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Doin' Good Ain't Bad

Are we so afraid of being accused of works righteousness that we often ignore good works altogether?

  • Shawn T. Roberson,
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Sola Gratia! Sola Fide! Reformation battle cries, these two phrases show the emphasis placed upon a correct view of justification. With Paul, the Reformers declared that salvation is solely by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). Their fight continues today, as many still attempt to give man credit for some small contribution to the work of salvation. Salvation is sometimes illustrated by pictures of a dying man simply having to open his mouth to accept a healing medication from the hands of Christ, or of a drowning man reaching for a lifeline thrown his way by Christ. Problems with these illustrations arise when we consider the fact that Paul says we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) not sick or dying. Dead men cannot open their mouths or swallow medicine. They cannot reach out for a rope. All they can do is lie motionless. The condition of death itself prohibits action. If anything is done for a dead man, someone other than himself must do it.

For years, teachers and students of Reformed theology have continued the fight against all those who would seek to sap God's strength and denigrate His work in our salvation. We have vigorously asserted, with Paul, that it was "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us" (Tit. 3:5). We cannot, by our good works, put God in our debt, so that He owes us salvation, or anything else. We cannot earn the right to stand before Him justified, for our justification comes purely by His declaration of our right-standing. The fight has been valiant, and it continues to be so; but, have we moved too far in downplaying good works?

Are we so afraid of being accused of works righteousness that we often ignore good works altogether? Would an admission of the importance of good works in obedience to God's law give the appearance of legalism mistakenly called “theonomy”? Do we too often read Ephesians 2:8-9 and stop with the fact that our salvation is by grace through faith, and even that is a gift of God? The result of that salvation, concerning our daily life before the Lord, is seen in the next verse. Paul informs his readers, "[W]e are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). If we stop with the salvation and forget the good works, several passages of Scripture cry out against us, and call us back to a careful examination of the covenantal relationship into which God has called us.

When cursing the serpent after the Fall, God declared that He would destroy the newly formed relationship between man and Satan, by putting enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between their two seed. Although no direct mention was made of the name Jesus or the title “Christ,” this was a proclamation of the gospel that God would save His people. He would personally restore man to the covenantal relationship into which he was created, and the Scriptures are the telling of the story of this restoration.

Scripture shows that this restoration is initiated by God's act of redemption, and it will end with the communion in glory spoken of in Revelation 21. Between these two ends is a wonderful journey of service to God and His people. The importance of service can be seen in the power struggle which occurred as God prepared to bring the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt. Pharaoh was convinced that the people belonged to him, as slaves. They were in Egypt to do his bidding, and he refused to let them leave for any reason. God, however, knew that the Israelites were His created and chosen people. Their service was not owed to Pharaoh, but to God; and, He sent Moses to inform Pharaoh of that fact. God's command was to let His people go so they could worship and serve Him.

How were they to serve the Lord, once they had left Egypt? Upon delivering them from the dominion of Pharaoh, God brought His people to Mount Sinai, where He gave them His written law. This was more than merely a list of rules telling the people what they could and could not do. These were the very words by which God showed His people what was required to be His friend. When Moses later read these commandments and renewed the covenant, he spoke of them as life itself (Dt. 30:15-20). As the people of God lived and walked by the faith given them by God (Eph. 2:9), they would live by these commandments, and God would bless them.

In a number of Old Testament passages God promises blessings, life, and prosperity if His people obey His commandments. God said, "If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit" (Lev. 26:3-4). Long life and prosperity in the land are also promised in other passages (Dt. 4:1,40; 5:33), including Deuteronomy 7:12-15 and 28:1-14, where God promises to bless the fruit of the womb, the fruit of the land, grain and wine, livestock, baskets, and kneading bowls. All these blessings result from the people keeping God's commandments, so that He "will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers" (Dt. 7:12).

In at least one passage, God actually joins perseverance within the covenant with obedience to His commandments. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God declares, "But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you'" (Jer. 7:23). This is the foundational promise of the covenant referring to the continued communion which is the covenant, itself. After bringing His people into the covenantal relationship, God tells Jeremiah that they will remain there if they obey. It would appear that continuation in the covenant is, in fact, conditional; and, this is where problems arise for many.

The Westminster Larger Confession speaks of sanctification as "a work of God's grace" (Q&A. 75), and Jesus says, of the justified, "[N]o one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand" (Jn. 10:29). So, how is this reconciled with passages which call for obedience leading to blessing and covenant perseverance? The answer to this seeming dilemma is, once again, the call to a life of service. The Larger Catechism continues by speaking to the subject of repentance unto life. The repentant man is said to so hate his sins "that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience" (Q&A. 76). Echoing Paul's exhortation to "walk worthy of the calling with which you were called" (Eph. 4:1), the Westminster divines recognized the fact that obedience characterizes the life of service lived by those whom God has called unto Himself.

The matter rests upon that journey of servitude to which we referred earlier. The Holy Spirit of God applies the accomplished work of Christ to our hearts, and turns them from dead, rebellious hearts of stone into living, loving hearts of flesh (Eze. 11:19). He gives us the gift of faith to believe and love, and He gives us the ability to serve in love. Jesus' very words confirmed this fact when He said, "If you love Me, keep my commandments" (Jn. 14:15). As faithful covenant members, we obey and serve as an expression of our love toward the God who has saved us from death and destruction.

While we do not serve with an eye to rewards, God does reward us for our obedience. Once again, Jesus says, "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him" (Jn. 14:21). Paul speaks of our presenting ourselves "to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Rom. 6:13) and as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). The writer to the Hebrews speaks of service as indicative of salvation, when he writes, "we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Heb. 6:9-10). And, Jesus speaks of this in His illustration of the vine and its branches in John 15. We are exhorted to remain in Christ and produce the fruit required of us, so that we might remain in Him and produce more fruit, to the glory of the Father.

Fruit production is expected of every believer. We never read in Scripture of one being saved from sin into a life of sloth and nothingness. We are saved to serve. However, lest anyone become discouraged that they are not producing enough fruit, it must be remembered that the expectation is for quality fruit, not necessarily lots of it. Returning to the vine illustration, some vines produce grapes, and others produce watermelons. The size of the fruit is not as important as the fact that fruit is produced. We should never be ashamed of our good works done in service to our Lord and Savior!

While God gives us the faith to believe and the ability to serve, He also rewards us for that faith and service. The Scriptures of the New Testament also contain passages which show God's blessing in response to faith and service. In a conditional sense, perseverance in the covenantal relationship is represented by "if ... then" statements. Paul writes to the Colossians that Jesus will present them "holy, and blameless, and above reproach ... if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast" (Col. 1:22-23). The writer to the Hebrews states that we are God's house "if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end" (Heb. 3:6).

In conclusion, then, where do we stand, and how do we explain these Scriptures? God, by His own power and for His own glory, saves us and justifies us so we may stand before Him as His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). One day, according to His timing, Christ will return, and we will be fully restored to the covenantal relationship into which man was originally created (Rev. 21). Until then, we have been called to be God's representatives on earth, and to serve Him daily. We are able to do this only because He has made us alive again in Him, and we are to obey Him in love. As we serve by faith and love, we remain in the covenant, and God blesses us for our good works. So, serve the Lord with gladness (Ps. 100:2)!

  • Shawn T. Roberson
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