500 years ago next Tuesday, the Reformation began with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on door of the church at Wittenburg.
Luther had gained crystal clarity on this amazing truth: human beings stand condemned and guilty before a holy God, but God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. The proclamation of this truth changed the world.
But not everyone agreed with Luther. Many people said, “no” to the Reformation. One of the central objection to the Reformation was and is, “why do good works?”
If we are accepted by God as a free gift, then why should we do good works at all?
Before I answer this question, let’s note that this was the same type of objection the Apostle Paul received. “Do we then nullify the law through faith? Not at all! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, see also Romans 6:1ff.).
I think it’s right to say, if we never get this objection to our teaching, then we should examine ourselves. Are we really teaching free grace like Paul?
On the other side, if people who get our teaching don’t respond with a “may it never be!” then we probably haven’t taught the necessity of good works very well either.
Luther’s fundamental answer to the objection was that acceptance with God isn’t based on our works, but the God who accepts us also produces good works in us by the same faith that receives the gift of salvation.
He wrote: “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus, good works come out of faith” (Commentary on Romans, [Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976], xv).
Luther goes on to say in a very memorable passage: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man” (Ibid., xvii).
Ways Protestants Think of Good Works
I want to suggest 8 different ways that Protestants (those who follow the Reformation) think about good works. These different perspectives all express the same truth: works are necessary as a result of salvation but not to obtain salvation. If one of the 8 ways, helps you, hang onto it. If one of them doesn’t, just keep going to the next one.
1. Root and Fruit: The most common is the idea of faith as the root and good works as the fruit (see Mt. 7:16–20). The Methodist Articles capture this very nicely: “Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit” (Article 10).
2. Two Gifts: When we accept Jesus for salvation, we don’t receive merely one gift, forgiveness. We also receive the gift of transformation. Protestants often call these two gifts justification and sanctification. It’s important to note that we can’t accept one without the other. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith says: “the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2).
3. Dying to sin: We can think of the life of fallen human beings as a life that is alive to sin. People are committed to themselves and their own way of solving their problems. When we come to Jesus Christ, we die to this way of life. We nail it to the cross, so to speak. That’s how the Apostle answered the question, should we continue in sin? in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1–2).
4. Alive to God: The flip side of the previous image is that we are alive to God. We do good works because we are now alive to God. Becoming a Christian is about a new life. The Wesleyan Church describes the way that Protestants think about this new life:
We believe that regeneration, or the new birth, is that work of the Holy Spirit whereby, when one truly repents and believes, one’s moral nature is given a distinctively spiritual life with the capacity for love and obedience. This new life is received by faith in Jesus Christ, it enables the pardoned sinner to serve God with the will and affections of the heart, and by it the regenerate are delivered from the power of sin which reigns over all the unregenerate. (Article 12)
5. Union with Jesus Christ: When we come to Jesus in faith or ask Him into our heart, we are united to Jesus Christ. Jesus compares our relationship to Him as branches to a vine. If we are united to Him, we will bear fruit and do good works. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We will do good works because we are connected to Christ who is the source of good works.
6. Slavery and freedom: The Apostle Paul uses this imagery to explain our lives before and after receiving God’s free acceptance. Before we were connected to Jesus, we were slaves to idols and sin. We let all sorts of things govern our lives. Coming to Christ is about being set free. We are now connected to the only one who can give us true freedom. Good works are simple the free life of living to God: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22, see vv. 14–23).
7. The Presence of the Holy Spirit: Another way of thinking about good works is that they are the work of the Holy Spirit. Every believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes us new. The Southern Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way: “At the moment of regeneration [the Holy Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church” (II.C., see 1 Cor. 12:3, 13).
8. A Psychological Connection: Protestants at various times have explained ways in which faith is connected to good works by psychological necessity. One explanation that I have found helpful is that of Reinhold Niebuhr. He says that as long as we are filled with anxiety about our identity, security, and position, we are not freed to love. Faith in the Gospel releases us from this anxiety and thus opens up the way to love. He writes: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love.”
