January 18, 2021

Good Works Week III: Let’s Discuss What the Bible Says


It’s time for day three of “Good Works Week” here at IM. Or as we like to call it, “Who can Chaplain Mike offend today?”

Sunday, I ticked off some of our Lutheran friends. In my naivete I wasn’t aware that just having a discussion about good works equates to promoting works-righteousness. Heck, I’m not even sure now that I’m allowed to say the words “good works” in Lutheran company. Talk about guarding the doctrine! That was the first conversation in which I ever got into trouble for saying that genuine love from God and for God and our neighbors is a good thing and that maybe God might even want us to think about practicing it. I’m expecting a letter of censure from my Lutheran church any day now.

Yesterday I got under the evangelicals’ skin. And all because this evangelical dared to write a simple parable capturing the observation that evangelicals sometimes act like they have priests, and Catholics sometimes act like all believers are priests. Ah, the power of a little story.

I thought about going all Luther on the Catholics today, or dissing mainline Protestants for being as intolerant and legalistic as the conservatives they decry, or . . . well, so many targets, so little time. And anyway, this week is supposed to be about good works, right? So . . .

Today I am going to set you free for a free-range discussion on this topic. I will supply some raw materials for the conversation by listing passages from the New Testament that specifically mention “works” or “good works.” This is not a “Bible study” in the sense that these texts will be analyzed in their contexts so that we might draw hard and fast conclusions about what they teach regarding faith and good works. And of course, the topic of “good works” is bigger than just what we read in verses that use that specific language. However, reading through these texts may help us grasp some of the different aspects of this topic that we must consider when talking about it.

This is a start, folks. We aren’t going to answer all the questions. But we can have a fruitful discussion.

I’ve collected some of the data. [If I’ve missed a key text, let me know and I’ll add it.]

Take some time, consider these passages, make some observations about what you see, talk about it together. Approach this any way you like. If there is a particular scripture or set of texts that intrigue you and you want to focus on them, that’s fine. If you want to look at them all and try to get the big picture of various apostolic teachings, that would be all right as well. I would simply like us to focus on responding to the words we actually read in the Bible today. Anything too far off that will likely be moderated.

P.S. — I really do enjoy our vigorous discussions. They help me think. And I am not at all offended when people disagree with me. Well, maybe a little . . .

* * *

What does the New Testament say about “good works”?

  • Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16)
  • And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19-21)
  • Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
  • Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)
  • Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. (Acts 9:36)
  • After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. (Acts 26:19-20)
  • For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:6-11)
  • Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. (Romans 3:27-28)
  • Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. (Romans 4:4-5)
  • But Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:31-32)
  • So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:5-6)
  • We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Galatians 2:15-16)
  • You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.  (Galatians 3:1-14)
  • For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
  • The women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. (1Timothy 2:10)
  • Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. (1Timothy 5:9-10)
  • The sins of some people are conspicuous and precede them to judgment, while the sins of others follow them there. So also good works are conspicuous; and even when they are not, they cannot remain hidden. (1Timothy 5:24-25)
  • As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1Timothy 6:17-19)
  • Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us. (Titus 2:7-8)
  • For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14)
  • Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. (Titus 3:1)
  • But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. (Titus 3:4-8)
  • And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive. (Titus 3:14)
  • Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits. (Hebrews 6:1-3)
  • For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-15)
  • And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
  • What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26)
  • Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (James 3:13)
  • “I know your works…” (Revelation 2:2, 2:19, 3:1, 3:8, 3:15)
  • Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. (Rev. 2:5)
  • To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations;to rule them with an iron rod,as when clay pots are shattered—even as I also received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26-28)
  • Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. (Revelation 3:2)
  • Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. (Revelation 20:11-12)


  1. Danielle says

    CM, I really appreciate your theme for the week, even if it seems to have created firestorms so far. One reason I welcome it so much is that this topic is one with which I’ve made several passes, and but it was often in the context of having read polemic for one position or another, and managing the bouts of anxiety that those works tend to inspire (in me, at least). My period of time wandering in the “wilderness” (to use the metaphor of this site) reminds one again of headiness of the issue; not being tied to one particular community and its interpretation, and instead left to sort through multiple theologies at once, can at times be rather nerve-wracking. The result is that this topic has historically been a hard issue for me to approach without having to simultaneously manage a whole barrel of emotions.

    In fact, one reason I gravitate toward the Lutheran tradition, is I recognize something quite familiar in Luther’s angst, and I think his particular experiences led to an approach that (despite whatever flaws it might have) deals very well with the pastoral issues raised by that kind of anxiety. And it is necessary to despatch such obstacles, because they can be paralyzing: by this I mean (1) that kind of anxiety is very unpleasant, and (2) worry tends to pull a person into themselves, and (ironically) inhibits them from “getting to work”!

    In any case, after forcing a bit of a break from the topic, that I’ve started trying to reapproach it with fresh eyes. So I look forward to everyone’s comments.

  2. It would be interesting to know what Greek words are being rendered as works/deeds in English – especially shades of meaning in the original language.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the incredible amount of baggage we carry re. this topic has us so weighted down that pretty much all we see is our feet and the dirt underneath. Would be nice to feel free to stand up and take a look around, no?

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. See my post below.

    • ergon is probably the word used in almost all those verses.

      I remember being in a Sunday School class and one person asked what was the difference between “works” and “deeds.” The teacher gave a rambling and somewhat incoherent response, which surprised me because since he was a DTS grad he should have known that it’s the same word in the Greek. I remained mum.

