How good works and the grace of God are related ought not be confusing to Christians. This teaching runs all through the New Testament, but many fail to grasp it. Simply put, we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone apart from any good works on our part. Our doing good has absolutely nothing to do with our salvation. However, once we are saved, good works follow.
What are the errors? Some would suggest that Christianity is so much about grace that good works are not at all important. Once you are saved, be whatever you want to be. After all, you are under grace. Such would be a horribly ungodly way to think. Genuine Christianity includes a genuine submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And if you find a person uncommitted to following Jesus, obeying his words, living in accord with his commands, be skeptical of their claim to faith.
On the other hand, there are others who get the cart before the horse and assume that our good works have something to do with our salvation. The assumption is that we in some way must contribute something, even if it is only a small thing, to our salvation. This is truly what the word legalism means. Paul was battling against that concept in Titus 1. There he preached against those who claimed that the people of Crete needed to submit to Jewish religious regulations to be allowed to be considered Christians.
These two errors regarding faith and good works have been common throughout the history of the church. If you have a Roman Catholic background or if you grew up in a rulesy culture, you may be tempted by the legalistic idea that you have to be good first to be saved or that your participation in certain religious ceremonies or practices somehow contributes something to your salvation. But if this is not your background, you may be more influenced by a perversion of the concept of grace that leads you to believe that Christianity makes no claim on your life and behavior.
In my circles, I think the problem of perverting grace toward license to sin is more the problem. More people that I have known want to claim Christ because of a religious experience even if their lives do not reflect being changed by the Lord. Again, I will emphasize that none of us are saved by being good. But the Scripture is clear that a change of behavior is an outcome of salvation.
Titus 2:11-15 — 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 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. — 15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Notice, in that paragraph, that Paul is quite clear that we are saved by grace. But a purpose of the grace of God includes our purification. We are to renounce ungodly and worldly passions. This means that we cannot be driven by our bodies and our desires as is the world around us. Just because a thing feels natural to you, just because the world around you says that a behavior is OK does not make it OK. We renounce behaviors that society around us embraces and even applauds. Jesus is about purifying a people for himself, his very own possession, for his glory. And that purification includes our being changed from living for self and living like the world to our living under the commands and standards of the Lord.
So, let me say it once again for the folks in the back. To be saved, you contribute nothing. You do not change yourself or participate in any religious ritual to be granted the grace of God. God does the saving. It is by his grace alone. And the thing we do is believe—by grace we are saved through faith. Even our faith, we must biblically recognize, is a gift given to us by God. But for certain, no person has ever been saved because of a thing he or she did. We are only saved when we fall on the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
But, and this is the guard against the other error, when you are saved, you change. God works in you and with you and through you to change you. If you can live like the world around you while claiming Christ, there is a problem. If you are not submitting to God’s commands for Christians, there is a problem. If you can do what God calls sin without remorse and without repentance, you may well never have been saved by grace through genuine faith. God saves us by his grace, but his grace leads to our sanctification, our renouncing of sinful ways to live to his glory.