The Bible instructs us to imitate Christ, to obey his commands, and to follow in God’s footsteps. Yet, Scripture also declares salvation to be a free gift of God (Eph. 2:8–10). So, what do our works have to do with the free gift of salvation in Christ? Are good works necessary for salvation? This is a tough question that Christians have debated for a while.
To answer this question more fully, we need to consider what happened with Adam, our first father. The original relationship man had with God required much of both parties, just like a marriage. Demands, promises, and curses were attached to the agreement (i.e., covenant) made with the first Adam. These obligations were broken, and the curses of the betrayal (like in marriage) had not only relational effects but legal ones as well. We received Adam's guilt, shame, and corruption.
All of humanity fell because we were attached to those verdicts and curses. In order to reverse the effects of sin, Jesus had to become one of us and undergo the penalties of the court. He willingly took on the death sentence we deserved in order for us to be restored to that fellowship with God which no man has ever imagined or could hope for (1 Cor. 2:9).
Because Christ took the penalties, guilt, shame, and corruption of the curses on his back, we can now have that divine relationship with the triune God. We are heirs of the kingdom, legal children who are no longer illegitimate (Gal. 4:6–7). Everything pertaining to salvation is ours!
In order to uproot, the shame, and corruption, Christ had to deal with the guilt of sin. We had to be declared righteous (legally) before the shame and corruption could be undone. Now that we are in Christ, as the New Adam, we have his legal righteousness and his holiness and perfection. God has begun the good work of not only wrapping us in his righteousness but transforming us from the inside out with Christ's love. His very life is ours as a gift.
The New Life in Christ
Our life is now flowing from the life of Christ. We are like the tree planted by the rivers of living water (Ps. 1:3). Previously, we tried to attain meaning, happiness, and purpose through our conquests at work or at home or in living for pleasure—but never actually obtaining it. Those things in themselves could never fill us up. Before Christ saves us, all of life is vain and fruitless.
Yet now, we have been made fruitful and meaningful. We have been filled by Christ’s eternal love. Everything that we do is in the power of his love, in the power of his work, and in the power of his Spirit (John 15:1–11).
Jesus does not open the door to the new life in order for us to just try harder. No! He himself is the new life God has promised to anyone who has faith. We find life by abiding more and more in him. In him are all the riches God has prepared for those who love him.
Faith attaches us to Jesus and immediately brings forth good works out of gratitude for our salvation. We are declared righteous by God through faith alone. Yet, faith immediately begins to bear the fruit of love. Throughout Scripture we have this picture of a branch united to Christ, blooming and bearing fruit that others can enjoy (John 15:1–17; Rom. 11).
Faith is always a response. Faith takes hold of Christ and all he has accomplished for our right standing before God. Faith lays hold of Christ's holiness as the basis for our good works which are given to us as a gift.
The Good Works God Prepared Beforehand
In Christ, the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit who proceeds to grow us in holiness. The Spirit’s work brings forth the fruit of love for service to our neighbors, which are the good works God has prepared beforehand in which we should walk (Eph. 2:8–10). These good works arise out of God’s generosity and are integrally related to our salvation in Christ.
Thus, we are called to imitate Christ and obey his commandments, but only in our communion with him. Love for God and for neighbor is commanded of us because we are in Christ by faith alone. This is not a harsh command but an easy one, for the Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30; John 13:33–35).
The good works God commands of us in the new covenant are provided by Christ's Spirit. The good works we are called to are themselves gifts given by our gracious God and savior.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
We, therefore, do not need to wonder how good works and salvation as a free gift go together. We can rest in the good news that the latter provides us with the former. The good works God commands and calls us to are given to us as we learn to rest more in Jesus and cling to him.
Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer