Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good works

The first and highest, the most precious of all good works is faith in Christ, as He says, John vi. When the Jews asked Him: "What shall we do that we may work the works of God?" He answered: "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent." When we hear or preach this word, we hasten over it and deem it a very little thing and easy to do, whereas we ought here to pause a long time and to ponder it well. For in this work all good works must be done and receive from it the inflow of their goodness, like a loan. This we must put bluntly, that men may understand it.

- 'A Treatise on Good Works' by Martin Luther


Ben said...

Oddly, I feel like we've gone to the other extreme now. Or maybe a perversion of what Luther intended. It's practically become a cliche to criticize the variant of Christianity I grew up....but it's nevertheless true. In that form of Christianity salvation is essentially a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Then you should just sorta muddle along until you die and then go to heaven. Also, vote Republican.

What I've been learning more about is what happens AFTER the conversion, which is profound and absolutely vital, but only the starting point. Luther's right that faith is profound and difficult and (if I'm reading him right) that the God whom we can reach only by faith is the source from which all good works flow. We're too fallen to do it on our own. But the other part to it - the part that is missed by people who want to focus on "believe get converted and that's it" - is that after the conversion there's a lifetime of sancitfication...becoming more and more the people God made us to be. And beyond us individually, there's community. There's the work God's called us to do here and now in the very present and current Kingdom of God. The work of love and peace and renewal and redemption and justice and reconciling this world to its Creator.

In all our searching for a way to express what the Gospel is, I've been learning more about this "after the conversion" part. It's the Gospel, too. And it's awesome.

Note: this is not really a criticism of you or Luther. It's just the thoughts your post inspired.

kennyching said...

I have a mixed reaction to your comment, Ben.

First, I'll agree to the principle that if your salvation is not accompanied by good works, then there's reason to be concerned.

But, second, my perspective is that we're fully into the overreaction to the Get Out of Hell Free Christianity. In my generation, I'm seeing a heavy emphasis on works and phrases like you used: "conversion is only the starting point." Depending on precisely what you mean by this, I take varying degrees of exception.

It's a longer discussion, but to keep it as short as possible, I'll say this: I do not think conversion is only the starting point, but, instead, is the whole Gospel. When people lack good works, Paul (see Romans 6) sounds genuinely surprised, as if he expects that by their converted nature good works should be the natural outflow. So, it currently seems to me that the focus of the Christian should be to fully understand his "conversion," that is his salvation, reconciliation with God, all that happened through Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Then, the result should be a "divine" life. And I'm concerned to the extent Christians are currently saying "do good works; do good works; you've been so bad, you White Western Christians; do good works," it's teetering toward the problem in Galations, that is, at a practical level, requiring something more of the Christian than faith in Christ.

But, I will round this out by saying that its the biblical expectation that real faith in Christ will result in real good works.

Ben said...

You're missing my point.

1. After conversion, there's the whole process of Sanctification. "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Phil. 1:6 It's not just a one time thing. I mean, there IS the one-time thing, conversion. And that is salvation. But salvation for what? For communion with God. For a lifelong transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit. As that Philippians verse shows, it's a process. God began the good work in us and He's carrying it on and He will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus. I recommend John Stott's commentary on the Book of Romans to get a good overview of all that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross has done for us.

2. And then, yes, there's good works. Not as a prerequisite or a requirement of salvation. But it's there. It's important. It's not to be neglected. It's not a matter of shame as you describe it, but a matter of gratitude....and freedom. Freed from our bondage to sin, we are free to be the people God made us to be. Free to do good. This is basic orthodox Christian doctrine.

3. And then there's the fact that it's not all about us. God has saved us out of His love for us and for His glory. God has an overarching plan and a plan for each of our lives. The point of good works isn't winning points in heaven or earning your salvation. It's obedience and submission to God's plan....his Kingdom. It's the great joy and privilege of having a life with meaning....a place in His plan.

Okay, now I'm rambling and I'm not sure I'm really making my point. Let me just conclude with an anecdote. Back in college I was active in Campus Crusade for Christ. At one meeting, a student I didn't know told me that he had just accepted Christ the day before. "That's great!," I told him. "I'm so happy for you!" And then I realized I had nothing else for him. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't know what's next. Our conversation was very brief and awkward.

