Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The role of good works and obedience

In an area rife with legalism and fundamentalism, the idea of "good works" often is quite bad. It reminds me a bit of the Catholicism in the 16th century juxtaposed with the early Protestant Reformation. You can read about one of my experiences with it in this part of West Virginia here. To talk of "good works," or the need for them is often met with hostility. Should this be the case? What role do good works play in the lives of believers? Are they necessary? An after-thought?

To many in this area-because of fundamentalism-"good works" or obedience are simply an after-thought. I do fear that we Christians sometimes respond re-actively more than biblically, and so the idea of "good works" can be minimized. After all, God really just cares about one's ability accurately profess justification by grace alone through faith alone. Just articulate it clearly and you're good to go. A Christian is someone who asserts to and articulates this fact, right? I'm all for articulation. But I can coach a monkey, well maybe not a monkey, (a parrot?), but most any person to articulate justification by faith. Sure they'd falter if I you were to really probe. But for the most part, they'd pass. And it's not because I'm that good.

Is that all that God wants for Christians? Most everyone would say no. But most of us are scared to say much more than that.

Are "good works necessary?" Well no and yes. No they are not necessary to save you. But that's kind of a weird question, because they can't save no matter how good you think those works are. So dumb question, but I raised it. A person is only saved by Christ alone through faith alone. Faith alone saves. But like the old adage, faith that saves is never alone.

Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us we are saved by faith in Christ, and because of that we are God's workmanship created to do "good works" that he as prepared in advance for us. Good works are necessary in the sense that they are a necessary consequence of God regenerating someone. They are produced by God when he saves us in Christ through faith. Here's a snippet from the Westminster Seminary blog:

After arguing that sinners are justified by faith alone, and not by works (Romans 3:21-28), the apostle can make the point that those who are justified through faith have also died to sin. Christians no longer desire to live under sin’s dominion because they have been buried with Christ and subsequently raised to newness of life. Instead of destroying the desire to do good works, the doctrine of justification by faith alone establishes the basis for good works. Those who are justified (having died to sin), will walk in newness of life and begin the process of sanctification. The newness of life and our sanctification is characterized by the doing of good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10), and the presence of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). As Paul puts it elsewhere, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

I also found this article quite helpful in how to think through good works. We do need to encourage each other to do good works, not contenting ourselves with good doctrinal articulation. I like fine tuning doctrinal articulation. I just ordered a book Concise Theology to go through with folks in order to help them know and articulate sound doctrine. But articulation is not the goal of doctrine or theology. The goal, or even the definition of theology according to a former professor of mine named John Frame is "the application of scripture to life." From Head to Heart to Hands. Here's a great way of thinking about good works and obedience that will honor Jesus and not fall into the grasp of legalism.

Since our sanctification is every bit as much an act of God’s grace as is our justification, all those who have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, will (as the Catechism says) live according to all of God’s commandments. Since our obedience (like our sin) is covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ (making even the worst our works truly good), our heavenly father delights in our feeble efforts to do good. And knowing this to be the case creates within us the desire to obey all the more. 
My sins are covered by the blood of Christ. Therefore I need not fear sinning anymore. But have you thought about these last two lines before? Have you ever thought that not only are your sins covered (so no need to fear when you fail to follow), but that your good deeds are now pleasing to God (since we're united to Christ)? The obedience of a Christian pleases God because Christ makes "even the worst of our works truly good." We've got all the motivation, and of course power, to live differently in this world than unbelievers. And freedom to not feel ashamed when we daily fall short. You can't beat the gospel message.

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