    • Lisa Dye says

      I Thessalonians 1:3 “… constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father…” Recently, I was wondering about this phrase “work of faith” and how it is written in the Greek. I failed to look it up, but I am guessing the noun “work” is in the genitive case since the work “of” is in there. If so, it would translate better as “faith’s work” or “work born from faith.” This speaks to the idea that we are saved for works and not by works. Faith is the cause and works are the effect. If each phrase … “labor of love” and “steadfastness of hope” … are in the genitive, you could say “love’s labor” or “labor born of love” or “hope’s steadfastness” or “steadfastness born of hope.”

  3. I am going to go out on a limb here and explain how I see the faith/works. Faith without works is dead. No question. But, what is “works”? If I take a walk through history, it isn’t “works” per se that is a problem. It is who was saying which works would “get someone into heaven” or “saved” that caused all the divisions.

    THe best interpretation of the parable of the 10 virgins was by an EO archbishop (or some title like that). He spoke at a screening of the movie “Hellbound” about the parable. He said the oil in the virgin’s lamps was their good deeds, the virgins without oil still had faith (they were waiting for the bridegroom too, they were chaste for him too) but there were no good deeds to show for that faith. From my Charismatic days, I was taught the oil was from us being filled with the Holy Spirit. So, getting out to the bridegroom with lit lamps required something. It just changed depending on who was teaching that parable.

    When we look at Luther, he recognized the Catholic Church of his day was far from the message of Grace offered by Christ. I am not saying it was theologically wrong, just that it was no longer regarding that part of the Church’s theology. Buying Indulgences?!?, not getting a church funeral or infant baptism if the family wasn’t tithing? That was almost like excommunicating a poor family for tithes (hardly a foundational church doctrine). So, Luther chucked out the whole Renaissance Catholic Works view.

    Now, all those old reformers certainly thought some form of “works” needed to show for a faith in Christ, but today, here is my grievance, people have such a poor grasp on long and complicated theologies, that they have thrown the whole reformed view of works out.

    So, now we have sermon after sermon blabbing on about how we are rotten sinners, good thing there is free Grace (aren’t you grateful?! hun, hun? poke, poke!). The problem is, it misses the point that we were freely saved to be filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to do God’s work in his Kingdom on earth. So, faith without the Holy Spirit prompted works we are called to do is dead.

    However, since the vast majority of North American Christians can’t confidently claim they are certain of the works the Holy Spirit calls us to do, we end up running around doing our church’s work for them (Pastors with big egos who burden parishioners to bring in more people by working harder in the baking department, free babysitting department or chair shuffling roster – and always a call to give, give, give to God, of course, but always through the church). THe problem is, the average pastor doesn’t really clearly hear from the Holy Spirit either – this is why there are a thousand “church growth” gurus selling their strategies to pastors for a pretty sum.

    Eventually, the average Christian, like me, just gets financially and physically burnt out and the whole we are free from any works is music to our ears. Luckily, I realized, I actually heard from the Holy Spirit where my calling was, and served there. Now, pastors and their “visions” for the church get nothing from me. For their visions just aren’t from God. My last church, their vision God revelled to me and several other (rather prophetic) people was very dark and satanic. I left that church, due to many issues, and at the new church, the young, newly appointed assistant pastor is also gung ho about the church’s “vision”, but not nearly as ambitious or crazy as the last church, none the less, still not a calling the HS is beckoning me to, so they will be busy finding volunteers and I will enjoy watching it unfold.

    Is that a smug way to view it? No, since the young pastor is an avid “we are all worms, we are just saved by grace type”. When you don’t’ realize what we are saved to, it is hard to figure out what to do with our salvation. He is young, and will have to learn, Jesus’ yolk is easy and his burden is truly light. Yet many ask me daily “how do you do it?” Even non-Christians are surprised by what I have done in response to the Holy Spirit. But, when you follow God, it is a mental joy, not a burden, even if the work is hard.

    Sorry it is so long, but it has been gnawing at me for a while this whole works/not works debate.

  4. This is a strange topic to me. I’m a universalitst, I think that in the end, everyone and every part of creation is redeemed. That doesn’t mean that I believe that loving others isn’t important, just because everything will work out someday, isn’t an excuse to be cruel today.

  5. More and more, I’ve been coming to the realization that these “contradictions” in the Bible are there because we *aren’t all the same or in the same place*. There will be times when people are weighed down by guilt and despair – they need to hear the grace and freedom of the Gospel. There will be times when people get caught up in their sins and pride – and they need to hear the coming judgment of God. On this much, I agree with the Lutherans. But the missing element (which gets hinted at in places like Proverbs) is WISDOM – a compassionate sense of where someone is and what they need. And it’s very, VERY HARD to make a sound judgment of wisdom without really knowing the person, being in a relationship with them.

    And any attempt to apply Law/Gospel over the Internet to the circumstances of someone we’ve never met face to face should be, as Monty Python would say, “Right Out!” 😉

    • Well said, Eeyore. In the fundamentalism I grew up in, everything was binary – “sin” or “not sin” (heck, they didn’t even focus on “good works”, just on “not sinning”). And how this ended up working out was that when someone (usually a plebe) was “on the outs” they were condemned for “sin”, while someone else (usually a leader) was caught in a foolish situation, much was made of the fact that it wasn’t *actually* a sin. No room for wisdom and its attendant accountability.

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Eeyore, some very good thoughts. A doctor doesn’t prescribe the same medicine for all his patients, though he has the same goal for all (health).

