The role of good works in the lives of Christians has caused great debate among Christians throughout history, even significantly contributing to the largest split of the Christian church seen in the Protestant Reformation. Theological writings from several centuries present differing views on the importance of performing good works to the Christian faith.
The idea of good works in the lives of believers raises several questions. What are good works? Are good works required for salvation? Why are good works important? Above all, what does the Bible say about these works and how does this apply to the average college student? Let’s walk through these questions one at a time to see what we can learn about “good works.”
First, what are good works? How does the Bible define good works? Jesus described examples of good works as taking care of the poor, ill, and less fortunate (Matthew 25:35-40). In his letter, James, the brother of Jesus, wrote that pure and undefiled religion, as acknowledged by God, involves visiting orphans and widows “in their affliction” (James 1:27). James and Paul summed up the law in the command to love your neighbor as yourself (James 2:8; Galatians 5:14). From these references, we see that good works involve caring for the people around us—especially those in need—as we care for ourselves. Good works can also include the duties involved in the Christian life. The author of Hebrews wrote, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We see attending church, a local community of believers, is commanded, and one of the roles of this gathering is to encourage each other in good works of love. Service in your church can also be a “good work” as you reach out to your community as well as serving the other believers in your church.
Now that we know what constitutes good works, we need to look at the exact role of good works in the life of a believer. Are good works required for salvation? Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Conversely, James wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him… So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14, 17). These two seemingly contradictory verses have created difficulty throughout the history of Christianity, leading to large splits in the church. However, these verses present a clear picture of the life of a Christian. Paul clearly stated that salvation comes through faith alone, and goes on to say that salvation is “not a result of works.” So how are James’ and Paul’s statements reconciled? Martin Luther explained this in his “Theological Emphases” when he wrote, “[F]aith alone makes a person righteous and fulfills the law… Thus good works emerge from faith itself… [I]t does not follow that men are therefore to do no good works, but rather that the genuine works will not be lacking.” Luther explained these verses by pointing out that authentic faith will produce good works. Jesus himself said, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit…Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:17, 20). Jesus’ words connect those of Paul, James and Luther, showing that authentic faith (the faith that leads to salvation) produces good works.
Therefore, if works are not required for salvation, why are they important? Other than the fact that the Bible commands believers to perform good works, what is the role of good works in the life of a believer after salvation? The Bible is not advocating strict legalism in which those who claim to be Christians must perform good works or else they are not saved, and these works should not be performed out of a rigid sense of duty. Good works come from the overflow of our gratitude and love for Christ because of what He did for us on the cross. Continuing in Ephesians 2, Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Paul highlights that good works follow salvation. They are not required for salvation. Our recreation in Christ after we are saved leads us to the good works that God has prepared for us. Performing the good works that mark the life of a Christian is a natural reaction to the glorious grace we have received through Christ. Because of this, our works should be done joyfully, not begrudgingly. We should take joy in showing the love of Christ (that has been shown to us through salvation) to others. Although these works are not required for salvation, they play an essential role in the life of a Christian as a joyful response to salvation.
Now that we understand (at least partially) good works and their role in the lives of Christians, how does all of this apply to a college student? Over my college years, I have heard complaints from both believers and non-believers about the perceived rigidity of Christianity and a cold, forced effort at “good works.” Young people especially have begun to rebel against the dutiful performance of good works that can sometimes invade our churches. We want a stronger experience and simply being told we are supposed to do good works is not enough to satisfy our desire for sincere motivation in all that we do. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So yes, parts of Christianity involve performing things that we are commanded to do. Although this may seem like simply keeping a list of rules, it is so much more than that. Notice that Jesus does not simply command people to obey. He says that our obedience will be motivated by our love and not just because we should. We obey Christ and perform good works because we can’t help but do the things he tells us to! We are so motivated by the love and gratitude we have for Christ that we simply must do what he asks. John writes, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). His love for us (and our love and gratitude to him for all that he has done for us) is the driving force behind our actions. Unlike cold and unfeeling religious activity, Christians are driven by the perfect love of Christ to give to others as Christ gave to us.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were discussing the importance of finding a local church to connect with while in college. She spoke about her desire to change everything about church that she had experienced in high school because it seemed unauthentic and cold, and she shared how this drove her to become frustrated with certain aspects of church. While studying a book on Christian commitment, I said, “We go to church because we love Jesus and we can’t help but worship him in community with other believers because he commanded us to.” Yes, our church attendance, personal Bible study, giving, and serving were commanded by Christ, but our motivation to perform these tasks flows from our love and devotion for Him. Unlike meticulous religious duty, Christians should joyfully perform these good works as a grateful response to the gospel that was so freely given to us. Authentic faith creates good works from a place of gratitude and love for God and others.
Kyle Brassell is a sophomore studying history and religious studies at Ole Miss. He co-leads BSU’s freshman ministry and is a member of the drama team and Kid’s Club ministry.