More about the Christian life

Faith and Works

Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your reasonable act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
—Romans 12:1-8, NIV

Notice that for Paul, what makes you a Christian is not just the commitment of your heart and mind, it is your daily conduct as well. The Christian walk (as described in this passage) begins with the renewing of the mind, but it does not stop with enduing us with wisdom and knowledge. It spreads throughout our lives to affect every aspect of our being.

Occasionally when I stress the need for Christians to “bear fruit in accordance with repentance” as the New Testament puts it, a few people remind me that we are saved by faith and not by works. They are, of course, quite right. But there are two places in which works can enter into the equation: First, we as sinners could attempt to do enough good works to merit God’s salvation, which is impossible because we begin in the hole and cannot ever work our way to a positive balance. If you’ve ever been unemployed for a length of time, you know that looking for a job is a full-time job in itself. There is a lot of work involved, enough to fill your week and more besides. But no matter how hard you work, if you do not have an employer, it doesn’t pay. You simply cannot work hard enough to earn any money at all if you don’t have a job.

So you cannot save yourself by your works, anymore than the unemployed can conjure up a paycheck by their diligent work to find a position. I have never heard of a personnel officer telling an applicant, “Well, you’ve put out fifty-six resumes, you’ve gone on twenty-three job interviews, while you were being interviewed by six of the companies, you participated in some of their activities, so in payment for this diligent work, we will hire you!” When you are finally hired, it is not because they esteem your work in searching for employment, you are hired because you develop a trusting relationship with your prospective employer.

We are saved by our faith, or to put it in my present analogy, we are saved when Jesus hires us. It is only then that all our diligence and hard work can begin to pay off! Good works cannot save you without Jesus any more than hard work gives you a paycheck when you don’t have an employer. Nor can good works save the people who are already saved. That’s redundant.

Now let’s consider people who have already been saved by faith.

I have observed two workers, both employed by the same company. One comes in late, goofs off all day, serves on many committees, reads electronic mail, eats lunch, reads the newspaper, and goes home early. The other comes in early, throws himself into his work, makes lively and constructive contributions in meetings, eats lunch on the fly, takes breaks when needed to catch his breath, is helpful to coworkers, and produces really good quality stuff.

Both workers draw the same salary. Both have the same credit rating. Both have the same company benefits. Both have employee ID cards. But when the performance review is done in that department, which worker will receive the greater reward?

So I say you cannot be saved by works, you are saved by faith. But Jesus saves you for a purpose, and that is to be His servant. Servants do work, not in order to become servants (which they already are) but because they wish to please their masters.

In concert with today’s passage from Romans, I exhort you to allow the Spirit to transform your mind and move through your entire being to turn your talents and efforts to God’s purposes. I urge you to work very hard, not in order to convince God to save you (for He already has) but to make God glad that He already did!

The value of works depends on which side of salvation you stand. If you are not a servant of Christ, your works are in vain because you have no master to reward you. You cannot become a slave by working, you can only become a slave when you are purchased by a master. In this case, the Master purchases you to give you food and shelter and employment, and expects loyalty, love, and diligence in return. So if you are not a servant of Christ, your highest priority should be to become one. Your service avails you nothing if you have no master to please! If on the other hand you stand on the other side of salvation, if you have already become Jesus’ servant, you must work, because a barren tree that bears no fruit is of no use. You work because you know that your Master will reward faithful servants and because you are overwhelmed with gratitude for His mercy and grace in purchasing you and lifting you out of your former poverty.

It is true that works cannot save us. But those of us who are saved should be working to show ourselves grateful and worthy servants. Then He will entrust us with greater things on that Day when we all receive our performance reviews.

For guidance on what sort of works saved Christians should be engaged in, see the following passages: Matthew 25:1-46, 28:19-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, as well as the present passage. There are more, but I don’t want to spoil the fun of the chase!