I was talking to a friend today, one who does not yet know Jesus, and is searching. He said he likes to do good. When he does, he feels the positive energy, the rightness, and he can see how that energy pushes him in good ways. His activity in life is toward increasing this positive feedback loop. He might even call this salvation.
This approach is headed in the wrong direction. Christianity is aimed directly at our failure at this feedback loop. We don’t slowly respond to positive energy. We fail. We don’t do what’s right, we have to trust in Christ. There’s no merit in our work because we constantly fail at doing good. Our best deeds are tainted. So we are forced to trust in another, in the imputation of a perfect righteousness and the grant of a right and title to the heavenly inheritance entirely separate from our good deeds (full disclosure: I paraphrased the latter part of this sentence from John Owen). Yes, I am talking about the work of Jesus, which was very meritorious. For me and for you, if we trust him.
Your works do not save you. Contrary to some evangelical thinking, they don’t get you into heaven. They don’t even provide sure assurance. You can fake works, like you can lie with your mouth. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of Matthew 7, where people say they’ve done mighty works in Jesus name, and he says he never knew them?
But this aversion to meritorious work leads some to question whether we should want good works at all. Perhaps this is sometimes a result of the inherent dangers of slipping back into comparison and merit; after all, we do long for ourselves to be lifted up, for our good side to be seen, and for our own selves (or, if you are a parent, for our children or grandchildren) to be viewed as accomplished and successful.
So is there no place to long for good works?
Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: yes, yes, YES!
You do realize, believer, that you are now a child of God. And that you have the Holy Spirit. And Jesus intercedes for you all the time. And so you are used, by God, for his purposes and in his body. That doesn’t just mean to avoid sinful stuff (which you should, it is bad for you). It also means that you bear fruit. You do good works. Really good, because it is Christ in you doing it. The Bible points to responses to the gospel, a working out of what has become your identity. Loving one another. Laying down your life for one another. Lifting each other up. Talking with people about Jesus.
Our assurance is in Jesus’ promises. But seeing our response to the gospel worked out in our own lives is encouraging and helpful. Our fruit, our good works, are simply a response to Jesus’ work. I think we are encouraged to respond and to rejoice in good, non-meritorious works. Think Ephesians 2:10 or Titus 3:14.
Let me bring up an oft-mentioned Gospel-response (good work!) in the Pauline epistles: unity. You bear the fruit of unity. That means that even though your neighbor in the pew doesn’t have it all together, doesn’t act in ways that you like and smells faintly of garlic (or worse), you consider yourself one in Christ with them. Even when you don’t doctrinally totally agree, and even though they sing off-key and raise their hands, you see your essential connection to them. You are in one body, one family in Jesus. That heart attitude is a direct response to the gospel. It will lead to actions that you wouldn’t take otherwise. You might actually talk to them and have them into your home and pray for them. Welcome to good works, friend.
So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to respond to the gospel with love. Don’t be afraid to get excited about what Jesus has done for you – and what it means for the daily living that you do. There is no merit to your work, Jesus is everything. But that doesn’t mean you do nothing. That means you get to respond. Not with a checklist, but with a heart that is alive. And a spirit that is willing.
Consider this encouragement. Yep, that’s right. Encouragement, in the gospel, to love and good deeds.
Just remember: your identity is sure, no matter what. If work sounds too meritorious to your ear, use fruit instead. But realize you’re talking about stuff you do. Which comes out of who you are. In response to the gospel. Because of all Jesus has done for you. And have a blast. Love someone today. You get to!