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April 24, 2007

Inescapable Words: A Primer on Works (1 of 8)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8, 9

On his death bed, eagerly anticipating his approaching translation into heaven, the great 20th-century New Testament theologian J. Gresham Machen is reported to have said, "Thank God for the active obedience of Christ."

Everyone associates Christianity with works. Let a Christian fail to demonstrate the works others expect of him, and he's labeled a hypocrite by detractors, or a disappointment by his brothers and sisters. Works are inextricably, inescapably linked to the Christian faith. 

Christians proudly point to the many evidences of good works by which the faith of Christ has graced the pages of Church history -- everything from the rescue of exposed children in 2nd-century Rome to the care of travelers and the indigent in 4th-century Asia Minor to the care of lepers and the plague-ridden in Medieval Europe to the founding of schools and universities, the reform of labor laws, and the emancipation of slaves in the modern period. Christianity and good works just go together.  Everybody knows that.

But how do they go together? And which are the kinds of works it is reasonable to expect of a Christian? And by what means are such works engendered within us? And what is the relationship between those works and the idea of salvation?

In this and the following seven installments I want to provide a primer on good works for confused readers -- which can include everyone from those who think Christianity teaches that salvation is through works to those who are glad it doesn't, but aren't quite sure where works fit into the life of faith. We begin with the obvious: The salvation which Christians hold so precious, and which they offer to the world, is not by works

At least, not theirs.

Paul tells us that God will not allow us to boast about having achieved through our own efforts that which He gives freely by His grace (Eph. 2:8, 9).  He does not share His glory in this way. Besides, since we are born into this world with a natural predisposition to do works which are contrary to anything God would consider boast-worthy, it is futile even to think that we might do something acceptable to Him resulting in our salvation. If the set of your saw is angled from the beginning, you're never going to cut a straight line, and the set of the human soul is angled always toward self, and not toward God. Any works we might undertake in order to impress Him, or to gain His favor, will founder on their own inevitable longing to achieve, not God and His forgiveness, but our own honor and glory.

Salvation is not by works. Not ours, anyway. But, Paul reminds us (Rom. 3:21-31), finding favor with God is only for those who possess a righteousness He can accredit. Perfect righteousness. You want to be saved by your works? Fine; all you have to do is be perfect. Or find someone who is, whose perfect righteousness God will accept on your behalf. Here is where Jesus comes in, with an aspect to His saving work that is all too often overlooked.

We think of Jesus as having died on the cross to take our punishment, and, indeed He did. But what qualified His sacrifice as worthy of being accepted by God, indeed, boasted about by God? His active obedience -- His life of perfect good works. The perfect good works of Jesus -- His active obedience to the Law of God (Mt. 5:17) -- are all the works necessary for us to find favor with God. Not our works, but His. Not our righteousness -- for we have none -- but the righteousness of Jesus.

So our salvation is, indeed, by works. Just not ours. Thank God for the active obedience of Christ!

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