November 26, 2020

Practice Resurrection, continued — On Grace and Works

By Chaplain Mike.

Ephesians 2:8-9 is one of the key passages Christians use when trying to help people understand that salvation is by God’s grace, a gift that we receive by faith without adding any good works of our own. When someone freely gives us a gift, it is of the essence of the exchange that we have not done anything to earn that gift. Nor when the gift is offered do we offer payment for it in return. That would insult the giver, who desires only to express his or her love by giving us something special to enjoy and have as our own.

Eugene Peterson renders these verses like this in his Message paraphrase:

Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

We usually stop at this point and encourage people to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation. Simply trust Jesus. Simply accept the gift by faith. Remember, it’s not about works, it’s about faith alone. Simply believe.

Except that we’ve not read the entire passage, for 2:8-9 are followed closely by 2:10. Again, here’s Peterson’s paraphrase:

He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

Though salvation is a gift freely given in Jesus Christ, received by faith alone, without regard to our work, that does not mean salvation has nothing to do with our work. This passage tells us that salvation is designed to lead us into work. In fact, it says that it the very purpose for God creating us anew in Christ is that we might enter into God’s world of good works and participate actively in the work he is doing in the world.

One passage from Eugene Peterson’s superb book Practice Resurrection states this eloquently:

But work and workplace are not antithetical to grace. In fact, grace is absolutely and insistently at home in work and workplace. Paul makes sure we get this right by placing the term “good works” in the same sentence in which he discusses grace: not only saved by grace but “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).

Fundamentally, work is not what we do; we are the work that God does: “We are what he has made us,” also translated, “We are [God’s] workmanship” (RSV, KJV).

Grace does not displace work. Work, whether pre- or post-resurrection, remains as persuasive as ever. Resurrection Christians are not awarded the bonus of a reduced workweek. Work is not downgraded to something sub-spiritual. The mature life in Christ does not exempt us from punching the clock, laboring long hours with too little help in harvesting a field of grain, putting in time in a boring occupation until we reach retirement, holding on to a thread of sanity in the chaos of raising three preschool children. Work is often exhilarating. It is just as often debilitating, demoralizing, and exhausting. The only thing worse than bad work is no work, unemployment.

So what changes when Paul sets “work” as a companion word alongside “grace” if the next day, having been “raised up with him,” we return to the same jobs, the same responsibilities, the same workplace conditions?

This: we are no longer working for General Electric, the government, the school board, the hospital, Safeway. We are God’s work and doing God’s work: “we are what he has made us created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).

What I especially like about Peterson’s emphasis is his linking of “works” and “good works” with our daily work, our vocations, the workplace, the ordinary routine tasks that we all must fulfill in our lives. When we hear “good works” we tend to think of them in the category of “special” works—religious activities, charitable efforts, sacrificial deeds, actions not required but commendable because we do them to promote good — to please God or benefit others.

However, I think Eugene Peterson provides a service here by reminding us that all of life involves work, and that all work is God’s work for those who are in Christ. I like the phrasing of the Message here: “He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does…” God is working in the ordinary, daily grind every bit as much as he is working in the sanctuary. He is no stranger to the kitchen, the work bench, the office, or the field. In all these places, and a thousand more, we “join him in the work he does.”

I remember, years ago, a time when I painted the garage of the house we were renting so that we could take a little cash off our obligation to the landlord. I like to paint and was enjoying the work. My son at that time was a little blond-haired boy who enjoyed doing things with dad, and he asked if he could paint too. So I let him. There we stood, side by side, on the back side of the garage (a safe place to let a youngster paint!), working together.

You can imagine what the scene looked like. I’m not a great painter, but unless I have an accident I don’t make a terrible mess. ‘Tis not so with little blond-haired boys. He had paint everywhere—covering the brush and running down his hand and arm, all over the old shirt and pants he wore, on the grass, on the dirt, on the concrete block foundation. He didn’t care, and neither did I. We were working together. I had invited him to join me in my work.

