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This series offers an overview of the chief teachings of the Christian church.

Is it a Lutheran reflex to hear the words “good works” with a little suspicion, even a wary concern about do-it-yourself thinking when it comes to salvation? That concern may be valid, but it does not derive from the Bible’s use of the phrase “good works.” Good works in the mouth of Jesus and on the pages of Scripture are always good, even as the Lord said to all believers, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Of course, one needs to keep the horse in front of the cart. The Lord’s command regarding good works boils down to the truth that believers do good works because they are saved, not in order to be saved. When God sanctifies our hearts and lives so that we do the things that are pleasing to Him, it is always the result of the fact that He has saved us from our sin, justified us in Christ, and won us over by the power of the Gospel.

Ephesians 2:8-10 lays the pattern before us: “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.” The sequence is clear. First we are saved by grace through faith, then the good works come to pass after that. And throughout the whole process known as sanctification, God is at work within the hearts and lives of believers so that the good works He wants us to do, He causes us to do, for “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)

Understood in a wider sense, sanctification is God’s work of causing people to belong to Him by giving them their saving faith in Christ. He makes them holy in His sight by washing them clean of their sins and leading them down the path of eternal life through His Word, especially the Gospel. We know from Scripture and from experience that our own sanctification, as defined above, is a constant work in progress during our time in this world. Setbacks and detours from God’s path are inevitable because our sinful nature gets us off track time and again. Though God has made us His saints (His holy ones) in Christ, we continue to sin against Him, the One whose grace and power continue to renew us as His redeemed people, His own work in progress.

Much more could be said about the nature and purpose of good works, with details gleaned from Scripture that lay out specifically all that we are to think, say, and do as Christians who are in the world, but not of the world. Thankfully, the bottom line holds true that God makes all good works happen as the fruit of saving faith—faith that He rejuvenates and strengthens through the means of grace, the Gospel in Word and sacrament. In that way He causes it to be so that “we love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) As He leads us to do the right thing for the right reason and brings us back from all our wayward wandering, He has earned our thanks and praise for His good work in progress, our sanctification, which reaches completion on the last day as we join all of God’s people made 100% holy forever in His holy presence.

Believers do good works because they are saved, not in order to be saved.

Steven Sippert is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.