  6. My two cents are that good works revolve around the beatitudes or seven catholic virtues( and they are inseparable to me as much as they are inseparable from the fruits of the spirit- I’m saying it’s just linguistics that makes them different, which they are not). Now saying these are the good works definitely takes one back to how they are appropriated and acted upon- they are definitely opposite from the seven deadly sins. How they are appropriated and acted out takes one back to discussions about sanctification. I’m on the lightening bolt analogy on that issue( reader go back and search Internet Monk). Most of Christian life and work can be compared to its baptismal entrance.

  7. I am with James, the brother of Jesus who wrote, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” I know, I know…we can then get into the discussion of what we mean by “faith” and by “works.” But I remember that Jesus said according to Matthew 7, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” So, that is kind of sobering to think we could do miracles in Jesus’ name and yet Jesus could still consider us to be evildoers! So, if we can be evildoers, it is clear that there is behavior that Jesus wants us to do and behavior he does not want us to do, thereby making “works” be very important to Jesus.

  8. This is a useful list to read through all at once. Two things strike me: one, that it is not BY works but FOR works that we have been saved, and the second is like unto it, as Eeyore has implied: at different points in our lives, God requires different things from us. I notice that much of what is said about doing good works comes from letters that we can assume were written to Christian, to those already being saved by faith.

  9. The visceral reaction a lot of Christians have against good works, is simply our fleshly nature rising up. We don’t want to do what’s right. We don’t want to produce fruit. We don’t want to follow Jesus.

    And we’ve managed to warp the bible into backing our ungodly actions. The rants of the prophets against sin and lawlessness? Old covenant thinking. The Sermon on the Mount? Doesn’t apply till Jesus returns. Good works, good fruit, as the response to faith? Yeah maybe, but if we don’t do them, doesn’t matter; we’re saved by the faith. Those who do works of the flesh won’t inherit the Kingdom? (Ga 5.21) Not to worry; we’ve reinterpreted that verse so it only applies to non-Christians, and once you’ve said the sinner’s prayer you’re golden. Faith without works is dead? (Jm 2.26) Not to worry; loudly and obnoxiously expressing our point of view to others will count as a work of faith, and we don’t actually have to change our lifestyles any. And so on.

  10. Even though the words “good works” don’t appear in chapters 12 and 13 of Romans or Ephesians chapters 4 and five, I think they should be included in a list like this. In these chapters Paul shows us what we are to do in light of who we already are. The motivation for doing good works isn’t in order to be redeemed but because we have already been redeemed. Ephesians 2:8-10, which you have listed above, teaches this as well.

  11. One more passage: Philippians 2:12-13 says “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will, and to work for his good pleasure.”

    Paul doesn’t hesitate to tell the church to keep obeying and to even work out their own salvation. But this isn’t a working for their salvation, but a salvation for their work. It is God who not only works for us, but works in us as well.

    Interestingly enough, the last time I managed to write a blog post, 7-8 months ago, it was my thoughts on this passage:

  12. I know that faith and works is a topic of great importance, and should be discussed thoroughly. But as a priest once said to me as we were mincing parsley in the church kitchen, Jesus is going to tell us one day, “You know, I never meant for it to be so hard!”

    Right belief and right actions are distinct but are not intended to be thought of as separate. The way I see it is that we are meant to combine faith and works in a way similar to which Christ’s divine and human natures are combined in one Person. What is right belief? What Jesus teaches us to believe. What is right action? What Jesus teaches us to do. What are we to do? Both.

    My $0.00002.

  13. Listening to Eastern Orthodox teaching years ago impacted my thoughts on how I view “works”. Likewise, simply reading almost any sermon by J. Wesley shows how he viewed their importance, even from his reformed influenced/early evangelical perspective (he probably impacted by EO teaching though, as demonstrated by Randy Maddox). But even many Reformed teaching stress the synergism in sanctification.

    I still think the key to the development of works is John 15’s fruit/vine teaching.

    • David Cornwell says

      In a paper on “A Wesleyan Dynamic for 21st Century Christianity” Randy Maddox provides the following quote from Wesley in his “The Character of a Methodist” that helps explain Wesley’s view of “works.” Wesley is speaking of the hopeful characteristic of a Methodist Christian:

      ….”he thus always exercises his love to God … this commandment is written in his heart, that ‘he who loveth God, loves his brother also.’ … His obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength. … Lastly, as he has time, he ‘does good unto all men’—unto neighbours, and strangers, friends, and enemies. And that in every possible kind; not only to their bodies, by ‘feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those that are sick or in prison’, but much more does he labour to do good to their souls, as of the ability which God giveth.”

  14. Richard Hershberger says

    For what it is worth, this Lutheran’s understanding of good works is that are–or ought to be–the response to salvation (by grace through faith). They are our tangible manifestation of gratitude for what God has done. What they are not is the means by which salvation is achieve, nor a visible sign that any particular person is “really saved.” We ask “What must I do to be saved?” This is the wrong question, because it was answered two thousand years ago, and the answer turns out to have nothing to do with anything we do. The better question is “I am saved: now what?”

  15. I think a problem here is that too many evangelical protestants understand ‘justification’ as ‘salvation’ and ‘faith’ as ‘belief’ so the concept becomes that we’re saved by belief alone.

    I’ve found the new perspective scholars have helped me here, works are vital but the works happen through the gift of God and not by our own will.

  16. Paraphrasing Dallas Willard;

    Grace is not in opposition to effort, but grace is always opposed to merit.

