One effect of close attention to Scripture is that sweeping generalizations become problematic. This is notably true of the way our works (including our attitudes and words and behavior) relate to our salvation.
The biblical texts relating to this issue are many and diverse, but not contradictory. If you take any one of them and treat it as the whole picture, you will almost surely lead people astray.
For example, Paul rejoices that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). I take that to mean that anything we bring to Christ other than faith has no part in the ground (Christ) or the instrument (faith) of our justification. This is a glorious truth, and our life hangs on it.
But if we carelessly speak of justification as having no relationship to works, or if we generalize about salvation being apart from works of the law, we lead people away from the Scriptures.
Toward More Clarity
Justification does have a relationship with works. It secures the removal of God’s wrath so that his Spirit flows freely in a union where works are possible and necessary.
And salvation is a larger reality than justification. Justification is one aspect of salvation. There are other aspects of it that are not “apart from works” but are, in fact, dependent upon (though not merited by) works.
I invite you to ponder the following three ways to speak of our works in relationship to our salvation. And if you agree that these are biblical, let’s strive to speak with the kind of care that does not nullify one when affirming another.
1. Jesus Is Our Righteousness
When we are united to Christ by faith alone, God counts Christ’s perfect deeds as ours. He is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus, in a real sense, we have performed perfectly in Christ the good deeds required of us (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10). Christ’s deeds are counted as ours. On this basis, God may be trusted, from the point of faith forward, as 100% for us.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)
That I may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:9)
2. We Work Out Our Salvation
In union with Christ by faith alone, as we enjoy God’s being 100% for us, we now, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13), through faith in God’s future grace (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12; 1 Corinthians 15:10), “work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:13), bearing “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), in a life of practical righteousness, and we thus confirm our saving faith, and our union with Christ, and in this way obtain the inheritance of salvation. Our inheritance is not earned by our lived-out righteousness (Romans 8:15–17; Galatians 4:7), but belonging to the family and being an heir is confirmed by it.
If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)
God will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:6–7)
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7–8)
I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things [the works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:21)
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)
3. God Will Reward Our Good Works
United to Christ by faith alone, enjoying God’s being 100% for us, and walking in practical obedience by faith in his future grace (2 Corinthians 9:8), not self-reliance (Hebrews 13:21; Philippians 2:12–13), we “serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24), and “make it our aim to please the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:9; Philippians 4:18; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1), “not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but . . . doing the will of God from the heart,” so that we will receive back from the Lord varying degrees of reward corresponding to the good we have done. These rewards are not earned, but freely given in response to our “works of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11), that is, works that rely on God’s grace so that, when we are done, we say, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Thus God rewards the kinds of works that call attention to his all-sufficiency (2 Corinthians 9:8).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
I will give to each of you according to your works. (Revelation 2:23)
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27)
Bondservants, do the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:5–8)
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:41–42)
Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities [and another over five]. (Luke 19:17)
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:41–42)
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23–24)
If this thought of varying degrees of reward and happiness in the age to come is new to you, and you would like to hear one of the most profound descriptions of it, I once recorded a section from Jonathan Edwards who explains it beautifully.
The upshot of this is:
Let us speak with the same degree of differentiation that the Bible does about our works and our justification and our entrance into the final kingdom and our rewards there.
Let us glory in the gospel that no works we perform are the ground of our justification.
Let us be “diligent to confirm our calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) by the love we show in the power of the Spirit.
In all our vocations, let us work heartily as to the Lord, knowing that “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”
More from John Piper on justification by faith: