When people talk about "good works" in the context of religion, we generally tend to assume that man does these works by his own ability and power. But that is an incorrect understanding of what the Bible means by "good" works. In the Christian life, every "good" work is done by the grace of God. Therefore, the credit goes to God. He produces many good things through His children.
The first good work of a believer is to do just that, namely believe. That is what Christ taught anyway. Jesus was asked one time, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" He answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent." (John 6:28,29)
A person would have to be pretty arrogant to try to take the credit for his belief in Christ. I mean really. How difficult is it to reach out and receive a free gift being given to you? Even the belief itself is God's work in us. This is why Jesus referred to belief as "the work of God." We cannot legitimately take the credit even for that initial step into the kingdom of Christ, let alone all the good that will follow it.
Belief in Christ "gets the ball rolling" so to speak. The "good" works start flowing from that point forward. You first believe in Christ as your Savior, and then He does good in you and through you. Anything "bad" that remains in you or gets expressed through you is "on you." Anything "good" that is in you or gets expressed through you is because of Him. He gets the credit for the good, and you get the blame for the bad. Welcome to Christianity.
Remember this however. The "bad" is under His forgiveness. You are forgiven. And it is that forgiveness and the grace of God in your life that motivates you to want to do good, and avoid the bad. That is the fruit of a disciple. You genuinely want to do the right thing. Those good motives are the result of Christ in you.
The world has its definition of "good" and "bad," and God has His definition. In God's world, there is no "good" if Christ is outside of the equation. God's Word declares, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)
Christianity is the only religion that offers forgiveness of sins as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, salvation cannot be earned by man. Jesus already earned it. A person can accept what Jesus did to earn it, or he can reject Christ. But it is impossible for man to earn his way to heaven because a trip to paradise is not for sale.
Repent and believe the good news. That is the message of the New Testament. And it was even our Lord's first sermon. (see Mark 1:15) Turn to God in sincerity and truth as you turn away from sin. Bring your sin to Christ, and believe that He died to pay for your sins. That is how the grace of God begins to flow in a person's life. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God." (Hebrews 11:6) This is why a person cannot do any works that are "good" in God's eyes until you first believe in Christ. Without that belief, a person is not yet in God's family.
Imagine being sick and needing to miss work for a day, and someone else works that day in your place. But then imagine getting paid for the work of the other person. Did you earn that pay? Of course not. It was given to you based on the work of another. And that is similar to what happens in Christianity. Christ did the work at the cross. We get the benefits when we believe.
What about the person who believes, but has no good works to show for it? Well, that is impossible. It is a straw man. If someone truly believes, then that is a good work right there. And if he truly believes, then Christ will begin living in Him and through Him. It happens that way with every single believer. Now a "professing believer" on the other hand is a different story. If the professing believer does not actually have faith in Christ, then there will be no good works in his life. He is missing the first good work of faith, and therefore all the others as well.
Technically, faith is only a "good work" in the sense that God brings us to faith. It is His work in us. It is not a "good work" in terms of man getting any credit for it. For that matter, neither are any of the good works in a believer's life. Jesus always gets the credit, and we get the blame if things go off track a bit. But even that blame is not enough to make God stop loving us and forgiving us. And God's unconditional love motivates us all the more to try to always do good things and resist the bad things. As we do, the Lord accomplishes His purposes in us.
Pretty simply right? Maybe. That all depends on whether or not we mess it up with bad theology. You know, theology for example that attempts to make our "good works" the basis of our salvation, rather than merely the fruit of it. There is a huge difference between the two.
If I am trusting, even in part, in my own works for salvation, then I don't have it. Salvation only comes to the one who relinquishes any trust whatsoever in his own goodness, righteousness, and effort. When we cast ourselves completely upon Christ and His cross, we find peace, freedom, and forgiveness. But only when we trust in Christ alone. That is the order in which it must happen if someone is going to get connected to God. To reverse the order is to attempt to change the Gospel into Law, and that just doesn't work.
The Gospel is good news about forgiveness freely given. That doesn't mean it wasn't earned. It just means you and I didn't earn it, and could never earn it. As I wrote some 25 years ago in a Gospel rap entitled, "It's Free," "you can't earn it, can't buy it, you can only receive it; it's a gift, eternal life is free, do you believe it?"
Well, do you? Or are you still trying to earn your way into God's family? One way to be terribly disappointed in the end is to attempt to work your way into God's good graces. Everyone who tries to get in that way ends up outside the family. God wants you in His family forever. That is why Christ died for you.
So why not give up that hopeless pursuit of working to earn your salvation? Just as there is no salvation without good works, there is also no salvation without trusting Christ alone to save you. Do you see how those two things work in harmony with each other? That is just the way God designed it, and what a symphony of sweetness it is to those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.