What Is the Biblical View of Good Works?

Christ made it quite clear that salvation does not come to those who attempt to be perfect, but only to those who are perfect; and man is imperfect, not only in his actions but also in his attitudes.

Published Nov 09, 2023
What Is the Biblical View of Good Works?

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The options for this question are straightforward. Ten of the eleven major world religions teach salvation by good deeds. Christianity stands alone with its emphasis on grace rather than works for salvation.

Good Deeds Can Get Us to Heaven

People have sought for millennia to appease God by their own efforts. They devised various systems of behavior, but knowing they fell short of God’s demands, they also devised rituals to purify them from their sin. There are four major problems with these systems.

1. They are arbitrary. First, who determines what works we should do? Should it be the Ten Commandments? The Five Pillars of Islam? The Golden Rule? Second, how well do we have to do? What will be good enough for God to let us into heaven?

Does God grade on a curve? Does he compare us against ourselves or against others? If against others, does he compare us with Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler or with Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa?

2. They offer no assurance of salvation. Within any given religious system based on our performance, people can never be sure they have done well enough to attain salvation. They tend to put the cutoff a little lower than their own, but they can’t be sure.

3. They ask God to approve of evil. A system that demands less than perfection must allow some evil and, therefore, must ask God to approve of this evil. All sin is ultimately against God himself, but much of our sin also has a human cost.

For God to casually overlook the wrongs people do to each other, he must essentially say to the wronged party that they do not matter, that the culprit will pay no consequence for the hurt or wrong done.

If God allowed imperfect people into heaven, then heaven would no longer be perfect. Heaven is without suffering and sin, not just a place where there is minimal suffering and sin (Revelation 21-22).

4. They contradict the Bible. Any system of salvation by works clearly conflicts with the Bible. The scriptures plainly teach that the only way to overcome the gap between God and man is through faith in Christ, not good works (Romans 3:20, 4:4-5; Galatians 3:11; Titus 3:5).

The whole works-based system is rooted in the sin of pride. By following a works-based system, a person seeks to give credit to themselves. If we are saved by grace, God alone gets the credit, leaving us no grounds for pride (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Some people try to get around the problems of works-based systems by appealing to reincarnation. This topic is discussed in the Appendix to this article.

Good Deeds Cannot Get Us to Heaven

1. God’s position. One of Christ’s greatest discourses was the Sermon on the Mount where he gave God’s standard for entering heaven: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The standard is perfection, and that standard is applied not only in their actions but also in their attitudes (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28).

Christ made it quite clear that salvation does not come to those who attempt to be perfect, but only to those who are perfect; and man is imperfect, not only in his actions but also in his attitudes.

2. Our condition. When Christians talk of sin, they often think in theological terms and see all sin as equal. When an outsider feels accused of sin, he or she can tend to think in sociological terms, noticing vast differences in the sins of people.

Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This means that every human being is imperfect.

Some people may not readily admit their lack of perfection. But James tells us how little it takes to become imperfect: “For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Suppose you were dangling by a chain from a 2,000-foot precipice and one of the links in the chain breaks. It doesn’t matter whether just one link breaks or they all break.

The result is the same — you plummet to your death. So, it is when man violates God’s Law, whether there are numerous transgressions or just one.

The justice of God demands that a penalty be paid for this disobedience. The judgment for sin is eternal separation from the holy God. Isaiah tells us that our sins caused us to be separated from God (Isaiah 59:2).

Paul also describes the penalty in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death.” God cannot change the penalty, for if he did, he would no longer be a just judge.

The penalty must be paid. Either man pays for his own penalty, or someone else pays it. This is why it was necessary for God to bridge the gap.

3. God’s provision. God’s justice demands payment, and God’s love offers us a substitute. Paul tells us that Christ paid our debt on the cross of Calvary (Romans 5:8, 6:23). Peter likewise describes the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice for us (1 Peter 2:24, 3:18).

4. Our decision. God provided a solution to our problem and freely offered it to us as a gift. Christ’s death paid for everyone’s sin, but each individual must decide if he wants Christ’s payment or if he plans to pay the debt himself (John 1:12).

We solve our problem of separation from God by trusting in Christ’s payment alone and not by seeking to pay the penalty with our own good deeds. While good works might make us better people, we will still fall far short of God’s standard of holiness.

Only through Christ can we be restored to a position of perfection before God. The moment we trust Christ, we appear as perfect before the Father. He no longer sees us in our sin but sees Christ in us.

