Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

People often ask the question of whether good works are necessary for salvation. Of course, a great deal depends on how one defines salvation in the question. The Bible’s usage is various. It can mean the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). It can mean the future glorified state (Romans 13:11). Surely, it can mean the entire order of salvation as well. Normally, of course, we refer it to simple conversion, “when we were saved.” Realizing these different aspects of our salvation is important to understanding the place of good works.

The other word that can be defined differently in the equation is the word “necessary.” Necessary can mean more than one thing as well. Is the noise of a cannon necessary to its being fired? Yes, but not as the cause of the firing of the cannon, but as part of the effect. Similarly, the time when something is necessary is important to consider. Is something necessary before something else, or after that something else? So, with his usual care and precision, Turretin helps us to understand just how works are necessary to salvation (17.3.14):

Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.

Are works necessary for salvation? Yes, as long as we understand our terms correctly, and so avoid both legalism and antinomianism. If we identify good works as necessary for justification in a constitutive way or a causative way, we have lapsed into legalism. Rather, good works are related to justification much as the noise of a cannon is related to the shot itself. The noise obviously does not constitute the cannonball flying through the air, nor does the noise cause the cannonball to fly through the air. But the noise is always there accompanying and resulting from the cannonball being fired.

Conversely, if we deny any relation of good works to justification, then we lapse into antinomianism. One simply cannot be truly justified without at the same time having the sanctification process start. We cannot separate justification and sanctification.

One last thing ought to be mentioned here. It is fatal to over-react to one error by lapsing into the other error. We can see this happen in history (Richard Baxter’s neonomianism as an over-reaction to the antinomianism of his day comes to mind). The way to react to the one error is to come back to the straight and narrow central path of the gospel that addresses ALL our needs with regard to sin: its condemning power, its reigning power, and its existing power. Justification answers the condemning power of sin. Sanctification answers the reigning power of sin. Glorification answers the existence of sin. Our good works, empowered by the Holy Spirit are a necessary part of the whole picture, in the way that Turretin explained above.


  1. January 22, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    That’s an excellent post, Lane. Simply put: one cannot perform good works to either get saved or to stay saved. One performs good works because one *is* saved, out of obedience to and gratitude to God in Christ. The next step in the process would be to define “good works.”

  2. January 22, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    Thank you Lane. I appreciate this.

  3. roberty bob said,

    January 23, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    The definition of good works that I learned long ago is that good works consists in all that is done by faith in obedience to God’s law unto God’s glory.

    All who are justified by faith [alone] will inevitably bring forth good works as the fruit of faith; the justified, by the Spirit’s power, will sow in order to please the Spirit with the aim of reaping a harvest of righteousness.

    Those who claim to be justified by faith [alone] but fail to bring forth the fruit of good works, and who sow in order to please the Flesh, show thereby that they are unconverted and in need of repentance; their claim / profession is false.

    Thanks for the post, and the noise of the cannon ball!

  4. Alan D. Strange said,

    January 24, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Just so, Richard. Good works find definition in the Ten Commandments: love of God and neighbor. This was one of the great problems at the time of the Reformation. Rome made “good works” essential to (final) justification, a grave error, to be sure. Even there, however, Rome did not properly understand or define what “good works” were.

    This point is made beautifully by Article XX of the Augsburg Confession (1530): “Concerning these things [“good works” as properly defined by the Ten Commandments] preachers heretofore taught but little, and urged only childish and needless works, as particular holy-days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such like.”

    As Lane well noted, good works are always fruits and never grounds of our justification. And even then good works are not Marian devotion or the taking of pilgrimages but a life of service to God and neighbor.

  5. roberty bob said,

    January 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I have a question. Is the Day of God’s Wrath when His righteous judgment will be revealed (Romans 2:5) the Final Judgment? If so, then why does the Apostle urge us to persist in doing good works so that we may receive eternal life? It seems to me that good works are essential to the final justification since only those who persist in doing them will receive the eternal life promised in the gospel. Or, is the term “essential” only tied to that which is the “ground” of justification, which is faith? Thus, where there is true justifying faith, the fruit of good works will necessarily spring forth. But you would not say that the good works are “essential” since you can only ascribe the term “essential” to the ground of a thing.

    So, then, good works, while necessary, are not essential. Is that it?

  6. January 27, 2016 at 12:02 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  7. Kyle Grant said,

    January 27, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Notice that you changed the preposition. The noise of the cannon is necesary TO it’s being fired, Works are necessary FOR salvation. I think if we said that works are necessary TO salvation, it would clear up a lot of the confusion.

  8. January 27, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  9. Jack Miller said,

    January 27, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Clear, concise, and very helpful, Mr. Green Baggins!

  10. January 29, 2016 at 11:24 am

    […] Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation? […]

  11. dgwired said,

    January 30, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Lane, how does justification not answer the reigning power of sin. That power is in part forensic. But when I am declared not just innocent but righteous (thanks to Christ’s imputed righteousness), aren’t I free from the power and guilt of the sin owing to the claims of the law?

