Suggested Pre-reading: Repentance From Dead Works: 1
The Christian’s relationship to works is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, the Christian believes with fervor that works do nothing to contribute to salvation – all works are dead works. On the other hand, the Christian believes that good works are part of Christian living and a sign of true repentance. We see this paradox in the ruling of the Jerusalem council, which we just looked at in regards to the dead work of circumcision. The council advised circumcision is not necessary for salvation, yet in their ruling they included commands for converted Gentiles. The Gentiles were advised to abstain from
- Things contaminated by idols
- What is strangled and from blood
The council was not substituting these three works for circumcision, implying that they were needed for salvation. Rather, the council, believing that the converted Gentiles were indeed recipients of a true and abiding faith in Christ, gave them direction as to how their faith in Christ should manifest in their cultural context. Specifically, they were advised to abstain from three sinful practices that were particularly tempting in their society.
What helps resolve the tension in the paradox of performing good works is understanding where the ability to perform good works comes from. It does not come from the Christian’s own intrinsic piety – it comes from the Holy Spirit. In the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the people to perform good works, and they had to do so by their own power and piety. Hence Israel’s repeated inability to obey God. But in the New Covenant community, made up of those who have been granted faith in Christ, God has indwelt them with His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables a Christian to perform good works and who frees the Christian from chronic enslavement to serious sins. Paul makes this evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he contrasts the deeds of those without the Spirit and the fruit of those with the Spirit:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5: 19 – 24)
The logic of Paul’s argument is quite simple. Because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a promise of the New Covenant, and because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is focused on promoting good works while reducing sins in the life of a believer, every Christian should see a reduction in the deeds of the flesh and an increase in the fruit of the Spirit, as their lives progress. Since the power to perform good works and be free from habitual sinful practices is a gift from the Holy Spirit, if a professing Christian is significantly lacking good works and significantly enslaved to deeds of the flesh, one may rightly question whether the Holy Spirit is indeed in them.
Now, in light of all of this, it must be said that using one’s works as a measurement of true salvation is complex and nuanced. It is not something to be done glibly, and there is no general formula that can be applied to everyone. It is highly contextual, and requires delicacy and gentleness. The misuse of this idea can result in extremely bad conclusions on both ends of the spectrum. One can look at their life and see their good works and believe they are saved because they are “doing things for God” and living holy lives. Or, one can look at their life and their struggle with sin, and believe that since good works are not increasing at the rate they would like, perhaps they do not have a real faith in Christ. In either scenario, the eye has been lifted off of the saving work of Jesus Christ and placed onto the works, or lack thereof, of an individual.
So we must remember we are using works as an imperfect diagnostic of faith. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that many who perform “good works” in the name of the Lord will be cast into hell, so we have direct proof the diagnostic is imperfect. But even though using works in diagnosing true repentance is difficult and imperfect, it is nevertheless a Scriptural doctrine. That is why James wrote so strongly about it, to the point of making it sound like works do contribute to salvation.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2: 14)
No, James is not implying that works contribute to saving faith and salvation. He is simply upholding the teaching that if a person is saved, and has in them the Holy Spirit of God, they will necessarily produce good works. A Christian, whom God has granted a normal length of life, should be able to look back on their life and see an increase in works.
For a concluding word on this topic, we turn to the New City Catechism, which explains the relationship between salvation and works quite well:
New City Catechism Q & A 32
Q: What do justification and sanctification mean?
A: Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.
Justification is a gift from God, and so is sanctification. Therefore, if we have one, we have the other. But if we do not have one, we do not have the other. That is the essence of what is meant by “good works are a sign of repentance from dead works”.