Many non-Christians believe that if they perform a sufficient number of good 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 trusting in Jesus Christ. Is either of these two beliefs valid?
Salvation by Good 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 scriptures which indicate that God does not regard a person to be justified by their good works. We will now consider these scriptures. [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., doing what is right, according to the Old Testament Law), but this scripture does not state what does justify a person before God. However, the next three scriptures 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 works (or, good deeds) that Abraham did, but his faith, that made him righteous before God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “[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 works, that enables a person to be righteous before God and, thus, to have eternal salvation.
Galatians 2:16 asserts, “[A] man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Yet again, it is stated that faith, not works, that justify a person to receive eternal salvation.
Furthermore, Galatians 2:21b says, “[I]f righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” In other words, if a person can earn eternal salvation by doing good works, there was no need for Jesus Christ to die on a cross.
Even if a person does many good works because they assume that God will grant him (or her) eternal salvation on the basis of these works, that person is making an assumption that is not supported by the Bible.
John 6:28-29 indicates that the only “work” that a person needs to do to receive eternal salvation is to believe in (i.e., trust) Jesus Christ as their Savior. This scripture states, “Then they [i.e., the 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 Good Works?
Some Christians believe that good works are necessary to maintain or to assure eternal salvation, although they also believe it is necessary to trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. The scripture that they most often cite is James 2:14-26, which states several times that faith without [good] works is dead.
In reference to this scripture, 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 [sic] faith is sufficient for salvation, without its living fruits in a holy life.”
In attempting to understand James 2:14-26, we will first focus on 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 [good] works is not genuine faith. Good works provide proof of the validity of a person’s faith. And, in verse 18, the use of the word “show” suggests that James 2:14-26 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 about justification in his writings in Romans and Ephesians versus 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.”
Also, 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 James 2:17, works are evidence of whether or not a person has genuine faith.
Some of the people who assert that good works, as well as faith, are necessary for eternal salvation believe some scriptures infer that 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 scripture is interpreted in the context of the surrounding scripture 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 having done something commendable), to those who have genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Rewards are “extras” that Christians will receive in addition to eternal salvation. The Bible infers that Christians will be rewarded according to the degree of their faithfulness to Christ, which includes the good deeds that they do for the glory of God.
Scriptures that indicate Christians will be rewarded for the good deeds they did while they were on Earth include 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 that He will “give to every one according to his work.” Likewise, 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Matthew 6:19-20 suggest that the rewards 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 scripture 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), or just those who are not included in the Book of Life, or everyone.
As to whether or not good deeds are necessary to assure salvation, how could anyone know the amount or extent of such deeds that are necessary 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. This would contradict scriptures such as 1 John 5:11-12. This scripture indicates that we can know that we have eternal salvation, as follows,
[T]his is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
Biblical teaching affirms that, if we have genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ as our Savior, the focus of our lives will be changed. If we do not have an ongoing 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, although even genuine Christians will 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 requirement that is necessary for a person to have eternal 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 says in reference to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross, “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.
The Bible is sufficiently clear that, if a person has not trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior, no amount of goods works can provide that person with assurance that he (or she) will have eternal salvation,. Furthermore, the Bible indicates that eternal salvation is not dependent upon good works in addition to trust in Christ, but instead it indicates that good works are evidence that a person has genuinely trusted in Christ.
[Note: Our primary focus in this article is on the significance of good works, but what about sinful works or deeds? The Appendix that follows provides a relatively brief discussion of the significance of the sinful works of Christians.]
What About Sinful Works?
Even after a person has made a commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, that person, like every other Christian who has ever lived, will think and do things that are not in accordance with God’s perfect will (i.e., they will commit sins). As a result, this will adversely affect their relationship with God until they sincerely confess their sins.
Furthermore, if a person does not sincerely repent for their sins, God may decide that it is necessary to discipline that person. 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 scriptures indicate that Christians may be disciplined by God:
Hebrews 12:6a: “For whom the Lord loves He chastens. . . .”
Revelation 3:19: [Jesus 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 says or does something that he (or she) knows is a sin, that person should immediately repent, not primarily because of concern about being disciplined by God, but primarily because of a genuine desire to be in fellowship with God.
Insofar as we can determine, there are no scripture that directly deals with the question as to the affect that the sinful thoughts, words, and actions of Christians may have on their eternal rewards. The following scriptures seem to be 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 scriptures deal only with positive behavior (i.e., good deeds) or if they also pertain to negative behavior (i.e., bad deeds, or sins). However, it is clear that 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 will not affect a person’s eternal rewards.
In contrast, 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.” Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that sins that are not confessed will not be forgiven.
We can infer from this last scripture that if God does not forgive a Christian’s unconfessed sins, He will take these sins into consideration when He is determining that person’s eternal rewards. Nevertheless, a Christian’s destiny to live eternally in the presence of God is assured, regardless of the resulting consequences for unconfessed sins,. [Click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Salvation?” for a discussion of the basis for this belief.]