repentance

Repentance From Dead Works: 3 – Don’t Forget Good Works Are Dead Works


Suggested Pre-Reading: Repentance From Dead Works 2


We have been looking at the concept of repenting from dead works.  First, we saw how some in the early church believed circumcision was a good work necessary for salvation – an idea that was put to rest by the apostles, who made it clear that faith in Christ’s death and resurrection was sufficient. Then, we saw how the apostles still supported the performance of good works by Christians. Although the works did not contribute to salvation, they were necessary by-products of salvation, since the power to perform good works comes from the Holy Spirit.

We will conclude our examination of repenting from dead works by reiterating the main point: good works are dead works. Over the course of the Christian life the temptation will arise, one way or another, to doubt the gospel and think that our works contribute to our righteous standing before God. Unlike the early church, we will not be tempted to add circumcision to the gospel, but we will be tempted to add something.  In our day various Christian individuals or groups have been tempted to add the following to the gospel:

  • Speaking in tongues.
  • Performing penance.
  • Observing the Jewish feasts.
  • Saying “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus”.
  • Believing in the five points of Calvinism.
  • Not believing in the five points of Calvinism.
  • Being baptized.
  • Only reading the 1611 King James Bible.
  • Participating in social justice.

Whenever the temptation to doubt the sufficiency of the cross of Christ arises, we can follow the example of our Lord, who when facing satanic temptation in the wilderness after forty days of fasting, responded with the truth of the Word of God.  The four passages below show without a doubt that good works are dead works, and that the gospel is truly a gift from God, not something we earn or contribute to in any way.

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Galatians 2: 21)

Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6: 28 – 29)

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7: 21 – 23)

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 9 – 14)

Let us not be considered lawless by God, by adding our dead works to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us be considered righteous through faith, by believing in Him (Jesus) whom He (God the Father) has sent.

Advertisements

Repentance From Dead Works: 2 – Good Works Are A Sign Of Repentance From Dead Works


Suggested Pre-reading: Repentance From Dead Works: 1


The Christian’s relationship to works is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, the Christian believes with fervor that works do nothing to contribute to salvation – all works are dead works. On the other hand, the Christian believes that good works are part of Christian living and a sign of true repentance. We see this paradox in the ruling of the Jerusalem council, which we just looked at in regards to the dead work of circumcision. The council advised circumcision is not necessary for salvation, yet in their ruling they included commands for converted Gentiles. The Gentiles were advised to abstain from

  • Things contaminated by idols
  • Fornication
  • What is strangled and from blood

The council was not substituting these three works for circumcision, implying that they were needed for salvation. Rather, the council, believing that the converted Gentiles were indeed recipients of a true and abiding faith in Christ, gave them direction as to how their faith in Christ should manifest in their cultural context. Specifically, they were advised to abstain from three sinful practices that were particularly tempting in their society.

What helps resolve the tension in the paradox of performing good works is understanding where the ability to perform good works comes from. It does not come from the Christian’s own intrinsic piety – it comes from the Holy Spirit. In the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the people to perform good works, and they had to do so by their own power and piety. Hence Israel’s repeated inability to obey God. But in the New Covenant community, made up of those who have been granted faith in Christ, God has indwelt them with His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables a Christian to perform good works and who frees the Christian from chronic enslavement to serious sins. Paul makes this evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he contrasts the deeds of those without the Spirit and the fruit of those with the Spirit:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5: 19 – 24)

The logic of Paul’s argument is quite simple. Because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a promise of the New Covenant, and because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is focused on promoting good works while reducing sins in the life of a believer, every Christian should see a reduction in the deeds of the flesh and an increase in the fruit of the Spirit, as their lives progress. Since the power to perform good works and be free from habitual sinful practices is a gift from the Holy Spirit, if a professing Christian is significantly lacking good works and significantly enslaved to deeds of the flesh, one may rightly question whether the Holy Spirit is indeed in them.

