Good works and 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 and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38 (NASB) 
When I was a young man and even prior to that when I was a teenager before God had mercy on me, 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.

To make matters more confusing there are some bad teaching about the following two passages.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (NASB) 

8 Τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον· 9 οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων, ἵνα μή τις καυχήσηται. 10 αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα, κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς οἷς προητοίμασεν ὁ θεός, ἵνα ἐν αὐτοῖς περιπατήσωμεν. Ephesians 2:8-10 (NA28)

8 For you have been saved by grace through faith and this is not of yoursleves, it is God’s gift; 9 not of works lest any should boast. 10 For we are His masterpiece, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God previously prepared that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)

and:

14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18 (NASB) 

14 Τί τὸ ὄφελος, ἀδελφοί μου, ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ; μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν; 15 ἐὰν ἀδελφὸς ἢ ἀδελφὴ γυμνοὶ ὑπάρχωσιν καὶ λειπόμενοι ὦσιν τῆς ἐφημέρου τροφῆς 16 εἴπῃ δέ τις αὐτοῖς ἐξ ὑμῶν· ὑπάγετε ἐν εἰρήνῃ, θερμαίνεσθε καὶ χορτάζεσθε, μὴ δῶτε δὲ αὐτοῖς τὰ ἐπιτήδεια τοῦ σώματος, τί τὸ ὄφελος; 17 οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις, ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα, νεκρά ἐστιν καθʼ ἑαυτήν.
18 Ἀλλʼ ἐρεῖ τις· σὺ πίστιν ἔχεις, κἀγὼ ἔργα ἔχω· δεῖξόν μοι τὴν πίστιν σου χωρὶς τῶν ἔργων, κἀγώ σοι δείξω ἐκ τῶν ἔργων μου τὴν πίστιν . James 2:14-18 (NA28)

14 What is the profit, my brothers, if anyone says he has faith, but he he has no works? Is this faith able to save him? 15 If a brother or sister is living unclothed and lacking daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and fed,” and yet you do not give to them the needful things for the body, what is the profit? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works, show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith from my works.” James 2:14-18 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)

Let’s start with Ephesians 2:8-10.  I use this passage quite a bit to get Arminians to see that their claim of their salvation by their free will and choice is not Biblical.  However, carefully read v10. What works are these? These are the works designed specifically for you by God that you should walk in them, but they also include works that all genuine Christians do walk in more and more as the mature in Christ as we see in Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Peter 1:1-11. We learn to be living sacrfices walking within the Lordship of Christ, submitting our lives to Christ in all parts of our lives, maturing unto Christlikeness with a personal holiness that is both uniquely ours and God’s workmanship.

With that in mind, let us look at James 2:14-18. James is saying what? Genuine Christians will do good works. Genuine Christians will not ignore those in need. Genuine Christians will do the same sort of good works that Jesus did. Do these good works save us? James is not saying that. James is not saying that these good works have anything to do with our sanctification either. No, he is saying that genuine Christians will do good works and this has nothing to do with works righteousness.

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. Do not 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 I 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.

Soli Deo Gloria