• Justin Myers

Do Good Works Save Us?

Protestant Christians are usually eager to say we are eternally saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone, apart from good works. Nothing we do on our own saves us. We can't do good works to earn a right standing with God. In other words, only faith in Jesus Christ justifies us. Paul reminded the Ephesian church of this when he said, "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" (Eph. 2:8-9). It is right for us to be eager advocates for the Bible's teaching that we are justified--made right before God--by faith and not by good deeds.


But there are some verses in Scripture that tend to make us uncomfortable, like James 2:24 which says, "you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Or Matthew 5:20 in which Jesus said "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." What do we do with passages that seem on the surface to say we won't be justified or enter the kingdom of heaven without works and righteousness?


I often feel this tension when I read my Bible. But my old friend William Tyndale had some good words to say to this back in the 1530's. Tyndale was an Englishman who was the first to translate the New Testament into English from the original Greek. He was both a translator and a theologian. His understanding of justification and works have helped me to not be passive in striving for holiness, but to put effort into good works as a response to God's mercy. Tyndale's words have been helpful for me, and I hope they'll be so for you too.



Faith alone justifies. Tyndale wrote, “faith only before all works and without all merits, but Christ’s only, justifieth and setteth us at peace with God.” We are saved, Tyndale said, by faith in Christ because of his merit and not our own. On our own, we are stuck in sin. The infection is so deep we can't do anything to get back into good standing with God on our own. In sin, our hearts rebel against him.


Tyndale relayed the message of the Bible he translated, which says, "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ... because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16). Before our hearts ever do a good work, Christ must set us at peace with God. He does so by the grace of faith alone.


Works follow faith. Tyndale wrote, "the fruit maketh not the tree good, but the tree the fruit; and that the tree must aforehand be good, or be made good, ere it can bring forth good fruit.” He was saying works cannot make someone good; it is the other way around. A person must be good before they can do good. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit, and a good tree does not produce bad fruit (Matt. 7:18). Through faith alone the Spirit of God changes our hearts to move from bad trees producing bad fruit to good trees producing good fruit. But once the tree has been made good, it is our job to strive for holiness, to put effort into doing good works.


The heart was especially important to Tyndale. Good works of faith are not merely done out of duty. We see the Father's love for us to save us from the just punishment for our sin, and with joy we serve him from the heart in return. Works will necessarily be a part of the Christian life. Though good deeds don't save us, our efforts in holiness are evidence that we have been justified by faith. "Put to death, therefore," Paul said, "what is earthly in you" (Col. 3:5).


Works are an assurance for us. Good fruit does not make the root of the tree good. But the quality of the fruit is evidence for the quality of the root. This is why good works can be a comfort for us in this life. Where we see good works in obedience to Christ, we can rightly believe we have been justified by faith in Christ, just like the presence of a healthy apple tree can lead us to guess a healthy apple seed lays at the root of the stump.


This is why Tyndale wrote, "deeds and works are but outward signs of the inward grace of the bounteous and plenteous mercy of God.” While on the inside, we are justified only by God's grace through faith, on the outside, the good works we do signal that our hearts have been changed inwardly. These good works are the only tangible sign of our justification, Tyndale said, concluding that we can “never know or be sure of [our] faith, but by the works.”


Yet it is true that Christians still struggle with sin. We will not reach perfection in this life. If that idea pains you, Tyndale taught that it may be a good sign: "though I cannot do the will of God so purely as the law requireth it of me, yet if I see my fault and meekly knowledge my sin, weeping in mine heart, because I cannot do the will of God and thirst after strength; I am sure that the Spirit of God is in me, and his favour upon me. For the world [desires] not to do the will of God, neither sorroweth because he cannot." Only a God-changed heart mourns an offense toward him. When we feel sorrow for our sin, we can recognize that conviction as a sign of the work of the Spirit of God, because a sinful heart does not mourn sin.


Works are a grace from God. God not only does the justifying, but he also does the work of sanctifying--making us look more like himself, making us holy. Because it is God who works the good in our hearts, we can put no pride in our deeds as if we are somehow now owed good in return. The Spirit of God, Tyndale said, is the one who produces good fruit in our heart. This is what Paul taught: "It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).


We are not responsible for any goodness in our hearts or any goodness in our deeds. Only God makes good the root and the fruit. Our justification and our sanctification come from him, Tyndale said: "...that Spirit which worketh all things that are wrought according to the will of God... and also that eternal life which is laid up in store for us in Christ, are altogether the gift of God through Christ's purchasing." Any good in us is a gift, leaving us no room to boast.


When we come across the tension in Scripture between faith and work, this is where our mind must go. The Bible clearly teaches that faith alone justifies us and brings us peace with God. But it also teaches that we must produce good fruit. This good fruit will naturally follow our justification, and we must strive for the good, feeling sorrow when we fall short. But by God's grace we will strive for good, because "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20).


Or, as Tyndale concluded, "So now by this abide sure and fast, that a man inwardly in the heart, and before God, is righteous and good through faith only, before all works... yet outwardly and openly before the people, yea, and before himself, is he righteous through the work; that is, he knoweth and is sure through the outward work, that he is a true believer, and in the favour of God."



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