As evangelical and Reformed Christians we are accustomed to stress that salvation is by grace alone. We give much attention to texts like Ephesians 2:8 and doctrines such as justification by faith as taught by Paul and rediscovered by the Reformers. That is right and proper – only this gospel points the way to salvation in Christ. We rightly deny a role to good works in receiving salvation. We can, however, become anxious about any mention of good works in the Christian life or talk of ministry to people’s physical/material needs. In fact what we need is a biblical balance. Consider Ephesians 2:10 Why good works?
1. Works excluded
Paul is emphatic in v9 ‘not by works, so that no-one can boast’. He is driving home the lesson of v8 regarding the only way of salvation. The consistent testimony of Scripture is that it is impossible for salvation to be secured by human effort – ‘by observing the law no-one will be justified’ (Galatians 2:16). No amount of effort can cancel past sin or preserve from future sin. Even the attempt to justify ourselves by good works is itself a sin requiring repentance (Isaiah 64:6). Nor is it possible to combine grace and good works – ‘if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace’ (Romans 11:6). Grace and works cannot mix, so no amount of church going, social engagement, etc, can contribute anything to a sinner’s salvation.
2. Divine handiwork
Paul goes on to make a striking statement about believers – ‘For we are God’s workmanship’. At conversion the Lord begins a work in us that transforms us. The word Paul uses can have the suggestion of a ‘work of art’, indicating that God makes something beautiful of us. He specifies further that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus’ – this is the miracle at the centre of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Nothing less is sufficient to explain what takes place. We are ‘born again’ (John 3:3). We are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. He changes us at the very depths of our being. We ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Christ is the pattern to which God’s grace and power are conforming us.
3. Works required
Acts 10:38 says of Jesus that ‘he went around doing good’. Those united to him by faith are to reproduce his likeness, hence v10 says we are ‘created in Christ to do good works’. He is both the enabler of Christian good works by the power and grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the example of such a life (leaving aside works that were part of his unique redemptive ministry). Out of who we now are in Christ – ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:1) – we are to live lives appropriate to our new identity. Our new character will produce new works. Thus when we bear the fruit of love (Galatians 5:22) we will show love to others. Note ‘which God prepared in advance’ – sovereign preparation, granting opportunities for good works and grace to do them. That is a great encouragement to serve. Literally v10 reads ‘that we should walk in them’ – a continuous lifestyle of imitating the Saviour’s goodness.