When you understand this multi-faceted way of seeing salvation, it becomes rather obvious why the Protestant answer to, “Then, good works don’t matter,” is, “may it never be!”
Common Questions About This Perspective
Whenever I teach our “root and fruit” theology, people ask several different questions about it. So, I’d like to address these. Maybe you’re thinking of one of them. If you have others, let me know in the comments section.
1. Does that mean that someone who has no fruit is not a Christian?
Yes. You can’t have Christ and not be changed. A good tree will produce good fruit. If we don’t see any change in our lives, any increased love of God, any desire to follow His commands, or any affection for the brothers and sisters in Christ, we should question whether we really believe in Jesus in our hearts.
2. Will we ever be without sin in this life?
No. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:1).
It’s a realistic goal for believers to be freed form the dominion or domination of sin in our lives. It’s flat out wrong to think that we will ever be free from the presence of sin in this life. There will always be a part of us in this life that will lead us to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:25).
3. If we continue to sin in this life, then how can we know that we are producing good fruit?
Short answer: progress and growth. If life is present, growth will occur. Don’t look so much at the day to day. Look at the months. How far have you come? Sometime this can be difficult to see.
One Pastor told me a story about his life. He was not converted in college, and, by his own admission, he was a jerk. Time went on, and he lost contact with many people who were in his life during that time. Then, he became a Christian. Years later, he reconnected with many of his old friends on Facebook. They got reacquainted with him, and their big question was: “What happened? You were such a jerk!” He answered, “Jesus.”
As the days go by, believers will see progress in Christ. It’s probably more evident than we think.
4. How should we evaluate other people’s relationship with Jesus?
Cautiously. Some would say not at all, but we are called to help one another and build one another up. In order to serve a person well, you need to know where they are. Jesus warns us against judging and tells us we will know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:1–5, 16–20).
One reason we need to be cautious is that outward behavior can be misleading. Someone who has a natural self-discipline can change a lot of outward behaviors without much inward change. Someone without that personality trait will have a much harder time. It’s remarkably easy to clean the outside of the cup and have the inside of the cup be filthy.
Here’s a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis when he was asked, “Are there any unmistakable outward signs in a person surrendered to God? Would he be cantankerous? Would he smoke?”
I think of the advertisements for White Smiles Tooth Paste, saying that it is the best on the market. If this is true, it would follow that:
(1) Anyone who starts using it will have better teeth;
(2) Anyone using it has better teeth than he would have if he weren’t using it.
But you can’t test it in the case of one who has naturally bad teeth and uses it, and compare him with [someone] who has never used tooth paste at all.
Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian. and how much more likable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.
The best context for helping others is love, relationship, and careful listening. This will enable us to judge righteous judgment and not one according to mere appearance (John 7:24).
5. If growth is an organic process, should we work hard to produce fruit and good works?
Yes. The Bible is filled with images of the Christian life that involve strenuous effort: a worker, a soldier, a runner, a farmer, and so on. Paul says plainly, “Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).
We always need to remember in working hard, though, that we are totally dependent on God’s power working in us both to will and to do. This calls for prayer, an attitude of dependence, and communion with Him.
In addition, mere hard work is not the most effective way to produce change.
6. So, what is the most effective way to produce change?
If you want to see better fruit, give attention to the roots. We need to strengthen our faith.
Outward behaviors are just part of the equation. Most of the change needs to be with our mindset and emotions. This is something that occurs internally. Most of the Christian life is about replacing a sinful mindset with one that is governed by faith. This is a long process. It involves becoming acquainted with ourselves, confessing our sins, meditating on Scripture, worship, and lots of conversations with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, all with a strong sense of dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
A Final Encouragement
The heart of this message is not to discourage anyone. Good works are attainable for anyone. All we need to do is to be connected to Christ. We don’t need to settle for our old ways of life, the same old patterns that harm ourselves and our families. We will always have something in us that we struggle with, but we can experience substantial change and transformation through the power of Christ.
And that’s the good news of the Reformation. There is grace for forgiveness and grace for change. Jesus is available, as Augustus Toplady, penned as the “double cure”: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure” (from his hymn “Rock of Ages”).