Finding the proper perspective and place for good deeds in the Christian life can be a tricky task. The relationship between “good works” and salvation has been debated from the beginning of the Christian faith and this relationship is still controversial. While it is nearly impossible to solve all of the pertinent issues in one short post on a blog, there is a biblical trajectory regarding good deeds that has been largely ignored by most of popular evangelical Christianity – Reformed or otherwise. The reason that this truth has been ignored is the fear that the acknowledgment of any obligation on the part of a believer to practice “good deeds” will result in either a hypocritical self-righteous religion or a legalistic, merit-based Christianity. This fear has caused many to completely remove any mention of “doing good” from Christian teaching. However, while these dangers must be recognized and avoided, a sound theology of good deeds will demonstrate the absolute necessity of good deeds in the life of the believer.
Erroneous ideas on the relationship between deeds and salvation are many. Some claim that deeds matter to the point that one must work in order to “earn” salvation. There are others who teach the exact opposite: that good deeds do not matter at all when it comes to salvation, in fact, they even teach that a person can make a profession, can intellectually believe the facts of Christ’s sacrifice and then expect to be sealed unto the day of redemption without the accompanying good deeds. Others teach a nuance that good works are simply a product that passively flows from the moment of salvation and that obedience is not something that the believer must actively work at doing. These teachers go so far as to maintain that a true believer has no ability to please God and that all striving to work at obedience to God is actually a form of self-righteousness. None of these ideas are consistent with the biblical data.
The biblical truth is that deeds do matter and they are not just a passive product. In fact, the final judgment on the last day will be based on our deeds! Consider the following biblical examples: John 3:20-21; Acts 10:42; Acts 24:15-16; Romans 2:1-11,16, 3:4, 31; 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11:15; Philippians 2:12-15; 2 James 2:12; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 14:12,13, 20:12. All of these passages (and more could be added to the list) tell us that the final judgment will be on the basis of deeds, both public and private, to see if our lives were lived in faithfulness to do all that He commanded. Deeds will be used in that final judgment as evidence to either offer final vindication for a person’s confession of Christ as Lord or to reveal that confession as false. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
One of the clearest explanations of the role played by good deeds in eternal salvation is found in the parable of the wedding feast recorded in Matthew 22. In this parable, Scripture teaches us exactly how the “good deeds” of the believer affect salvation.
Before we start to discuss the parable, it is important to understand that the religious elite of Christ’s day assumed that they were assured of eternal life on the basis of the fact that they were physical descendents of Abraham. The Jews were “resting” in who they were without that idea affecting what they did. Some might say that the Pharisees believed that the indicatives were more important than the imperatives. Christ highlights this flaw in their thinking in John 8:39:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.
This verse and the surrounding statements by Jesus caused the Jews to react violently because He exposed their bad theology, their hypocrisy and ultimately their rebellion. First-century Judaism wanted all the benefits that God could offer, but were unwilling to render full obedience to Him.
But it is not just the Jews who expect to gain heaven based on who they are. There will be others at the Judgment who presume their eternal destiny to be heaven but who will find out too late that they have failed to enter “that rest.” (Hebrews 4:1-15) This sets the stage for the parable in Matthew 22:1-14:
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
Here Jesus tells a story where a king who was planning a wedding feast made several attempts to invite guests. He first sends his invitation to those that he originally desired to invite. This group of people represented ethnic Israel and also represents anyone else who shares their attitude toward God. The Jews had been graciously given an advantage in salvation, an advantage over every other people group on the earth. But the invited guests, the privileged people ignored the king’s repeated invitations, even to the point of beating or murdering the messengers.
After several attempts, the king tells his servant to throw the event wide open and invite anyone who was willing to come and by using this method, the king filled his banquet hall. But as he looked at the guests who were filing into his feast, he discovered a problem:
…when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”– Matthew 22:11-14
We easily understand that the king represents God the Father and those who refused the original invitation are the Jews. Furthermore, those who accepted the invitation are the eternally saved. But what about the poor guy who was bound and thrown into darkness? Who does he represent?
The answer to his identity is found in his garments or better yet, the answer is found in this man’s lack of a particular garment. The condemned man is one who accepted the invitation to the wedding feast, but who did not maintain his place as a guest at the party. His failure to demonstrate respect and submit to the required dress code caused him to be tossed out into everlasting torment.
But what exactly was the garment that he neglected to wear? The answer as revealed in Scripture: good deeds. Most evangelicals today will likely kick against this teaching. But before jumping to a conclusion, please consider two pieces of support from Scripture:
By starting at the beginning of chapter 21 and reading through the parable of the wedding feast, we can see the inflammatory nature of Christ’s teaching. He is talking to the Jews and anyone who professes to be something, but does not support that claim with the supporting action. We first read about the cursing of the fig tree that did not bear fruit and the parable of the son who promises obedience, but then disobeys. The next story is the parable of the vineyard tenants who rent the garden and then refuse to give the owner the profits that he is due. At the end of the chapter, Christ summarizes the common thread of truth in all of these parables by saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” (Matthew 21:43) The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22 immediately follows that incredibly clear statement.
Remember Christ’s accusation toward the Jews who were not doing “the deeds of Abraham” in John 8:39? He is re-issuing the same warning here in Matthew 22 and the Apostle Paul picks up this idea when he writes to Jewish believers in Romans 2:25, 28-29:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision…For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
A true Jew or a true believer will have the obedience to back up his claim or profession to one of God’s holy people. It is clear that it is possible for a person to claim to know God, but deny Him by their deeds (Titus 1:16) and this person should have no expectation of eternal life.
The garments of Revelation’s Bride
In Revelation 19, we read another account about the same wedding feast. Verses 6-10 describe a scene where the Church as the Bride of the Lamb has been clothed in “fine linen.” But this is not ordinary linen; this special linen has a distinct material:
Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
As we see here, the bride’s linen garment is the righteous deeds of the saints and since the Bride is the saints (the Church) we have the answer to our question about what is represented by the condemned man’s garments in Matthew 22. It is clear that he is lacking the good deeds which should follow a profession of his faith. He is like the Jews of Jesus’ day, a person who believed that his claim (the invitation he received and to which he responded) was enough to get him into heaven. When in reality what God requires is both profession and practice – or in the words of James, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The man was removed from this feast due because he did not maintain his justification through faithful obedience.
In our day, the accusations of “legalism!” and “moralistic preaching!” against this truth are deafening despite the fact that the Bible shows that a mere invitation to the wedding feast is not enough to gain entrance to the party.
Christ drives this point home in his closing statement about the parable of the wedding feast. He says in verse 14 of Matthew 22: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” He reveals that a large number of people have been invited to the feast, but only a few will progress beyond the point of invitation. Only a few will understand the fullness of that call and do the deeds necessary to salvation. As a result, the person who believes that such deeds are optional or something about which he can be passive are making the exact same mistake as the man who was found to be not wearing the proper garment. Tragically, that person will also be bound and thrown “into the outer darkness in that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:12, 13)
To the ears of most modern evangelicals, this discussion of works or “good deeds” might be offensive. Some will no doubt ask: are you teaching a works-based salvation? Are you embracing Roman Catholicism? The answer is, absolutely not. I assure you that we understand that men cannot add to the work of Christ. Scripture teaches that there is nothing that man can do to earn salvation. But that understanding does not cancel out the clear, biblical fact that deeds do play an active role in our salvation.
In upcoming articles, I plan to first lay out the biblical case for why this is not works-based salvation and also, biblically define “good deeds” and full obedience.