Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
In John 5:28-29 Jesus is in a debate with the Judean Jews, talking about the authority of the Son of Man to command the resurrection of the dead. He then adds a comment that refers to the two classes of resurrected people, not as believers and unbelievers, but as "those who have done good" and "those who have done evil." Does not this indicate that eternal life is given on the basis of one's deeds? Is this not the very salvation by works that Luther and the other Reformers were so much against?
The first point that we should notice about this verse is that Jesus is indeed in a debate with a group of Jews, who were questioning his authority to heal a person on the sabbath. His central point is that his authority is far greater than that needed to set aside the sabbath. The healing was simply a sign of a more significant authority than they had yet seen: it is Jesus they will meet on the final judgment day! We must keep that point in mind, for the issues of faith and works are here actually peripheral to the main point Jesus is making.
Second, in saying what he says, Jesus is saying the same thing as any good rabbi of his time would say. Some of the dead were called righteous, for they had done good, and some of the dead were called unrighteous, for they had done evil. The resurrection was a time when God would set right the accounts, rewarding the righteous with "the age to come" (to use the rabbinic phrase) and barring the unrighteous from that happy kingdom. Thus what Jesus said would not have raised an eyebrow among the Jews. They knew that those who truly loved God obeyed the law and thus did good, while those who rejected God disobeyed the law and thus did evil.
However, third, Jesus is saying something much more profound than this. In John 5 Jesus has made it clear that the resurrection to life at the end of time is simply the logical conclusion of what Jesus is doing now, for after telling them that the Father has given him authority to raise the dead, Jesus adds, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (Jn 5:24). In other words, Jesus is able to grant eternal life now, so his resurrecting people at the end of the age is simply an extension into the physical world of what he has already done in the present in the spiritual world. Notice that the only criteria for gaining eternal life now is "hears my word and believes him who sent me." Of course, this "hearing" means not simply to listen to, but also to accept and submit to the teaching of Jesus. One who does this is in fact believing "on him who sent me," for Jesus makes it clear that to reject him is to reject his Father.
What is said here about how one gains eternal life has already been said in John 3:17-21. In that section we discover that those whose deeds are evil reject Jesus, while those whose deeds are good "come into the light." Yet what leads to condemnation or salvation is whether or not one "believes in" him ("believes in" could better be translated "entrusts oneself to" or "commits oneself to," for it is not mental assent to certain doctrines that is being talked about). In John 6:28-29 Jesus amplifies what he has said on the other two occasions. The works of God are defined as a single work: to believe in Jesus. If we accept this definition, we see that those whose deeds were evil would be those who rejected Jesus and those whose deeds were good would be those who accepted Jesus. One's attitude toward Jesus becomes the central criterion of whether one is good or evil.
Yet this is not to say that behavior is totally separated from salvation. Jesus is also the one who said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15 KJV). In other words, saying that one is committed to Jesus (or believes in Jesus, to use the traditional language) without actually obeying Jesus is so much useless hot air. It is the heart that counts, and the heart is seen in one's actions. This is why 1 John will say that those who love Jesus will not continue to sin (see 1 Jn 3:6, 9). Real love, real faith leads to a life that shows it. Yet the life is the result of commitment, the result of eternal life residing in the person, not the cause of it.
So is John teaching salvation by works? The answer is no. That is, not unless committing oneself to Jesus is the work that one is talking about. Those who do good are those who believe on Jesus (and probably also, in Jesus' mind, those who accepted God's previous revelation and died before Jesus came); those who do evil are those who reject Jesus. This underlines that Jesus is the source of eternal life now, as well as the Judge at the end of time. Indeed, we could picture judgment day as Jesus calling out for all the dead to rise. Some rise and come toward him, drawn by their previous commitment to him. Others rise and turn away, for they have rejected that voice and in that sense are judged already. The one group comes to him who is life itself. The others reject life and thus choose death. What makes all of the difference is not whether one has sinned this or that sin, but whether one has committed oneself to Jesus.