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: “Sheep are justified because they have done good works, and the goats are condemned for the lack thereof.”
All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another… and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink…’
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me…’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:32-46).
Questions to ask: Does the passage actually say that the sheep are saved because they did good? If the kingdom was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” does not God anticipate the salvation of the sheep before they ever did anything good?
Context of the passage: Much of the meaning of the passage can be discerned from an important passage earlier in the same chapter. In the parable of the ten virgins, five of the virgins were foolish and did not bring enough oil. As a result, they were late for the wedding. The moral of the tale would have been “you snooze, you lose” if it simply ended there. However, in Matt 25:12 the Lord says to the virgins, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
As we covered in the previous installment of this series concerning the “Lord, Lord” passage, God knew all those who would profess their faith in Christ before they were born. So, of course He never knew those with their false professions. Obviously, those whose apparent moral failings result in a lax attitude towards the coming of the Lord is contingent upon God’s foreknowledge.
This is not the only passage of the Scripture which talks about this. Rom 8:29-30 states:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Being conformed to the image of Christ, evident by our works, is the logical result of God’s foreknowledge. The passage does not say (nor does the Catholic Catechism teach) that God foreknows those who, by their own free will decide to be conformed to Christ’s image. God, in His grace, moves the hearts of men to become more like Christ. Hence, any good works that God praises are the result of God working in the man, for “[e]very good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17).
Likewise, we see the same with the sheep and the goats. God by His foreknowledge already prepared the kingdom for the sheep. Likewise, it would be fair to say, He never knew the goats. So, the choosing of the sheep and the goats is ultimately not contingent upon man’s good and bad choices, but God’s choices pertaining to whom He will be especially gracious to and elect to salvation.
Conclusion: While many people look at such a passage with fear, much like they look at the “Lord, Lord” passage, there is no need to fear. The Scripture teaches that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). A Christian need not fear whether he has done enough good works, because Christ has done enough for us. Jesus tells us that “all that He has given Me I lose nothing…for this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:39-40). Where is this possibility that our salvation can be lost if we have not done enough good works? Christ says He will lose none and that the Father’s will is that everyone who believes in Christ will have eternal life.
This is a very plain, easy to understand guarantee. As we have seen thus far, the passages of the Scripture where works may play a role in salvation are usually vague and interpreted totally out of context.
We are saved by grace, through faith, and not by works (Eph 2:8-9), so the only consistent way to understand what Christ said is that the sheep were saved by grace, through faith, and the goats were not. It, then, should not surprise us that the sheep saved by grace do “good works, which God prepared beforehand,” because Eph 2:10 says this is the very reason why God shows grace to men.