Now, in light of all of this, it must be said that using one’s works as a measurement of true salvation is complex and nuanced. It is not something to be done glibly, and there is no general formula that can be applied to everyone. It is highly contextual, and requires delicacy and gentleness. The misuse of this idea can result in extremely bad conclusions on both ends of the spectrum. One can look at their life and see their good works and believe they are saved because they are “doing things for God” and living holy lives. Or, one can look at their life and their struggle with sin, and believe that since good works are not increasing at the rate they would like, perhaps they do not have a real faith in Christ. In either scenario, the eye has been lifted off of the saving work of Jesus Christ and placed onto the works, or lack thereof, of an individual.

So we must remember we are using works as an imperfect diagnostic of faith. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that many who perform “good works” in the name of the Lord will be cast into hell, so we have direct proof the diagnostic is imperfect. But even though using works in diagnosing true repentance is difficult and imperfect, it is nevertheless a Scriptural doctrine. That is why James wrote so strongly about it, to the point of making it sound like works do contribute to salvation.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2: 14)

No, James is not implying that works contribute to saving faith and salvation. He is simply upholding the teaching that if a person is saved, and has in them the Holy Spirit of God, they will necessarily produce good works. A Christian, whom God has granted a normal length of life, should be able to look back on their life and see an increase in works.

For a concluding word on this topic, we turn to the New City Catechism, which explains the relationship between salvation and works quite well:

New City Catechism Q & A 32

Q: What do justification and sanctification mean?

A: Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.

Justification is a gift from God, and so is sanctification. Therefore, if we have one, we have the other. But if we do not have one, we do not have the other. That is the essence of what is meant by “good works are a sign of repentance from dead works”.

Repentance From Dead Works: 1 – Good Works Are Dead Works

In our study of the Eternal Judgment, we discussed how neither good works nor bad works contribute to our salvation.  A bad work condemns us.  A good work cannot erase the condemnation incurred.  Therefore, both are dead works.  But there is more to learn about the concept of a dead work. Specifically, there was a unique tension felt by the first Jewish Christians regarding this topic, and it is helpful to us to understand it, so that we do not repeat errors of the past.

For over a millennium, God’s people had as their rule of faith the Law of Moses. Within the Law were numerous divine commands, such as male circumcision and temple sacrifices.  When Christ came and inaugurated the New Covenant, circumcision and temple sacrifices were no longer needed.  But the Old Covenant mindset of some of the Jewish Christians did not change overnight, and there was tension caused by those who believed that the Law of Moses still had to be kept, if not in whole, then in part.  This issue was dealt with by the Jerusalem council.

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.  (Acts 15: 1 – 2)

These Jewish Christians wanted to take what was formerly a good work in the Mosaic Covenant and add it to the New Covenant.  In their mind the salvation equation was

Christ + Circumcision = Righteousness Before God

The Jerusalem council, specifically Peter and James, responded to the matter based on their authority as apostles of Jesus, and their intricate knowledge of His gospel.  Peter said:

But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.  (Acts 15: 11)

James said:

Brethren, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.  With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, “After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.”  Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.  (Acts 15: 13 – 20)

God does not require New Covenant members, Jew or Gentile, to circumcise their males for entry into the covenant.  This work, required as part of the Old Covenant, is no longer necessary. But it was hard for the early Jewish converts to let go of things that used to be good, evidenced not only by the need for a discussion in Jerusalem, but by a need for Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which also dealt directly with people who wanted to add circumcision to the gospel.

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.  Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.  You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.  For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.  (Galatians 5: 1 – 6)

Paul here reinforces the gospel-law binary.  Man is either saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, or by keeping the law alone.  Man cannot be saved through a combination of faith in Christ and performing circumcision.  Circumcision is but one tenet of the Mosaic Law, and if one wanted to add circumcision to the gospel, Paul argued one would necessarily have to add the entire law to the gospel.  But if the law is added to the gospel, it is no longer the gospel.

We should always keep in mind the ruling of the Jerusalem council and the words of Paul to Galatia. Although we may not be tempted to add Old Covenant rites like circumcision to the gospel, we undoubtedly, whether personally in our own hearts or in the church through formal teaching, are tempted to add “good” works to the gospel. We must stand strong and resist the temptation, for as we discussed in the examination of the Eternal Judgment, as well as here and now, good works are dead works.  And if a good work is a dead work, it saves no one. And if it does not have the power to save, it cannot be the gospel of Jesus Christ.