One of the most precious promises in all of scripture is found in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Since we are told in Romans 3:23 that we have all sinned and come short of God’s glory, we can cling to this promise that through our faith, despite our sin, we can still be saved. Without this promise, not one of us could even hope for eternal life in heaven.
But does this promise absolve us of all responsibility to do good works? Clearly not, as we read the very next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” In spite of being saved through grace, we are to walk in good works. This same idea is echoed throughout Scripture. Probably the most well known of these is found in James 2:17-22, where we are told that “faith without works is dead”, and “by works was faith made perfect”.
Scripture tells us that we are judged by our works. See 1 Peter 1:17 (“…the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work…” ) and Revelation 20:12-13 (“…and the dead were judged…according to their works…and they were judged every man according to their works”). This judgment might result in either reward or punishment. For our reward, we are told in Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of man shall come…and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” In Revelation 22:12 we are told, “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” Two verses later we are told that it is those that “do his commandments” that have the “right to the tree of life” and may enter into the New Jerusalem. Obviously, what we do, and not just the level of our faith, does matter to God.
Punishment will also be based on works, as shown in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15: “And no marvel; for satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” While this verse makes the point about punishment based on works, it also gives us a warning on a whole other topic: that we need to realize that ministers of righteousness might actually be performing satan’s deception, but that will be another article.
The idea that faith without works is not enough for salvation is further supported in the many verses that tell us to be obedient unto God. If faith without works was enough, why are we repeatedly told to obey? See Romans 6:16, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” Also, 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”. We are told in Acts 5:32 that the Holy Spirit is only “given to them that obey” God. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8, it says that God will take vengeance on those “that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Hebrews 5:9 says that God is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him”.
Yet in spite of many instances of scripture telling us that our reward or punishment is according to our works, and that we must be obedient, you will still hear the disobedient majority say you are a “legalist” if you try to obey all of God’s commands. They seem to think that the more obedient you are, the more likely you are to go to hell! Obedience to God out of love for him and what he has done for you never is, and never will be, legalism, although satan might like you to believe that it is.
Legalism is thinking you can work your way to heaven, without love for God and without clinging to the faith and grace that go with your obedience, and if that is your strategy, you are doomed to failure. But if you have faith, and are diligently working to show God you love him by being obedient to all of his word, your reward will be with him when he returns.