Ephesians 2:8–9 makes it clear that we are not saved by good works. In fact, before we are saved, our works are done in the flesh and cannot please God; even our most “righteous” deeds fall far short of God’s glory (see Romans 3:20 and Isaiah 64:6). We can be saved only because God is gracious and merciful and has designed a way for us to be declared righteous when we are not (Psalm 86:5; Ephesians 2:4). When Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), we inherited His righteousness. Salvation is a divine exchange: our tattered rags of self-effort for the perfection of Christ. Because His death and resurrection paid the price for our evil deeds, we can be declared perfect before God (Romans 5:1). We are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” like a flawless garment (Romans 13:14).
At salvation, the Holy Spirit moves into the repentant heart (Acts 2:38). Self is no longer the uncontested lord of our lives. Jesus is now the boss. That’s what it means to say that Jesus is “Lord” (Romans 10:9; Colossians 2:6). We were once headed south; we are now headed north. Everything is changed. We begin to view life from God’s perspective, not our own—as John Newton wrote, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
The sins we once committed without thought now bring conviction. To know God is to see sin the way He sees it: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (1 John 3:9). In other words, the believer will see a decreasing pattern of sin in his or her life. Believers may still sin, but they will not continue practicing sin as a way of life. There will be a difference between the old life without Christ and the new life in Christ. The born-again Christian produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Salvation enables us to live “in the Spirit” and so truly perform good works (Galatians 5:16).
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God’s goal in saving us was not only to rescue us from hell, but also that we would reflect His character and goodness to the world. God delights to see us becoming more like His Son (Romans 8:29). We were created in God’s image. Sin marred that image. When God bought us back for Himself, it was to restore His image in us and free us to become all we were created to be. When the Holy Spirit comes to live inside us, He prompts us to do things that glorify God (John 14:26). Our desire to please God grows as our understanding of Him grows. That desire to please God results in good works.
It is biblically inconsistent to say that someone has been saved but has not changed. Many people go through the outward motions of giving their lives to Christ, but no lifestyle change follows. That is not real salvation but is a “dead” faith (James 2:26). When you walk into a dark room and flip the switch, you expect light. If no light appears, you rightly assume something is wrong. It would be logically inconsistent to say that the light is on when the room is still pitch black. Light naturally dispels darkness. When a dark heart receives the light of salvation, it is illuminated (John 12:46). Priorities change. Desires change. Outlook changes. Life is seen clearly for the first time. If the darkness of sin continues, we can rightly assume no light came on.
To use another biblical analogy, God wants to produce fruit in our lives (see Galatians 5:22–23). He is the Vinedresser, Jesus is the Vine, and we are the branches. The branches are naturally attached to the vine; from the vine they get their support, their ability to produce fruit, and their very life. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). That is the purpose of the vineyard—to produce “much fruit.” Good works follow salvation.
So, although we cannot be saved by our good works, when we are saved, we will produce good works. Just as a baby will grow after birth, so a believer will grow after the new birth. We grow at different rates and in different ways, but a live birth results in growth. If a baby never grows, there is something very wrong. No one expects a baby to stay a baby forever. As he grows, the child begins to look more and more like his parents. In the same way, after salvation, we grow, and we begin to look more and more like our Heavenly Father. This is only possible as we “abide in Him” and allow Him to reproduce His character in us (John 15:4).
Good works do not produce salvation. Good works are the product of salvation. Jesus said to His followers, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).