  17. The EO answer to all this kerfuffle is, as best as I can make it out, is the teaching of synergy. “Synergy” is a New Testament word, used in the Greek 13 times. I Googled “Synergy New Testament” and found 150 Prot sites discussing the necessity of the Body of Christ working together, but the EO view of synergy is much different.

    It is hard to tell, when a Christian is doing a good work, whether it is the Christian doing it or whether it is Christ who is doing it through her. There have been times in my life when I just up and decided to do something for somebody, and three days later, unforeseen circumstances work it out so that far more good has resulted from my charity than I had originally intended. That is humbling. It is also what synergy looks like.

    One priest said in a homily that we are a continuation of Christ’s divine Humanity on this Earth. Another said that good works don’t make you righteous like paying your debts makes you solvent. Good works make you righteous like exercise makes you strong.

    The EO Church emphatically does not believe in salvation by faith alone in the Reformation sense. Three weeks ago, I heard a homily about the danger of being forcibly expelled from your body without a “second skin” of good works to protect you from the devils who come to test the recently departed. There are Lutherans here who would have taken up arms against that message, but it makes sense in our context.

    The Orthodox Church does not apologize for being an ascetic church. True, hardly anyone is much of an ascetic, but we don’t bend the rules either. We just don’t condemn you for breaking them. EO fasting, prayer, and almsgiving rules make the rest of Christianity seem like Romper Room by comparison, but somehow, it doesn’t feel oppressive. It feels bracing, invigorating. Like I said when I first got here, I’m sure the Marine Corps seems legalistic and works-oriented until you get into combat.

    • This is a very clear explanation. Thanks for this perspective.

      And I don’t bristle at the homily that you mention, although I might spin and apply it a bit differently. It sounds very much like the forging of character — it takes practice, discipline, and testing to become a person of integrity. Jesus was tested after 40 days in the wilderness.

  18. Bo Pentecost says

    (Yes, that is my Surname 🙂
    I believe that many times “good works” and “fruits” can even be found in all the things that I DONT do because of Christ. (2 cents at market value)

  19. I think we make things complicated, if we place ourselves in the Gospel stories people placed their faith in Christ by doing something like following Him, giving up their possessions, listening to His teaching, washing His feet with expensive perfume. They did not believe logical abstractions about Him, they saw and heard Him and they responded. I think faith shows itself by actions, works, deeds.

  20. I think much of the confusion about ‘works’ come from, as numo alluded above, a misunderstanding of the Greek words and what Paul, in particular, means by ‘works’.

    As the New Perspective has shown (I believe pretty conclusively, though admittedly that is controversial), ‘works of the law’ were those things Jews did that specifically differentiated them from non-Jews (such as circumcision, dietary laws, Torah observance, etc.) NOT to be saved, but because 1) those are what God expects of his covenant people, and 2) by doing these things they are differentiated from their non-Jewish contemporaries, and thus shown to be the true people of God. Paul is not, I believe, condemning ‘works righteousness’ (which doesn’t seem to be what first-century Jews ‘were about’) but is pointing out that observing these ‘works of the law’ is not what distinguishes the true people of God from those who aren’t – it is faith in Jesus that distinguishes them (one of the main arguments in Galatians – i.e. ‘I am a true Christian because I don’t eat pork chops’ etc. – but Paul says ‘I am a true Christian because I believe in Jesus’).

    However, when speaking of ‘works’ in general, and particularly works expected of Christians, Paul’s idea of ‘good works’ is probably much different than that of most Christians today (e.g. the ‘evangelical list’ of do’s: read your Bible, pray, attend church, be nice to people, protest against a short list of moral ‘evils’, etc., along with the don’t’s: don’t watch TV or movies with swearing, gay people, drinking, cursing, etc.).

    Bruce W. Winter has done much research into patron-client relationships in the Roman world and notes that the language Paul uses when talking about ‘good works’ comes straight out of that arena. For example, in Rom 13:3, he argues that Paul’s use of ‘doing the good’ is a technical term for benevolent public action (such as when a wealthy person would build a road, market, or temple/public building for their city), and the ‘praise’ one receives is the public recognition associated with civic benevolence (usually a public ceremony recognizing the action, and an inscription commemorating it). He argues that Paul, in particular, encourages his churches to be known publicly for their generosity (‘good works’) so that the faith will not be slandered as anti-social. Thus, Paul’s concern for ‘good works’ is primarily NOT individual personal piety (the evangelical ‘list’) but rather social and civic benevolence. Much more than I can summarize here, but see especially Winter’s work ‘Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens’ – well worth the time to read.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Paul’s idea of ‘good works’ is probably much different than that of most Christians today (e.g. the ‘evangelical list’ of do’s: read your Bible, pray, attend church, be nice to people, protest against a short list of moral ‘evils’, etc., along with the don’t’s: don’t watch TV or movies with swearing, gay people, drinking, cursing, etc.).

      My time in-counrty the do’s were: Scripture, Witnessing, Scripture, Prayer, Scripture, Witnessing, Scripture, End Time Prophecy, Scripture, Witnessing, Scripture. The don’t’s were: Everything Else. EVERYTHING.

      He argues that Paul, in particular, encourages his churches to be known publicly for their generosity (‘good works’) so that the faith will not be slandered as anti-social. Thus, Paul’s concern for ‘good works’ is primarily NOT individual personal piety (the evangelical ‘list’) but rather social and civic benevolence.

