Good works are an essential part of the Christian life. We see in Romans 1:5, for example, that Paul was called to preach so that the “obedience of faith” might occur in “all the nations.” The Apostle preached the gospel in order that people would believe and bear the fruit of obedience that flows from true saving faith. Furthermore, those who profess faith show that they are not just all talk but actually possess faith when they do not deny God by doing evil works (Titus 1:16). In other words, when we do good and not evil, we reveal that we have actually placed trust in Christ for salvation.
We must insist that works prove our faith. The Apostles know nothing of people who can make Jesus their Savior without also submitting to Him as Lord. To tell people that they can be carnal Christians, that they are secure in Christ simply because they make a verbal profession of faith but have nothing to show in the way of love for others and service to God, is to give them a false assurance. Without any works whatsoever, we do not have the faith that justifies (James 2:14–26).
But in insisting that works are necessary to prove faith, we must be on guard lest we make our works part of the righteousness that we think moves God to declare us righteous in His heavenly courtroom. It is a careful line to walk indeed to insist that works are necessary to prove our faith but that our works do not in any way justify us, but we must be committed to this lest we deny the graciousness of grace. As Paul says in Romans 11:6, if our election unto salvation and our justification are in any way based on our works, grace will no longer be grace. Justification depends on the empty hand of faith “in order that the promise may rest on grace” (4:16), which thereby allows us to give God the glory alone for salvation. If justifying faith merely rests in Christ and receives His righteousness, we make our redemption entirely the work of the Lord, which not only redounds to His glory but also gives us assurance. If our judicial standing before God is based not on what we do but only on what Christ has done, then we can do nothing to take ourselves out of His hands (John 10:27–29; Rom. 8:31–39).
To come before God with the empty hand of faith that receives Christ requires that we first release any claim of righteousness. We must relax our grip on our good works, confess our utter reliance on divine mercy and not bring our achievements before God as if He owes us His righteous declaration for our obedience (Luke 18:9–14)
All true Christians have a desire to obey God, but how do we separate that from our trusting in our own works? We know that we are trusting in our righteousness when we begin to think that our standing before God is based on our obedience. When we find ourselves thinking this way, we must return to the gospel and remember that we stand before God unafraid only when we are covered by the obedience of Christ.