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Does John 5:28-29 Teach Salvation by Works?

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Question: How can salvation by faith be true when Jesus taught it depends on being good?

“Do not be astonished at this, because an hour is coming in which all those in the tombs will hear his voice and they will come out—those who have done good things to a resurrection of life, but those who have practiced evil things to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

Answer: Let me admit this is a puzzling passage. It certainly sounds like the resurrection of life depends on doing good things. Is Jesus teaching that it’s not enough to believe but that salvation also depends on doing good?

To clarify why that interpretation is a problem, let me point out that in the same conversation, Jesus taught that if you believe you have eternal life:

“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

He did not make salvation depend on doing good works. That’s the consistent message repeated throughout John’s Gospel (John 1:12; 3:15-18; 6:47; 10:28-29; 11:25-27; 20:30-31). Why would Jesus contradict that teaching?

Let’s emphasize the difficulty by also pointing out that Jesus elsewhere taught that no one is good:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

If no one is good, how can anyone expect to be resurrected to life based on doing good?

To make matters more complicated, think of how Paul taught no one is good (Rom 3:10-11), that grace and works are mutually exclusive (Rom 11:6), and that salvation is by grace, through faith, apart from our works (Eph 2:8-9)

If Jesus taught that doing works is necessary for salvation in John 5:28-29, that would contradict the gospel as clearly presented throughout the New Testament.

What, then, did He mean?

Frankly, I don’t have a definitive answer, but here are several possibilities that are consistent with salvation by grace:

1. This is a hypothetical offer. If anyone were perfectly good, they would be raised on that basis. But since no one is good, we must be saved by grace.

2. This refers to our positional goodness. Believers are reckoned righteous through faith in Christ.

3. This refers to believing. Those who have done “the good things” are those who have heard Jesus’ words, believed in Him, and therefore honored Him.

4. This refers to the inherent goodness of the regenerated inner man (cf. 1 John 3:9), which will be joined to a perfect body in the resurrection, removing all sin and leaving only good.

5. This refers to the genuine good produced by all believers through the Holy Spirit, which is then revealed in the resurrection, without the resurrection depending on doing those good things.

Which interpretation is right? Is there a better option not listed here? Let me know if you’re persuaded by a different answer.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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