Among the most well-known Scriptures among evangelicals are those penned by the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians.
Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
It is therefore clear to evangelicals that our salvation is not by works, but by grace through faith in Christ who took our sins upon himself on the cross. To what “works” is Paul referring here? In Romans 3:28 Paul himself tells us.
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
Then again in Galatians 2 Paul declares that:
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Therefore “works” in Ephesians 2 specifically refers to the works of the Old Testament Law of Moses. We are not saved by a legalistic adherence to the law given by God to the Israelites. What then is the role of good works in obedience to God’s commands in the New Testament? After declaring in Ephesians 2 that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, Paul adds in the very next verse:
Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Although we are not saved by doing the works commanded by the Mosaic Law, we are in fact created by God in Christ to do good works in obedience to God’s New Testament commands. If we are in fact saved, we will be doing good works. Let us look at the matter of good works in greater depth as taught in Scripture.
Faith without works is dead
James 2:20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?
From the context of James 2, we understand that James is referring to good works such as helping the poor. We know therefore that a saved person will be doing such good works. These good works accompany salvation. They do not have anything to do with earning salvation, but rather are the outward evidence and fruit of one’s salvation which is by grace through faith in Christ. Generally (although there are exceptional cases) if there are no good works in the life of a person, then that person might not be saved.
Good works in the life of Paul
Therefore the role of good works in the life of a believer is very important. Paul himself is an interesting case in point. Recall that it was Paul’s teachings on grace, especially in Ephesians, Galatians, and Romans which inspired Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s unscriptural emphasis on dead works. But what role did good works have in Paul’s own personal walk with the Lord?
Paul worked very hard
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
Yes, Paul—the “apostle of grace”—worked very hard, performing many good works for the kingdom of God. His work was arguably the most fruitful among the apostles. But he freely acknowledged that it was the result of God’s grace at work through him. Nevertheless Paul obviously had a part in the good works—God’s grace to him was “not without effect.” He had to choose to do the works, and he himself had to make the effort to perform them. The grace of God required a willing vessel like Paul to perform the works. If Paul had chosen to disobey God’s commands, God’s grace to him would have been “without effect” and he would have received God’s grace in vain. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians, it is actually possible to receive the grace of God in vain.
1 Corinthians 6:1 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
We learn two things from this verse. First, we see that God needs human co-workers to perform His works on earth. By His grace His disciples perform fruitful works for Him. Here we see clearly how grace and works actually go hand-in-hand. They are not in opposition to one another and they are not mutually exclusive. Rather they are the two sides of the same coin. Second, we see that God’s grace to a believer can actually be in vain. This can happen when a believer fails to respond to God’s grace with saving faith and with obedience.
Paul was compelled to work by preaching the gospel
1 Corinthians 9:16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
Because of the high degree of grace and revelation given to him by the Lord, the apostle was compelled to preach the gospel. Paul declares emphatically that if he did not obey his calling from the Lord to serve and proclaim the kingdom of God, there would be negative consequences for him. One could say, paradoxically—at least according to popular understanding of grace—that God’s grace compelled or even required him to preach the gospel.
The quality of our good works determines our eternal reward
1 Corinthians 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
Paul teaches that one’s eternal reward from the Lord in the next age is separate and distinct from salvation which is by grace. What determines one’s eternal reward on the Day of Judgment is the quality of each person’s work or performance for the kingdom of God. (In the Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19, Jesus also taught that quantity or production also counts.)
Sin (or bad works) can disqualify us from the prize
I Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
There would be consequences for Paul if he fell into sin in his personal life by not making his body (his “old man”) submit to him. In this way he could be disqualified for the prize—referring to his eternal reward apart from salvation. His eternal reward in the next age would be a prize to be earned based, as we have seen earlier, on performance and good works. From Paul’s teaching here we can conclude that good works also include a personal life of holiness.
Moreover, it is God’s grace which enables us to put to death the misdeeds of the body and to live a holy life—when we do not receive it “in vain” and when it is “not without effect” to us.
Romans 8:13 … if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
The importance of life and doctrine for servants of God
1 Timothy 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Paul minced no words in teaching his disciple Timothy who was also called to serve the Most High God. Paul instructed him to be careful to live a holy life. He cautioned him to correctly divide the word of God when he taught others. (James taught in Chapter 3 of his letter that God would judge teachers more strictly than those who did not teach.) If Timothy persevered in personal holiness and in teaching Scripture accurately, he would actually save both himself and his listeners.
If we understand Paul correctly here, Timothy’s salvation would in some way be related to his personal life and his teaching. Paul, the one who received greater revelation about grace than any other New Testament writer, appears here to be blurring the distinction between grace and works with regard to salvation for servants of God like himself and Timothy.
Paul had a very legalistic background: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3) Nevertheless Paul resisted the temptation—as some with a legalistic religious background do today—to swing to the opposite extreme by teaching grace only and not mentioning the importance of works in the personal walk of a believer. He did not downplay or neglect, as much of the evangelical church does today, eternal rewards which are earned by good and fruitful works in obedience to God.
Once again, it is God’s grace which enables us to work hard in obedience to God. But again, it is possible for a believer to receive God’s grace in vain. Based on what we see in the Church today, not a few do. Part of the reason for this may be the imbalance between grace and works which exists in the Church today. Because of this imbalance some evangelicals find teaching on works to be almost “distasteful.”
Why teach about works?
Scripture teaches that “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) From the apostle Paul who had been entrusted with so much by God, much would be demanded in terms of obedience, service, and good works. And Paul did not disappoint the Lord. As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “…his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them…” To some extent the same would hold true for God’s servant Timothy as well.
We are all enabled—not only that, we are asked and demanded—to walk according to the light which has been given to us. By examining Paul’s teaching on grace in the New Testament, we can come to a more accurate understanding of God’s wonderful grace and the results of that grace in our lives if we do not receive it in vain.
God wants those who are earnest and sincere
Moreover, God is looking for those of us who “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) He is not interested in lukewarm Christians who are looking simply to do the minimum in order to enter life. Some Christians believe in Christ as an eternal life insurance policy “just in case” the gospel turns out to be true and Jesus is the only way to the Father.
God might be lukewarm toward such Christians. How might we identify such people? Let us say that they are interested in salvation only and not in eternal rewards beyond salvation. If that is the case, then their good works in obedience to the Lord’s commands will likely be lacking in some way.
The reason why teaching on eternal rewards in the next age is included in Scripture is because it is an important subject for believers to consider. If eternal rewards in the next age are unimportant, then they would not receive the attention and space they do in Scripture.
It is not surprising that although in 1 Corinthians 3 Paul teaches a clear difference between salvation and eternal reward, that when teaching Timothy in 1 Timothy 4 he uses language which appears to diminish that difference. This does not necessarily cause us doubt or uncertainty with regard to our salvation, as some might conclude. Rather it should encourage us to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds…all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
The Day of Judgment for believers
What will happen to believers on that Day? It is once again Paul “the apostle of grace” who enlightens us:
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
To our own loss the Church diminishes the importance of good works and obedience in the personal lives of believers. Yes, God’s grace enables us to obey His commands. But at the same time He asks and demands us to do so. Failure to do so may result in consequences: the loss of eternal rewards at the judgment seat of Christ.