Every now and then I’d reach down, clean him up a bit, take his little hand in mine and show him how to put paint on his brush and make a clean stroke. He’d practice and do OK, and then go back to slopping paint all over the place. That was OK. Paint cleans up. So do little boys. And the garage eventually got painted too.

But the primary thing that mattered that day was the beautiful combination of grace, faith, and work, lived out in the loving relationship of a father and one of his children.


  1. Good start but fizzled out at the end – like a marathon runner who starts out strong with much stamina but looses his legs closer to the finish line.

    I agree that the new creation that we are affects all aspect of our lives – work, school, social interaction, recreation, etc. When we genuinely become justified, adopted, renewed, and sanctified everything about our existence before God and in the world changes.

    Yet, I am disappointed you fail to mention one thing in the article (which you should have as someone with extensive experience in ministry): that only those who have Ephesians 2:10 as a reality in their lives have a right to claim that Ephesians 2:8-9 is also a reality in their lives.

    Doing good works (or what Protestants normally call “progress sanctification”) is necessary as a true expression of genuine faith and new life. Those who fail to be new creations in Christ and show that they do not have the Holy Spirit within them have no right to claim for themselves that God has graciously forgiven their sins. In fact, responsible Christians warn other professing Christians who do not live as new creations the dangers of false conversion and false hope.

    • Even if I concede your point and the way you put it, Mark, that is most definitely not the emphasis of the text or context itself. Since Peterson is writing on Ephesians 2 and I am commenting on that, I prefer to stick to the words and thrust of the passage at hand.

      • Chap Mike, I work at a very menial, though not unpleasant job. I sort mail, distribute Fedex and UPS packages, and run a forklift. Not unpleasant, it comes with benefits (thank GOD) and most days I’m reasonably happy, but it does my soul a ton of good to be reminded that work, ANY (well, almost any) work is holy, that GOD is a worker, that Jesus was a builder/carpenter, and that the Savior would DEARLY love to paint a garage with me today. Those are truly life-giving words for me.

        Greg R

    • Have you genuinely become justified?

    • The ending was brilliant. The “you’re not really saved if you don’t show evidence” line of thinking is not necessarily a good framework to filter every post through, cause it isn’t always the issue at hand.

      This, however, is the issue: “we are no longer working for General Electric, the government, the school board, the hospital, Safeway. We are God’s work and doing God’s work”

      The blond haired boy was working because his father was- his love for his father produces his desire to work. Dad gives him the brush; he paints the garage, though messily, cause he loves, looks up to, and wants to be like Dad. Before it was just a garage. Now it’s something to do with Dad. Now it’s Dad’s thing that he gets to help with. Seeing work this way changes people’s approach work, and produces fruit in a believer’s life. “Let’s hunt down fake Christians” doesn’t.

    • The day I look to my good works rather than Christ’s finished work as proof of anything is the day I call the whole thing off. That rabbit-hole of questioning, self-doubt, and despair is just too deep to fall into.

      • Of course our trust in Christ’s work alone should be the cornerstone of our assurance. However, Scripture repeatedly tells us to examine ourselves to see if we truly belong to Christ. Those who do not bear the fruits of repentance and persevere in faith have no right to that assurance. This is not my opinion but something clearly laid out in Scripture.

        • How much fruit does one need to have a right to that assurance? 20 good works? 30? Or do differing good works have different point values? And, here is the scary question, how many bad works does it take to undo my good?

          • Mark,

            The issue is not about how many fruits I must bear in one day (or how many bad fruits I must not bear in one day). The issue is: what is the orientation of my heart? Is it towards righteousness or sin? Is it towards the Kingdom of God or the things of this world? Where does my true affections lie? I am certainly not advocating perfection (as James tells us we stumble in many ways). However, there must be that desire to fight against sin, to long for righteousness, and to seek after the Kingdom. It is not about percentages or numbers, it is about the leanings of your heart. If all hell breaks loose and your faith is going to be tested with the point of an enemy’s sword are you WILLING to die for your faith in Jesus Christ? This is the ultimate test of true adoption into the family of God.

