One of the most far-reaching and fatal lies of Satan is the fallacious teaching that man can merit eternal life by doing good works. Satan knows that the only way God saves sinners is by grace alone (Eph. 2:5). He also knows when anything is added to God's grace, such as good works, human effort, law-keeping or religious rituals, it nullifies saving grace (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 2:21). In fact, when anyone adds anything to God's justifying grace, they remain dead in their sins. The only way a helpless, hopeless, and hell-deserving sinner can be saved is by God's unmerited, undeserved grace and mercy (Titus 3:5). They must come to the cross of Christ with empty hands of faith, bringing nothing but their sins. This is the only way they can experience the greatest exchange in human history - their sin for Christ's righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
The timing and motivation for good works is of utmost importance. Scripture declares that any righteous deeds done prior to justification are filthy rags in the sight of our Holy God (Isa. 64:6). Therefore, if someone's motivation for doing good works is to become right with God, they cannot be justified. Anyone who seeks to establish their own righteousness by good works is ignorant of God's righteousness (Rom. 10:1-4). Yet, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that good works are necessary for justification and condemns anyone who says they are justified by faith alone (Council of Trent).
Right Timing with The Right Motivation for Good Works
After God justifies the repentant sinner by grace through faith, apart from works, the motivation for doing good works is dramatically different from the unbeliever. Now, the motivation is out of love, gratitude and thanksgiving for having been justified. The new creature in Christ desires to do the good works which God prepared for him/her (Eph. 2:10). The believer desires to live a life pleasing to Christ, bearing fruit in every good work, and giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified him to share in the inheritance of the saints (Col.1:10-12).
A Question Answered for Clarification
Why did James write, "You see man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24)? The answer can best be understood when the verse is read in context. James is contrasting two kinds of faith; he is not giving instructions on how to be justified. James is presenting the stark difference between genuine, living faith and spurious, dead faith. When he asks, "Show me your faith," he is asking a professing Christian for evidence of their faith. Since faith is invisible, James writes, "I will show you my faith by my works." Earlier he wrote the best way to prove one's faith is to be "doers of the word and not merely hearers" (Jas. 1:22). From Scripture we know that faith alone justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone.
A Root That Is Alive Will Bear Fruit
James is concerned for professing Christians who have dead faith which is idle, barren, and unfruitful (Jas. 2:17). He is saying that dead faith does not justify and is useless (Jas. 2:20). Only genuine faith is alive and bears fruit. In other words, faith is the root of the tree, and works are the fruit. If the root is alive, the tree will bear fruit, but if the root is dead, there will be no fruit. Just as works cannot produce justification, fruit cannot produce the tree or bring it into existence. The fruit only reveals the type of tree and whether it is alive or dead. James is echoing the teaching of Jesus when He said, "you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples" (Jn. 15:8). So when there is no fruit, there is no union with Christ.
Tragically, there are many professing Christians who remain dead in their sins because they are trying to merit salvation by their works. How can we encourage these false converts to examine themselves to make sure their faith is genuine (2 Cor. 13:5)? We have produced two popular resources that challenge people to examine their faith through the lens of Scripture. One is our DVD message, False Converts in the Church, and the other is our Gospel tract, True Faith or False Hope - How Can I Be Sure?. We need to love people enough to insure they are not one of the many in Matthew 7:21-23.