For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8, 9
On his death bed, eagerly anticipating his approaching translation into heaven, the great 20th-century New Testament theologian J. Gresham Machen is reported to have said, "Thank God for the active obedience of Christ."
Everyone associates Christianity with works. Let a Christian fail to demonstrate the works others expect of him, and he's labeled a hypocrite by detractors, or a disappointment by his brothers and sisters. Works are inextricably, inescapably linked to the Christian faith.
Christians proudly point to the many evidences of good works by which the faith of Christ has graced the pages of Church history -- everything from the rescue of exposed children in 2nd-century Rome to the care of travelers and the indigent in 4th-century Asia Minor to the care of lepers and the plague-ridden in Medieval Europe to the founding of schools and universities, the reform of labor laws, and the emancipation of slaves in the modern period. Christianity and good works just go together. Everybody knows that.
But how do they go together? And which are the kinds of works it is reasonable to expect of a Christian? And by what means are such works engendered within us? And what is the relationship between those works and the idea of salvation?
In this and the following seven installments I want to provide a primer on good works for confused readers -- which can include everyone from those who think Christianity teaches that salvation is through works to those who are glad it doesn't, but aren't quite sure where works fit into the life of faith. We begin with the obvious: The salvation which Christians hold so precious, and which they offer to the world, is not by works.