Certain categories of subject matter published in the Church of the Great God's "Berean: Daily Verse and Comment" are almost certain to stir challenges against their content. Prominent among these subjects is Christian "works." Usually, those who make such challenges are not merely casually interested about this doctrinal issue but are fervently concerned about being right before God.
Herbert Armstrong once said, "Though salvation is by grace through faith, everybody who will be saved works." However, virtually all who challenge this belief claim that works play no part at all in salvation. Essentially, they claim that any consideration of works in that manner renders salvation as earned rather than given by grace.
This fine point can be broken down somewhat with a simple illustration: We all agree that salvation is greatly to be desired. Suppose there was an event that we greatly desired to be part of, even if only as a spectator. However, there was no way we could afford to pay for a ticket, so our desire seems hopeless. However, unexpectedly, someone comes along and gives us free passage into the stadium and a reserved seat to go with it. Would we consider walking into the venue and claiming our reserved seat as earning us the right to the freely given seat?
Is it not true that, when a person accepts the blood of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and is baptized, signifying that he has died to his past sinful life, he then rises from his watery grave as a new man? Then, is it not also true that, upon receiving the Holy Spirit, he becomes a son of God and, as such, has entered into the New Covenant with God?
A covenant is an agreement, a binding contract between parties to carry out a common endeavor. It contains stipulations and conditions that each party must fulfill. If one party does not meet the stipulations and conditions assigned to it, the covenant is broken, releasing the faithful party from fulfilling his part of the agreement. God agrees, for example, saying in Psalm 132:12, "If your sons will keep My covenant and My testimony which I shall teach them, their sons also shall sit upon your throne forevermore." Covenants, even those made with God, have attached conditions. Israel went into captivity and disappeared from the world scene because it broke the covenant God made with the Israelites. II Kings 18:11-12 records this:
Then the king of Assyria carried Israel away captive to Assyria, and put them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed His covenant and all that Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded; and they would neither hear nor do them.
The very fact that a New Covenant exists is proof that there is an agreement containing terms that both God and His children must fulfill. Thus, accepting the blood of Jesus Christ does not come without cost to us. If we are to uphold the terms of the covenant, we must give up the sinful life we led in the flesh and henceforth be obedient to the will of God.
A major foundational pillar of the New Covenant is that Jesus sacrificed His life to provide justification for repentant sinners before God. Without His labors in sacrificing His life, no New Covenant would exist. Christians must follow Him in laboring to sacrifice a tiny bit—as compared to Him—but we must do it to meet our obligations under the covenant. Paul beseeches all Christians to be living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, saying this is a reasonable service (Romans 12:1). This is only part of the cost of salvation to us. At the very least, sacrifice bespeaks of pains of self-denial.
Further, Jesus says to His disciples in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." Do we realize what the word keep means? It means "to continue to do," "to maintain," "to preserve," "to adhere to," "to save," "to observe," and other things beside. Each synonym involves some measure of work for its meaning to be fulfilled!
What are these challengers thinking when they claim that no works are involved in the salvation process? Such thinking is foreign to what the Bible actually says. It most certainly says that justification cannot be earned through works, but salvation involves more than justification.
Perhaps some do not want to receive scorn, fearing to be called pharisaical. The Pharisees certainly faced Jesus' wrath, but not simply because they were zealous of doing works. Mark 7:6-9 clarifies the real reasons for His anger:
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do. . . . All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.
He was angry because they rejected God's commandments, replaced them with their own traditions, and zealously expended their energies on their additions, while ignoring God's will!
Jesus commands in Matthew 6:33, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you." Seek means "to search out" or "to endeavor to obtain." Does that sound as if Jesus is urging us to be passive while having faith in Him and His salvation? James 2:17 declares, "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." Verse 19 says that kind of faith—mere intellectual belief—puts us on the same level as a demon! Verse 22 concludes, "Do you see that faith was working together with [Abraham's] works, and by works faith was made perfect?"
In their challenges against works, people often quote Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." Somehow, they seem to overlook verse 10: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." We are created in Christ for the very purpose of doing good works!
Our works cannot save us; they have never saved anybody since Adam and Eve! However, that does not eliminate works from being required by God. Titus 2:11-14 puts an exclamation point on the necessary cooperation between God's grace and our works to fulfill His purpose for us:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
In John 5:17, Jesus says that He works, and His last words in John 19:30 are, "It is finished," apparently referring to the work God gave Him to do. Paul says he disciplined his body lest he should find himself disqualified (I Corinthians 9:27). He felt the pressure of the work God gave him to do, as he exclaims in verse 16, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel."
Likewise, God has assigned works for each of us to do. These works, none of which are as clearly defined as Jesus' and Paul's were, do not save us, but whatever our hand finds to do, we should do it with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). It is our responsibility, our obligation, our duty, to glorify God. We are coworkers with Him as He creates us in the image of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:12-13). Our works are what we do following justification in voluntarily yielding and conforming to become like Him. In this creative endeavor, our works are a necessity.
- John W. Ritenbaugh