  12. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Darryl, I usually define justification’s relationship to the condemning power of sin in the way you have described. The condemnation is of our guilt, which justification certainly answers. However, since justification happens extra nos, it cannot address indwelling sin, original sin. That’s what I mean by the reigning power of sin. The judicial aspects of sin are dealt with in justification, but the indwelling aspects of sin are dealt with in sanctification.

    So, I suppose, a lot depends on how you are defining “reigning power.” If reigning power means judicial, then yes, justification answers it. However, that wasn’t how I was using the term. I meant by the term that aspect of sin which dwells inside of us. As I’m sure we both agree, justification changes nothing inside of us. Only sanctification can thus change our insides, so that they begin to match, more and more, the outside declaration.

    One analogy I am fond of using is that of two books. One is titled “The Life of Lane Keister,” and is a complete book filled with all my actions, thoughts, and speech. Not a book I would want anyone to read! Then there is another book entitled “The Life of Jesus Christ”, which is filled with all of Jesus’ thoughts, words, and actions. In justification, God switches the book covers, so that when He looks at the book that details my life, the cover reads “The Life of Jesus Christ.” And, when Christ was on the cross, God looked at the book that contained Jesus’ life, and saw “The Life of Lane Keister.” To extend the analogy, however, justification doesn’t edit my book. It doesn’t change the script inside. Only sanctification starts to rewrite the book on the inside and change it over my lifetime to match the outside cover.

  13. roberty bob said,

    February 1, 2016 at 9:59 am

    “Normally, of course, we refer it [salvation] to simple conversion [when we were saved.” — greenbaggins

    “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. There-fore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” — Galatians 6:7-10

    Would you kindly explain the meaning of “necessary” as it pertains to “doing good” in the Galatians passage quoted above. The way I read it is that a professing believer in Christ [who regards himself to be justified by faith and not by good works] is nevertheless under obligation to sow [do all manner of good] to please the Spirit because only by doing so will he reap [a harvest of] eternal life. The sowing of what is good is therefore “necessary” for the reaping of eternal life.

    It appears to me that one’s reaping of eternal life is contingent on one’s sowing to please the Spirit. One may claim to be saved [converted], but the evidence of that claim is shown by what is sown and what is reaped.

    Do you agree with my reading of Galatians here, and my use of the word “necessary?”

  14. roberty bob said,

    February 1, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    So, I’ve been reading and re-reading the Rev. Michael Brown’s article on Richard Baxter’s neonomianism; I learn of Baxter’s chaplaincy in Cromwell’s Puritan Army and the rampant “antinomianism” amongst the troops; I learned of those troops influenced by another chaplain named Saltmarsh, who believed there was no point in professing saints to do a thing because Christ went so far as to do their believing and repenting for them. There was no point, therefore, in the minds of these puritan men, to exert any effort to make their calling and election sure.

    OK, I gather, then, that the true Faith is that narrow way which resists the rampant lawlessness of antinomianism RIchard Baxter abhored yet without giving way to the neonomian impulse to make the believer’s justification in any way contingent upon doing the good God requires.

    I struggle with this, I think, in the way Richard Baxter did. He believed that he was called to exhort men to be holy, for without holiness no one will see the Lord. Our Lord Jesus exhorts us to hear and to do, to trust and obey. The wise man who builds his house on the rock — whose house stands through all the storms — is the man who obeys the commands of Christ that he has heard from Christ. So, I am curious. How do you guys preach the gospel exhortations that require some kind of obedience in order to get the blessed outcome? What do you do with contingency?

  15. February 1, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Rome says we are justified by the righteousness of God done in us, that is sanctification and that will get a ticket to hell. So in Rome Christ is the beginning of the law for righteousness to all who believe. Bottom line is works are meritorious in justification in Rome. What i would like to know fro you or Clark, being experts, is how do you guys deal with what Dave Anders over at CtC says, namely Paul uses a different term for the works that justify in Romans 2, the the word he uses for ” works of law” that don’t justify. I think the word is dikaiousina teou vs another term which escapes me. Can you or R. Scott Clarke address this. Thanks K

  16. roberty bob said,

    February 1, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    ” . . . sanctification . . . will get a ticket to hell.” — Kevin

    Who is handing out these tickets? Is it you?

    “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, God will give eternal life. ” — Romans 2:7

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” — Romans 2:13

    You do agree with the good Apostle Paul now, don’t you? He is addressing you and me [those who / whoever]; he does not speak of us as being declared righteous because of Christ obeying the law for us due to our inability to obey, or of Christ persisting in doing good for us due to our failure to do it. The responsibility is ours, and our justification and eternal well being depend on it. Right?

    If I am wrong, please explain from the above quoted scriptures. Not from Rome, but from Paul please!

  17. Steve M said,

    February 1, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Isn’t the third element of faith (fiducia), by which we are justified, good works?