          • Mark H,

            That’s the ever-present question, isn’t it? You can talk about “orientation of the heart” as the other Mark does but it will always turn into a question of what things you are doing or what you believe about a certain doctrine. Because if your orientation is right then you will naturally be doing certain things.

            I’m not saying that works won’t be a part of a Christian’s life. Just that as a measure of assurance we rest on what Christ has done.

          • Mark H,

            My test for orthodoxy includes an appreciation for the music of Rich Mullins – you pass 🙂

          • Brian…heh, nice call on the Rich Mullins affections! 🙂

            Mark, if it is indeed an orientation of the heart then you are talking about faith…not works. “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” – Gal 3:2

            However, your language in your comments indicates that the works are the metric of the faith. This is a confusion of the righteousness we have before God (which is completely passive on our part (Gal 2:15-16, Rom 3, Eph 2:8-10, etc.)) and our calling to love our neighbors, which flows as a response to what God has done (Romans 12:1).

            To sort that out, Galatians 3 is a great place to start. By the time you get to chapter 5 we see that it is the fruit of the Spirit (not our fruit!) which produces anything good that we might do. We are passive in our righteousness before God, and active in our righteousness towards our neighbor.

            However, are we really to be in the business of measuring our neighbor’s active righteousness? I find no such directive. Instead, the directives you refer to are our calling to respond to what God has done! Do not take the Gospel and make it Law!

            In the vein of Galatians 5:1, we can shout from the mountaintops that we are FREE to serve God…in view of God’s mercy! Romans 12:1

            Indeed we will encounter the false Christians and the lukewarm Christians and all of that. And there will certainly be a time for Law…but let’s be very careful about that and not go around declaring who is not righteous…our job is to declare who IS righteous.

            In Christ,

        • Mark, I’d be interested to hear from you personally as to why this one issue, which you emphasize over and over again (even when it’s not the topic), is so important to you.

          For example, I could see discussing this if we were talking about Ephesians 5, but it’s simply not the emphasis of a passage like Eph 2, which calls us to celebrate our salvation and meditate upon its wonders. Yet you feel compelled to always bring these dire warnings in, as if they should be stressed constantly.

          Just wondering why you think this subject should be emphasized so much.

          • Mike,

            I am glad you asked. Having grown up in church and having studied theology at a school for several years I have come to the conclusion that MANY people these days who call themselves Christians may not be truly saved. I am not talking about wacko cult people but people who confess themselves aligned with the main traditions of the Christian faith. I am not saying that people should actively go around judging and targeting people but that they constantly examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. One of the tests of genuine faith – aside from whether you’re trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation – is whether your attitude and walk is aligned with God’s will and desire. I am not telling people to be judgmental fruit-inspectors but to judge their own hearts to see if they are truly right with God. The price way to high to ignore such a spiritual duty to oneself (besides, I believe that Scripture can back up my position).

          • Mark, I understand your position and where you are coming from. But an unbalanced approach to the Scriptures based on observations about what you perceive to be the unhealthiness of the church is just as wrongheaded as organizing a ministry around trying to reach the “felt needs” of people. Both approaches start with our perceptions of where people are rather than growing out of the Scriptures themselves. IMHO your emphasis on this issue, while it may have some validity when dealing with certain passages, is all out of proportion to the amount of attention given to it in the Bible, especially the NT. The Bible does not continually harangue us to “examine ourselves,” it tells us to look to Jesus.

            I gotta stick with Paul here: “But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1Cor 4:3-4)

      • Brian: another way of looking at works would be the “check engine” gauges on your car. And imagine you are driving, and will continue to drive a car that you have been GIVEN, and it will never be re-po’ed. The gift of the car is great, but the owner (GOD) and the user (you) care deeply that it should run as it ought. For that reason, we check the gauges and adjust accordingly. NONE of this merits our “rights” to the car, or threatens it being taken away.

