So, are we saved by grace, or are we saved by our good works? It’s an age-old question.
I can almost hear the shouts, “By grace, of course! How can you imagine anything else?”
Then why does Jesus say in John 5:28-29 “… an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment”?
It seems pretty plain: “… those who have done good… those who have done evil…”
Have Christians got this wrong all this time?
I hope we haven’t. In fact, I’m sure we haven’t. But we need to work out what Jesus meant by ‘doing good’ and ‘doing evil’ if we are to understand how to receive the benefit of eternal life, or face the judgment of eternal death.
And fortunately for us, Jesus has made it pretty clear a couple of chapters before, and He goes on to make it pretty clear in the next chapter.
For ‘doing good’ has very little to do with our actions; with whether we help little old ladies across the street, or whether we think good thoughts about people, or turn the other cheek.
And ‘doing evil’ – in this context – has little to do with serial killers and rapists and drug dealers and human traffickers.
Rather, it has everything to do with how we respond to the Lord’s call to hear Him and to believe Him, and to believe the One who sent Him, that is, the Father.
Jesus said, only a couple of verses previously, “… whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” [John 5:24].
That’s important. It is not just enough to hear, as if we were eavesdropping on a conversation. It must be hearing with an intent to believe. It is responding in faith to Jesus Christ.
What does this have to do with ‘doing good’ or ‘doing evil’?
Well, if we sneak back into John 3, we read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16].
It goes on to say, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” John 3:18].
Why is this one condemned? Not, you will notice, because he was an evil person, hurting other people. But, because he did not believe.
And why did he not believe? Because his “works were evil” John 3:19]. His evil works were consisted in not believing Jesus Christ. Everything else evil about him flows from that one truth.
Conversely, in John 6, Jesus responds to the crowd who had just miraculously had their bellies filled,
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” [John 6:27-29].
It really is quite simple. The dividing line between doing good and doing evil – as regards eternal life, at least – is whether you put your trust in Jesus Christ, and in the Father who sent him.
And that agrees perfectly with being saved by grace and not works. “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, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Eph 2:8].
Good works are important. But they evidence that you have been saved; they are not the cause of your salvation. Rather, the cause of your salvation is that you hear the word of Jesus, and believe the Father who sent Him.
How much simpler can it be than that? Have you done that? Will you do that? I hope and pray that you will.