Since the time of the early church, there has been a debate about the role of works in salvation. Are there works that should be done for our salvation? Should believers be circumcised for their salvation? (That was the question in Acts 15.) Or is there a kind of work that is necessary as an overflow of salvation? (That was the declaration in James 2.) What good are works and how are they related to the gospel?
There is an integral connection between faith and works and that connection is noted in the earliest preaching of the gospel. The apostle Paul consistently wrote of the relationship between faith and works in his letters (e.g., Eph. 1:4; 2:10; Rom. 10:9-10), but it was also even in his earliest sermons. Consider what Paul preaches in Acts 13 —
“Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39).
The result of believing in Jesus is two-fold, Paul says. Christ provides forgiveness of sin — the debt and wage and penalty of sin is removed, absolved, washed away for eternity. God no longer holds the sinner’s sin against him.
But there is an added (and perhaps unexpected) benefit to this salvation: the believer is “freed from all things,” and Paul makes clear that this freedom is a freedom from sin — it is the things from which the Law could not provide freedom. Paul addresses this very topic in Romans 7. Rather than taking sin away (and freeing one from sin’s power), the Law actually incited sin: “…while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (Rom. 7:5). The Law was powerless to keep people from sinning; the power of the Law was only to reveal sin and the sinfulness of men. But Christ and His death is different than the Law. Christ is able to liberate men from the power of sin. Christ is able to empower men not to sin.
Jesus also speaks to this issue in John 8. Those who sin are enslaved to sin (Jn. 8:34). They are controlled and overwhelmed and mastered by sin. They can do nothing but sin. But that is not so for those who are related to Christ — “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). The freedom Jesus speaks of is genuine liberty — authentic freedom from domination — from sin. The enslavement that is habitual for those who are in Adam and sin is removed. The person who is in Christ has a true freedom, as opposed to something that only appears to be free.
Christ came to remove the penalty of our sin, but in His compassion He also came to set us free from the bondage of sin that has enslaved us to do the things that could only ultimately bring sorrow and destruction. He has set His followers from enslavement to sin and to obedience to Him.
The gospel message that Paul is preaching in Acts 13 is the gospel message of justification (freedom from the penalty of sin) and sanctification (freedom from the power of sin).
Here we need to think carefully. There is a distinction between justification and sanctification. They are not the same things. Justification is the declaration of God that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed (accounted) to the believer, so that the one who has faith in Christ is accepted by God as He has accepted Christ. Sanctification is the working out of that declaration of the believer’s righteousness; the believer is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that he lives a life of increasing obedience and conformity to Christ.
Justification and sanctification are different. Yet they also are similar in that neither is accomplished by works or the flesh. No man can justify himself and while a man must work at sanctification, no one sanctifies himself — sanctification is always a synergistic work of the Spirit of God in him, producing his willful obedience.
Justification and sanctification are not just similar to each other, but they are also related to one another. The one who is justified will also be sanctified (in some way); there is no such thing as an unsanctified believer. Some will be more sanctified than others; some will be more sanctified at various times in their own lives; but all will be sanctified in some way(s). If one is a believer in Christ, there will be some fruit of that faith in their lives. They are not justified by sanctification, but they are sanctified because of their justification. No one is justified because of sanctification; but everyone who is justified will be sanctified because of that justification. The sanctification will not be perfect, but it will be evident and progressive.
So do followers of Jesus need to do good works? Yes. But not for salvation. We work not in order to produce our salvation, but we work and labor (under the power of the Spirit) as evidence of and an outgrowth of our salvation. We are fruitful because we are saved, not in order to be saved. The gospel is given not only to saved, but also to transform. And that is just what it does.