By David Johnson, class of ’20.
I don’t know about you, but when I was younger, I did not like my daily chores and responsibilities. When my mom and dad first assigned me the after-dinner task of cleaning up the dishes, I can remember that my cranky, younger self didn’t take this idea too well at first. Sure, it was definitely better than my younger brother’s job of taking out the trash. Nonetheless, I often washed the dishes begrudgingly, and often times so hurriedly that most of the pots and pans would still be quite unfinished. But nowadays, when I visit my family over the holidays during college, my mom will often ask me to take out the trash or do the dishes, and I probably wouldn’t give a second thought about it before doing the job. To some extent, this is a habitual process I’ve had to learn over my lifetime, but to a larger extent I think this reflects a change in priorities. I’ve grown to appreciate the value in working hard and applying my time and energy productively. The work itself hasn’t changed; after all, there are always chores to do at my house! But over time, my motivation has changed, and that change in motivation was a key factor in my ability to do the work well, and my mental attitude towards work in general.
To some extent, I think a similar principle comes into play in the Christian life. Almost every major religion, including Christianity, affirms that works have some kind of role in our everyday lives. Most religions portray works as something you have to do because the rules require it, and if you don’t do it, God won’t reward you. But in Christianity, works are considered a byproduct or reflection of the work Jesus has accomplished in our lives, not something we do to earn God’s favor. The importance of work hasn’t changed, since there are always good things that people ought to be doing in the broken world we live in. But the motivation of those good works, whether religious rules, selfish desires, or reflecting the goodness of Christ, can make all the difference in the world in how well we accomplish these works, and their purpose in the context of salvation. The paradox between a Christian’s faith in Christ and the role of good works might be confusing at first, but when we examine the Scriptures in the full context of Jesus Christ, it becomes apparent that good works are not designed to prove ourselves worthy of God’s grace, but rather to reflect the transformative power of Christ in our lives.
But first of all, what is this paradox really about? What is Christianity’s take on the issue of works-based salvation? Take a look at what Paul the Apostle writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 (NIV): “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There are two key ideas going on here. First, Paul the Apostle notes that no amount of good works we can accomplish will save us from our sins. As I mentioned in a previous article, this stands in stark contrast to quite a few religious systems out there, including ones that existed during the life of Jesus. Almost every other religion affirms the importance of works in the process of salvation, such as Buddhism, Islam, and Latter-Day Saints theology. Christianity says works are completely irrelevant towards making yourself right with God. But notice that Paul also says in verse 10 that we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” that were “prepared in advance for us to do”. Huh? This seems like a contradiction at face value. Why on earth would Paul say in one verse that works are irrelevant for salvation, but in the very next one say that God wants us to do good works? What could be going on here?
When we look at the full context of the Scriptures, and analyze the character of God throughout the Bible, the meaning of this passage becomes much clearer. Look, for example, all the way back in Genesis, when God created the first human beings. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created […] them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” First of all, the passage notes that God created mankind in His image. The simple connotation here is that God created mankind to reflect his character, giving the first man and woman the ability to create and think rationally, in contrast to a world filled with animals and plants that have no such intuition. Theologian and pastor Wayne Grudem notes that “The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God and represents God” (Grudem). God created us to reflect his ability to choose to work with purpose, reason, and creativity, rather than just instinct or necessity. God didn’t have to create the universe we see around us; I mean, he certainly doesn’t need us to exist, since he is self-sufficient (see Colossians 1:15-20). And yet, He created us because He wanted to, not because he needed to. He is so infinitely great in love and power (Psalm 147:5) that he decided to express that love towards someone else, even though he had no prior obligation, or need, to do so.
When He created us, he wanted us to have that same kind of work ethic when managing and interacting with the creation around us. You see, the call to “fill the earth and subdue it” doesn’t mean God wants us to just labor for no reason; it’s a reflection of God’s character embedded into our very nature, or at least, the nature of man before the fall. This is one of the reasons why I believe Paul says in Ephesians that we “are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” It refers to the freedom we have in Christ to do good deeds without worrying about whether our salvation is at stake, and it ultimately serves as a reflection of the creative God who created us.
Furthermore, take a look at the lives of Jesus’ disciples after His crucifixion and resurrection. After Jesus’ death at the hands of his Roman captors, his disciples immediately went into hiding (John 20:19). However, after seeing Jesus’ newly resurrected and glorified self, they went boldly into all the world proclaiming the Gospel. Only one of these disciples, John, did not suffer a brutal martyrdom, and even he was sent into exile as punishment for his faith (Kiger). Even though they didn’t need to do good works to gain salvation, they were still motivated to preach the Gospel anyway. Think about how radical this is compared to a religion like Islam, or better yet, Latter-day Saints theology. In Mormonism, you are required to go on missions and serve in the Church to, in one sense, “prove” that you are repentant and want God’s saving grace (see my previous article I mentioned above).
