January 21, 2021

Problems with Teaching about Good Works

The Sower, van Gogh

The Sower, van Gogh

I like to use the phrase “good works” to describe Christian living. Doing so reminds me of Ephesians 2:10, a favorite text of mine:

“We are his workmanship,” says the apostle, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

  • His workmanship. Created in Christ Jesus. This eliminates any possible understanding that “good works” on our part have anything to do with our salvation, our justification, our acceptance by God. That work is his and his alone.
  • Good works which God prepared beforehand. Even the good things we do as Christians were planned ahead of time by God and are not due to our initiative or origination.
  • That we should walk in them. Christians get to actively participate in good works that God mysteriously uses in the development of his Story. It is our privilege every day to discover what “God has prepared beforehand” and join with him in his mission to bless and restore the world. We walk in God’s works — even our activity is described in terms of God’s gracious involvement in our lives.

However, when people hear the words, “good works,” any number of misunderstandings rise to the surface. Let’s talk about a few of them today.

• • •

First, the word “works” puts the focus on what we do, so there is an assumption that we are talking about something that is distinct from or in opposition to faith and the grace of God.

However, if you read the three points above, they add up to grace, grace, grace. Through Jesus’ finished work, God made us new in Christ. God planned the good works he made us to walk in. We walk in God’s good works.

Second, the phrase “good works” may suggest a special category of activity: “spiritual” work, work done for the church, volunteer work, work done to advance special causes.

When I use the phrase, “good works,” I simply mean what we do as we live following Jesus each day.

I’ve had the same problem with the phrase, “the Christian life,” as though Christians live in a life that is different than other people. No, the “Christian” life means life — common, ordinary life — lived Christianly, lived as though one is following Jesus. It is the same with “good works.” It describes our vocation as Christians, our “daily work” of living: as individuals, in our families, among our friends, at our jobs, in every setting in which we find ourselves. Again, Ephesians 2:10 — we “walk” (that is we conduct the course of our lives) in God’s good works.

In this regard, Richard Halverson was very helpful to me when he distinguished “church work” from “the work of the church.” Church work consists of the “family chores” that are necessary for keeping a church organization running, and it requires relatively few people. However, every Christian is called to “the work of the church.” Halverson put it like this:

Think of it this way. The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays. The church keeps house, goes to school, teaches, practices law, medicine and dentistry, runs business and industry, farms, works on construction jobs, researches in many fields, sits on school boards, city councils, county councils, state legislatures and congress. Between Sundays the church is involved in everything productive and constructive that is happening in our community. And it does so as a witness to Christ, to the glory of God, in His love and in the power of the Holy Spirit, sensitive to its accountability to Christ.

Third, “good works” may be perceived even more narrowly: as the kinds of religious works done by ministers, monks, nuns, and others who follow special vocations.

One of the greatest contributions of Luther and the other Reformers was to counter this notion. Marriage is equal to or may even be superior to celibacy. Common labor is equal to or may even be superior to the cloistered life of prayer. And so on.

There is always an impulse in Christianity (and other religions) to think those who “give up” more and “devote” themselves to the Lord for some kind of ordained service are better Christians, higher in spirituality and more impactful on the world for God. This is a mirage, and one day we will see the magnificent harvest that will spring from seeds planted by “ordinary” Christians doing ordinary things in everyday life.

• • •

Back in 2013 I wrote these words, and I stand by them.

Most of my life, I’ve been waiting to live.

The pattern has been like this: seasons of thinking about what it means to live and waiting to live and hoping to live, interrupted by moments of living.

I’ve spent most of my days thinking about life, pondering what will enable me to live. Hoping for that break that will allow me to live. Counting on that change that will lead me to circumstances in which I can live. Afraid that if I commit myself to living now, I will miss out on the real living that might have been.

Then, every once in awhile, life breaks through.

I hear my grandson giggle uncontrollably, and I know my place in the world: I am like Abraham, the father who laughs, and the promise is in the seed. I live in my family.

