Works in the Christian life is a topic most are familiar with. I want to look at one important misconception of works. Often it is taught that salvation is by grace, through faith, plus works. Yet the Bible says if we seek grace by works, it is no longer grace. Also consider Romans 9:31-32
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
Israel pursued the righteousness of God by trying to keep commandments, yet they missed the grace of God. In fact, grace became a stumbling stone that caused them to fall. In Galatians, the Church attempted to please God by keeping the ordinance of circumcision, thinking their works would please God, yet they were told, “You have fallen from grace.” The problem was that they shifted their focus from faith in Christ, to needing to do something extra by their own efforts.
It is true that God does not save us so we can live contrary to his will, but we also must realize that those who belong to Christ will be judged by their works. Not judged for their salvation, but for their reward. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:11-15
11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
13 each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is.
14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Even those without works will be saved, but there is no reward. This is why the Bible warns us not to fall into the trap of Esau, who sold his inheritance for a bowl of stew. Esau had a birthright and would have inherited a lifetime of benefits, but he despised his inheritance and chose to give it up for a moment of gratification. We make the same decision in our daily Christian walk. We can sell our inheritance for a moment of gratification in this life, or we can sacrifice the cravings of our flesh and reach for the promise.
Works do not justify man. Works cannot justify man. God has declared that he will not allow any flesh to glory in his presence. Anything you do for God is wood, hay, and straw. Jesus said that the flesh cannot produce the things of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, that which is born of Spirit is spirit. That means, by human effort, we can never please God. The same principle that applies to the world trying to merit salvation also applies to the Christian trying to merit rewards.
Fruitless works are what we do for God; precious works are what God produces in us. Look at the words of Jesus in John 15:4-5
4 "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.
5 "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
7 "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.
8 "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
Jesus explained that one day men will stand before him and declare all the good works they have done in his name, yet he will declare their works to be lawlessness. How can we do good in the name of Jesus and have it be a lawless act? The reason is that man cannot bear fruit of himself. The Spirit bears fruit and this will only happen if we are abiding in Christ and his words are abiding in us. Even our asking is for the purpose of glorifying God and bearing fruit to him. If you treasure his word in you, so you abide in Christ, fruit is a product of a healthy relationship with him. Also consider this foundational passage in Ephesians 2:8-10
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Works are not something we do for God; it is the work of God that we walk in once we understand faith. The problem is that many Christians are putting works ahead of faith instead of the other way around. Works cannot produce faith. Faith is a gift of God. Works cannot merit grace, for then grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6). Your works can never merit anything of God, for then we would have something to boast of. Our efforts would have earned favor, and then we could glory in God’s presence, and 1 Corinthians 1:29 says that God will not allow this. In the passage above, we see the same thing explained. Works cannot merit grace, because it is a gift. We can never boast about the Lord’s blessings or favor in our lives, for his grace is always a gift.
Only after we have received unmerited grace do we see works mentioned. Even then, it is not our work. We are God’s workmanship, created for good works that God prepared before hand that we should walk in them. Does it say, “Find something to do for God?” Does the Bible say, “Get busy for God?” No, works have been prepared by God beforehand, and all we must do is walk in them through our abiding fellowship in Christ.
Another example of this is found in Hebrews 4. The Bible explains how Israel could not enter the rest God prepared for them because of their unbelief, and then scripture says something interesting about works. Look at Hebrews 4:
3 For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: "So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest,' " although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
This is the same principle found in Ephesians above. The works of God were finished before the world was founded. We are not doing anything for God that he has not already established within his own foreknowledge and plan. I have several children. Each of them delighted in doing things for their daddy. Their assistance was never needed, in fact, their help was a hindrance. When a three year old helps their father, they think they are doing something big. For them it is a mighty effort and a big task. They would falter in their efforts and then say, “I helped daddy.”
They could not see that I was guiding them in the work, preventing them from doing irreparable harm, and patching up their futile efforts. One of my young daughters helped me replant strawberries early this spring. She put forth her best effort, but left the roots showing, dug the holes too shallow, and watered too little. As we worked, I deepened the holes, covered the roots, and made sure it was watered. Unbeknownst to her, I continued to sustain the plants long after she finished her work. The other day we were looking at the blooming strawberry plants, some with twenty or more budding strawberries. They are producing much fruit. She looked at one of the productive plants and said, “That’s one that I planted!”
