One of the most difficult topics in terms of daily Christian life is the place of works. Are we supposed to do works? Are we to exclude works? Most of all, how does God respond to our works? A common conception these days is that man must do something to please God, lest they lose God’s favor. In this mindset, works are what we do to maintain our salvation and receive blessings from God.
The main issue with this mindset is that it becomes a bargaining with God: because we did A, God will do B. Asides from the fact that this turns salvation and worship into tit-for-tat, it almost makes it seem as if God owes us something. In fact, I recall watching Trinity Broadcasting Network and hearing as a host came very close to outright saying, “When we pray for something, we put God on the spot.” Rick Warren, during his lecture at the Desiring God conference earlier this year, continually worded his advice to young pastors along the lines of, “If you do this, God will do this for you.” Maybe about a year ago, I spoke to a woman who believed that because she tithed a full 10% every Sunday, God was faithful to her and had blessed her, and seemed to hint that if she stopped doing so then God would not be as faithful as He had been before.
Judging from these various examples, works salvation can be summed up in this manner: we do, so God must do as well. Some have even suggested that if we don’t do (that is, fail even a little in our obligations), we lose our salvation.
This line of thinking is, in fact, very unscriptural.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness [Romans 4:1-5; NASB]
Our justification before God is not because of something we do, as Paul emphasizes here. The one who does work does not receive a reward but what is simply due to them. That is, when we go to our job and do what our employers expect of us, our paycheck is not a gift but what we’re expecting to get for it. Our employers do not give us our paycheck because they love us unconditionally, but because we have offered our services and so they, by legal binding, must comply with the paycheck for which we worked. Unfortunately, this is how many Christians perceive their works to be: we go to church, we pray, we read the Bible so that at the end of our lifetime shift God will say, “OK, good job, here you go.” Rather, it is a gift given to us without any merit on our part other than faith.
Within scripture, a very different scheme is found, one which involves two key grammatical concepts: indicatives and imperatives. An indicative is precisely what it sounds to mean: it indicates something is or something has happened. An imperative often denotes a command; it means something that must happen. Many who remember my review of The Shack may recall that I pointed out that Christ’s command to repent in Matthew 4:17 was an imperative in the original Greek. It was not an indicative, where a person could freely decide if they want to repent or not with no consequences – rather, it was a command that demanded a response with consequences for the wrong decision.
In scripture, especially in the epistles where the plan of salvation has already been carried out and is now being seen in practice, a familiar pattern arises with these terms: indicative first, imperative second. To give one example, from Colossians 3:1:
(Indicative) Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ…
(Imperative) …keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Note the order: because you have been raised with Christ, you must keep seeking the things above. It does not say, “If you keep seeking the things above, you will be raised with Christ.” The believer justified by God has already been raised – the “seeking the things above” is simply a sign that they have been raised.
To again turn to Colossians 3, this time verses 12 and 13:
(Indicative) So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved…
(Imperative) …put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone…
(Indicative) …just as the Lord forgave you…
(Imperative) …so also should you.
Note again, in the first example from the verses, that we don’t put on a heart of compassion, etc., in the hopes of being chosen by God, but because we are the chosen of God. That is: because we are the chosen of God, we must put on a heart of compassion, etc. Note also the second example from these two verses, regarding forgiveness. The point made is this: Christians do not forgive to be forgiven, but we forgive because we have been forgiven. The Lord has already forgiven us the great debt we owed Him; we simply have no excuse to not forgive the lesser transgressions given by another.
Earlier we stated that works salvation is “we do, so God must do as well.” However, we can now see that the biblical definition of our relationship with God can best be summed up in this manner: God did, so we must do. This scriptural theology is very God-centered, not man-centered. It is not dependent upon us and what we do, but on God from whom all our faith and love is given.