I sit in a living room with an octogenarian, while her demented husband lies drooling on the pillow in his hospital bed next to her. Though we have known each other less than an hour, she entrusts some of her deepest feelings and fears to me. I live in her tears and whispered confidences.

A line in a sermon I am preaching catches me off guard and deeply moves me. I pause. I catch my breath. I hear myself speak more softly and personally, and the people in front of me are my friends. We connect. In the word on my lips, the Word that did not originate from me but which came like an unexpected breeze, I live.

Driving down the road, I sing along with a favorite tune. It surprises me when my voice breaks and my eyes tear up. There’s some kind of life in that music, life that swells in my chest, life that carries me away. I live in the song.

The greenest groomed grass, immaculate raked soil marked with white chalk, the shape of a precious diamond, the smell of oiled leather, and smack of honed wood on cowhide. A leisurely day in the sunshine. Narrative and tradition emanating from a radio speaker. I live in the baseball game.

And this is my vocation — to simply live. Having found life and having actually experienced living, I find I am much less anxious to search for it, to think I must change my circumstances, do something different, pursue some new interest, gain some new insight, achieve some new status. As Merton says,

Suppose one has found completeness in his true vocation. Now everything is in unity, in order, at peace. Now work no longer interferes with prayer or prayer with work. Now contemplation now longer needs to be a special “state” that removes one from the ordinary things going on around him, for God penetrates all.

I would not claim that this describes me, or that I am anywhere near “completeness in [my] true vocation.” Heavens no!  But I would testify to a bit more contentment, a bit less anxiety; a bit more acceptance, a bit less restlessness.

A bit less thinking about how to live, and a bit more living.

What are you waiting for?


  1. Jon Bartlett says

    I love the ‘to simply live’ bit. A while back I decided that to “love God, love my neighbour” probably covered 99% of the good works prepared beforehand. There might be a few special tasks that God points me to, but most of them are there in front of me day by day.

    Must stop lurking daily and comment occasionally! Jon

    • –> “A while back I decided that to ‘love God, love my neighbour’ probably covered 99% of the good works prepared beforehand.”

      I was thinking the same thing myself, Jon, even more so upon reflection of Ecclesiastes’ “it’s all meaningless” message, culminating in the bottom line of “fear God and keep his commands” (which Jesus wrapped up as “love God and love your neighbor”).

      Lately I’ve been just trying to bring the fruit of the Spirit wherever I can.

    • Yes, to simply live. Jesus came to give us life and that more abundantly. It’s been my experience that many believers, myself included are afraid of life, its dangers and its pitfalls. But we were not given a spirit of fear; we, of all people should be capable of embracing the lives we have graciously been given by God with exuberance and joy. We are to come to the kingdom like children; I’m so thankful for my own children who have shown me what it is like to see life through young eyes–to see the wonder, joy and awe that lies in wait around every corner.

      Andrew Peterson has a lyric, “And when the world is new again and the children of the King are ancient in their youth again”; I love that, and more and more I want to paint a picture of Christ that is joyous not dour; that is confident not fearful.

  2. I think it was the great theologian John Lennon who said life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.

  3. “We are his workmanship,” says the apostle, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Yes!! God IS working everywhere; I just need to join Him there to do the work He has planned for me – for His glory. So agree with the words you wrote back in 2013!

  4. Your writing, your posts this week have been an “unexpected breeze”. Its not nearly enough, but all I can say is thank you.

  5. It was my joy forty some years ago to know a fine Christian woman whose name was Sue Bushey. She was a Navy wife, like myself at the time, and she invited me to join a Bible study at her Church. One day, she stopped by my home just as it began to rain, and I excused myself to go outside and bring in my laundry from the clotheslines. She came outside with me, and in the rain, helped me gather the laundry from the line and bring it inside.