  18. Kevin said,

    February 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Roberty bob , probably the best analysis I have read on Romans 2 is Tim Kauffman the jealousy metaphor. The gentiles were better at doing the law than the Jews, because the gentiles in Romans 2 were believers. When he says the doers of the law will be justified, he doesnt say they will be justified by doing the law. He was comparing the Jews who werent doing the law ( unbelievers ) with the gentiles who obeyed God’s law ( believers) Please read Kaffman’s article. It is really good. The jealosy metaphor ran form the OT thru Jesus to Paul. Incidentally, Rome says one is justified by cooperating with his grace, but Paul says freely by His grace. They aint the same. Works arent meritorious in justification. In Rome they merit the merit of Christ, in Christianity the merits of Christ are applied thru faith alone. K

  19. roberty bob said,

    February 2, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    “When he [Paul] says the doers of the law will be justified, he doesn’t say they will be justified by doing the law.” — Kevin

    Yes Paul does say that. Those who hear the law but do not do it will not be found righteous [justified] in God’s sight; those who hear the law and do what the law says will be found righteous in God’s sight. This applies to Jew and Gentile alike, as Paul clearly says.

    Now, I gather that those who persist is doing good [Romans 2:7] are found to be believers in Christ; likewise those who hear the law and do it [Romans 2:13]. Even so, all persons are admonished to count themselves in the communion of those who hear and do. Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive unto God!! Those who do not do good will not appreciate the final outcome: trouble and distress to all who do evil. Conversely, the final outcome for the doers of good is glory, honor and peace.

  20. Kevin said,

    February 3, 2016 at 10:07 am

    roberty bob, maybe you missed chapter 3 ” apart from the law” the righteouness of God…… Paul could have never ever meant with daikaiousinae, the internal state of affairs at the end of your life. Abraham believed God, he was counted righteous. Do you see any merit or works in that verse. Abe simlly believed the promise and he was righteous. Now, even an inteligent man like yourself can realize that cooperation with grace isnt freely by his grace. You must understand Romans 2 in context. Paul says the dooers of the law will be justified, but not by doing the law. But by repenting and believing. The comparison Paul is making in chapter 2, to make the Jews jealous, is gentile believers who do the law, and Jew unbelievers who dont. How do we know? The next chapter he says no one will be justified by the law, in fact all men are shut up by it. The gospel isnt go out and do your part, but Christ lived the law in our place and fulfilled all righteouness. He offers it as a gift. Not worthiness of merit as we see in the false religion of Roman Catholicism. Hope you r well. K

  21. roberty bob said,

    February 3, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Yes, Kevin . . . Abraham believed God’s promise and his faith was reckoned unto him as righteousness. Abraham was justified by faith. But his faith was not alone. Abraham was considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the alter; his faith and actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did [James 2:21-22].

    The Bible never says that Christ obeyed the law in our place; it does say that he died in our place. The Gospel calls us to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in his atoning blood. The Gospel calls us to obey the Lord Jesus Christ by keeping his commandments [the law!]. In his Sermon on the Mount he teaches us how to live righteously with a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Yes, Christ actually expects us to hear his Sermon and put the words into practice. Those who do so will stand, and those who refuse to do what he taught will fall with a great crash! Trust and obey.

  22. The Reformed Seminarian said,

    March 31, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Lane, very good. Distinguishing roots and fruits. Thanks again!

  23. Jack Miller said,

    April 3, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    “Nor the faith also does not shut out the justice of our good works, necessarily to be done afterwards of duty towards GOD (for we are most bounden to serve GOD, in doing good deeds, commanded by him in his holy Scripture, all the days of our life): But it excludes them, so that we may not do them to this intent, to be made good by doing of them. For all the good works that we can do, be imperfect, and therefore not able to deserve our justification: but our justification doth come freely by the mere mercy of God…” (Thomas Cranmer – Homily of Justification)

  24. roberty bob said,

    April 6, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Are believers in Christ justified freely by God’s grace? Yes.

    Are believers in Christ justified by their good works? No. However, the grace-receiving faith that justifies is authenticated by the good works that flow from it; faith without works is dead.

    Is it necessary for believers in Christ to do good works? Yes, it is their duty because such deeds of obedient service are commanded by the Lord and give credence to the gospel believers proclaim.

    Are the good works of believers in Christ pleasing to God? Yes, God is pleased with all works that are done through the Spirit’s power, by faith, in accordance with His commands, and unto His glory.

  25. Kevin said,

    April 7, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Roberty bob, you’re getting there man. I kind of like the Cramner quote. That sums it up. Paul was charged with antinomianism. Thats how I know I preach the gospel. Every RC I have ever known acuses me of antinonianism. I mean, one has to be under a strong delusion to not understand things like ” apart from the law” ” not of yourselves ” ” not a result of works” ” if its by works grace is no longer grace” etc. Its like if scripture said handstands are exclude, and the an infalible interpreter said, well that doesnt exclude grace inspired handstands. Amazing. You would think that if your bishop kissed the koran, and your church sold Christ’s merits, that might be enough to say Im out of here. God bless. K

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