        From Willard on who is a disciple:

        paraphrased: disciples are merely those who are continually adusting their personal affairs so as to make good on their claim that they are following Jesus. We “continually adjust” not from guilt or manipulation, but we want to get closer, and closer, and c;loser to the ONE we love.

        Hope this helps
        Greg R

    • Gordon McNutt says

      What must we do to do the works God requires?

  2. Mike, as a physically challenged individual, the majority of my work is as a writer. I started a blog with a handful of articles and there is a fiction project and a film project waiting to be fleshed out. The devil’s most potent temptation comes when my mind focuses on writing for a paycheck and not in response God’s grace in my life. While I do need to earn a living (a man’s gotta eat), I want God’s grace to be my main motivation. And I confess that it is not always that way.

    Also, the work I do writing letters of encouragement to my friends or chatting with someone who is struggling spiritually or commenting on sites like iMonk are places where God’s grace can work through my vocation. Most of this work will not earn my paycheck, but it is infinitely rewarding.

  3. This post reminds of much of Dallas Willard’s work as well. He has a phrase that disciples of Jesus “burn a lot of grace”, that is, use up a lot of grace, or put a lot of grace to work. I love that idea. It’s like GOD has jet fuel ready to be ignited if we’d just file a flight plan.

    Great post. We ev’s need a fresh outlook on “work” and “works”, methinks.

    Greg R

    • Just curious Greg, what do you suggest this fresh outlook on “work” and “works” should look like?

      • Well, Willard said something interesting in the “Great Omission”. He said sermons about greace, while technicallly true in all the fine points often have the effect of paralyzing people. We drive into them with our words THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO……and then we sing songs that try to elicit some kind of response…….confusing for many. I think the breakdown is that while our justification AND sanctification both require , demand, GOD’s initiative, we don’t quite understand our part in working with GOD regarding our sanctification. Many of us are waiting for some cosmic zap from the Father.

        We’ve been told so often that in the flesh dwelleth no good thing, we fall into passivity and wait for the all pure GOD to do it for us. It just doesn’t work that way, and meanwhile GOD is waiting for US to use the grace HE gives for all manner of things, some physical, some purely internal. “Works” has gotten such a bad rap, that a lot of folks are afraid of “doing” lest they fall into some kind of salvation-earned-by-works.

        This, to me, is quite a false dichotomy for the true follower of Jesus: ALL HIS followers are quite active, doing the most extreme and outlandish things (or quite ordinary things with extraordinary charity) Faith rarely sits still (though there is a time to come away and rest with the Savior): Faith drives us to do stuff, and grace is the fuel.

        As a sidebar, I’d have to say that many many christians are have been lulled into some kind of stupor, believing that some kind of doctrinal orthodoxy was all GOD had in mind when HE was talking about SALVATION or Kingdom living. As I enter my 50’s, I am not at all content with this approach or outlook. I know I’m to “pay attention to my teaching”, and contend for the faith, BUT life is so much more than a string of mental propositional truths.

        A very jagged, and rambling response, hope you can make some sense of this.
        Peace to all who love the LAMB
        Greg R

