When the Bible speaks of good works in relation to salvation it does so in both a positive and negative manner. Positively, good works are the manifestation of the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God as He produces the fruit of His powerful life within us. Negatively, good works are rejected as the means by which eternal life is received. In the often-cited Ephesians 2:8-9, the apostle Paul emphatically states that salvation is a gift of God’s grace that must be received by faith, “not by works” of religion “that no one should boast.”
He says the same in Romans 4:4-5, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” A wage is something we deserve because we work for it, we earn it, but salvation is a free gift to the undeserving sinner (undeserving of anything good, that is). Therefore, it is contradictory to refer to eternal life as a gift and yet teach men they must somehow earn it by the works of religion. In the remainder of the chapter (Rom 4:6-25), Paul presents both David and Abraham as examples of men who were saved by faith alone, not by their works, but whose works proved the reality of their faith. Their good works demonstrated that indeed they possessed a living faith. “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17). Good works are the fruit of salvation, not the root.
The outworking of this new life in Christ is practical righteousness in the life of the Christian. Therefore, it is not theologically accurate for us to say good works have nothing to do with salvation. We must more clearly say, “Good works have nothing to do with obtaining salvation, but they have everything to do with displaying it.”
Every works-based religion not only places the cart before the horse, but also mistakes the one for the other. The horse of good works can never pull the wagon of salvation because all its legs are broken. But the mighty horse of God’s salvation can (and will) pull the wagon of good works because, like the salvation itself, the fruitful works of righteousness have been prepared beforehand by God that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).