One of the most oft-quoted passages of Scripture, especially in Evangelical Christian churches, reads as follows:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)This text appears to declare in straightforward fashion that salvation is not the result of works. There are several other similar passages in the Pauline corpus (Romans 3:23-28; 4:1-6; Galatians 2:15-16).
However, if we look at passages in the New Testament which describe the Final Judgment, they consistently declare that judgment will be on the basis of works.
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:27)
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-29)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12-13)See also especially Matthew 7:21-23, Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-8 and Revelation 2:23.
All of this raises a conundrum: if God's people are justified by faith and not by works, why is it that judgment is according to works? Some liberal scholars might argue that Scripture is inconsistent in this matter: some New Testament writers believed that salvation depended on works, but Paul did not. The claim of inconsistency fails, however, inasmuch as Paul himself refers to judgment according to works. It is unlikely that a writer as intellectually and theologically sophisticated as Paul was incoherent on this point. Thus we ought to regard the conundrum as a paradox and not a contradiction, and to seek a theological solution.
One solution could be that those who believe have their bad deeds blotted out by the blood of Christ, so that when the books are opened, only good deeds remained. There is certainly some truth in this; the imputation of righteousness (Romans 4:22-24) explains how people can receive a favourable verdict from a just and holy God despite having sinned. However, the link to the atoning work of Christ is not made explicit any of the judgment passages above. A favourable verdict may require imputation of righteousness according to faith and through the blood of Christ, but it is also associated with what the individual has done (and not done).
Here is how I see the solution to this conundrum. People will, in a sense, be judged according to their faith. But how is faith measured objectively? By works of faith! Works are the 'units of measurement' of faith. As James says,
But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (James 2:18)Similarly, throughout the 'Hall of Faith' passage in Hebrews 11, the faith of people is demonstrated by what they did (and refrained from doing).
It is not as though the Lord needs to see our works in order to know whether we have faith. He knows each heart and mind (Revelation 2:23) and he knows who are His (2 Timothy 2:19). However, in the Last Judgment He will refer to our deeds as objective evidence to verify His ruling in the hearing of the one judged and any others present.
There is an interesting phrase that bookends the Epistle to the Romans: "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26). While this phrase is not directly contrasted with "the works of the law", I think this term sums up how Paul regarded the behaviour of those justified by faith as distinct from those who trusted in works. Works righteousness says, 'Let me try to earn God's favour by keeping His commandments.' Faith righteousness says, 'I can't earn God's favour by keeping His commandments. Let me trust in His mercy which is extended because of what Jesus did on the cross.' However, it does not go on and say, 'So it doesn't matter how I live.' It recognizes that faith, too, is a way of life and not merely a verbal or mental assent. Behaviour is a reflection of what is in the heart. If I truly believe in my heart, I will have obedience to show for it. True faith cannot be divorced from works.
Faith begins with a single step but is in fact a lifelong journey, and it is the one who "persists" (Romans 2:6), "perseveres" (1 Timothy 4:16; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:10) and "endures" (Matthew 10:22; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 14:12) who will reap the reward (Galatians 6:9). Of course, it is the Lord who by His power enables us to endure (Romans 15:5; Colossians 1:11). It is not by our own willpower, the arm of flesh, that we persevere in doing good and refusing evil. On the other hand, we do not become automatons the moment we receive Jesus. We choose whether or not to abide in Him.
The take-home message is this: do not try to earn salvation through works, and do not try to coast to salvation on a faith devoid of works. Instead, have faith in God, and live out your faith. "Trust and obey", as the grand old hymn goes.