Emphasis on Works: Why?

This post is to respond to a question—a good one that needed to be asked—left in a comment.

What is going on in American Christianity that would make me and others talk about emphasizing works?

Well, here’s my answer.

“Works” has become a taboo word in modern Christianity. In most contexts, you have to apologize for saying it. Even Mike, the person who wrote the comment, who clearly believes that Christians need to do good works, was careful in his comments not to cross the invisible line.

The invisible line …

Don’t let “works save us” slip from our mouths or our attitudes or be interpreted from anything we’ve said.

Never mind that James said it …

… we are justified by works …

Peter said something similar that we don’t like …

… baptism now saves you …

But, but, but, but, but, but, but …

I’ve heard many buts, and none of the have been valid because none will admit that the apostles said what they said.

I have my own interpretation of both those verses. Well, it’s not my own. I have the early churches’ interpretation of both those verses. I have to, you see, because I have to also be able to say …

For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.

I can say that.

However, when I say we are justified by faith apart from works, no one is bothered. I don’t have to explain myself. No one argues with me or asks me what I mean by that.

They should, though, because I don’t mean what they mean. If I did, I would be like them, not able ever, in any situation, to say “we are justified by works and not faith alone.”

Ah, now I have to explain myself. Now everyone wants to know what I mean.

Let me tell you what I don’t mean. I don’t mean, “We are justified by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.” That sounds so very discerning. Try writing James 2:24 so it actually says that.

You see then that a man is justified by works, that is by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.

You’re okay with doing that to the text?

Apologetic Exhortations

Paul tells us that Jesus died to obtain a people “zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:13-14). What has he gotten?

He has gotten a people that apologize when they exhort and feel obligated to explain that salvation is not by works every time they mention works.

In some sense, friends, salvation is by works. If you don’t do good works, or if your works are evil, you will …

  • not inherit or enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; 2 Pet. 1:8-11)
  • reap corruption and not reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9)
  • die and not live (Rom. 8:12-13)
  • be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27)
  • fearfully look for judgment and fiery indignation (Heb. 10:27)
  • rise to a resurrection of condemnation (Jn. 5:29)
  • depart into everlasting fire (Matt 25:31-46)
  • have a last end that is worse than never having heard the Gospel (2 Pet. 2:20-21)
  • have your name blotted out of the Book of Life and not be allowed to walk with Jesus in white (Rev. 3:4-5)

All these things are clearly tied to that taboo word: works.

I want it to stop being taboo. It was not taboo in the early churches. It was beloved. It was talked about all the time. Jesus died to purchase a people who were zealous for good works. We are his workmanship, created for good works.

Jesus did not die to produce a people who apologized for talking about good works. He did not die to produce a people who were scared that others would think that good works would be required to go to heaven.

Get right! Get grace from God so that you are his workmanship, created for good works. Don’t grow weary in doing good works because if you keep doing those good works and don’t lose heart, you will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:9; really, it says that).

Salvation by Faith Apart from Works

Of course, there’s a couple verses before that which tell you how a life of continual good deeds is possible. You have to sow to the Spirit. It’s by the Spirit that you can put to death the deeds of the body.

And that’s not possible unless you have the Spirit. You can’t be created for good works, until you become a new creation.

The Bible calls this incredible, transforming, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit … grace. There is only one route to grace. There is only one route to the forgiveness of sins. You will never work you way out of your slavery to sin and into grace. It’s impossible. You’ll only frustrate yourself or produce a self-righteousness that God (and most everyone else) detests.

There’s only one who can save you. You have to come to him in faith. He can cleanse your sins. He can give the Holy Spirit. He can give you grace.

You can bring your works with you when you come, but you should only have those along to repent of them. Jesus isn’t interested in your righteousness. He has his own to give you, and it is far better. His righteousness is God’s righteousness, and if you let him put it inside of you, it will transform you.

When you have that, all you have to do is continue in it. Those of us, however, who have received that incredible grace all know that the path does not suddenly become easy. We have an enemy, a spiritual enemy, who goes around like a roaring lion looking for people to devour. We live in a body that has not yet been redeemed and that regards its own pleasure as more important than God’s. By the Spirit, you must put to death the deeds of the body, or you will perish.You are not alone. God sets the solitary in families. Your entrance is not onto path that is meant to be trod alone, though our bravest soldiers have at times been required to do so. Your entrance is into a family, the very family of God, who will nurse you, instruct you, comfort you, rebuke you, and above all, love you and join you to themselves in a spiritual union that nothing can break if we will simply maintain it.

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