From grace to good works: growing in holiness

September 21st, 2022

Relying on God's grace is perhaps the most important component of Christian faith. Yet, I experience considerable concern and misunderstanding among Christian believers about the connection between God’s grace and good works.  

I teach a Bible study that began in a bar among people feeling actively excluded from church.  Each week someone grieves their inability to “do better” and their concern for not deserving God’s love.  Every week.  Even though, every week we talk about God’s unconditional love and grace in Jesus Christ and how our desire to participate in Christian practices is a grateful response to God’s unwavering grace. As a recovering Pelagian, I identify with this deep concern. 

While biblical texts clearly describe we are saved by grace alone, a theme emphasized among Protestants, confusion remains about the place of good works. Though we affirm we are saved by grace alone, we find good works to be a tempting functional alternate means of gaining God’s—and perhaps others’—favor.

What is the role of good works in Christian life? How do good works contribute to our salvation? What is holiness? 

Early Methodist leader John Wesley offers helpful perspective on the role of good works. Wesley actually struggled for much of his early life and ministry with the role and place of good works in salvation.  To make his point, Wesley goes as far to say there are no good works until after justification, at salvation’s beginning. For Wesley, any good work prior to one’s acceptance of God’s justifying grace can only function as a futile attempt to earn God’s grace (“Justification by Faith,” III.6).  

What is Grace?

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2. 8-9 NRSV) 

God offers grace to all. Grace is the free gift of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  In The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church a description of grace precedes the discussion of “Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases” (paragraph 102).  “By Grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”  The Book of Discipline continues, “The restoration of God’s image in our lives requires divine grace to renew our fallen nature.” As a child I learned about grace in Sunday school through its acronym: God’s Riches AChrist’s Expense.

John Wesley provides further nuance for understanding grace in his definitive sermon on Ephesians 2:8 “Scripture Way of Salvation” written in 1765, which represents his most mature theology. In this sermon, Wesley categorizes grace as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.  Prevenient grace precedes one’s realizing sinfulness. As scripture teaches, specifically Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Prevenient grace leads to one’s awareness of sin and acceptance of God’s justifying grace.  

Justification is what God does for us through Jesus Christ’s righteousness. In Sunday school I learned God’s justifying grace “just as if I never sinned.” In response to justifying grace one repents of sin and receives an assurance of one’s salvation. 

Things can become confusing when we reflect on sanctifying grace. 

Sanctification is God’s work through the Holy Spirit in us. John Wesley describes sanctification as “saved from sin, and perfected in love." Through sanctifying grace God’s image is renewed in us as we grow in holiness, evidenced in our expressions of love for God and for one another. Because of sanctifying grace we find ourselves participating in good works, not to earn grace but as its resulting fruit that nurtures further growth—or as Wesley described it, “perfected in love.”

Good Works

A Christian’s good works follow one’s justification, and demonstrate a grateful response to God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. John Wesley even goes as far as to name good works as means of grace because in doing good works, we are nurturing God’s sanctifying work, holiness, in us.

Wesley also addresses good works in more detail in his sermon, “Means of Grace.” Wesley says that good works as means of grace may fall into two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy. 

Works of piety tend to practice love of God in more personal settings. According to Wesley, works of piety include practices “such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures.” (SWS, III.9).  

Works of mercy, according to Wesley, “whether they relate to the bodies or souls of [people]; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavoring to…awaken the sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering,… to succor the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death” (SWS, III.10). 

When Christian believers practice good works, we respond to God’s love by accepting the biblical invitation to love God and neighbor.  

Growing in Holiness 

Good works respond to God’s gift of grace, and through those good works, God brings us to share in God’s holiness. As Wesley explained in his sermon, “Justification by Faith,” good works follow justification.  

“No works done before justification are done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done… if we only consider, God hath willed and commanded that "all our works" should "be done in charity;" in love, in that love to God which produces love to all [hu]mankind. But none of our works can be done in this love, while the love of the Father (of God as our Father) is not in us…” (JBF, III.6).

Sanctification, according to Wesley, “is the immediate fruit of justification” (JBF, II.1).  Additionally, through sanctifying grace in us, believers grow in holiness. 

Through good works a very careful and nuanced process occurs during sanctification to facilitate holiness’s growth in us. Scripture employs agrarian metaphors to demonstrate God’s work of holiness through the practices of cultivation when growing a garden. While the farmer prepares the soil, plants the seeds, irrigates, weeds, and harvests, God alone produces the fruit.   

An alternative metaphor offers contrast. The objective is not simply any growth, but rather fruit, the fruit of holiness. A tremendous amount of growth occurs in a swamp. However, a swamp seldom produces fruit. Therefore, good works or means of grace focus God’s work in us, renewing the image of God, and growth in holiness.   


Holiness is the reflection of God’s image and love in our lives. Holiness through God’s sanctifying grace provides what John Wesley describes as “salvation now.”  This occurs through our participation in good works, but is not a direct result of good works.  Holiness is God’s work in us. We do not seek to earn God’s grace anxiously worrying about our worthiness. Accepting God’s grace in Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit opens us to following the example of Jesus and grow in holiness.  

There will still be days of struggle and doubt in our Christian journeys.  Over time we learn the practices needed to regain our balance.  Augustine, in his Confessions, describes this as resting in God’s grace, “our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O God.” 

In the Bible study in which I teach, though there is still struggle and doubt, each participant has come to understand God’s grace and reflect God’s image and love as they grow in holiness.  For us, the group text is often our means of grace. Spontaneous messages of love and prayers, particularly in God’s amazing timing.  Organizing to provide meals, shelter, transportation, and celebrate children’s birthdays in the midst of serious illness, grief, and transitions.  In these messages and good works I see God’s renewed image reflected among each one—and the beauty is breathtaking. 


Good works follow one’s acceptance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Before this our works are not ‘good’, or rather “God’s works” though they may be well-intentioned. Good works facilitate the growth of holiness in believers. Through good works God’s holiness produces fruit in our lives, which witness to others of God’s love for all. 

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