In his excellent book The Gospel for Real Life, Jerry Bridges writes:
We need to learn and remind ourselves every day that God’s favor — His blessings and answers to prayer — come to us not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of the infinite merit of Jesus Christ.
Is this right?
What about, for example, James 4:6, where we read that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”? In that passage it looks like God is giving his blessing in response to a work (or, most specifically in this case, a character quality).
Likewise, in Philippians 4:9, Paul says that if we practice the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in him, then “the God of peace will be with you.” So it looks like there are places where God’s blessings and even presence are in response to our works.
How should we understand this?
One common response is based on a misunderstanding of the biblical meaning of “works.” Some people seem to think that whenever the Bible speaks of “works,” it is speaking of something that is actually bad. “Works” is taken to mean external actions done without the right heart; things that are done to put God in our debt. So when we say that God’s blessings don’t come on the basis of our “works,” they say “of course.”
But that is not the biblical meaning of works. Certainly there is such a thing as bad works. But works themselves are not by definition something bad. A Christian can and should do good works.
“Works” is not a catch-all term in the Bible for things done to earn God’s favor. Neither are works merely the external components of an action. In the Bible, works are simply things we do, which can be done for the glory of God or for evil purposes. Further, the term “works” includes the internal motivation, and is not just about the external behavior. If a work is done for the glory of God, then it is a good work and not to be disparaged.
Hence, it would be fully acceptable in the James 4 passage to refer to humility as a “work.” It is chiefly an internal work, but since works are not bad things in the Bible, we are not disparaging humility if we call it a work. “Work” simply means any human action or disposition of our character. Humility is a disposition of the heart, a character quality, and thus can be subsumed under the category of “works.”
Hence, when we say that God’s blessings don’t come to us on the ground of our works, we don’t simply mean the “bad” works that are done in a legalistic spirit. We mean the good ones. Further, we don’t simply mean the external components of the action. We include the internal heart motivation. God’s blessing does not come to us on the basis of even our good works, including the good internal motivation to love others and honor God.
Another response would be to say that God never rewards our works with blessing. This would also be a misunderstanding, because all over the Bible we see God acting in response to our works. The James 4 passage is a key example, and there are many others.
So how should we understand God’s blessing in relation to our works?
The answer comes from understanding, first of all, the doctrine of justification. When it comes to how we are set right with God forever (justification), our works play no role whatsoever. Literally none. I’m not just speaking of works done in a legalistic spirit here, or just of the works done before we become Christians, but of all works whatsoever. The good works we do that are rightly motivated and done after we become Christians are just as excluded from the means by which we are set right with God as legalistically motivated works are. We are truly and fully justified by faith alone.
Some try to say that we are not justified on the basis of our works, but we are justified by means of our works. That is, these people try to make our good works function as the way we receive the work of Christ. They say Christ’s work is the foundation, not our works, but then in order to gain access to that foundation which Christ laid, we need to do good works. Good works are a means, though not the basis, of our entering a right relationship with God.
That is also wrong and very bad. Our good works are excluded in all possible ways in our justification. They are not the basis or the means through which we become right with God.
To make things more complicated, they sometimes say that this is not actually justification by works, because these are truly good works they are speaking of that are the means of our justification, done in God’s power from good motivation, rather than the desire to put God in our debt.
But as we saw, it is a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching to limit “works” simply to things done to put God in our debt. In the Bible, “works” include any human action, including truly good things we do from a humble spirit. When the Bible excludes “works” from justification, it is truly excluding all our works — even (especially!) the good ones.
Now, once we are Christians and we do good works and display godly character qualities such as humility, how does God respond to them? We know, per the above paragraphs, that our works and character are not the basis or means by which are right with God.
But as James shows us (and many other passages), God does have a positive response to our good works and growth in character. That is, he blesses them. How, then, can we say like Jerry Bridges does in the quote above that even those blessings come on the basis of Christ’s work, rather our works? For if God “gives grace to the humble,” it certainly sounds as if that particular blessing of grace is a response to our humility. Such that if we hadn’t expressed humility, we wouldn’t have received that act of grace.
The answer is this: God’s act of grace in James 4 is indeed in response to our humility. It is unmerited, conditional grace. Yet even that act of humility itself was won for us by Christ.
Hence, the act of grace in response to humility is given on the basis of Christ’s work because that humility is only there in the first place because of Christ’s work. God is, as Augustine said, crowning his own gifts.
So we see that God is able to respond to our works with blessing, while those blessings are given ultimately on the basis of Christ’s works and not our works.
Note, however, that this only works in the realm of sanctification. As we saw, this is not how justification works. God does not give us good works that he then blesses with the gift of justification. Justification is entirely, as we saw above, “apart from works” (Romans 4) and thus considers us exclusively as ungodly (Romans 4:5).
Having been justified, though, we are now in a right relationship with God. God thus can and does bless the works that we do in a multitude of ways, just as a father will reward many of the good things his children does because he wants to testify to the approval and delight he takes in what they are doing.
Another way to say this would be to say that just as we are accepted in Christ, so also our works are accepted in Christ. So when God rewards our works, even those rewards (along with the works itself that he is rewarding) are coming on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection.