Here is the practical problem that I see in many of the arguments by Protestants against being concerned about good works. They are so worried that any talk of works will mean that salvation is not by grace that they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let me give you a couple of questions to ponder and then some thoughts.
Is a good work a good work when you do it out of a decision of the will that it is the right thing to do even if you do not want to do it? If I force myself to do something because it is what is right to do, with no positive feeling about it, am I showing myself law-bound rather than grace-filled?
Of course, ideally our emotions should line up with our commitments, but that is not true more often than we care to consider. The parent at 2 am dealing with the colicky baby, the pastor who wants nothing more than to take Sunday off but goes to church are all good examples. But, let me take it one step further. What if we choose to give money, to volunteer, to pay our employees a living wage (yes, that is found in James) because it is what the Scriptures teach us, what Tradition shows us, what the Church encourages, but what we do not wish to and dislike doing? Am I then a legalist?
When a person does something out of a commitment to his/her duty rather than out of an emotional tug, should we not honor that? Of course we should! Our country has a culture in which duty and honor go hand in hand. The motto of the USA Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis, always faithful. It means that a Marine will fulfill his/her duty regardless of personal feelings and of obstacles. Why then does a theology against works-righteousness so often seem to denigrate those who do what is Christian, true, and right out of a sense of duty and honor? Let me guide you to a different way to look at the issue, an ancient way, a Traditional way.
Eastern Orthodoxy would say that the obedience of the will, the choice to perform what does not attract us, the willingness to follow the dictates of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church is how we train the flesh, how we help bring it into submission. The fasting, the prayers, even the disliked works, do not have as their goal the attaining of salvation. Rather, they have as their goal the mortifying of the passions of the flesh so that the true Christian nature may grow.
An Orthodox believer would hope that eventually his/her feelings would come into line with what they believe. But, whether or not they do, we do not listen to our passions, but to what is true, honorable, right. More than that, the works that are performed out of a decision of the will are true and good works because they come out of an outward decision and an inner desire to serve the Lord. Note that desire, decision, and emotion are three separate words and not equivalent. In fact, whether or not we like doing an action has nothing to do with whether it is a good work.
The Christian who refuses to do any works on the grounds of work-righteousness is simply an immature Christian. As Hebrews says, they should be eating meat and are still stuck on repentance from dead works. Worse, as Jesus points out in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the very failure to engage in good works may make them part of the goats, even if they say, “Lord, Lord, we prophesized in your name and cast out demons in your name …”
The Christian who does good works, in particular, the Christian who plans regular good works is a mature Christian. He/she knows that their flesh must be trained. He/she knows better than to rely on the dictates of ephemeral passions or emotions. Rather, a certain commitment to duty and honor is precisely the result of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work on a Christian. In fact, the synergy of the Christian’s commitment to good works and the Holy Spirit’s empowering will yield the fruits of the Holy Spirit and a mature Christian who can go even through persecution without losing focus.
So, let me encourage you. Pray and plan good works. Gird up your loins, get your hands dirty, build spiritual calluses, and grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.