Good Works vs. Works Righteousness

by Mike Ratliff

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 ESV)

When I was a young man and even prior to that when I was a teenager, I was quite religious. I went to church with my family and tried to emulate what I saw my parents do in their devotion. I tried to reach a point in my own devotion where I could be fulfilled, wanting to serve God with the joy and fervor I saw in other believers. However, I just could not do it. I found myself bored in church. I found no inner drive to read my Bible. I had no desire to have a consistent devotion to God because there were so many other things in my life that were more important to me than that. I was tormented by the fact that I could not behave consistently “Christian.” I had no self-control in certain situations. Then I would visit my family and attend church with them on Sunday full of remorse and guilt. I would exit the service determined to do good works and not sin anymore. I look back on that time now and almost laugh except it was a horrible conflict in my life at that time. I was convinced that being a Christian consisted of doing Christian things. In that unregenerate mind, a Christian was a Christian because they did those things. That, of course, is what works righteousness is.

Look at the passage I placed at the top of this post. It describes a woman named Anna whom Mary and Joseph encountered at the Temple when they brought the infant Jesus to be presented for purification according to the Law of Moses. (Luke 2:22) Look at her devotion! Look at her dedication! Isn’t that someone we can emulate? She never departed from the temple, worshipping and fasting and prayer night and day. Watch out! If we have in our hearts the idea that all we have to do is fast and pray and emulate other Christians who are very devoted to God then we will attain a higher level of spirituality then we have fallen into the snare of works righteousness.

Anna did what she did because of her place in the Kingdom of God. She was a new creation. She was a regenerate believer who walked closely with her Lord. Because of this she did good works. The relationship did not develop because of her good works. Those who make the mistake of seeking God through their works will either end up very religious, but in a dead spiritual state, or totally burned out on “Christianity.” This makes sense because God isn’t going to place His hand on anyone who is trying to work their way to Him. Our salvation is His work not ours.

I often counsel people who are despondent or depressed or “empty” in their walk to quit trying to be religious and, instead, simply seek God through prayer and His word while seeking to be obedient to Him in all areas of their lives. In other words, submit to His Lordship. Give Him all of self. Love Him with your entire being. Don’t worry about outward manifestations of religion. Pray through the Word of God and obey what He shows you. This is the very thing I do when find that God has me in a place where my sense of peace is waning. Religion or religious works do not cut it. In fact, all they do is bring further frustration when I am in this state. We must never forget that good works are the fruit of a regenerate heart. It is never the other way around.

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6 thoughts on “Good Works vs. Works Righteousness

  1. How much we, in our flesh, want to do something so we can get somewhere with God. As hard as it is to learn and relearn in deeper ways that we, in our flesh, can do nothing to please God or to bring about closeness or peace. It is all of HIM. And at the same time… what a comfort to know that it is all of Him and He is faithful and He will accomplish His work in His children. Praise Him.

  2. Is it just possible that Anna was faithful in her calling through many uneventful years? Then the fruit of faithfulness blossoms in a single glorious God given opportunity to praise God in the presence of God the Son. Let it not be lost that the Scriptures note that she “served God with fastings and prayers night and day”. And that ministry is much weightier than being the greatest Greek scholar in history.

    Additionally, Anna, like some of us, did not possess the usual ecclesiastical pedigree as she was of the tribe of Asher. It gives hope to someone like me who has no long list of letters after my name. It seems that God has again chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise and insure that all the glory is His.

  3. Hey Mike,

    Amen brother, but, darn that’s so hard to accept isn’t it? On one hand, we are called to pursue holiness and godliness and to guard ourselves against falling short but on the other hand we know that we are always going to be effected by our old nature. Sanctification is a lifelong and often slow process. Is Sin wrong, offensive, harmful and deadly? Does it hurt our witness, effect our relationships and friendships? Should we be focused on identifying sin and fighting against it? Yes, sin should be taken seriously. But Gods Word tells us that no matter how hard we try, we are not able to lead perfect lives. We are weak and fallible. Should our focus be on obeying the law perfectly? No, we can not do that. Should our focus be on loving each other, being forgiving, understanding, thoughtful, kind, joyful, peaceful, patience, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled? Yes, I believe that when we shift our focus on total law abiding perfectionism to that of being a loving servant to each other, we can free ourselves of a works/legalistic faith to more of a Christlike/gospel oriented faith. It is important for us to be mindful of guarding ourselves against sin, but we need to accept that we are still sinners who are surrounded by other sinners.

    Let us forgive, love and encourage each other and know that it’s not about our works, but the work that Christ has done for us on the Cross.

    Y.B.I.C,

    Dave.

  4. Rick,

    Yes, we are called to be faithful, not famous or well known or out front leading the attack. We should never pursue those things. God will use us according to His will in His timing. Yes, Anna was probably a very obscure lady whom God used in His perfect timing. Amen!

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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