What good are good works?

For by 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. (Eph 2 vv 8-9)

We could well make the generalization that mankind is hardworking. In this busy world everyone needs to work hard to succeed. Indeed, this ethos of working hard has been engrained in us since our earliest days at school when we were taught, and rightly so, that working hard will yield rewards.

This attitude is succinctly summarized by world-famous basketball player Michael Jordan: "I've always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come."

If it is true that hard work earns rewards on earth, is it equally true that good works will get us into heaven?

I have spoken to a number of people who live by the philosophy that, if their good works outweigh the bad, God will let them into heaven when they die.

In this article, I will be highlighting what God's Word, the Bible, tells us. Although we shall look at a number of verses, the one cited at the head of this article jumps straight off the page in telling us how to get to heaven. Salvation (entrance into heaven) can never be attained by good works; instead, we must have our sins forgiven. The Lord Jesus did the work: He died on a cross as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. Our responsibility is to rest in total dependence on what He has done. This alone enables us to enter heaven. In short, salvation is a gift from God. As this article progresses, I will explain this in greater detail.

What's wrong with good works?

Does the Bible condemn good works in themselves? Absolutely not. Indeed, it insists upon the importance of moral purity, good citizenship, loving our neighbor, etc. But nowhere does it say that such good works will get us into heaven.

We have to understand that the God of the Bible is holy and just. His standard is therefore absolute perfection, something sinful humans can hardly comprehend, living as we do in a world where we have to make do with imperfection. Our limited minds do a poor job of understanding this perfect standard; we've never known anything in this world to be totally perfect, without the slightest flaw or imperfection. Honesty compels us to confess that we fall short of God's perfect standard. We have all done things we wish undone, things of which we are ashamed. These wrongs things are what the Bible calls sin, a small word with grave consequences.

The Bible makes no difference between people, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.23). Whatever our social class, race, or education, we are all sinners deserving of God's righteous punishment.

No good works on our part can make up for our sins. Isaiah 64.6 tells us that "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." This exposes good works for what they are in God’s sight – dirty rags.

Present good works cannot atone for past sins. For example, no criminal in a court of law can argue that his earlier respectability compensates for the crime with which he stands charged. There would be serious flaws with a justice system which permitted a murderer to walk free because of past good works. Similarly, the infinitely perfect God will not allow good works to atone for sins, whether past, present, or future.

If, then, we are all guilty sinners who cannot work our way out of punishment, how can we get to heaven?

The punishment already paid

The central message of the Bible is that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on a cross outside Jerusalem, along with His subsequent resurrection, provides salvation for sinners. The death of a man two millennia ago in the Middle East is of the utmost and eternal importance because it is our only means of entering heaven.

The very reason why the Lord Jesus Christ left heaven and came to this earth was to die on a cross. As 1 Timothy 1.15 says, "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." If we were able to work our way into salvation, there would have been no need for Christ to come to this earth; we could have entered heaven by our own merits. By His death on the cross, however, He paid on our behalf the punishment we could not pay.

The Lord Jesus Christ was the only One capable of taking our punishment because, as 1 Peter 2.22 tells us, "(He) committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth." Totally faultless, He, God manifest in human form (1 Tim 3.16), was the only One able to satisfy God's perfect standard.

All the sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed to Christ's death (Heb 10.12). That’s why we are no longer required to offer sacrifices like Old Testament Israelites,  and it is why works are of no effect in bringing us to heaven. The rigorous system of laws and sacrifices followed by Israelites throughout the Old Testament could never take away sin; rather, they merely foreshadowed what the Lord Jesus would accomplish on the cross at Calvary. We can view these sacrifices as a sort of temporary "covering" of sin until Christ's ultimate sacrifice.

Therefore, any type of work or sacrifice on our part is now entirely obsolete; Christ has accomplished everything in full.

This is the very reason that the gospel is the greatest message that the world has ever heard. Everything needed for us to get to heaven has already been completed through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Indeed, as the Lord Jesus was dying, he cried out, "it is finished" (Jn. 19.30), indicating that the work He had come to do had now been completed to God's perfect satisfaction. Put simply, everything has been done for us. All that is required of us is to trust in Christ's finished work. As the heading to this section points out, salvation is a free gift for us to accept; as we would with any other valuable gift, we have to take it thankfully without payment.

Accepting this fact involves a total change of mindset, which is abhorrent to the natural man. There’s a paradox: the message is simple in that it announces a work done, yet reception of it strikes at the heart of human pride. In order to be saved, we must relinquish our pride and accept our place as guilty sinners deserving of God's judgment.

Free to all

God's gift of salvation is offered to the whole world (Jn 3.16). Christ is able to save all who put their trust in Him (Heb 7.25). Christ rose from the dead on the third day (1 Cor 15.3) and is a living Saviour. As He died for sinners on Calvary, so He lives eternally to keep them. Furthermore, it is possible this very moment to make the decision to believe in the Lord Jesus. Trusting Him brings us into blessings which  endure for ever and can never be lost or taken away (Jn 10.28).

No other religion or belief system offers such certainty. Rather, they all beg the question, "how many good works are needed to get to heaven?" The free gift of salvation in Christ shows us the amazing grace of God in providing a way to heaven for those who could never get there by themselves.  All other faith systems demand specific works – rituals, observances, deeds – of their adherents if they are to be ‘saved’. By putting our faith in Christ's sacrifice, we can know for sure that we will be in heaven when we die.

Aren't Christians supposed to do good works?

Very much so.  But the good works of Christians are never performed as a means of getting to heaven. Rather, they are done out of a sense of gratitude towards the Lord Jesus Christ for all that He has done on our behalf.

Salvation is the greatest gift anyone can ever receive. It is only natural that those granted a great gift will want to show their gratitude to thegiver. This is true with salvation. A life lived for God after salvation – that is to say, a life shaped according to the instructions of the Bible for Christian believers - shows our gratitude. This is a major theme of the often misunderstood book of James in the Bible; good works come after salvation, not before. They are in no way a part of earning salvation and forgiveness of sins.

James shows us that outward good works demonstrate the reality of a prior inward faith in God. Good works can never be used as a method of earning salvation.

Conclusion

We hope the above message is clear. God tells us plainly that it is totally impossible to work our way to heaven. However, God's mercy has provided an answer; all that is required is that we depend on the once and for all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

We pray that you will put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14.6).   There is no alternative.  We fail so often, and our best works are entirely inadequate.  But this is the good news:  we are invited to place our confidence for eternity in the One who is incapable of failure. He is the only One worthy of our trust.