One of the richest verses in Scripture explains this. Paul wrote: “He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If I add up my own accomplishments in the flesh, words, deeds, and thoughts, they add up to sin; but if the accomplishments of Christ are added up, the sum is righteousness. However, Christ placed our sin on his balance, and his righteousness on our balance.

When we belong to Christ, God views us differently in him and sees perfect children. We call this positional sanctification (1 Corinthians 6:11). In Christ, we become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17).

When we receive our resurrected bodies, we will be completely free from any blemish of sin (ultimate sanctification; Ephesians 5:26-27).

Christ’s disciples were immersed in a society caught up with a salvation-by-work mentality. Early in his ministry, people came to Christ and asked what they must do to perform the works of God.

Christ responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). John 14:6 tells us that it is through Christ alone that salvation is possible.

Appendix On Reincarnation

Some people bring up reincarnation when discussing good deeds as a means of salvation.

The major tenet of all forms of reincarnation is a belief in a continuously rotating cycle of one’s soul from body to body until it achieves a state of sinlessness.

In some versions, the soul goes only into another human body, while other versions teach that the soul can pass into lower forms of life as well.

A person’s progress through the cycles of life is determined by the law of karma. Karma is the moral law of cause and effect. A person’s present fate, whether good or bad, is based on his actions in previous lives.

Reincarnation posits that if we are suffering now, it is because of sins in our past life. The payment must be made by the individual who committed the sins, and it cannot be circumvented in any way. This system allows no room for grace or forgiveness.

However, reincarnation does solve some of man’s basic questions and concerns. If a person sees good deeds as the means to heaven, he can become frustrated with his lack of progress toward perfection.

But in reincarnation, man has many lives to better himself. This system allows an individual to solve the problem of his sin on his own.

Reincarnation can be appealing to a society raised on the notion that you get only what you pay for. And it explains the pain and suffering of the apparently innocent. People suffer because of the sins in their past lives, so God is not to blame.

By requiring a man to stay on the treadmill of rebirth until he is sinless, reincarnation overcomes the problem of asking God to approve evil.

Granting that reincarnation solves some problems, when we look at it closely, it creates more problems than it solves.

First, since new souls are not created, life should be improving as man progresses through the purification process. The problem is that we see just as much, if not more, evil in the world today as there was 100 years ago.

Second, why is the population of the world increasing and not decreasing as the theory would lead us to think? The traditional reincarnationist answer is that souls have been transmigrating not only in humans but also in other living forms.

But if this is the case, as the human population increases, the population of other life forms should decrease. But a study of nature does not reveal this to be true.

Third, if we were all to espouse reincarnation, our world would be virtually devoid of compassion and care for those who suffer. Remember, suffering is a result of sins in previous lives.

Since karma never allows for the forgiveness of sin, but demands that payment always be made, we are actually robbing people of the opportunity to atone for their sins in this life if we ease their suffering now.

Fourth, how do lower forms of life like worms and mollusks build good karma? Morality requires the ability to make a conscious choice, and this is quite different from blind obedience to instinct.

Finally, reincarnation contradicts Scripture. As we have seen, many passages teach the impossibility of salvation through man’s efforts.

In addition, Christ repudiated the law of karma in John 9:1-3: the man born blind’s suffering did not come from karma but so that God’s glory would be displayed.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says that Christ substituted himself for us so that we could be made righteous through him. Yet the law of karma says substitution is impossible and people must pay for the sins of their previous lives through suffering in the present.

Instead of reincarnation and karma, Hebrews 9:27 tells us, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment.” Judgment comes from rejecting Christ (John 3:18) while those who receive him escape judgment (John 5:24).

Mahatma Gandhi expressed the frustration that millions face when they attempt to achieve perfection through their works. Near the end of a life of tirelessly giving himself for others, he confessed in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth:

“To attain to perfect purity, one has to become absolutely passion free in thought, speech and action. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world’s praise fails to move me; indeed it very often stings me. To conquer the subtle passions seems to me harder far than the physical conquest of the world by the force of arms” (pp. 504-5).

For further discussion, join Dr. Boa’s weekly live interactive webinar, Think on These Things

For further reading:

Is Christ Really the Only Way to God?

Is Salvation Through Faith Too Easy?

Is Christianity a Psychological Crutch?

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Kenneth Boa

Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections Ministries, The Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.

Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, Handbook to Prayer, Handbook to Leadership, Faith Has Its Reasons, Rewriting Your Broken Story, Life in the Presence of God, Leverage, and Recalibrate Your Life.

Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England. 


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