Both Protestants and Catholics believe that good works are important – vitally so! One cannot read the New Testament and come away thinking otherwise. But the way we approach good works differs greatly. We believe that good works flow from the reality that good works can’t save us. We have such a high view of good works that we realize someone must intervene. Our works are insufficient. We need help.
We believe that the gospel teaches us that our good works are not our ultimate ground of confidence before God. Our confidence is found in Christ crucified in our place. Our only boast is in Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. So one of the clearest principles gleaned from the Protestant Reformation is that we are not saved by works.
We are not saved by works, but we are saved for works. The “by” and the “for” are so important for Christian living. God desires that we walk in the confidence that he is pleased with us because we are “in Christ” by faith. As Luther put it, “God does not need your good works – your neighbor does.” In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (ESV). The Apostle Paul is constantly jealous for the glory of God. He wants his readers to know that when they rightly understand God’s plan and purpose, they will realize there is zero room for human boasting. This whole thing is not your own doing! It is not about you! Faith, grace, and all salvation is God’s gift. This is not a result of your working, to keep you from boasting.
He doesn’t stop there though. He now makes a statement that is grounded in the reality of salvation by grace through faith: For (gar) we are God’s handiwork (NIV - poiēma). We are his poem created in his Messiah for good works! We are not saved by works, but for works, which God has already laid out beforehand to be our “way of life” (NRSV).
Paul lays out this same order in Titus 3. There we read:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people." (Titus 3:3-8)
Notice that the Holy Spirit moves Paul to write that God our Savior has appeared and saved us – not because of works done by us in righteousness but according to his mercy. In other words, we are not saved by our works but because of God’s mercy. Again, Paul is not through yet. Later on in verse 8, we read that we should be careful to devote ourselves to good works! So we are not saved by works but must be careful to devote ourselves to them. The fact that good works does not and cannot save us is meant to be the foundation from which are zeal for good works flows.
Pastor Tim Keller aptly writes, “Religion operates on the principle ‘I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.’ But the operating principle of the gospel is ‘I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.” The order makes all the difference in the world. This order is what separates Christianity from every other religion. This is what makes the gospel unique and salvation exclusive. We are not saved by works – but for them.