In fact, one of the common objections to Christianity from the Latter-day Saints is this idea of “cheap grace.” According to J. Warner Wallace, “in an effort to emphasis the free nature of salvation, many Christians minimize the importance of good works in the Christian life. We sometimes neglect to tell our LDS friends that a grateful life, surrendered in response to what Christ has done for us, does actually result in a life of good works” (Wallace). As I noted, the disciples in the New Testament gladly died for the sake of Jesus Christ and the Gospel message. Their motivation didn’t come from the possibility that they would lose their salvation if they didn’t share the Gospel, or even to prove themselves worthy of salvation; they didn’t have to worry about either of those things! Their motivation came from their love for Jesus Christ and the fact that he conquered death through His death and Resurrection. Their new motivation for sharing the Gospel made all the difference in the world when it came to doing good works. The recognition of Christ’s sacrifice, and the weight of what Jesus had done for them, made it overwhelmingly obvious how inappropriate it would be to respond to God’s grace with an ungodly lifestyle. In fact, Paul mentions in the book of Romans that it would be wrong for Christians to keep on sinning, even though our salvation is secure (Romans 6:1-2). As a result, the grace offered to Christianity is in no way “cheap”; it cost Jesus his very life, and a truly saved person will be grateful for this fact in one way or another.
Thus, when we know what purpose God has in mind for good works, I think the relationship between faith and good works becomes quite clear. The scriptures make it obvious that no amount of good deeds will qualify us for eternal life. Compared to the overwhelming greatness and holiness of God, even the best we have to offer God from our works, deeds, or thoughts are like filthy rags in comparison (Isaiah 64:6). No matter what good things we are capable of doing, we cannot stop the influence of sin on our everyday lives by ourselves, and we would be hopeless without God’s gift of salvation (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Nonetheless, works are important because they reflect a true change of heart and motivation in a Christian’s walk with Christ. We’re told in the book of James that it would be inconsistent for someone to not have a behavioral change after having faith in Christ, because the changes one experiences after accepting Christ will naturally lead to a consistently Christ-centered lifestyle: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
Faith without deeds isn’t dead because it requires deeds; faith without deeds is dead because it will produce deeds, and a stubborn refusal to engage in a Godly lifestyle after being saved is often a good indicator of whether or not that faith is genuine. In fact, Jesus not only criticized the blatant hypocrisy of the Pharisees during his time, but he told his disciples that one key distinguishing factor of a false teacher is the bad “fruit” that comes about in their everyday lives (Matthew 7:15-20). If we are connected to God in a similar way that Adam and Eve were connected with God’s purpose and in unity with him, then as in the case of Jesus’ disciples, we should care about the things God cares about, and be appalled by the things that God is appalled by. We’ll continue to make mistakes, for sure, but we won’t continuously or intentionally live a lifestyle that dishonors our Savior. The more aligned our character is with God, the more capable our faith is in producing good deeds. One way to think about this is to do a little math. For most religions, the formula for humanity works like this: faith + works = salvation. For Christianity, it’s the other way around: faith + salvation = works (Wallace). Works don’t produce salvation; works should be a natural byproduct of salvation.
At my house, the fundamental question was never “am I going to do chores today?” Believe me: my dad settled that question a long time ago. The better question was: “with what attitude will I do these chores?” I’ve learned over time that the best attitude, and the one that produces the best work ethic, is the thankful attitude and the desire to serve others. Similarly, when we look at the issue of faith vs. deeds, “the question is not whether someone performs good works, but why someone performs good works” (Wallace). I might be doing good works because I want to avoid hell as much as possible. I might be doing good works because I know people are going to see me when I do them, and I want to be as famous as possible. I could also be doing good works because I’m bored, or because it’s convenient for me at any given moment.
Or maybe, I can do good works because my God is a faithful worker, who, out of pure love, worked six days to create an immeasurably amazing creation that we ruined out of rebellion against him, and who, despite all this, gave up His own Son to finish the perfect work of salvation to restore His relationship with us.
Now that’s the kind of motivation that inspires creativity and a servant’s heart.
- Warner Wallace, “The Salvation Equation: The Simple Relationship between Faith and Works.” http://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/the-salvation-equation-the-simple-relationship-between-faith-and-works. Accessed October 3, 2017.
Patrick J. Kiger, “How Did the Apostles Die?” National Geographic, http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/killing-jesus/articles/how-did-the-apostles-die. Accessed October 10, 2017.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 1994.