There are a couple of terms that we are possibly familiar with. One is "contradiction" and the other is "paradox". A contradictory statement is a statement that is ... contradictory. A paradox is "a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true." So, is this tension between "not of works" and the demand for good works a genuine contradiction, or is it a paradox?
First, we cannot avoid that Christianity teaches that we are saved apart from works. Any step toward "saved by works" is a step away from Christianity and a step into heresy. On the other hand, what does the Bible have to say about good works? On the command:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).Okay, so it shouldn't be a question. Good works should accompany Christians. It is commanded ... repeatedly. (Repetition is the biblical method of highlighting, italicizing, or using an exclamation mark.) No doubt at all. So we have what looks like a contradiction because the Bible makes both statements. We are both saved apart from works and required to do good works.
Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works (Titus 2:7).
[I desire] that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness -- with good works (1 Tim 2:9-10).
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:14).
But, how does that work? Is it a contradiction or a paradox? Well, let's see what else we can find.
Paul tells Titus, "The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people" (Titus 3:8). So, here we see that devotion to good works is a matter of 1) excellence and 2) "profitable". It's good for you to be devoted to good works. Of course, we already knew that it glorified God. So there's one thing we can see that is distinct from "salvation by works".
The Bible goes beyond this, though. In the very verse that follows the famous Ephesians 2:8-9 passage we read this: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10). Did you get that? We are "created in Christ Jesus for good works." That is a primary purpose of our salvation! And, of course, if you think it through, it makes perfect sense. Our purpose is to glorify God. Good works glorify God. So ... well, you can do the math. We see the same thing in Paul's letter to Titus. "... who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). His purpose in giving Himself and redeeming us was to obtain a possession "zealous for good works". Again, a purpose statement. In fact, James asks, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?" (James 2:14). What good is faith without works? None. It's dead faith. So Christ came to provide salvation through faith, and the purpose of that salvation was that we would do good works. Living faith produces good works.
But, then, is it faith or works that saves? No, we're clear on that. Faith saves. Works follow. So how important are those works? Paul says, "12 ... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:12-13). Works, then, are the out-working of our salvation ... and we do those works because God is at work in us giving us both the will and ability to do them.
You see, when you follow it through, you find that it was a paradox, not a contradiction. We are saved by faith apart from works. We are, however, saved for the purpose of good works. These good works are the out-working of our salvation. They are a primary means by which we can glorify God. So when you hear folks say, "You need to work to get to heaven", be sure that they are confused. And when you hear folks say, "Good works don't matter", you can be equally sure that they are confused. Saved apart from works, to be sure, but saved for the purpose of good works. Let's try to keep that straight.