(Originally written for pulbication in The Tidings)
To be honest, I think this question gets at the heart of the struggle for the modern western church. Too often I think American Christianity answers this question with an overly simple no, and consequently our faith and our journey with Christ stops at intellectual ascent and belief. The problem is our good works do count for something!! So, the issue is not whether or not our good works count for something, but what they count for.
Scripture makes it clear that it is by grace that we have been saved through faith. This comes from the often quoted passage of Ephesians 2:8-9. So, our salvation and acceptance by God is not contingent on the good or bad that we do, but on the goodness and graciousness of God! The truth is that outside of Gods grace we would not be able to do good works whether we are a Christian or not. So good works are the result of grace, rather than grace being the result of good works.
On the other hand, the good works that we do certainly count for something! Too often the church has ignored this point. The truth is, Jesus spent a large part of his earthly ministry addressing the fact that the religious leaders of his time were not doing good in their communities. Jesus often encouraged his followers to love the unloved, to feed the hungry, to care for the widows and the outcasts. So, the letter of James teaches that faith without works is dead. And the verse that states “It is by grace we have been save through faith” is immediately followed by this, “For [because] we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So we are not just saved to passively live the rest of our lives here on earth and then in heaven. Rather, we are saved to do good works that God has prepared for us to do. And rather than waiting for heaven after we die, we have a part to play in fulfilling the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The sooner we as the church and as members of humanity can grasp the fact that we cannot do anything good apart from the grace of God, and that we cannot earn our salvation, the sooner we are able to honor Jesus as Lord of our lives, trusting him for every good and perfect thing rather than trusting ourselves. And, in so doing, we will begin, through the grace of God, to live lives that will make a difference in our world not just for today, but for all eternity.