      Today Christians are known for Individual Personal Piety and vinegar-laced indifference to hostility towards everything and everyone else (Culture War Without End, Amen). This is what you get when you have a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation — navel-gazing and sin-sniffing like the Puritans.

      • I agree. After reading Winter’s books (3 of them!) as well as works by NT Wright and others, I have concluded that American evangelicals (in particular) have pretty much missed most of what this ‘Christian faith’ thing is really about. That ‘Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation’ thing makes for a pretty dysfunctional, and unhealthy, faith and worldview.

    • Greg – hmm. We still use the term “public works” for projects that benefit the citizens of a particular locale.

      Thanks muchly for the reading rec!

  21. Good works come by not thinking about them. If you have to be told to do them, then it is like the cow who gives a good bucket of milk, and then kicks it over.

    When Jesus told them ,”When I was hungry you fed me…etc.,etc.” They said, “When did we do that?”

    Doing good works was not on their mind. They just saw a need and met it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Wondered when you’d weigh in. Usually you’re the first one in the thread.

    • So then Steve, for the sake of discussion, you simply dismiss much of the New Testament as unnecessary?

      • Mike,

        I never said or implied that.

        “Good works” fall under the category of law. Not only are they necessary…they must be done with a pure heart and all the time. Not just as a tip of the hat to the Living God.

        So we live in repentance and forgiveness for our love of self, and service to self…above all else.

        • Robert F says

          “So we live in repentance and forgiveness for our love of self, and service to self…above all else.”

          And how is it that you do not consider your repentance to be as woefully imperfect a good work as all the others? Do you repent with a pure heart all the time? Or any of the time, for that matter?

        • I’ll be writing about this later in the week, but I really think you have your categories confused Steve. Where, in the verses above, do you see good works linked with the law? Good works flow from the gospel — a point these texts emphasize time and again.

    • Danielle says

      This is an interesting paradox.

      I am not sure I would say, “Good works come by not thinking about them.” First, in order to do anything, you have to be thinking about it (one way or another). We sometimes do things completely by accident, as though sleep walking, but not usually. Second, so much of the New Testament enjoins us to think about good works, so unless we’re going to use the law/gospel paradigm to read as fast as possible over those passages and hum “la la la” while tearing ahead, we have to do something with them.

      However, I would say this — and is it perhaps what you actually mean? — “Good works come by not worrying about them.” That is, they don’t flow from playing a game where I try to cheat death by making offerings to God in exchange for reward. Inevitably, we’re tragically limited in our ability to do good; further, seeking reward/trying to escape being clobbered is ultimately self-interested behavior that probably doesn’t merit rewarding. Good works might come, however, if God breaks the power of death and shows such grace toward us that we’re freed from fear and are made able to love by living in God and God’s love.

      When you write, “Doing good works was not on their mind. They just saw a need and met it,” doesn’t tell me that one is not thinking about doing good things. But it does tell me a lot about the disposition of the person who is acting.

      • In other words, thinking or talking about good works, encouraging good works, being concerned to promote good works, doing good works, and celebrating good works can all be done without lapsing into a mindset of pursuing works-righteousness?

        • YES!

        • flatrocker says

          And they all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

        • That Other Jean says

          I think it comes down to the idea that you can’t buy your way into Heaven with good works, but you should do them anyway.

        • Mule Chewing Briars says

          …and even after thinking about, talking about, facilitating, equipping others to perform, planning, promoting, encouraging, financing, and doing, all these good works, you realize you have done nothing meritorious, nothing except fulfill your original logos.

          Indeed, you have fallen far short.

          But it doesn’t matter.

        • Robert F says

          But once you think you have performed good works, it seems impossible to avoid having pride in your good works.

          Is pride always a sin? Some would say it is.

          But if it is, I think it’s a sin you have to risk, otherwise the whole project of loving your neighbor or enemy becomes impossible. I find I simply can’t believe that Jesus was commanding us to do something impossible when he commanded us to love our neighbors and enemies. Perhaps to love we must put the well-being of others above our concern for our own purity of motive or heart, and even above our own concern for controlling the outcome of our action.

          You can’t love, or have faith, without risk.

          • Who defined these as “perfect works”? I don’t see that in the scriptures I listed today.

          • Daniel Jepsen says

            Robert, I’ve heard it said that “pride is the last temptation of a good man”.

            I don’t know that it is impossible to grow in virtue without pride, but I do think the danger is real and deadly. To a large degree, perhaps it depends on the way one grows. One who grows out of a Ben Franklin type of self-improvement project (whether this is religiously oriented or not) will certainly fall victim to pride. But someone like Dallas Willard grew into both godliness and humility, because godliness for its own sake was not the goal; rather the goal was simply to please the one who had done so much for him.

            At least, that is how I read Willard and others like him. I use him an example because I had the chance to share a meal with him and was struck by his genuine humility (which, it seems to me, always consists in not taking yourself too seriously and in taking a real interest in other people).

    • Many people’s natural tendency, including myself, is to think about themselves and perhaps the handful of people closest to us. To make others a real priority as we are supposed to often does take discipline and effort (which is not the same as earning).

  22. I would have included 2 Peter 1:3-11 myself. It describes the organic process of how things work together to ultimately grow into love so well, it is obviously meant to be encouraging rather than condemning, and it makes arguing about faith and works seem silly.

    A common joke in my social circle regarding first person shooter games is this – rather than complain that your enemies outnumber you, rejoice that you are operating in such a target rich environment. With the world the way it is, opportunities to do good abound, and we live in a target rich environment indeed. Who wouldn’t want to be in the game?