That "what's next" is what so fascinates me these days. I feel like I'm discovering for the first time a vast, rich new landscape. I'm starting to see this landscape for real when I'd only seen pictures of it before. This landscape isn't "you should do good now that you're a Christian." It's sanctification...communion with God...the whole Christian Life. I think that's part of the Gospel, too. It's "what we are saved for."

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

What the two of you are discussing is fully explored and resolved in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Essentially a paradox, as many aspects of Christ-centered life are, it is our inability or our unwillingness to accept the paradox and "just follow Jesus" that dichotomizes us and has split the visible Church into all its segments. There are many sets of apparent opposites in Christian concepts that are acceptable paradoxes, though there are even more sets of opposites that are not acceptable paradoxes. This is where scriptural maturity and discernment come to the rescue.

I just left a comment on another blog that addresses this in a general way. Take a look if interested.(

You know, I think we've had this discussion before.

kennyching said...

I don't think I'm missing your point, Ben; although, blog format may cause me to truncate my comments so that it feels to you that I have.

Let me first point out our central front of agreement, which may also suggest we're just missing each other's points based on semantics: my early experience of Christianity, similarly to yours, left me with a very two dimensional concept of what the Gospel was. And I also had that experience of thinking, 'okay, we're "saved," so now what?' And, I think it's an important thing to be discovering an increasingly richer understanding of the Gospel.

Now to where I'm not sure we're on the same page. I agree that sanctification is the "next step" after what you're describing as "conversion." However, the central point I'm trying to get at through the Luther quote is 'how does sanctification occur?'

For along time I lived and acted as if sanctification was by my works: God had saved me, even for good works, and now it was my job to do those good works.

But now my view (which I've gotten from Reformers who are much like Stott, I think) is that sanctification happens just as "conversion" (justification) happens: by faith.

My favorite verse on this is 2 Cor. 3:4-6, where Paul describes his ministry as fully coming from God in every aspect. But even the verse you cited, Ben, "he will carry on the good work he started in you until the day of completion" carries the same point: the active agent is God.

So I agree that sanctification is the right place for the "saved" Christian to be; but an important question remains: does sanctification happen by works or by faith?

My understanding is that works are always secondary; they are like symptoms; whenever they happen appropriately, they're happening as a result of our faith and God's acting in us. And correspondingly there is a danger is focusing on just works, even at the sanctification stage, because there is a danger of thinking any aspect of our sanctification relies on our own effort (if we succeed, we'll be proud; if we fail, we'll feel guilt).

All that said, there's clearly a mysterious paradox. Even conversion will involve us, at least, "confessing with our mouths and believing with our hearts," and so in that way there is a "work" we do. But, what I'm trying to accomplish is keeping my focus on grace through faith in God in all aspects of our Christianity.

For me, the learning about a deeper view of salvation has had to do with an increasing understanding of what happened at "conversion," which then should naturally flow into a sanctified life.

Ben said...

Actually, I agree with everything you just said in your most recent comment, Kenny. So maybe it is a matter of semantics. I'm excited by good works, because I see them as God working through us in concrete ways and I love being God's instrument in this world. But I agree that they are secondary. That they must flow from faith...or to put it better, from a changed heart that only God can change. And the good works are only good (and, to use a play on words, they only work) when that changed heart is following God's leading & God's prompting.

So, actually, I think maybe we are on the same page after all.

Romanos - Bonhoeffer's a deep guy from what I've read, so I actually have no doubt that he got a lot of this stuff. Someday I may have to pick up some Bonhoeffer again, once I'm mature enough to work through it. Even when I last read him, I remember picking up a nugget here and there. PLUS the guy's life and courage give his words added....what? Emphasis? Authority? Something like that.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...


In my twenty-somethings I first read Bonhoeffer. I knew it was true but too hard, and that most of the Christians I knew would laugh at me or ridicule me to scorn if I even tried to accept and practice what he wrote about following the call of Jesus.

Now, it's not a matter of trying anymore. I'm not afraid of living the faith that Bonhoeffer wrote about. I often fail, I'm sure, but I don't have time to notice, I just keep pressing on.

But I have found out, for sure, that the Truth hurts the human in me, the "old man", and in fact it is going to completely kill it. And what I come out as at the other end, only God knows.

But everything I know about God boils down to one idea: He is good.

That's why I'm not afraid anymore.