The classical protestant view is that we are saved by faith not works, but lately Bishop N.T. Wright and well known author & mega-church pastor Rob Bell, as well as many others, have argued that while we are admitted into the body of Christ purely by grace, we stay there by doing "good works." This has evoked howls of protest from the likes of Calvinists such as John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Yet, there are passages of Scripture like Matthew 25:31-46 in which Jesus casts into Hell all those who call Him Lord but do not care for "the least among us and 2 Cor. 5:10 which reads "For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil." On the other hand there are passages of Scripture that clearly state that we are justified by faith not by works (Gal. 2:16). So what’s the deal?
In order to accept Bishop Wright and Pastor Bell’s arguments, you have to totally redefine justification from the eternal declaration by God that a repentant sinner has been declared forgiven to the declaration by God that a repentant sinner has been declared forgiven for now but tomorrow is another day. Such a definition doesn’t seem to square with most of the New Testament or more than 2000 years of church tradition. So, how do you harmonize what Paul writes in Gal. 2:16 with what he writes in 2 Cor. 5:10?
John Calvin was one of the truly brilliant interpreters of Scripture the church has ever known and he saw this "dilemma" roughly 400 years ago. In his theological masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion he writes:
"For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them. This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. We have a ready explanation for doing this, provided we turn to Christ to whom our faith is directed and from whom it receives its full strength." (Institutes. III.16.1)
Calvin argued that the "predestined elect" are justified by faith and then we grow in holiness or godliness through the work of the Holy Spirit within us (often called "progressive sanctification") and that this is demonstrated by "good works." Therefore, if a person does not demonstrate "good works" then he or she never received the Holy Spirit which means they were never justified which means they were never saved!
But what about all of this stuff about receiving our just due in Heaven for what we have done whether good or evil?
Biblical scholar and theologian Wayne Grudem, following Calvin, argues that all Christians will receive rewards or "treasures" in Heaven (Matt. 6:1-24) for doing "good works." What are these rewards? What does a believer get for his or her "evil"? Will there be some type of punishment in heaven? The Bible simply doesn’t say.
As much respect as I have for Bishop Wright, I don’t think his view of works (and especially of justification) is correct. However, whether you agree with Bishop Wright or with Calvinists like John Piper (who is set to publish a formal response to Wright next month), it is clear that works matter. Whether you believe that "good works" are a sign of salvation or a means of retaining your salvation, it is clear that our Savior and King demands that we care for the "least among us." May we do so joyfully and to His glory.