Real faith works — why the grace vs. works debate is bogus

I was raised with a theological presumption that living by grace and living by works were two contrary approaches to faith. According to our take on things, there were the rule-bound, Law-following, works-based people (like Catholics) who believed religion would save them. And there were the relationally rich, Gospel-soaked, grace-based people (like us) who believed Jesus alone had saved them.

It was a false dichotomy that both divided the body of Christ and gave an unhealthy view of discipleship, the act of following Jesus.

Ironically, it is Ephesians 2 that my grace-alone teachers turned to in order to support their grace-over-works approach to the Christian life. There, they correctly quoted, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, emphasis added). These were words I memorized early in life.

Strangely, my teachers left off the next verse: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

Why would anyone focus on two verses that precede the key transitional word “for”? That Greek word gar (“for”) carries the sense that everything which has been written to that point is leading up to what’s next. The whole point of what precedes is to get us to what follows: doing good works.

We are God’s handiwork. He’s been working on us.

Created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Our purpose when we were created was to do good works.

Which God prepared in advance for us to do. In fact, those good works have been on God’s to-do list for us for quite a while.

So, what’s the big deal? Where is the grace-vs.-works fight at all? There is no competition! In fact, the good works we are to do are themselves the work of God’s grace in our lives. He’s given them to us. He’s graced us with them. We get in on these good works because he’s invited us to join him in his own good work in the world.

To pit grace against works is to invite a view of discipleship that is excessively passive. We become the “frozen chosen.” We don’t need to lift a finger. God is perfectly happy with us sitting in front of the boob tube, playing video games and watching cat clips on YouTube. We don’t need to do diddly squat.

But any reading of the words of Jesus in the gospels comes away with a very active faith. We’re supposed to do stuff.

So, what do people do? They say things like, “Jesus never intended for us to do the things he talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. He said those things to raise the bar impossibly high and show us that we can’t be saved by our works, but by grace alone.” Baloney!

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The Sermon on the Mount is an attempt by Jesus to crush us with impossible demands so we give up on trying? Yikes!

It’s amazing how a clever argument like that completely empties Jesus’ words of everything he said. Frankly, I find that a dangerous thing to do.

Any time we dismiss Christ, we become other than Christian.

Instead of saying, “Wow! What an amazing approach to living the life God created for us to live. Let’s dive into it by God’s grace,” they turn the words of Jesus into a wall so high we can’t climb over it, keeping us from exploring the country of wholeness and joy and prayer that Jesus has opened up for us.

The words of Jesus get shredded because of how we’ve been reading Paul’s words in Galatians. For it’s there that we read Paul’s strongest words against “works.” But the question remains: What does Paul mean by works? If we think Jesus doesn’t mean what it sure seems obvious that he means, perhaps we’ve got it backward and it’s Paul who doesn’t mean what we think he means. (Inconceivable!) Perhaps we should view Jesus’ words as primary and Paul’s words and secondary, interpreting what it looks like to live into Jesus’ words (instead of the other way around).

Over the past few decades, New Testament scholars have done just that, noting that what Paul refers to as “works” in Galatians is shorthand for “works of Torah” or boundary markers for what it meant to be a Jew at that time.

During the first century, most of the Jewish people in the Roman empire lived outside of the historic land of Israel. They were Diaspora, scattered Jews. Because of this, instead of being a majority culture in a small geographic location as they had been before, they were a minority culture mixed into a much larger culture and scattered across a large geographic location. Whenever this happens to any group of people, the group establishes boundary markers — tangible signs that show who’s in and who’s out.

The boundary markers they used were threefold: kosher diet, religious calendar (Passover, new moons, sabbath, etc.), and circumcision. If you did them, you were Jewish. If you didn’t do them, you weren’t.

We see Paul negating these boundary markers in regard to the life of following Jesus in Colossians 2. In Col. 2:11-15, he spiritualizes circumcision, negating the physical boundary marker.  And then in Col. 2:16-17, he negates food and calendar laws, calling them shadows that Christ is the reality of. Then, in Col. 2:20-23, Paul concludes that these boundary markers no longer apply, since we “died” to them in our baptisms. This clears the deck of works of Torah so that when he gets to Colossians 3, Paul can set out the works that we don’t do and the works we do as followers of Jesus, baptized into and “raised” with him in our baptisms. In other words, Paul cleans the table of the wrong set of works so he can reset the table with the right set of works.

The works that we are saved to are not works that save us. Only God’s work in Jesus saves us. But as those who are saved, we get in on all kinds of good works that flow out of this saved life.

This isn’t just a New Testament perspective. All of the Scriptures agree on this.

The Ten Commandments don’t precede the salvation event of the Old Testament. No. They follow and flow out of the exodus. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law aren’t rules that need to be followed to get saved. Not at all! They are protections of and expressions of the saved life.

Once we are saved, we don’t want to fall back into the slavery of the previous life. We need protections for the saved life. The Ten Commandments provide that, as do the vice lists in the New Testaments.

Not only that, we want to live into the fullness of the saved life. The Law of Moses lays out a wonderful, just, gracious way of living in community and expressing worship as those who are saved. The same is true of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, and the rest of proscribed behaviors in the New Testament. These are all good works that get us into the heart of what God has saved us to.

Without these good works, the gospel is not good news at all. It’s just a ticket out of hell and into heaven — which is how it was presented to me as a kid — and we’re just putting in time till we get there.

Without these good works, the world just wallows in injustice and unkindness, and smug Christians with their tickets to heaven don’t need to lift a finger to aid anyone. They’ve won the lottery and don’t need to share with anyone else. (Well, they know that they ought to do the evangelism thing, but isn’t that a “work” too?)

Actually, what I’ve found is that free-ride, grace-only folks are the most works-driven of the lot of us. They keep trumpeting the same line over and over — “It’s all grace! What you do doesn’t matter!” — but they don’t believe it themselves. And so, without a harmonized view of grace and good works, they end up slaves to their moralities which become the new boundary markers.

This is proved by the feeling most non-Christians have that they need to behave right before setting foot in a church, that they can only belong after they’ve first behaved and believed rightly.

God expects something of us. He expects us to belong to his kingdom-of-God community. He expects us to believe in him. And he expects us to behave in keeping with that belonging and that believing. He expects this, because anything less would leave us as less.

God’s desire for us is that we get in on everything he created us to get in on in the first place. He created us for it and he’s saved us to it. Why would we want anything less than to get in on the good works he prepared in advance for us to do?