What follows is a (lightly) edited response to a friend who asked a question on how good works relate to our justification and salvation.
This is a pretty important topic in my opinion. There’s a lot that hangs on it, such as godly living, our assurance, and how we are to view our good works. I would also ask that you take the time to read each referenced passage of Scripture as they appear to help provide context for what is being said.
There are some important distinctions to make though. The first of which is between Salvation and Justification. Unfortunately in our broadly evangelical culture today the two get squished together and are synonymous; and while they are nonetheless related, we must distinguish between them.
Sola Fide is first and foremost not salvation by faith alone, but Justification by faith alone.
God comes to sinners in the gospel by the word and sacraments, and by faith alone, we receive the offer of redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. The righteousness of Christ imputed to us is, strictly speaking, the grounds of our justification (Rom. 4:23–25).
Our works cannot in any way merit divine favor or mercy, whether before our union with Christ or afterward. Only Christ’s merit merits this for us.
Our justification is the forgiveness of our sins and our imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness in our place by our union with Him, wherein we are delivered from the wrath of God and brought into the family of God, and are at peace with God. (Rom. 5)
This is all by grace, and not of our own works placing God into our “debt”, so to speak, such that we have “earned” our justification or subsequent salvation.
So then, we have established that our justification is all of grace, and is brought to our benefit by faith as the empty hand grasping out to God’s promises in Word and the sacraments, principally our baptism (Rom. 6). But what about “salvation”? What is it, and how do we get there?
This is where many of the Reformed, and catholics prior to them (not Roman, just catholic) held to this understanding of our Justification giving us the right, or entitlement, to salvation, but not the complete possession of it.
Salvation, briefly defined, would be when we are completely glorified and rid of all of sin’s corrupting effects and stains. It is when we will be before God in His own likeness, no longer marred by Sin, but perfected by Christ. (Ps. 16: 11, 17:15, 1 John 3:2. This is what’s called the “Beatific Vision” where we will see God as He truly is, in all His Divinity because we will be glorified and free from sin, and our humanity advanced to be able to “see”, as it were, the divine nature — God Himself, who alone consists of pure joy and beauty.)
So how do we attain this? Is it purely by our justification, where by faith alone we are declared to be righteous because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed on our behalf? I don’t think so, because this would lead to a terrible lack of assurance from many passages that speak about who can dwell in God’s presence (Psalm 15). We would find ourselves to be declared righteous, yet find ourselves falling into sin and falling short of that declaration. This would ultimately fall into the trap of nominalism, which states that things are only called what they are because that’s the name we’ve given them, not that they necessarily correlate to how that thing is in itself. In this case, it would be that we are righteous before God, despite not being actually righteous ourselves. There is a sense where this is right and correct, insofar as we are looking towards our justification and how we have peace with God. That is purely by God’s declaration of us being in the right by the merits of Christ, nothing of our own Righteousness. (Phil. 3:9)
But how do we get there? This is where we speak of our Sanctification, where we are renewed from one degree of glory to the next, by the work of the Spirit within us, whereby He inspires us to good works and we exercise our renewed will to do them. ( 2 Cor. 3:17–18, Phil. 2:12–13).
So then, our sanctification (and thus our good works) are the path wherein we walk into our heavenly inheritance, and this is all of grace as it stems from the Spirit of God working within us, and inspiring us to do His good pleasure. Once more, it is not as if these works that we do earn or merit God’s favor such that because we’ve done these works he must therefore further our renewal into the image of Christ because that is impossible. Our good works benefit God in no way at all; He has no need for them. But our neighbor does. (“Thou art my Lord: My goodness extends not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth…” — Ps. 16:2b-3a)
By this process of our sanctification, God is renewing us into His image, whereby his legal declaration of us being righteous in Christ in our justification, is made not merely a fictional declaration, but true reality. Our union with Christ actually renews us into being righteous. This will always remain imperfect in this life and will be made perfect after die, but it is nevertheless the path wherein we are called to walk. (Eph. 2:8–10, Rom. 8:1–17)
Once more, these works wrought by us through the inspiration of the Spirit are not the meritorious grounds whereby we are justified and made right with God, nor are they the grounds whereby we enter into eternal life, our salvation. They are the gracious (in every sense of the word) means by which God renews us to truly be righteous as He is, that in the end, we may behold Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.
Justification by works?
Then comes to mind passages such as Romans 2:6–13, Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (just to name a few, there are many of these) where we are told that God will judge every man according to their works at the last day. What are we to make of this? This is much in view of what James has in mind when he speaks of a Justification not by faith alone, but also of works.
This is, again, not to say that our works merit or earn our justification (our peace before God), or our salvation. This is where some (again, both catholics and Reformed, and even John Piper) have spoken of a twofold justification — Our initial justification (whereby we are made to be at peace with God) by faith, and a final justification (or vindication) by our works. In the latter we are declared truly to be righteous and the children of God (Rom. 8:18–25), against all accusations of the enemy and the wicked.
Again, this is all of grace. By God’s grace, Christ comes to us in the gospel offering us our redemption and life eternal. By God’s grace, the Spirit brings about faith in us to receive this gracious gift. God graciously declares us to be righteous in Christ not by any merit of our own, and despite us having no righteousness of our own. This same life-giving Spirit graciously renews us more and more into the image of Christ, to make us not only righteous in name, but in actuality, that we may live a godly and pleasing life before God, to the benefit of our neighbor. God then, at the last day will graciously declare us righteous by His own grace, and vindicate us against all accusations of the contrary, and admit us into His presence to behold Him as He truly is.
It is as Augustine said: “For you are praised in the company of your Saints and, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.”
So then, should our good works serve as an assurance for us? Only insofar as they point us to the gracious God who is at work in us by His Spirit. Jesus Himself said that you will know a person by their fruits, whether good or bad. The fruits aren’t the grounds for their goodness or badness, but the root is. That root is God’s gracious work in us, declared and begun in our justification by faith, and continued from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17) as the Spirit of God renews us to be more and more like Him.
So, are our good works the grounds of our assurance? No, our faith in Christ is. That faith will be a lively faith that takes hold of God’s promises and lives a life led by the Spirit of God. (Rom 8:12–14).
Are good works necessary? Absolutely.