Should we teach that good works come with saving faith?

By John Piper

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level. You may settle it in a group with some sentences that are biblically grounded, but the reason it won’t be settled experientially is because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle.

Let me give you an illustration. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, is really good at preaching the gospel to legalists and lechers. (Lechers are people who just give way to their appetites.) He said something recently that was so helpful when I heard it. He said that in New York you have to preach the gospel to lawless people (lechers), and that in your preaching to lawless people you have to defend the gospel against legalism. Now people will say, “Why? This is not their problem! These people are not legalists. They’re doing what feels good to them everyday. They’re totally sold out to their own immediate satisfaction, and you’re saying that when you preach the gospel to them you need to preach against legalism?”

His response is, Yes. And the reason is that if you tell them that the way they’re living is wrong, the only alternative in their head—as a natural person—is rules. That’s the only thing they they’re going to think of. They don’t have a gracious life. They cannot bring the gospel out of their brain. The gospel is supernaturally given, it is supernaturally explained, and it is supernaturally experienced. If you don’t tell them that the alternative to their life is not legalism, that’s the only default mode they know to go to.

Therefore, to preach the gospel to legalists or to lechers, you have to distinguish it not only from a lawless life but also from a legalistic self-reliant life.

I’m saying all this to say that we’ll never be done with the battle to teach that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. This is the case because, when people hear the gospel, they are prone either towards lechery, saying “Let us sin that grace may abound,” or to fastening on more rules that default back to their legalistic mode.

It is very difficult to help people grasp a life of faith. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). That’s a mysterious way of life, and we want to try and help people understand it by distinguishing it from lawlessness on the one hand and legalism on the other.

We’re going to be doing that until the day we die.


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1 Comment

Filed under Ask Pastor John

One response to “Should we teach that good works come with saving faith?

  1. Anthony J. Morrow


    Thanks for the article. I am a bible college student at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA. I have been wrestling with the subject of grace for some time now. It has caused me some great distress and distrust, not in God, but in myself.

    The questions arose in my mind, “How much does grace actually afford the Christ-follower? What can I really do? Should I skate by on grace? or is the road to Christ-likeness paved by my own hard work that was begun and will ultimately be finished by Jesus Christ?”

    In response to your statement, “…they are prone either towards lechery, saying ‘Let us sin that grace may abound,’ or to fastening on more rules that default back to their legalistic mode,” it seems clear to me that there is great truth in that.

    In my own experience, I have found that my only response to conviction by the Holy Spirit is “sin management,” which states that X-sin plus Y-repentance equals Z-forgiveness. The folly in this is that I can repeat this equation as many times as I want knowing that God’s love is unconditional, God’s grace is huge, and I can always receive forgiveness of sins. But then my own “default” to this cycle seems to be legalism, wherein I know that I am reconciled–justified–to God by the things that I avoid doing, rather than by grace alone.

    So then, the questions still remain, how am I to become conformed to the likeness of Christ if I cannot control my own behavior? What role does behavioral modification play in holiness? Where does spiritual maturity begin? What role does grace play in our daily lives?

    Thanks for contributing to this e-magazine. I believe that avenues such as these are integral in fulfilling the Great Commission.


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