You may have heard of the phrase that goes like this: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. This (wrongful) phrase is often misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and, as summarized by a 2012 TGC article, “is intended to say that proclaiming the Gospel by example is more virtuous than actually proclaiming with voice.”
But there’s a reverse phrase, though we may not say it out loud, that is equally wrongful: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, do good works.
As Christians, it is crucial to know that (1) God created us for good works, (2) salvation causes good works, and (3) the world needs our good works. Therefore, good works are always necessary for healthy, maturing Christians.
1. God Created Us for Good Works
For we [Christians] are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10).
The first thing to say about good works is that God created us for them. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls Christians God’s “workmanship”—that is, his creation. This verse emphasizes our status as having been made by God through repetition: “his workmanship, created in.” This moment zeroes in on us as God’s creation.
How then does Paul describe us as God’s creation? He does so by saying we were created “in Jesus” and “for good works.”
God told Adam to “work” and “keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15). Adam was then in a right relationship with God, so he could do it! But when Adam and Eve sinned, God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:17–18). God had created Adam for good works, but Adam’s sin marred his ability to do them.
All of us were born into Adam’s family, and we too had a marred ability to do good works. When we would try, we would often fail. When we’d succeed, we’d take the credit for ourselves, indulging our pride.
But Christ has made us into a new creation that has a restored relationship with God. Praise Jesus Christ for restoring us to be able to do what we were created for!
For Good Works
In Jesus we have been made into new works of creation in order to do good works. Do you hear the emphasis in this verse? “For you are God’s work of creation, a work done in Jesus Christ for good works.”
Ephesians 2:10 qualifies the phrase “good works” in two ways. First, Paul reminds us that this is all God’s doing. “God prepared” these works “beforehand”! Second, Paul says that God’s intention for us was that we should do those good works.
Given the force of this one verse alone, how then could we ever think of good works as less than necessary for the Christian life? Perhaps our hesitation lies in the rightful caution against legalism, or salvation by works. Let’s talk more about this hesitation as we consider the next point.
2. Salvation Causes Good Works
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9).
Before Paul talked so directly about how Christians are God’s good work meant to do good works, he explains our restored relationship with God was “not a result of works” but “is the gift of God.”
Consider Paul’s repetitive focus on man’s uninvolvement in salvation: “this is not your own doing . . . not a result of works . . . no one may boast.” Paul is blunt: works do not cause salvation. Yet this does not keep him from saying that we were made “for good works.” If Paul has no qualm with saying good works are an essential component of the Christian life, then why should we?
James, Works, and Faith
James makes a bold claim about works. He says, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26) and “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). If I were visiting a church and heard that same phrase in a sermon, I’d likely walk right out the sanctuary that instant! But this is Scripture—what does James mean?
Jesus uses the imagery of trees to help us understand: “Every healthy tree bears good fruit. . . . Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:17–19). Thus, we see that if a tree (person) is healthy, then they will bear (do/produce) good fruit.
And Jesus says, “I am the true vine. . . . Every branch in me that does not bear fruit [my Father] takes away” (John 15:1–2). Doing good works involves not our own power but the power of Jesus Christ!
Therefore, we are “justified” by works—Jesus’s works that God prepared long ago for us to walk in. We can know we are united to the “true vine” when we see Christ’s power working through us. If we do not see that power working through us, if we are not producing good works, then our faith is “dead,” as James says, and we are liable to be “cut down and thrown into the fire.”
True salvation causes good works.
3. The World Needs Our Good Works
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
To conclude this article, I want to stress two things: Christians can do good works best and good works lead non-Christians to Jesus.
Through Christ’s Power
I mentioned before that one needs to be in a right relationship with God in order to do good works the way they were meant to be done. The world is not in a right relationship with Jesus, but Christians are. Through Christ’s power, we can do the work of healing, loving, teaching, caring, supporting, and all other good things better than the world can.
For God’s Glory
We started this article by addressing the false phrase that we are to preach the gospel, and then to do good works as they become necessary. But we have seen that good works are always necessary (since Christ is always doing them through us). And in the verse from Matthew above, we see that good works can lead others to give glory to God. Therefore, doing good works is not something that comes in addition to the work of disciple making (and it certainly isn’t in opposition to it!), but doing good works is a part of disciple making.
Let us then take part, with great joy and humility, in these good works that Christ prepared beforehand for us, realizing he also died so that we could do them.