        • I think you’re on to something here, Greg.
          But what is the alternative to the propositional/scholastic approach of most of mainstream Christianity? I say that Mike’s analogy about father and son working together needs to be taken a step further and incorporated (or reincorporated) into the practical daily life of church bodies. I guess what I’m talking about is hands-on, person-to-person, discipleship through practical experience. Just imagine if members of the clergy reconsidered their role and started taking lay people under their wing and along for the ride whenever they go out to engage in the “good works” we expect them to perform. I mean it’s one thing to verbally encourage people toward good works — it’s quite another to invite them to join you in the actual doing of those works. I would dare say that one experience of helping someone in need or spending some time with those who are distressed or overcome with grief is a lot more likely to get a nominal Christian off the bench than a hundred sermons. And if church leaders managed to coax a large portion of their congregations off the bench and onto the field, then they could occassionally take a break (or spend some extra time preparing their Sunday message) while the body ministers both to itself and the community.
          Now I know this would be a difficult paradign shift, given much of Christianity’s perception of church leaders as those who are paid to do good works and church members as those who pay them, warm pews, and soak up spiritual ear candy. But it is a shift that really needs to happen. Jesus spent three years immersing His disciples in the kingdom life of good works while He was instructing them in the truths of His kingdom. The two — experience and instruction — were given together with amazing results. It worked then, and I’d be willing to bet it still works. However, I’m not too sure that all this sermonizing to either shame or inspire people to get out there and be active for the kingdom is really producing much fruit — not outside the church building, anyway.

          • AMEN,AMEN,AMEN…….and DOUBLE AMEN

            My goodness, you are reading my soul, my mind. The paradigm shift from discipleship being taking in boatloads of information (doctrinely correct, of course) to actually DOING the things Jesus did, and saying the things HE said (some doctrine would certainly help here), and sharing HIS heart with the lowest, the lost, the least. What we need are some big paradigm shifts in what we are called to, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. This is not “super-christianity”, I think it’s “normally, supernatural christianity”.

            And yes, the leadership package , IMO, is way out of whack, with an unhealthy and distorted weight placed on preparing the Sunday sermon, and admininstering a building, and collection of church programs, ALL very much needed, but we don’t see enough “Paul and Timothy” or “Paul and Silas” situatuions out there. Not near enough mentoring in the flesh. I am wide open to any good ideas as to how to turn this thing around.

            Your words reallly , REALLY, rocked me
            a double portion of fire and charity to you, bro
            Greg R

  4. This makes me think of something from Matthew:

    For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

    ~Matthew 23.23&24


    “He has show you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” ~ Micah 6.8 (may have mixed two translations)

    “You search the Scriptures in vain thinking that in them you have life, but you will not come to me, of whom the Scriptures speak.” ~ John 5.39 (another paraphrase; sorry)

    Dunno, that’s my thought. At any rate, having just recently come off a rather long, harrowing experience on some holiness doctrine and perfectionism, I’m going to keep to the side of some of this. I’ve read as far as the parts on The Great Omission, a book I haven’t read yet (but I’m familiar enough with Willard now to keep up).

  5. (Sidenote: Oh, that’s awesome, it hotlinks the verse for me. End geeky sidenote. 0=) )

  6. Michael, You are so right that our job is to join God in the work he is doing. That to me is easiest work path because when we sign on with God we get to enjoy his fellowship and power beneath us. Yet finding God can be tough so we must pray that He help us to find what he is up to so we can join such a powerful endeavor.

  7. Donald Todd says

    There is a telling thing here. When Jesus told the disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those are sick or in prison, He was speaking to people who had faith. The faith already being there, they were asked to imitate God Who sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike.

    Paul said as much when he wrote “work out your salvation in fear and trembling for it is God’s purpose both to will and to work in you.” Paul was writing to the Church. He assumed faith in those to whom this letter was read.

    James was quite clear when he noted that he would show his faith through his works, because faith without works is dead.

    It appears that Jesus’ demands are not suggestions, that they are in fact demands and they appear to display the love of God (enacted obedience) and the love of neighbor. Works without faith won’t do anyone everlasting good, but faith without works does not seem to qualify anyone for much either.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    This observation is completely off-the-wall, but the first thing I thought of when I saw that cover for Practice Resurrection was “Dungeons & Dragons Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry”. (The one that introduced “Demons” as monsters and started the first anti-D&D Satanic Panic, circa 1978.)

    The cover layout is pretty much identical to that long-ago D&D book — off-white, with a landscape-format color illo between two title blocks. At the resolution in the thumbnail, even the title font looks similar.