Many non-Christians believe that if they perform a sufficient number of goods works (i.e., good deeds) during their lifetime on the earth, they will have eternal salvation, even if they do not trust in Jesus Christ. And, many Christians believe that eternal salvation is dependent upon good works in addition to trust in Christ. Is either of these two beliefs valid?
Salvation by Works Alone?
Although a number of people believe that God will grant them eternal salvation if they do enough good works, there are several biblical passages that indicate that God does not regard a person to be justified by their good deeds. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Romans 3:20 says, “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His [i.e., God’s] sight. . . .” This scripture makes it clear that a person cannot be justified before God by performing “deeds of the law” (i.e., works), but the passage does not state what does justify a person before God. The next two scriptures, however, indicate that it is faith in God that provides justification before Him.
Romans 4:2-3 states, “[I]f Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” In other words, it was not the good deeds that Abraham did, but his faith, that made him righteous before God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 asserts, “[B]y grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Again, it is faith, not good deeds, that enables a person to be righteous before God and, thus, to have eternal salvation.
Furthermore, Galatians 2:21b declares, “[I]f righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” In other words, if a person can have eternal salvation by doing good deeds, there was no need for Jesus Christ to die on the cross.
Therefore, anyone who assumes that God will grant them eternal salvation just because they do good deeds is making an assumption that is not supported by the Bible, even if they do many benevolent works.
John 6:28-29 indicates that the only “work” that a person needs to do to have eternal salvation is to believe in (i.e., trust) Jesus Christ as their Savior. This passage states, “Then they [i.e., people who were questioning Jesus] said to Him, ‘What shall we do that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.’”
Salvation by Faith Plus Works?
Some Christians believe good deeds are necessary to maintain (i.e., assure) eternal salvation, although they also believe it is necessary to trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. The scripture passage they most often cite is James 2:14-26, which states several times that faith without works is dead.
In reference to the passage in James, John W. Haley, M.A., on page 167 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, says, “James addresses those who maintain that, provided a man’s belief is correct, it matters little what his conduct is; that a ‘bare assentive faith is sufficient for salvation, without its living fruits in a holy life.”
In attempting to understand James 2:14-26, let’s first consider verses 17-18, which say, “[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Verse 17 indicates that faith without works is not genuine faith. Works provide proof of the validity of a person’s faith. And, in verse 18, the use of the word “show” suggests that the entire passage pertains to justification before other people, since works can be seen by other people.
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., on page 18 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, provide an explanation to reconcile the differences between what Paul says in his writings about justification (see the Romans and Ephesians passages above) and what James says. According to Geisler and Howe, “Paul is speaking about justification before God (which is by faith alone), whereas James is referring to justification before men (who cannot see our faith, but only our works.”
It should be noted that James does not state that faith alone cannot save a person. In verse 24, he says, “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” Webster’s Dictionary defines “justify” as “to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable.” Thus, as we indicated with regard to verse 17, works are proof of our salvation.
Some of those who assert that works, as well as faith, is necessary for eternal salvation believe some scriptures infer that heaven (i.e., eternal salvation) is a reward for doing good deeds. One such scripture is Matthew 10:22b, which says, “[H]e who endures to the end will be saved.” However, if this verse is interpreted in the context of the surrounding passage – especially, with reference to verse 23, which mentions the return of Jesus Christ to Earth (His Second Advent) – it seems to apply to the physical rescue of Christians who survive until Christ returns. Support for this perspective can be found in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which indicates that, in many instances where the term “saved” is used in the Bible, it refers to temporal, not eternal, deliverance from danger, suffering, etc.
The Bible does indicate that there are various rewards for doing good deeds, but it does not say that eternal salvation is one of these rewards. In fact, the opposite is true. Romans 6:23 and Ephesians 2:8-10 state that salvation is a gift (which is free), not a reward (which is a payment for something), to those who have genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Rewards are “extras” that Christians will receive in addition to eternal life (i.e., salvation). The Bible infers that Christians will be rewarded according to the degree of their faithfulness to Christ, which includes good deeds they do for the glory of God.
Verses that indicate Christians will be rewarded for the good deeds they did while they were on Earth are 1 Corinthians 3:14, in which Paul says to the Christians in the church in Corinth, “If anyone’s work . . . endures, he will receive a reward,” and Revelation 22:12, in which Jesus Christ states He will “give to every one according to his work.” Likewise, 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Matthew 6:19-20 suggest that the rewards that Christians will receive in eternity will be determined by their good deeds while they were on Earth.
