John 6:28-29 : They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
The work of God is amazingly simple, yet it produces a righteous life. God simply asks us to believe in Jesus, the very thing that John has been saying throughout this book. This is a foundational part of Christianity. The work of God is not to try to be a good person. He doesn’t say anything about the poor or about good deeds. He doesn’t even recite the Ten Commandments when He answers this question. He simply says to “believe in him whom he has sent.”
It is very common for people to misunderstand this, but the Bible is very clear. The idea actually started in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. When God promised Abraham that he was to have a son in his old age, and Abraham believed, God credited him with righteousness. Abraham hadn’t really done any good works yet. He just believed. Here’s what it says:
Genesis 15:2-6 : Abram said, “Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, since I go childless, and he who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram said, “Behold, to me you have given no seed: and, behold, one born in my house is my heir.” Behold, the word of Yahweh came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir.” Yahweh brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So shall your seed be.” He believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.
Here we have a pattern that God has set up by which men can get righteousness without earning it but by believing God and getting credited with it. This is not to say that God doesn’t expect us to do good works. He does expect it. He just doesn’t give righteousness that way. If you get this righteousness, you will do good works. God credits you with it by believing and then you are good. As a good person, you are then able to act righteously. Listen to what James says about it:
James 2:14-17 : What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.
Good works happen when there is true belief in Jesus, but it is the belief that must come first. Jesus is the doorway to righteousness that is done by God in those who believe. More is said about this later in John.