Are good works necessary for Christians? If so, in what sense? There was an enormous historical dispute among Protestants about whether it is right to say good works are “necessary for salvation.” After a long debate among themselves, the Lutherans rejected the language of good works as “necessary for salvation,” and opted instead to say that they are “signs of eternal salvation.” The Reformed, on the other hand, believed the dispute was largely a debate over words, and they couldn’t see any significant difference between saying, “good works are necessary for salvation,” and it is “impossible to be saved without good works.”
The Marrow Men of Scotland, including James Hog, Thomas Boston, and Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, jointly composed a document of answers to questions from the Commission of the General Assembly, which in part, addressed the question of the necessity of good works. They said they preferred not to speak of good works as being “necessary for salvation” because of “the danger of symbolizing with the Papists and other enemies of the grace of the gospel.” They feared that to say good works are “necessary for salvation” might imply that human beings cause their own salvation or that they save themselves by their good works.
The Marrow Men did, however, affirm that good works are “consequents and effects of salvation already obtained, or antecedents, disposing and preparing the subject for the salvation to be obtained,” but they denied that good works are “causes or proper means of obtaining the possession of salvation.” They would rather say, “holiness is necessary in them that shall be saved than necessary for salvation; that we are saved not by good works, but rather to them, as fruits and effects of saving grace; or that holiness is necessary unto salvation, not so much as a means to an and, but as part of the end itself.” In other words, good works are not necessary in order to obtain salvation, but God saves us in part by giving us good works as gifts purchased by the merits of Christ. God saves us from sin and disobedience by giving us holiness and good works.
John Colquhoun (1748-1827), who was a proponent of the Marrow Theology, wrote a wonderful book titled, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel. In that book, he helpfully takes up the question of the necessity of good works in the life of the Christian. Here’s a summary of what he says:
Ways in Which Our Good Works are Not Necessary
1. Our good works are not necessary to move God to be merciful and gracious to us. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). God freely extends grace and mercy to us!
2. Our good works are not necessary to afford us a right to trust in Christ for salvation. In other words, we don’t have to do good works before we trust in Christ. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). Your sin and lack of good works is the reason for you to come to Christ by faith!
3. Our good works are not necessary for us to acquire a personal relationship with Christ. We can never deserve to have a relationship with Jesus by our good works. The Jews, wrongly, did not pursue God “by faith but as if it were based on works” (Rom 9:32). We should only seek to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus by faith.
4. Our good works are not requisite to acquire for us a right to increasing degrees of sanctification. In other words, we don’t have to do good works before God will grow us in holiness and Christlikness. God says, “you were washed, you were sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11), meaning God works holiness in His people unilaterally.
5. Our good works have no place in obtaining for us a right to eternal life in heaven. Your ownership of or “title” to heaven does not depend at all upon your good works. Hebrews 9:12 says that Jesus “has obtained eternal redemption” for us. Jesus bought our inheritance by His obedience!
Ways in Which Our Good Works are Necessary
1. Our good works are necessary as acknowledgements of God’s authority over us and as acts of obedience to His commandments. Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).
2. Our good works are necessary as fruit of the eternal election of the Father, redemption in Christ, and regeneration by the Spirit. “God chose you as the first fruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess 2:13). “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
3. Our good works are necessary as one great end of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 1 Timothy 6:3 speaks of the gospel as “the doctrine which is according to godliness.”
4. Our good works are necessary expressions of gratitude to our God and Savior for all His benefits to us. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28).
5. Our good works are necessary to walk in the way that leads to heaven. Good works are not necessary to have the right or title to heaven, but they are necessary to walking in Christ, and only those who walk in Him go to heaven. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
6. Our good works are necessary to evidence and confirm our faith. James says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead . . . I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:17-18). Since true faith produces good works, good works prove or give evidence of faith.
7. Our good works are necessary for making our calling and election sure to us. Our good works bear witness to us that we are God’s children. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall” (2 Pet 1:10).
8. Our good works are necessary to continue in the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit. “Great peace have those who love your law” (Ps 119:165). Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . These things I have spoken to you that your joy may be made full” (Jn 15:10-11).
9. Our good works are necessary to adorn the doctrine of Christ. Christians are to show “all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10).
10. Our good works are necessary to silence the accusations of unbelievers and to prevent offense. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
11. Our good works are necessary for the edification and comfort of fellow Christians. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
12. Our good works are necessary for promoting before the world the manifest glory of Christ. Paul prays that believers will be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:11).
All of this is consistent with what we find in the Second London Baptist Confession, Chapter 16, Of Good Works:
“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.” (Paragraph 2)
“We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because they are good they proceed from his Spirit, and as they are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weekness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s punishment.” (Paragraph 5)
“Yet notwithstanding the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfection.” (Paragraph 6)
Therefore, in order to avoid any implication that we save ourselves by our good works, or that our good works have some sort of causal power in saving us, perhaps we should avoid saying that “good works are necessary for salvation.” Orthodox Reformed theologians used that terminology, and they used it with the appropriate caveats. Nevertheless, the language may be prone to confusion, and the church might be better served to say, “Good works are necessary fruits of salvation,” or “Good works are necessary from salvation,” or maybe more precisely, “Part of God’s salvation is that He saves us from sinful works by giving us good works.” We should avoid any implication that believers need to do good works so that they can save themselves. That would be to side with the Papists and enemies of the gospel.
I could also add that good works in relation to final salvation are “grace upon grace.” Holiness is necessary to fit a believer, or to give him the capacity, to enjoy and experience eternal life in heaven (Heb 12:14), and God examines our good works on judgment day as proof and evidence of our faith and actual justification (Matt 25:31-46). Thus, good works prepare us to receive God’s final salvation. But I would still want to stress with all of Reformed theology that all of these graces come from God and none originate with us (Jn 3:27; 1 Cor 4:7). Therefore, the faith, love, holiness, and good works of a believer are God’s salvation. We are not saving ourselves by our good works. Rather, God is saving us by giving us such good graces. And while we are certainly responsible to obey God’s commandments and do good works, God must graciously grant what He commands, or we will never be able to do it.