Q. I heard people talking the other day about how we are saved. I always thought we could only be saved by Jesus, but some of them said we could be saved by good works. What’s the right answer?
A. Interestingly, the two answers are not opposed to each other!
So how are we saved? By Jesus or by being good? I think, in practice, many people believe, whether they realize it or not, that they will make it to Heaven if they try to be good. Though there is some truth to this, it’s important to explain how this works. Otherwise we may fall into the trap of thinking that we can save ourselves by doing good. And that’s just not possible.
First of all, there is only one way to Heaven; Jesus! Jesus did not come to die on the Cross just so that some people could get to Heaven through Him and others could find their own way. No, Jesus is the one and only way we are saved. In fact, if someone who knows nothing about Jesus, because they have never been taught, dies and goes to Heaven, they made it to Heaven because of Jesus. For example, if a baby dies and goes to Heaven that child has not been able to consciously acknowledge Jesus as his or her savior while in life. But this is not their fault given their age. But Jesus is their savior and the savior of everyone in Heaven.
With that said, what about good works? Can good works save us? Well, kind of, in a sense. But it has to be understood what is really happening. You see, if we are living in God’s grace then we are in what’s called “a state of grace.” This means that the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection is active and alive in our lives. It also means that if we die in this state of grace we will go to Heaven once we are purified of all remnants of sin. But, regarding our good works, we need to see a certain essential connection to the saving grace of the Cross and how we live. The fact of the matter is that if we have Jesus’ grace alive in our lives, we will do good works. And on the flip side, if we are not doing any good works, it is a clear sign that we are not in His grace and thus will not be saved. So the grace of Jesus as our savior will be seen in our actions too.
One other key factor is that truly “good works” are actions in us that come from God. We don’t choose to do a good work by our own will, rather, we do a good work only when we respond to a special inspiration of grace and let God work through us.
In the Bible, The letter of St. James explains this very well. He says, “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:17-18). So, in other words, faith, salvation and good works are all essentially linked. But they flow from the grace that came to us from Jesus’ death and resurrection on the Cross.
Hope that helps!