Good Works: What Are They?

One of the posts I want to get to today or tomorrow is on the two stages of salvation. There’s the first one, deliverance from the world, and the second stage, facing the judgment and entering the kingdom.

Very different things are said about those two stages in Scripture, especially in Paul, who was careful to distinguish the two.

However, that entails talking about works and their role in our salvation, and that’s not a good thing to do without defining works.

I’ve been guilty of talking about works without defining them, but I’m not going to do so this time.

What Are Good Works

The easiest place to begin is in Matthew 25:31-46.

When we talk about good works, whose definition should we use?

I suggest using God’s definition because he is the one who is going to judge our works (Rom 2:5-7; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17; etc.).

Jesus describes the judgment in Matthew 25.

Many people believe there will be more than one judgment, but there’s really no Scripture suggesting that. A good study on the judgment will make you realize that the only reason people teach two judgments is because of the false teaching that Christians are not to be judged concerning their eternal entrance into God’s kingdom.

Scripture clearly contradicts that idea (Eph. 5:5-8; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; among a lot of others)

It appears, from Matthew 25:31-46, that the works Jesus is concerned about involve helping people: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and clothing the naked.

What About All the Other Stuff?

Paul lists a lot of bad works in Gal. 5:19-21, and he says the practicing of those works will keep us out of the kingdom of heaven.

How does that mesh with what Jesus described in Matt. 25?

I always prefer to adopt a view that lets all the Scripture be true, not one that chooses one verse over another.

I think the Scriptures assume that the sheep of Matt. 25 don’t practice the sins of Gal. 5:19-21. In almost every case, people who practice drunkenness, envy, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, adultery, etc. are not people who open their homes to the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned.

Let’s keep this simple. Rather than debating the status of those who feed the hungry and take in the homeless, yet who practice drunkenness, anger, and sexual immorality at the same time, let’s do some thing different. Let’s leave that judgment to God.

For ourselves, though, let’s acknowledge that it’s probably not a good idea to leave yourself in that position. The Scriptures say, repeatedly as a matter of fact, that if you practice drunkenness, lying, greed, and sexual immorality, you won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

So let’s not do those things.

The Mercy of God

Somehow, once we adopted Thomas Aquinas’ 13th century teaching that Jesus’ died for the penalty of our sins rather than for our sins, we also began to believe that it is just for God to torment people eternally for just one sin.

It’s not true.

  • We were already dead in our sins. We needed someone to give us life, not pay a penalty we’re currently paying.
  • It’s not just to torture people eternally for just one sin (and thus God would never do that).
  • What makes us sinners is not one sin, but the fact that the vast majority of humans are basically radically selfish all the time (Rom. 3:10-23).
  • God has always been willing to forgive sin.

Oh, how we underestimate the mercy of God!

Even before Jesus died, God was willing to completely forgive the wicked person who repented. As Ezekiel put it:

If the wicked man turns from all the sins which he has committed, keeps all my statutes, and does that which is lawful and right, then he shall surely live; he shall not die. All the transgressions that he has committed shall not be mentioned to him. In the righteousness he has done, he will live. (Ezek. 33:21-22)

I love the way God puts it in Isaiah:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Is. 55:7)

Does this sound like a God that sends people to hell for one sin?

God described himself to Moses is this way:

Yahweh, Yahweh God, merciful and gracious, patient, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands and forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. (Ex. 34:6)

Never mind that God adds that he will not clear the guilty. Obviously, the wicked man who turns from his wickedness does not constitute the guilty. The wicked man who turns from his wickedness will never have the evil things he’s done mentioned to him.

As it turns out, we need help forsaking our evil ways.

Knowing what is righteous is not enough. That’s what Romans 7 is about. Showing us what’s good is not the same as our having the power to perform what is good.

It is that problem for which Jesus died. As Romans 8 puts it, "what the Law could not do" (empower us to perform what is good) "God did."

He then adds that the way God did this was by sending his Son is the likeness of our sinful flesh, as an offering for sin, so that the righteous requirement of the Law would be fulfilled in us if we walk by the Spirit.

What a wonderful deliverance!!!

God’s Ongoing Mercy

Even after we are empowered by the grace and Spirit of God to do good works (Eph. 2:10; Tit. 2:11-14), God’s mercy does not disappear.

He still plans on having to forgive us regularly.

There’s some clear statements to that effect. James, for example, says that we all stumble in many things (Jam. 3:2).

However, there’s verses that I think paint the picture better.

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:7-9)

I think it’s apparent that even in 1 John, perhaps the strictest letter in the New Testament, it is made clear that God expects to be forgiving us regularly.