Revelation 20:12-15 may also indicate that Christians will be judged according to the deeds they did while they were on Earth, but there is no mention of rewards. Furthermore, this passage is not clear as to whether those being judged in this situation are only those whose name is in the Book of Life (i.e., those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior), just those who are not included in the Book of Life, or everyone.
As for whether or not good deeds are necessary to assure salvation, how could anyone know the exact amount or extent of such deeds that are required to remain saved? God has not provided a standard that tells us when or if our good deeds would be sufficient for us to have eternal life. Therefore, if good deeds are necessary to have eternal salvation, no one could be certain if they have done enough. In contrast, scripture passages such as 1 John 5:11-12 state that we can know that we have eternal salvation.
Biblical teaching affirms that, if we are genuinely saved, the focus of our lives will be changed. If we don’t have a persistent desire to follow the teachings of Christ, we probably have not been saved. The crucial evidence of our salvation is the desire to follow the teachings of Christ, because we will certainly experience many failures. Scriptures such as James 2:14-19, Matthew 7:20, and Ephesians 2:8-10 provide support for the belief that good works are outward evidence of a person’s faith, rather than a specific requirement that is necessary before a person can have assurance of his or her salvation.
In reference to Ephesians 2:8-10, James R. White says on page 151 of his book entitled The Roman Catholic Controversy,
[All] of salvation is of God. Were this not the case, we would certainly boast! The purpose of God is clearly presented: we have been created in Christ Jesus unto good works – not by good work, not with the help of good works, but that we might perform good works! First comes full salvation from God, then, as a result, the works prompted by the Holy Spirit of God. . . .
And, Hebrews 10:14, in reference to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross, says, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” If we are “perfected forever” by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, then works are not necessary for salvation – works are evidence of salvation. In other words, good works by a person won’t result in salvation for that person; in fact, the opposite is true: genuine salvation by a person will result in good works by that person.
We believe the Bible is sufficiently clear that no amount of goods works will provide a person with assurance that he or she will have eternal salvation, if they have not trusted in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Bible indicates that eternal salvation is not dependent upon good works in addition to trust in Christ, but instead indicates that good works are evidence that a person has genuinely trusted in Christ.
[Our primary focus in this article is on the significance of good works, but what about bad deeds? The appendix that follows provides a relatively brief discussion of the significance of the bad deeds of Christians.]
What About Bad Deeds?
Even after we have made a commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, we, like every other Christian who has ever lived, will think and do things that are not in accordance with God’s perfect will. However, our thoughts and actions will affect our relationship with God while we are still on Earth.
First of all, everyone who has been a Christian for more than a short period of time knows how uncomfortable it feels to be out of fellowship with God when they have unconfessed sin in their life.
Secondly, if we don’t sincerely repent of our sins, God may decide that it is necessary to discipline us. Sincere repentance is more than being sorry for having sinned or done wrong. Webster’s Dictionary states that “repentance implies full realization of one’s sins or wrongs and a will to change one’s ways.” David and Jonah are two biblical examples of God’s disciplining, and the following scripture passages indicate that any Christian may be disciplined by God:
Hebrews 12:6a: “For whom the Lord loves He chastens. . . .”
Revelation 3:19: [Christ states] “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”
Chastening, or discipline, is necessary only when a Christian knowingly sins and has not sincerely repented. Ideally, if a Christian has knowingly said or done something that he (or she) knows is a sin, that person should immediately repent, not because of concern about being disciplined by God, but because of a genuine desire to be in fellowship with God.
Insofar as we can determine, there are no scripture passages that directly deal with the question as to the affect that the sinful thoughts and actions of Christians may have on their eternal rewards. The following scripture passages seem to among the most pertinent to this matter:
Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”
Luke 6:35a: “[L]ove your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great. . . .”
1 Corinthians 3:8b: “[E]ach one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
With regard to the determination of eternal rewards, it is not clear if these last three passages deal only with positive behavior (i.e., good deeds) or if they also pertain to negative behavior (i.e., bad deeds, or sins). Certainly, all the sins that a person committed before becoming a Christian are forgiven by God when that person confesses their sins and trusts in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Therefore, sins committed prior to becoming a Christian won’t affect a person’s eternal rewards.
However, the Bible indicates that after a person becomes a Christian, he (or she) must confess and repent for subsequent sins (i.e., those committed after becoming a Christian) before God will forgive those sins. 1 John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We can infer from this passage that if God does not forgive a Christian’s unconfessed sins, He will take these sins into consideration when He is determining eternal rewards. Nevertheless, regardless of the resulting consequences for unconfessed sins, a Christian’s destiny to live eternally in the presence of God is assured. [Click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Salvation?” for a discussion of the basis for this belief.]