No true Christian depends on his own works in order to be justified before God. The Father did not elect anyone to whom He also will not give a feeling of abject hopelessness in his own righteousness (Matt. 5:3-4; Luke 18:9-14; Eph. 2:9). Saving faith is prefaced with a conviction that turns the heart away from its own intrinsic worth or ability (John 16:7-11). The historic Reformation doctrine of Sola Fide is gospel truth.
Yet that is not the only category of Scriptures dealing with works. How would you describe good works in these passages?
The Parable of the Talents ~ Matt. 25:19-31
Three servants are given responsibility and gifts by their lord. Two of them labored—they worked, but one did not. One outworked the other two. The text says he “traded” in order to gain a profit (25:16) and his friend did the same (25:17). Any entrepreneur knows how many long hours are needed to double the start-up capital. The last slave worked as well. He had to collect digging tools, make a hole, and cover it up again. This parable distinguishes between works.
When the master returned his attitude displayed a marked contrast between these three servants who now make up two groups. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The works of the first two were the basis for the reward that the master gave (25:21). They were praised because they were ethically superior by an objective standard.
The third man was also judged on his works. He earned the title “wicked” (25:26) as well as consignment to the place of outer darkness (25:30). He was judged by the same objective standard that honored the first two.
What words should we use to demonstrate how Christ wants us to feel about good works in this passage? We obviously know that whatever it means does not contradict with the teaching all through Scripture about justification by faith.
The Promise of Rewards According to Works ~ Rev. 22:12
Most weeks when our church members finish working, we remind ourselves of Christ’s final words in the Revelation: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”
Whatever these rewards are, three things are certain.
- They are intended as motivations for good works.
- They differ according to the good works of each believer.
- This passage does not explain the way to be justified by faith.
First, if we are not motivated to do good works because of this passage, we have missed a vital teaching of our Lord. None of His words were offered without reason, but how much more when He returned from Heaven to give John a final message after a generation or more of silence! And of all those 22 chapters, the final words that the Holy Spirit and the Son of God joined together to give to the church are certainly imperative for believers to emphasize. The KJV reads, “as his work shall be” clearly capturing the call to good works found in the Greek noun ergon. Rewards come as a response to our works, and thus we are more spiritual than God to work without an eye to them, or to look for a reward without intense labor.
Second, believers will receive different levels of rewards. Possibly, the worldly spirit of the 21st century has crept into the church whispering that hierarchy is bad and equality is a superior virtue. Why else would it be hard to accept that even in Heaven some will have more than others? Is our eye evil because God’s eye is good? Some in this life are rich and others poor simply because God placed them in those circumstances. The same could be said for natural intellect, steadfastness of purpose, sensitivity, and ambition. Egalitarianism doesn’t receive much support from the created order, and it won’t receive any support from the new creation. Believers will stand differently in Heaven based on their works here.
Third, if we want to learn about tithing, we shouldn’t start in the book of Jonah. And if we are looking for an explanation of justification by faith, Galatians might be a good starting point. This verse is directed to the process of sanctification or Christian growth. It doesn’t tell us how to enter the family, but rather what kind of attitude the family members live by.
Many other passages could be added with similar conclusions. Three examples:
- Heb. 12:14 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:
- The famous faith works passage in James 2:14-24
- 2 Peter 1:5-11 Give diligence to make your calling and election sure…
How would you describe the role of works in these passages? In our zeal to protect sola fide let us not lose precious truths about sanctification because without practical, sin-denying, active, laboring holiness, no man shall see the Lord.