As regular readers will know, over the past two or three months we’ve been working our way through various excerpts from Tom Wright’s highly recommended book Simply Jesus (my full review is here, and you can find all posts in the series here). There will be two more posts in the series after today’s.
Let’s go straight to today’s excerpt, from the final chapter:
We have domesticated the Christian idea of ‘good works’, so that it has simply become ‘the keeping of ethical commands’. In the New Testament, ‘good works’ are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.
Jesus went about feeding the hungry, curing the sick and rescuing lost sheep; his Body is supposed to be doing the same. That is how his kingdom is at work. That is how he is at work.
— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus
I’m not sure what mental associations the phrase “good works” conjures up for you. For me, the thought that automatically comes to mind has to do with doing “works” out of a sense of obligation, as though I am somehow duty bound to try to pay God back for my salvation. This kind of thinking about good works needs to be actively resisted, for it both undermines the gospel and puts you on a never-ending hamster wheel of performance-based religion.
But, as the good ex-bishop points out, this is not the only way in which we can misconstrue the notion of good works. More common still is to think of good works as the mere keeping of ethical commands. The problem with this understanding is that it assumes that the Christian life is fundamentally about keeping commands.
Now, we need to be careful here. It’s true that Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments“. When it comes to following Jesus, actions speak louder than words. Saying you love Jesus is meaningless if your words are not borne out by an effort to live the kind of life that Jesus taught, demonstrated and embodied. (At which point, if I’m honest, I could very well give up trying to be a Christian altogether, so dismally does my life, on occasion, fail to bear out my words. What keeps me going is the hope that both my eternal salvation and my eventual transformation are secured by Jesus’ faithfulness, not my own.)
So there is undeniably a sense in which the Christian life is about keeping commands. To make this kind of statement is perhaps to invite criticism from the hyper-grace crowd, but so be it. Going by what Jesus said, I see no way around this.
But the basis and foundation of the Christian life is not keeping commands. The keeping of commands is, if you like, an output rather than an input.
The issue, as I see it, is about the purpose and reason for keeping Jesus’ commands. If you’re working to keep Jesus’ commands in order to have peace of mind about your own salvation, you’re on a long road to enslavement and burnout. Instead, what I believe the Holy Spirit would inspire in us a desire to do good works as an expression of thankfulness for all that God has already done for us. Good works, biblically conceived, are thus the response of a grateful heart to the unearned and unearnable grace of God.
That answers the question of why we do good works from our perspective: we do them as an expression of worship and thanks to God.
The remaining question is where our good works fit into God’s wider purposes, and this is where the excerpt above helps us. Good works are the concrete expression of Jesus’ burgeoning kingdom on earth. They are, as Tom says, how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.
If this is true, it has some implications. In particular, it means the sovereignty of Jesus is not primarily put into effect in the world by giving out evangelistic tracts, dragging heathens to church, or indeed having the biggest church in town.
In recent years in the UK, there has been a trend towards churches running what you might call “community transformation” projects – decorating homes for those who can’t afford to, renovating schools and community centres, etc. I think such activities are excellent and very much to be welcomed.
However, there are a couple of potential dangers. For one, churchgoers might come to see such large-scale projects as fulfilling their “good works” quota (no need to help an old lady across the road if you’ve already given up several days to help with a community project). The other danger has to do with motivation. Are we engaging in such projects purely to attract attention and make a name for our church? (And if your answer is “No, we’re doing it to make God famous”, but the way in which you measure such an increase in God’s fame is through bums on seats in your own church, I’m not convinced either.)
Why are good works the way in which Jesus’ sovereignty is put into effect? I think the answer is simply that good works are the opposite of what our fallen hearts, left to their own devices, are inclined to do. Rather, we are by nature inclined to look after number one, only giving to and caring for the needs of others as our own surplus allows. Acts of self-sacrificial kindness (bearing in mind that what is being sacrificed could be many things, including time and money for sure, but also not forgetting pride and reputation) are radically counter-cultural. Each time we help that little old lady across the road, we are not simply accruing favour points with man or God: we are quietly defying the spirit of the age, which is the spirit of self-interest and self-promotion.
So, to recap and summarise, we do good works as an outward expression of hearts filled with thanks, and we do them because this is how the kingship of Jesus is practically worked out in the earth.
So, the next time someone asks you how they can participate in God’s kingdom work, instead of immediately thinking about traditional evangelism or ministry training, perhaps you should simply encourage them to go and find someone to be kind to. In a very real sense, that may be the most radical work any of us can do.
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