Theology 101

Are We Attempting to Earn Our Own Salvation with the Faith and Work Message?

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While I was speaking on faith and work at a conference, someone asked, “Aren’t you just talking about works righteousness?” 

I assured them I wasn’t, but I can see how it could’ve sounded that way.

I’m not the only one running into this problem. Several years ago Mark Roberts at The High Calling interviewed N. T. Wright, and  Wright talked about this works righteousness misunderstanding that is often voiced about the importance of our work:

What you do in the present matters. It’s hard for Protestants to hear that without thinking, “Oh, dear, this is good works again.” That’s a scare tactic. Sometimes, it’s a political scare tactic – to stop Christians from actively working to change the way the world is, confronting justice, and building communities of peace and hope instead of ones of violence and hatred.

How can we talk about the faith and work message in a way that doesn’t promote works righteousness?

What is Works Righteousness?

Works righteousness is a form of self-righteousness that believes that our salvation can be earned and/or sustained by doing good works. It says we can make ourselves righteous before God by our obedience.

This is epitomized in the New Testament by the Pharisees for whom Jesus reserved his harshest criticism, calling them whitewashed tombs and hypocrites.

The Bible makes it clear that salvation comes through unmerited grace. It does not come because of our works, but because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

In an attempt to avoid the dangers of works righteousness, many evangelicals go to the other extreme, something theologians call antinomianism.  This doctrine argues that if God forgives sins, what is the disadvantage in sinning, or the reward of obedience? If obedience to God’s laws does not save me, it’s just not that important.

I call this the “bus ticket to heaven syndrome”: my salvation is my ticket to heaven, and what I do here while I wait for the bus, good or bad, doesn’t matter.

The Gospel of Grace

Neither works righteousness nor antinomianism represent the gospel of grace taught in the Bible.

Tim Keller explains the difference between these views in this way:

Religion says, “I obey – therefore I’m accepted.”  The Gospel says, “I’m accepted – therefore I obey.”

Our obedience to God is critically important. It flows out of our love and gratitude toward God for what he has done on our behalf through Christ.

True Christianity has always maintained that faith necessarily expresses itself in action. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that while good works could not in any way merit salvation, they did prove the genuineness of the individual’s faith.

We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves us will never be alone. It will always be accompanied by good works.

These good works are not just what we do at church or acts of evangelism. They should encompass all the work we do, whether it is in our churches, our communities, our families, or our vocations.

Faith, Work, and Flourishing

Genuine faith necessarily produces good works, and those good works should bring about flourishing that glorifies God.

Those who have trusted in God are called to devote themselves to doing what is good. This work serves God and our neighbor and brings flourishing to God’s creation.

As the apostle Peter writes,

Whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever (1 Peter 4:11).

Let us work then, not to earn our salvation, but to serve others and contribute towards their well-being out of gratitude for the work of salvation Christ has done on our behalf.

On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Feb. 9, 2015.

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