  23. The majority of those verses make mention of God and/or Christ (sometimes using pronouns). This is a signal. Good works, especially the “one another’s,” result from an intimate connection with the Trinity. This is about right relationship: communion with God, walking in the Spirit, loving your neighbor, and this being made into the image of Christ.

  24. I think one reason American Protestantism (the only faith tradition/s I am familiar with) struggle with works is that our faith and soteriology has become so inward focused. Scot McKnight touched on this in his “King Jesus Gospel”. Somehow the entire project has been about individual salvation/damnation, and the entire focus becomes inward. But I believe the entire NT is outward focused. Salvation is about joining a community and good works are about serving others. The focus has to be outward for it to even make sense. And seeing how the gospels are essentially a collection of Jesus’ good works with some teaching sprinkled in, I think a Jesus-shaped spirituality includes – maybe even consists of – outward action to others.

    • Yes, this.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Agree. This reaction against Works or co-joining all discussing of works with works-salvation is not a theological problem – it is a psychological or sociological problem. I struggled with this issue for a long time before realizing it is simply the wrong question – I believe in salvation by faith and I believe in the virtue of works… what’s the problem? There is not any tension between these too; and no greater risk of conflation than with anything else. Will our motives always be a bit tainted and suspect? Yes, but so what?

      Aside#1: The Catholic church Luther dealt with is extinct [all those people are dead, and the union of the church and the state is a historical footnote just about everywhere]. Why does anyone want to continue fighting that fight? If they do they are fighting against the shadows of ghosts.

      Today, I don’t believe this contentious issue is really about Luther, or grace-vs-law, it goes back to the Chapham movement and possibly before that. It is about the dividing of life into neatly divided public and private spaces, the deification of the domestic in contrast to the sinful & dirty civic space. When one tries to ram religious traditions or scripture into this splintered space one ends up with a splintered theology and tensions between things, which naturally are not in tension, but warp as they are one thing that has been artificially divided. This has to do with making salvation a solely private affair, as it has to be a private affair, as anything not-private is dirty-world stuff.

      Aside#2: One answer to all this is – who doesn’t want to live an excellent and meaningful life? Does anyone answer that “No, not me”? So, again, what’s the problem? Wanting to live a full and meaningful life where you contribute to the lives of others and your community is not “wretched urgency”, and it doesn’t look anything like wretched urgency.

    • Robert F says

      Very good.

      But where does that leave the faith of those who, for one reason or another, are incapable of performing outward actions aimed at others? Is their faith less? Do infants always have less faith than adults? Do those with limited mental capacity necessarily have less faith than the more intelligent? Are the otherwise incapable faithless?

      • Robert F says

        As I get older and less capable of helping others because I can barely help myself, does that mean that I must have less Jesus-shaped spirituality than the younger and more capable?

        • That’s a great question, Robert, and I think the answer is an unqualified “no”. Remember the story of the widow’s mite? Jesus’ point was about the way in which the widow’s actions reflected her heart. I don’t think good works are so easy to quantify – it is less a “how much” question, and more about what we do with what we are given. The parable of the talents also comes to mind. We may never know this side of glory just how precious that one kind word or unnecessary smile was.

          • Robert F says

            “Jesus’ point was about the way in which the widow’s actions reflected her heart.”

            Dr., this scares me. I know the condition of my heart. It’s not good, and I possess no fulcrum by which to swing it over to the good side. I’ve tried to do it with good deeds, and it doesn’t work for me. If Jesus has not managed that shift for me by picking me up and throwing the balances completely off with the weight of his infinite goodness of heart, then I’m sunk.

            Besides that, it seems to me that, if what is important is the way the widow’s actions reflected her heart, then the question about what constitutes faith is once again shifted inward. Contra your original comment on this thread stating that interpreting faith as primarily an inward matter is at the center of American Protestantism’s struggle with the place of works in Christian faith and practice, you now say that what really matters is the disposition of the heart, which puts faith firmly back in the inwardness of the person.

          • All very good points. I think this could use its own discussion, but alas, this thread may not be it. Contact CM for my email address if you are interested. Maybe we could continue this on my blog.

    • Yes, completely true. I like the focus of the Gospel/salvation as the creation of a new community (over and against individual escape from hell). This means that not only are we “supposed to do” good works, but that the identity of the saved people – the people of God – is re-wired so that its nature is not a collection of individuals, but a body-shaped new community. One is loving oneself when one loves the others in the community. Not by command, but by definition. Self-giving love becomes possible because of Christ’s work, and because of what it creates- a gathered people that are one, in him.

  25. Tetzel Pretzel (n.): Convoluted and typically idiosyncratic shape into which many Protestants twist themselves when discussing the topic of good works. (See also: “Why Evangelicals Don’t Need Yoga.”)

  26. What’s the ultimate verse about good works?

    “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    It’s a package deal, you can’t have one without the other. Does the latter save? I don’t know, but if it doesn’t exist, there is no salvation.

  27. Christiane says

    for me, there is this to think about from Pope Benedict’s teaching:

    ” To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.

    That is why Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true IF faith is not opposed to charity, to love.

    Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).

    Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love. ”

    so Benedict, who came from ‘Lutheran’ country, Germany, has respect for Luther’s ‘sola fide’ but frames the teaching around ‘faith that creates charity (love)’.

    • This is what I was trying to convey in Sunday’s post. Well said.

    • Danielle says

      This formulation makes sense to me. Although, sometimes it feels a bit mysterious, perhaps in a troubling way.

