift

According to 1 John 2:2, “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The whole world! That is even more comforting than if God had used your name in that passage. If your name is John Smith, and you read in the Bible, “Jesus died for the sins of John Smith,” you would not necessarily be comforted. You always would have to wonder which of the thousands of John Smiths God was talking about. But since the Bible says, “Jesus died for the sins of the world,” you know he means you because you are part of the whole world for which Jesus died.

Read John 1:12,13; John 3:16; John 14:6; Romans 5:15; Romans 8:32; Ephesians 1:13,14; and Titus 3:4-7.

Read these familiar passages as though for the first time. What unique comfort does each passage give about the fact that your salvation is a gift?

Faith is a gift

Someone has said, “The hardest thing for a believer to believe is that he really believes.” This is true when we look at ourselves. But when faith is weak, looking to oneself is the last place to go for assurance. We need to look at Jesus’ cross and his Word for the certain comfort he gives. We need to see that faith is not something we do. It is a gift.

God says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). He describes us as spiritually dead by nature. Dead people cannot do anything—they are dead. Dead people cannot come to life on their own or choose to believe—they are dead. If I died and you came to my funeral visitation, you wouldn’t take a $50 bill and wave it in my face and say, “It’s all yours, Dave. All you have to do is grab it!” No, that would be crazy—and a little mean! What would it take for me to grab that $50 bill? A miracle. And that’s precisely what God gives to you in his gift of faith.

Read Ephesians 2:8,9.

God describes faith as a gift. What are the characteristics of a gift? How do those characteristics relate to faith?

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