Grace Extending


Recognizing & Avoiding Distortions of God's Grace

Though positive examples abound throughout church history, over the centuries, Christians have also (and often) struggled with the biblical concept of "good works". And that idea is very common in Scripture, with the phrase "good work/works" appearing over twenty times in the New Testament*. While these struggles persist in today's churches, their origins go right back to the earliest days of the faith. This is abundantly clear from the New Testament's letters to those first church communities. To understand these not-so-good pitfalls regarding "good works", let's look at Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus. Consider three pitfalls related to Paul's teaching in Ephesians: 

First, some struggled with depending on good works. After reminding his readers that their condition of spiritual death was only remedied by God's loving intervention (2:1-5), Paul wants to be crystal clear that the spiritual rescue they've experienced is only the result of God's grace; that "this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Whether they were tempted to believe, like the Galatians, that strict adherence to the Law of Moses could result in some kind of earned righteousness, or they brought the very same (but more subtle) mindset to the Gospels (i.e., in terms of obeying the instructions of Jesus), the Apostle is committed to correcting this dangerous way of thinking about our good works.  

Second, some struggled with discarding good works. In addition to calling his readers to "not grow weary in doing good" (2 Thessalonians 3:13; Galatians 6:9-10), Paul also stressed the importance of good work in his letter to Titus, urging his ministry associate to urge God's people to be "ready" (3:1), "zealous" (2:14), and "devote[d]" (3:8, 14) to good works. What Paul seems to be addressing in some of these passages is yet another distortion of grace. While some moved good works too close to salvation, claiming new life was the result of our efforts, some were equally guilty of moving good works too far from salvation, missing how our deliverance in Jesus should result in fruitfulness for Jesus. Returning to Ephesians, it shouldn't be surprising to find the Apostle guarding against this equally destructive distortion by describing the place of good works in the Christian life immediately after his emphasis on salvation by grace, "not a result of works" (2:9). He writes in verse 10: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10) 

Third, some struggled with defining good works. Maybe it's just me, but for some reason I tend to think that a very popular example of a good work is that image of someone (perhaps, a Boy Scout?) helping an old lady across the street. I'm not sure where that image comes from, but I'm guessing that depending on your age and the culture in which you were raised, other depictions of "good works" pop into your mind when you hear those two words. If the Ephesian disciples were unsure what Paul meant by "good works", the second half of his letter is full of examples of godly living, starting in the home (5:22-6:4), then moving to the church (4:1-3), and then into their wider, everyday world (5:15-18). But when Paul uses this same word "work" again in his letter, we find it in 4:12, where he writes about "the work of ministry". In case some were tempted to focus on their their own personal works of righteousness, within the sphere of their private, spiritual experience, Paul emphasizes in 4:11-16 that all of the "saints" are being "equip[ped]" (v. 11) for the work of "building up the body of Christ" in love (v. 12). What does this good work look like? It looks like (or sounds like) "speaking the truth in love" to others (v. 15). 

In light of verses like these, stop and ask yourself, "To which of these pitfalls am I most susceptible? Which one is hardest for me to spot on the path ahead of me? In which of these might I be stuck even now?" Maybe you tend to lean into how much you're doing for God, how you're putting a smile on his face, and are resting more in your spiritual performance, rather than on the finished work of Christ. Or maybe in the name of 'right doctrine' you tend to downplay calls to zealous and costly ministry efforts, maybe labelling such things as dangerous attempts to place "doing" over "being", unusually suspicious of the specter of works-righteousness. Or could it be that your definition of "good works", the one in which you rest assured of your faithfulness, is shaped not by what is costly, but more by what is convenient for you; not by the glorious vision we have in Scripture of "the work of ministry" to which every disciple of Christ has been called? As we consider these Scriptures (and the references below), may God give us both insight into our own hearts, and zeal for the kingdom work that Jesus himself began... and into which He beckons us to follow. 

* New Testament references to "good works": Matthew 5:16; John 10:32; 10:33; Acts 9:36; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 1:6; Colossians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10; 5:25; 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:21; 3:17; Titus 1:16; 2:7; 2:14; 3:1; 3:8; 3:14; Hebrews 10:24.


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