If salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—if we are saved and forgiven and accepted based not on our good works, not on our deserving, but on what Jesus has done for us—is there still a place for good works and obedience in the Christian life? The Bible gives an emphatic answer: yes.
First, there’s a place for good works because, in salvation, we’re saved not only from the penalty of sin, but also the power of sin. In salvation, through the work of Jesus Christ, we not only find forgive- ness, but we also find transformation. We are made new creations in Jesus Christ. He liberates us from the dominion of sin in our life. And so, salvation by grace does not mean that change or growth is unnecessary in the Christian life. It means that change and growth are now possible by God through his Holy Spirit working in us.
So what is the role of obedience to God’s Word, of God’s law in the Christian life? Gratitude, assurance, and witness.
In the Christian life all of our obedience is an act of gratitude to God for the grace that he has shown us in Jesus Christ. Remember what Paul says in Ephesians 2: “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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (vv. 8–10). Now, did you hear what Paul said there? He didn’t say that we were saved by good works. In fact, he explicitly excluded that. But he did say that we were saved to good works, for good works. So the role of works in the Christian life is not to save us. It’s not to get God to love us. It’s to express our gratitude to God for the prior love that he’s shown us in Jesus Christ and for the salvation that he’s freely given us in Jesus Christ. And so all of our obedience to God’s Word in the Christian life is an act of gratitude.
Second, good works done in faith also serve to assure us. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul explains that he knows that they are the chosen of God (1 Thess. 1:3–5). Now that’s a striking thing to say. How would you know people are chosen of God? In verse 3, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians’ works of faith, their labor of love, and their patience of hope. He’s essentially saying, “I see the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, and that lets me know that you are the children of God.” And then he explains how that serves their own assurance (v. 5). We are given assurance in the Christian life when we see God at work in us to change us, and that’s expressed in our obeying God’s commands.
A third way that the law works in the Christian life and that good works and obedience work in the Christian life, is in the area of witness. When we obey the Word of God, when we do good works, we glorify our heavenly Father. And those who see us are given reason to glorify our heavenly Father. Peter explains that when he says that he wants us to live godly lives quietly before the world so that the world will look at us and glorify our loving heavenly Father who saved us by grace (1 Pet. 2:12).
So, though we’re saved by grace, we’re saved to a life of joyful good works and obedience. Not to get God to love us, but because God does love us, and we want to be like his Son, who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34).