Like John the Baptist, Jesus Christ said we must bear fruit: "He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit . . . By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15:5-8).
Some are confused at Jesus' expectation of us to produce fruit. They interpret any requirement to obey God to mean that we somehow earn our salvation. Earning our salvation, of course, is impossible. Salvation is a free, undeserved gift from God. We could not earn salvation in a hundred lifetimes of performing good deeds.
We are not saved by our works. Only the sacrifice of Christ's shed blood can cleanse us from our sins. Our thoughts cannot accomplish this, nor can any other actions we could take. Because Christ is alive and actively involved in converting us, we will be saved by His life. The apostle Paul made this clear:
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Romans 5:8-10). Christ living in us enables us to do good works (see Galatians 2:20). God's forgiveness of our past sins and His helping us to obey His law are both aspects of His grace toward us.
Grace and obedient works are complementary rather than contradictory terms. The word grace comes from a Greek word that means "gift" or "favor." Salvation, or eternal life, is a gift we receive by grace (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9). No amount of works or effort to obey God on our part could ever earn us eternal life. This is not to say that eternal life is free in an ultimate sense. Christ paid with His life so that we could receive the gift of salvation (Acts 20:28).
Yet while salvation is given to us as a gift, there are conditions attached. The first is that we repent. Repentance earns us nothing; we deserve no favors because we repent. But repentance is required. Why? Because repentance is a condition for forgiveness (Acts 2:38). God simply will not forgive those who willfully persist in sin as a way of life. Paul wrote: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).
The direction of our lives must be changed as a prerequisite for receiving God's gift of salvation. That is what both Christ and the apostles taught. Paul "declared...[we] should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance" (Acts 26:20). Works demonstrate our repentance to God, but they will never earn us the right to demand anything from Him or allow us to boast that we deserve eternal life.
Indeed, it is God who leads us to obey Him (Romans 2:4; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) and then empowers us to succeed (Ephesians 3:20; Ephesians 6:10; Colossians 1:11). Both of these actions by God are aspects of His grace toward us. Our role is to cooperate with Him (Acts 26:29).
God expects good works in our lives to demonstrate repentance and His love and faith active within us. The apostle James explicitly states that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20-26), and Paul makes it plain that God saves us by grace through faith for the very purpose of producing good works, even though those good works cannot earn our salvation:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Why should this be so difficult for people to believe and accept? It is simply walking in Christ's footsteps, following His example (1 John 2:6).
Jesus said to His disciples, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Though works do not earn us eternal life, they do glorify, or honor, God, and He requires that we honor Him by the way we live. People who refuse to include works in their lives are, whether they realize it or not, dishonoring God. "They pro-fess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work" (Titus 1:16).
Do works ever earn us anything? Revelation 20:12 says the dead are going to be judged "according to their works." In John 14:2-3, we find Jesus explaining that He would "prepare a place" for His followers. In the coming Kingdom of God, He will grant various positions of authority to those who overcome (Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:21). The resurrected saints will rule with Jesus Christ in His Kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6). Through submission to God, allowing His Spirit to lead us and living a life of good works, we build righteous, godly character that will enable us to rule with Jesus Christ.
Though our works will not earn us salvation, they will determine our reward in His Kingdom. Jesus explained this in His parable of the talents (Matthew 25:20-29). Our Lord also made this clear in Revelation 22:12 when He said, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work."
In Revelation 22:14 John further says, "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city." Through God's grace, the gift of eternal life is given to those who demonstrate their faith in God by their obedience.
To better understand the relationship between law and grace in the life of a Christian, please read or download our comprehensive free book The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?