John goes on to say that the very purpose he’s writing is so that we don’t sin (2:1). But he immediately follows that with, "If anyone does sin," and he goes on to make it clear that both the Father and the Son forgive us with kindness, being on our side.

So Where’s the Line?

Whenever I say that we will be judged by our works, and that our eternal life will be on the line (Rom. 2:5-8; 1 Pet. 1:17; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; Rev. 3:4-5; and others), people always want to know where the line is.

In fact, many don’t want to know where the line is; instead they object to the possibility that there even could be a line.

What can I say? It’s the Scriptures that say God is a Judge. If there’s a Judge, then there’s a decision being made. Some will be saved, some will be lost, and both the saved and the lost will be saved or lost on the basis of their works.

That’s what the Bible says, anyway.

We’re supposed to be scared that we’ll cross the line (1 Pet. 1:17; 1 Cor. 10:12).

We looked already at the suggestion that there is a line. Exodus 34:6-7 says that God has mercy for thousands, but he will by no means clear the guilty. There are those who are under his mercy, and there are those who are "the guilty," and God is waiting for them to turn from their wicked ways.

The New Testament says very similar things.

In Gal. 6:7-9, Paul says, "God is not mocked."

There are those who stumble, yet they nonetheless walk in the light, and the blood of Christ cleanses their sin. They confess their sins, and God forgives their sins.

And then there’s those whose life mocks God, and they will reap corruption because they sow to the flesh. They are not under God’s mercy, they are not in the light, and they are not confessing their sins.

Of those people, God says, "They profess to know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work" (Tit. 1:16).

There are those who have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, when they sin, and then there are those who practice the works of the flesh and thus do not inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5).

You can see this happening in Jesus’ letters to the churches in Rev. 2 & 3.

One of my favorite parts of those chapters is the letter to Sardis. There he says that there are those who have not defiled their garments, and they are "worthy."

So much for the idea that we can’t be worthy or that we can’t merit salvation.

We can’t merit the first stage of salvation, our deliverance from the world and from the bondage of sin. We are born again apart from works.

We can merit the second stage, which is going to heaven and happens after the judgment. In fact, we must because if we are not worthy, we will not walk with him in white (Rev. 3:4-5).

You can see the different ways Jesus deals with the sins of the churches. There are those who are worthy, and who will walk with him in white, and there are those who will not.

There are those that he is simply correcting (Rev. 2:24), and there are those that he is threatening with being vomited out of his mouth (3:16) or having their candlestick removed (2:5).

Thus, there is a line.

The line, however, is for the stubborn. It is for those that mock God. It is for those whose lives deny that they know God.

It is not for those who confess their sins and walk in the light, yet happen to stumble.

Those people can know God as the God who abundantly pardons, whose mercies are new every morning, and who does not impute our sins to us.

Paul’s Preaching

This all fits with the fact that Paul summed up his preaching by saying that what he was proclaiming was …

… that they should repent and turn to God and do works appropriate to repentance. (Acts 26:20)

Was this really what Paul was preaching?

Yes, it was … at least according to Paul.

We’ve gotten so stuck in Romans that we have created an interpretation of Romans that contradicts Paul’s Gospel! Out of the very book in which he says he’s not ashamed of the Gospel (1:16)!

Romans does not contradict the idea that Paul preached that the Gentiles should repent and turn to God and do works appropriate to repentance. In Romans 6, he exhorts them to submit their body parts to God for his service so that they don’t die (6:16-23). In Romans 8 he tells them that if they put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, then they will live, but if they live according to the flesh, they will die.

These things are incredibly consistent in Scripture.

They’re just inconsistent with our traditions.

Summing Up Works and Mercy

The focus of God is love. Not only are the two greatest commandments to love God and your neighbor, but the apostle Paul says that loving your neighbor fulfills the entire Law (Rom. 13:8-10).

God is not focused on nitpicking us to death for a wrong word, a foul mood, or some other act of human frailty.

God is looking for those who walk according to the Spirit, so that he can shower them with mercy and not hold their sins against them.

But to those who make a habit of living according to the flesh and make no effort to live spiritually or to learn or obey the commands of Christ, he will not be mocked. Sow to the flesh, and you will reap corruption.

Therefore, do not grow weary in doing good, for in due season you will reap [eternal life] if you do not lose heart. (Gal. 6:10)

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4 Responses to Good Works: What Are They?

  1. Mark says:

    Food for thought indeed. Thanks for writing that.

    • shammahbn says:

      I've been thinking about your email to me for a while, so I had our conversation in mind even as I wrote it.

  2. Eliel says:

    Amen!…may we continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling…..

  3. allison says:

    This is an awesome teaching. Thanks!

Comments are closed.