      On one hand, it seems to suggest that one can entrust one’s self to God in faith, and believe that God’s response to this make one alive and enkindle love (if imperfectly and gradually). And where there is life, there is motion and development.

      On the other hand, insofar as our loves are always warped (and Love is a very high standard indeed), looking to love as the evidence of faith is slightly terrifying.

      But, perhaps the terror I mention is basically good, insofar as it shoves one back to the first response (trust/faith), out of necessity, which in turn points one straight back again to God’s love. Getting caught in this particular loop does seem to keep one’s attentions in the right places.

  28. Side –

    Interesting read and potential selection for the side panel:


  29. Dana Ames says

    Like Greg above at 9:15, reading Wright deeply has spoiled this argument for me, but I had little use for it even before that, like Adam Tauno.

    Unless one is severely broken inside (sociopath/other issue), we do want to do good in the world. What reasonably healthy person actually wants to do evil? St Paul has it nailed in Rom 7. He doesn’t really address why very much, because the vocabulary of psychology didn’t exist then, but the author of Hebrews certainly got it. It’s that our deep fears about death and things that we think may bring on death or even feel like death (perceived loss of perceived identity) severely hamper us. There is little to no help for people around this issue in non-sacramental churches.


  30. Chaplain Mike – kudos as every once in a while we Lutherans are in serious need of a swift kick. I see the Eph 8:10 verse, but I often like to read, and lead a discussion contrasting that verse with Matthew 7:22-24 (21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’). Then the question becomes what is a good work and what should be our heart in seeking to do such a thing. Heading back to Lutheranism I like Luther’s Theology of the Cross idea that all of our vocabulary needs to be revised and understood through the Cross, hence our worldly way of seeing what a good work may be is tossed upside down by God’s revelation in Jesus. Maybe it is less about our trying to figure out what is good and just allow the Triune God to work to transform us and conform us to become people who begin to see, from time to time, with Jesus eyes when we encounter our neighbors.

  31. “Good works” are the result of freedom. Freedom from the goading of the law (‘to do’). We see a need and fill it…with no thought that it is what we are supposed to do, or should be doing. It comes as naturally as breathing.

    I don’t think about breathing, very much anyway.

    And, by the way, I rarely (maybe never) do a “good work” out of a pure heart, without thinking about it.

    • Steve, as far as I can see, you are the only one defining good works as “perfect works” or “works from a pure heart.” Why do you assume God requires perfect works from his children? I know I don’t require them from mine. Christians are free to do good works because we are free from thinking about them in terms of meeting some standard of righteousness required by God. Our fumbling, imperfect works of love for others that come from mixed motives and mistaken perspectives are acceptable to God because, in Christ, WE are accepted by God.

      Your theology is trumping a plain reading of scripture. You are stuck on justification and failing to see the fruit of justification in believers’ lives. The Augsburg Confession calls this the New Obedience. It has nothing to do with the law. It is the fruit of the Gospel and the indwelling Spirit.

      • Sean Muldowney says

        I just finished Scot McKnight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement,’ and as usual he does a great job of fleshing out the weaknesses of a justification-only mindset of salvation. Works are inherent in, and flow from, the entire work of the Trinity: the sending of the Father, the accomplishment of the Son, the empowerment of the Spirit.

      • But how does God accept you in Christ? By faith. And how do i show faith? By placing confidence and allegiance to Christ. And how do i show confidence and allegiance to Christ? By following His teaching, building a house on rock.

  32. I have learned some very interesting things here, not least of which is that some Lutherans (note I said “some,” not “most” and certainly not “all,” so please don’t throw a broad brush at me) appear to get touchy about this subject of “faith & works.” Not sure why this is the case (I’m sure it has something to do with a verse here & there and/or something Luther or Melanchthon said or wrote) but as I said, I have learned some new things. And it has peaked my interest, curiosity and imagination.

    As a Calvinist I do not claim to have a solid grip on all this but I do have some convictions. For sure it’s not something most of us get flummoxed about. It appears that this issue is at once simple and yet entire books can be written (and have been) on the subject. And at the expense of coming across like a minimalist or reductionist or even a simpleton, I will submit the following:

    1. Doing “good works” is for all intents and purposes synonymous with bearing “good fruit” (John 15.8, Galatians 5.22-23).

    2. If one is a Christians then such a one will bear good fruit; if one does not bear good fruit then such a one is not a Christian (John 15.6).

    3. Initial promise or potential for bearing good fruit is not an indication that the person is a Christian; there must actually be good fruit evident and consistently produced in the person’s life, whether that be much or little (Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13.1-23, Hebrews 6.4-12 & Hebrews 10.26-31).

    4. Bearing good fruit is contingent on abiding in Christ or, put another way, persevering in faith, a gift flowing from from God’s sovereign grace, or, stated another way, repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1.15, John 15.5).

    5. The Great Commission (Matthew 28.18-20) is about making disciples; making disciples necessitates teaching them to observe what Christ said and did with an end to imitate His life. IMO this necessitates that disciples adhere to the principle of “obedience of faith” (Romans 1.5 & 16.26, which bookends all of Romans into one great big chiastic structure).

    I can write more (and more, and more, and more, …) and list more verses. But as I said, I am keeping it simple for the sake of brevity. One simple rule (I’d like to call it the unifield field theology of faith & works but I won’t) is as follows: Gospel…Grace…Faith…Obedience (or good works/fruit).

