John 5:28–29—Is Jesus advocating salvation by works?

Problem: Jesus says in John’s Gospel that the time is coming when people in the graves will hear His voice “and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (v. 29). This seems to be a clear contradiction to salvation by grace (cf. Eph. 2:8–9).

Solution: First, Jesus does not believe in salvation by works. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, John writes, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Jesus says in John 3:16–18:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Furthermore, in John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life” (nasb). From these passages it is clear that Jesus did not believe in works salvation.

Second, Jesus’ reference to good works in John 5:28–29 is to that which occurs after saving faith. To be saved, one needs the grace of God (Eph. 2:8–9), but authentic faith expresses itself in good works (v. 10). The Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans, says something very similar to what Jesus says in John 5:28–29. In Romans Paul says that God “will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (Rom. 2:6–8, nasb). But Paul also wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). In the passage in Romans, Paul is not talking about the one who obtains eternal life by faith, but the individual who shows this life in his good works. In Ephesians, Paul is saying that none can save himself by works prior to salvation. (See also comments on James 2:21.)

So, Jesus does not contradict Himself nor the rest of Scripture concerning the matter of salvation. Those who receive the resurrection of life have shown their saving faith by their works.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.