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Over 500 years ago, Martin Luther brought about the seminal Protestant Reformation which overturned the Roman Catholic tradition regarding justification by works. Luther taught that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and not by works in accordance with Pauline theology.
Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
By this, however, Paul did not mean to say that a person is not required to do any good works at all as a saved believer in Christ Jesus. The impression given by many evangelists when they share the gospel to the lost is that once a sinner prays the sinners’ prayer from his heart, he is saved and is guaranteed a one-way ticket to heaven. As along as the sinner has genuine “faith,” he is the recipient of God’s grace for eternal life regardless of what he does or does not do after that with his life. This is not true. Look what Paul taught in the very next verse.
10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
God has prepared good works for us to do
If we are really saved by grace through faith, we have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works. We have been transformed to become a new creature in him. And we will desire to do the good works which God has graciously prepared in advance for us to do. If we do not do these good works, then either we are not really saved and created in Christ Jesus, or we simply fail for some reason to do these good works which God has prepared for us to do. Either way, we have not made it to the finish line.
Jesus taught in the parable of the sower in Luke 8 that some people who hear his word fail to mature and bear fruit for him because they are choked by life’s worries, riches and wealth. But those who hear the word with a “noble and good heart” retain it, persevere, and succeed in produce a crop for the Lord. It would appear that only the latter finish the race. Works, which include producing good fruit for the Lord, must accompany genuine salvation.
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Luther’s misplaced zeal
In his zeal for what the Lord had revealed to him about God’s grace, Martin Luther had no use for James’ epistle since it taught the necessity of deeds and action for salvation. Luther even hoped that James’ epistle would be removed from the Bible since it contradicted what he taught. But by God’s grace it was not to be. His Word stands. Faith without words is dead and cannot save us.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
The outward evidence of saving faith is deeds. But faith without deeds is useless for eternal life. Even demons believe there is one God but obviously do not have good deeds.
20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
The evidence of saving faith
What was the evidence that Abraham really believed God and possessed true saving faith? It was his obedience to God in offering Isaac on the altar. His obedience to God’s command made his faith complete. It is this that makes Abraham the model of faith that New Testament believers should follow. We must also prove that our faith is real by obeying God’s commands with action and deeds.
24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Rahab was a prostitute, an outright sinner. But her sins were forgiven because she believed and feared God. The proof of her faith was in providing lodging to the spies and saving them. In the same way, we sinners are forgiven of our sins by faith in Christ Jesus. And we will demonstrate our sincere faith by the action of obeying God’s commandments.
Luke 10:25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered: ”‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Faith that brings eternal life will result in obeying God’s commandments to love Him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This obedience involves visible action and sacrifice.
Obedience and the Great Commission
Matthew 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Faith that brings eternal life will also result in our obeying Christ’s Great Commission to disciple all nations. When Jesus Christ comes in his glory, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. At that time he will separate the nations into two categories: the sheep for eternal life, and the goats for eternal punishment. The basis on which he separates them will be their works or lack thereof, and not whether or not they go to church or call themselves Christians. Their good works will be the outward evidence of their inward saving faith.
Matthew 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
During these last days, the Church must repent of the teaching of extreme grace which minimizes or even nullifies the importance of works in salvation. The consequence of this teaching is a generation of Christians which is faith-challenged, immature, carnal, and fruitless for Jesus Christ. Obedience and holiness have taken on near-pariah status since they have to do with works and thus appear to insult the spirit of grace. Because of her sickly condition, the Church has failed to fulfill the Great Commission even after 2,000 years.
We think that by preaching extreme grace and God’s unconditional love apart from our obedience, the crowds will flock to our churches and into the kingdom of God. Everyone wants a free lunch. But we have been deceived. The extremely poor health of the Church around much of the world is the evidence for it. The city of Houston, which boasts perhaps the two largest churches in America, elected an openly gay woman as its mayor in 2009. The Church has failed in its role as the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). It is ultimately a failure of teaching sound doctrine.
It is now time for the Church to repent and to prepare herself for the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Her righteousness must be imputed as well as practical and actual. She must be without spot or wrinkle by faith as well as in practice and reality.