    Now, my Arminian brothers & sisters would say that if a “Christian” stops believing in Christ s/he will lose their salvation. My Calvinist compadres would say that it is up to Christ, who predestined us to salvation in the first place, to see to it that we saints persevere in faith to the very end. Those who showed promise of being Christians and then fell away were never Christians to begin with, just goats pretending to be or under the delusion that they are sheep.

    I have read related snippets here and there on imonk from Lutherans who appear to have an entirely different take on all this. No doubt verses and quotes will be expressed to counter both the Arminian and Reformed perspectives. Which is fine, of course.

  33. When I first started reading this blog, about the time Michael Spencer’s article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” was published, I questioned Michael on his fervent stance on grace, at the expense of works. What I had in mind included the verses that Chaplain Mike listed above. I asked Michael if he thought the Old Testament was still part of the bible, and if good works, the letter of James, etc, counted for anything. He didn’t back down. Grace is what it’s all about, he seemed to be saying. Of course, Michael wrote in extremes, much like the parables that Jesus (and Chaplain Mike, yesterday) used. It took me a while to get what Michael was talking about. Still trying to get it.

    • Although it was Law that Michael was keyed up against, more than Works. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. I remember that he insisted, “The Law kills.”

      I studied a lot of Old Testament Law back in college because my favorite professor was OT. A lot of Jewish and rabbinic ideas too, and a lot of it had a lot to do with Grace as I look back on it. But works does enter into all of that. I think Michael drew a hard line.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Yes, I think Michael’s focus on Jesus-shaped spirituality made it appear he was grace-grace-and-only-grace, but that was only because he was so against the unhealthiness of religiosity and “churchianity.” To me, a focus on “works” can so easily drift toward those two things (religiosity and churchianity). And if you really looked at the things that upset Jesus, it wasn’t “grace,” it was religiosity. Jesus did plenty of works, just not the kind religious leaders like.

    • As I understand it, there is no such thing as a Christianity that doesn’t do, and focus on (in some way), works. Grace-grace-and-more-grace preachers do this by insisting that people preach grace, or “get ahold of” grace somehow.

      As I see it, this renders nearly any criticism that so-and-so is preaching grace so much that they’re ignoring good works rather silly. People can and do misunderstand grace, but no one has ever emphasized grace at the expense of works, as far as I can tell.

      MIchael’s Jesus-shaped spirituality was his re-casting of works (and grace) for the evangelical church. It was not so much that evangelicals are too works-oriented, it was that the works he saw didn’t have much to do with the works Jesus expected and did. That’s how I saw his position anyway.

  34. I’ve become a big fan of the “bounden duty” sections of the classical Book of Common Prayer, where we’re reminded of the various things that are our duty as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. To that end, I’ve noticed that when it comes to discussing good works, there are a few traps that are pretty typical of most of us:

    1) We get so focused on our performance before God that we lose sight of God. We start to behave as if we could earn his friendship. Maybe we’re keen on the fact that we’re saved by grace, but we think that we’re kept in the family by our own efforts. It’s to folks like this that St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians. It’s folks like this that need to be reminded of St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 2, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    2) We get lazy in our faith. Maybe we’re in a more sacramental tradition, and we figure as long as we make it to mass each week, pray an occasional Our Father, or go to Confession sometimes we’re fine and God can be left in church for the rest of our regular lives. Or maybe we’re in a more free-church Protestant tradition and we presume upon the Lord’s grace in such a way that we do what want and just say “well, Jesus will forgive me, so what’s the big deal?” And again, we nod toward God when we go to church, but ignore him the rest of the week. These are folks who need the words of St. James: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? . . . Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”

    3) We get into straight-up rebellion, where it’s more than just laziness, but it’s actively pursuing the things that are contrary to the Lord’s commands. And at that point, it may not matter what words we need to hear from the Scriptures, ‘cuz we don’t wanna hear ’em anyway.

    The truth is that no worthwhile theologian or pastor believes that we can earn our way into God’s favor. Nor does any worthwhile theologian or pastor believe that we can just do as we please while ignoring God’s commands.

    I’ve become a big fan of Luther’s thoughts on the three uses of the Law at this point (hat tip to some good discussions at the Just and Sinner Podcast):

    1) Curb sin (i.e. to discipline and restrain lawlessness so that we can live together peacefully in society)
    2) Mirror sin (i.e. show us our sins, and thus lead us to Christ and repentance)
    3) Guide Christians (i.e. show us how we ought to live as Christians)

  35. Daniel Jepsen says

    For what it’s worth, Mike, I think you are hitting it out of the park this week.

    Unlike the cubs 🙂

  36. Do the inner work, the most difficult of works and the work we do the most to avoid, and the others will seamlessly and magically happen-sometimes unbeknownst to us. For me that’s the end of that story.

  37. To pick up on the very last verse in that list (and a few others, no doubt) it’s relevant to note that every single reference to judgment in the entire Bible bases it on works, or deeds. Judgement is according to works, without qualification.

    This hurt me, when I first heard it. I’m a seriously faith-alone kind of guy. I don’t really want to be told to do good works. I want to be easy-going about my failures to do what I ought to.

    Yet…I’m convinced now that this is good news. That the evildoers are judged according to deeds is the best news in the world for the Psalmists. For John, this may not (only?) be viewed as a threat, but as the joy-filled news that those tyrants who are clearly setting themselves against God, will be cast down, and their victims liberated.

    This doesn’t free me totally from self-examination, but first and last it makes me rejoice that God intends a world in which there is no evil, and that unrepentant evil-doers are removed.

Speak Your Mind