Are good works needed for salvation? Yes, God’s good works.
But how about all of those passages where Jesus seems to demand from us to do good works? Is He contradicting Paul? Are Reformed Theologians misrepresenting Paul and missing out on what Jesus is saying? Let’s take a look at the “pro-works” passages of Jesus.
Passage in question: “The Law is not abolished, so that means we have to do good works.”
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matt 5:17-18).
Questions to ask:
Indeed, Christians are compelled by the Holy Spirit to do good works. Given time, they must do them, they cannot help it. But, does the passage say we must do good works to be saved or justified before God? How did Christ fulfill the Law? By telling us to do it?
Context of the passage:
Before the passage in question we can see the following:
You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:14, 16).
One thing for us to consider, from the context, is not the salvific role of good works, but rather how they are a testimony. Good works glorify God.
Immediately following the passage, Jesus states the following:
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:18-20).
Let’s consider some of the specifics of what Jesus just said. The one who “annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same” is “least in the kingdom of heaven.” It is of interest for us to note that such a person is the “least,” but still actually in the kingdom of heaven.
One conclusion we can draw from this is that teaching against a commandment is not a damnable offense. If this be the case, it appears horribly out of context to assert that Christ is teaching that works save a man.
Then, Jesus drops a bombshell. We have to be more righteous than scribes and Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some interpreters take this to mean you have to be really, really righteous because these men were as careful to follow the Law as possible. If one has to be even more of a stickler to enter the kingdom of heaven than even the Pharisees were, the standard appears to be impossible to meet.
Some might argue that these Pharisees were big hypocrites, so being more righteous than them really is not an impossible task. We can discount this idea for two reasons. First, the immediate context is that not a single Law will pass away nor should anyone teach otherwise. We cannot deny that the Pharisees would have concurred. Second, according to Christ, the most righteous man in existence was not good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven:
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt 11:11).
On what basis can works save that the greatest of men ever born is less than the least in the kingdom? Those in the kingdom of heaven are in union with Christ (Rom 6:5, Eph 5:31, 32). If we are truly in a profound sense in Christ and one with Him, God judges us by Him. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). Christ suffered our judgement, we in exchange have become partakers in His righteousness.
The early Church Father Justin Martyr reflected on this fact:
He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 9)!
How is this possible? Because Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf, for “He is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). This is why Paul can assert, by the Spirit, the following:
For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly (Gal 2:19-21).
So, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the most righteous of men, because is righteousness comes from the One who is the end of the Law. This is why anyone who teaches against the Law or any commandment is the least, but not outside the grace of God.
Why teach against the very Law which is the basis of the only righteousness that saves? A man is only made righteous because Christ fulfilled the Law and all of its details. Jesus Christ’s righteousness, in fulfilling the Law, is detracted from when one teaches against that same Law. It would be, in effect, teaching against the very thing that makes you righteous to begin with.
Conclusion: This passage does not, and cannot, teach works salvation. First, those who lack the works Christ teaches in favor of are at least in the kingdom. Second, those who appear not to lack the works, the scribes and Pharisees, are not even in the kingdom. Third, the bar for righteousness to even be least in the kingdom is beyond what even the best men can meet. Lastly, the teaching of the early Church bolstered by the Scripture itself shows that Christ’s fulfillment of the Law is precisely what gives us righteousness contingent upon our faith in Him.
In light of all of these things, we can see that logically faith alone saves, “not works” (Eph 2:9).