Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. Galatians 2:16 NKJV
Fact: No created being unfallen or fallen has ever earned salvation. Life always has been and always will be a free gift we have never earned and never will earn. Life was a free gift to Adam and Eve before sin just as much as it was after sin. So when Paul said “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law,” he was not saying anything new. He was simply stating an eternal fact. Even after I have lived a million years of perfect sinless living in the new earth, I will always sense my need of Jesus, and will depend on my relationship with him for all eternity. In heaven I will cast my crown at the feet of Jesus because I know even in heaven I will be nothing without Him. He is everything to me here on earth and He will be everything to me throughout all eternity. I sing “I need thee every hour” here on earth and I will still be singing “I need thee every hour” after a million years on the new earth.
Fact: While Adam and Eve were given paradise as a free gift, they lost it because of disobedience. The Bible speaks of disobedience and unbelief as synonyms.
And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Hebrews 3:18-19 NKJV
Disobedience and unbelief go together just like faith and good works go together. Wherever you find faith you will also find good works.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 NKJV
Good works are the evidence of our faith. This is why James writes,
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without our works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. James 2:18-26 NKJV
Our works are evidence of our faith. So when God acknowledges our works He is acknowledging the evidence of our faith which we express by acts of love.
And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. Revelation 22:12 NKJV
While Jesus and the Bible are clear that we are saved by grace and not by works, we still see Jesus acknowledging the works of the saved.
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Matthew 25:34-36 NKJV
Notice Jesus does not tell those on His right, “you only believed so come right on into my kingdom.” As James 2:19 says, even demons believe and tremble. Jesus welcomes those on His right into His kingdom because of the good works that gave evidence of their faith. In Genesis 15:6 Abraham was credited for righteousness by his faith. James 2:21-24 explains that Abraham’s good works of obedience were evidence of his faith. In other words Abraham’s good works justified God in calling Abraham righteous because of his belief. Likewise in the parable in Matthew 25:34-36 Jesus shows the good works of those on His right as evidence of their faith, thus welcoming them into His kingdom. This is why Galatians 5:6 does not speak of faith or works, or even faith and works, but rather a faith that works, not motivated by reward or punishment, but by love.