    I remember a lot of good things about my friend, but when when I think about her Christianity, what comes first to mind is that image of her standing with me, out in the rain, helping with that laundry. 🙂
    Over the decades, we lost touch as sometimes happens in military life. But then I heard she had passed away from cancer. But not before she helped many, many other people . . . I came across this article which explains just how much good she was able to do in her time on Earth:

    many accomplishments, yes . . . but I still see her in the rain, arms full of clothes, laughing and filled with good common sense and a unforgettably kind heart . . . that memory is a keeper

    • Great story/example. Thank you Christiane.

    • I agree with JoelG. Great story and example.

    • What a precious memory, Christiane! Thanks for sharing it. It sounds like your friend Sue had about her the “aroma of Christ”. It’s intersting that the impression she left with you was not her piousness but her sheer joy of life. May we all be able to have such an effect on those with whom we come into contact.

  6. ” . . . that we should walk in them.”

    What’s with all this walking business? When God showed up in the Garden of Eden apparently he just walked around. I’m sure there were carrots and corn to be picked, zucchini getting too big to eat, but then I guess that’s why he invented people. He got pretty mad when Adam and Eve couldn’t walk with him because they weren’t dressed for it.

    And what about that guy Enoch? No, the other one. He walked with God for three hundred years and then got raptured. Granted that he must have been pretty tired by then, but to get raptured just for walking? Come on, at least that other guy that got raptured ahead of Jesus did stuff. Raised the dead, controlled the weather, definitely deserved it. And notice that by then God must have gotten tired himself because he had a chariot. I mean why walk when you can ride?

    Not quite sure how to explain Jesus. It’s not like chariots hadn’t been around for a long time by then, just ask Moses and the Pharoah. Too bad God didn’t save one of those for Moses. Oh well. Jesus probably wishes he had been born now instead of back then, and he would have had a pickup truck like all the other carpenters. All that walking can get old. I imagine the Apostles also wish the same thing. It would have been a lot easier if they could have followed Jesus on Facebook. At least today when we do Christian stuff like spend an hour filling soup bowls for poor people, we can drive there.

    • –> “What’s with all this walking business?”

      Yeah! And how about all the people who walked WITH Jesus!?

      “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:1-3, NIV)

      I mean, how scandalous!!! Women!?!? Walking around with him, too!?!? And not just your average mom and sister, but a woman who’d had seven demons come out of her, and Joanna, an aristocrat in Herod’s household – the traitor! – and…and…these women SUPPORTED Jesus as they walked with his dirty, grimy band of religious crazies!

      Scandalous, I say! All that walking, and all those that walked with Him…

  7. What a fine and refreshing essay, Chaplain Mike. I have been thinking about this whole idea of “following Jesus” for a long time, as I mentioned a couple days ago. I now can realize that my previous ideas of following Jesus by doing some dramatic St. Francis/St. Clare action were quite unnecessary. I have a tendency to do sudden, dramatic things, and my thoughts on following Jesus were in line with that. But I can see now, thanks to your writings and the contributions of others here, that life well lived, in His service, is “just as good” as a barefoot pilgrimage on the road. Certainly in my case it’s better than good, since at 72 I’m hardly equipped either physically or spiritually to become a homeless preacher.

  8. We do works one way or another – not necessarily good works. We are not saved by our good works, because we don’t do them consistently nor with pure motives.

    If we claim to represent the good but do bad, then something is messed up.

    To claim being saved by grace exempts one from doing good is…gnostic? manichaen?

    Help out the poor atheist who is told that he or she can’t possibly have a moral compass, when some Christians believe they are exempt from good works because they are saved by “grace”. I think that is saying, “sure, I have a moral compass, but who needs it?”.

    I would be good to hear from the Eastern Orthodox folks on their wholistic view of salvation.

  9. And then there is the work of Lazarus, which involves lying prone at Dives’ front gate, unable to walk, totally dependent on the mercy of others; some of us, as Christian, at some time, may be called to this kind of work..

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