Good Works

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I have been asked, time and again, about the place and value of “Good Works” in the Christian life. Most Protestants tend to have a fairly negative view of “Good Works,” while at the same time knowing--somewhere deep down in their hearts--that they’re called to “do them.” It’s a strange, sometimes dichotomous relationship that we have with “Good Works,” and just a cursory glance at the Holy Scriptures on the subject doesn’t help matters much. Take the letter of St. James, for instance; we all know the classic statement:

Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “you have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:17-18)

Some people love this passage; others do not. Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, thought that the letter of St. James didn’t even belong in the Bible! Indeed, even I sometimes find it difficult to reconcile it with what St. Paul said to the Galatians:

Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the Law. (Galatians 2:16)

The apparent contradiction is one of place, not value; ultimately, Paul and James do not disagree with each other on the value of of works--although they might have thought otherwise--but, rather, they differ on the location of Good Works in the Christian life.

“Good Works” are exactly that: good. They do not, however, have saving power. That is the essence of what Paul said in the above passage to the Galatians. Performing the works of the Law cannot, in any way shape or form, save someone; justification only comes through faith in Christ.

Good Works come into play as a Spirit-filled response to justification by faith. In a love-inspired, Spirit-empowered response to the grace of Jesus Christ, we find our devotion to Good Works expressed. Paul’s own words in the letter to the Ephesians make this very clear:

For we are what he [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

So, while we are called to live in Christ by faith, God lives in and through us by Good Works. Good Works do not save us--don’t get me wrong. But, as St. James hinted, we will know our faith is a real, abiding faith, by the nature of Christ’s life in us. We will know that Christ lives in us if Christ’s life in us transforms us and enables us to do “Good Works.”

Another way of saying this can be found in the words to that wonderful song: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.”

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our Love, by our Love.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.

© 1997 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.