She saw the fruit of her labors, knew she helped her father, but has no idea that if I left her work to her efforts, the plant would be struggling or even dead. So why do I let a three and four year old child work with me in the garden? I can be more productive without them. The work would be fast, efficient, and productive. I bring my children into my work because I love them. I want to have fellowship with my kids, and their role in the work serves no other purpose than for them to know the joy of enjoying the experience with me. They look at the garden, eat the fruit of the work, and are satisfied with both the relationship of working with Dad, and knowing that they were part of the work.
Do we, as mortal men and women, think we can do anything for God that he cannot do for himself? He created the world, stars, universe and all that is within it. God created life and sustains all things by the word of his power(Hebrews 1:3). And he accomplished this without our help. Yet, he calls us into the work, knowing that we will dig too shallow, goof things up, and leave messes for our heavenly father to clean up. Why does God do it? It is for one thing, and one thing only. Love – agape.
God calls us to walk in his works, which he prepared before hand and has already finished, so that we can share in his fellowship and enjoy the fruit produced through his hand. It is the work of God that he desires to share with us because he loves us. We see the fruit he is producing, and he gives us the benefits that in truth we don’t deserve. Like my children sitting at the table and saying, “I helped grow this,” God invites us to the table of his fellowship and allows us to enjoy the fruit of a life in Christ. The fruit of our life is a gift of love, not a merit from our labor.
Paul said it best when he said that he was called to preach the gospel. “If I do this willingly, I have a reward. But if unwillingly, I still have the dispensation of the gospel given to me.” In other words, obedience is necessary in order to remain in fellowship with God, but the reward is not for the labor, but our heart of willingness. We are willing because we act out of love for our God. The work is already finished. We are just called to walk in it. If we pout and grumble, we have no reward. If we refuse to work, God will chastise us. If we are never chastised, the Bible warns that we may not be children of God at all. But if we serve willingly, because we are making God our first love and walking in fellowship with him, he rewards us. Look at Hebrews 11:6
6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
The reward is not in the labor, but in a heart that believes the Lord and seeks him diligently. It is a child who says to her father, “I want to go with you,” and is then willing to be led, and does so by taking joy in the fellowship with her father. My three year old has no fear of fouling up the work, because her focus is on the fellowship. Those who are fearful of the work have missed the point. They are focused on their abilities rather than God’s completed work. It is completed within his plan, but we are walking in it as we journey to that final day of completion, which God has already foreordained.
Also, those who serve God out of fear are missing the joy of fellowship. If I am only serving out of fear, I am not working out of love. Like Paul, who said (to paraphrase), “I have a reward if I do this willingly, but if unwilling, I am only fulfilling my required duties,” I am missing the reward. The reward is in the joy of fellowship. God has called me to enter the fellowship of love within himself, and I am missing the greatest gift if I am only looking at labor as an escape from fear and not looking at the joy of walking in God’s will. It is not my salvation that is at stake, it is the joy of fellowship I am striving to obtain. Look at 1 John 4:17-19
17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
19 We love Him because He first loved us.
Any who serve God out of fear, has not been perfected by love. So works must begin with a heart of love. Working to appease is worthless and has no merit. Working to appease is a failure to realize that our labors are not to accomplish God’s will, but to join him in his labors, and experience the unmerited reward of his fruitful work. God wants to give us what we don’t deserve, and produce fruit that our labors cannot accomplish. It is all rooted in the love of God. The fruit will be produced, with or without your help. The finished work was built into creation and will be accomplished. The labor is God’s love, offered to you, so you can share in the rewards of what God is producing. It is unmerited, undeserved, pure love. It is God’s gift to you, not your gift to him. God calls you to walk in the works he established before the world began so you can share in the fruit that will be produced by his hand.
To read more on this topic, go to http://exchangedlifediscipleship.blogspot.com and read the five part topic, The Love of God that Overcomes Condemnation.