Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The value of good works

One of my major complaints about evangelical theology is the low value it places on good works. Here are some reasons why I beg to differ.

(1) The New Testament is full of comments which indicate that whether a person is (and does) good or evil is what counts at the final judgment.
eg Jesus: "the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." (John 5:28-29)
Likewise, Paul: "For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury." (Rom 2:6-8)

See also: Matthew 7:21-23; 12:33-37; 19:17; 25:31-46; Luke 6:37-38; 12:47-48; 13:27; John 5:28-29; Acts 10:34-35; Romans 1:18; 2:6-11, 14-16; 8:13; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 6:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 11:14-15; Galatians 6:8-9; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5-6; Colossians 3:24-25; 1 Timothy 5:24-25; 1 John 4:17; 1 Peter 1:17; 3:10-12; 2 Peter 2:9, 12-13; 3:7; Jude 1:14-15; Revelation 20:12; 21:8.

Christian writers in the second century reflect the same attitude. Justin Martyr, writing in 150AD to explain Christianity to the Roman Emperor, says:
"[Christians] hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions." (First Apology XII)
He defends this doctrine, saying it is for the public good because it encourages moral action. He further argues that Christ’s desire is for us to turn men from their wicked ways and lead them to godliness (First Apology XVI, and elsewhere). Justin defends our freedom of choice, saying Christians believe that both righteousness and wickedness are within our power rather than being “fated”, as some Romans believed (First Apology XLIII, and elsewhere).

Other second century Christian documents reflect the same attitude:
[God will] redeem each of us, according to our deeds. (2 Clement 17, ~150AD)
The Lord will judge the world, playing no favourites. Each will receive according to what he has done. If he is good, his righteousness will precede him; if evil, the reward for his wickedness will be before him. (Barnabas 4, ~100AD)
In the Athanasian Creed, written around 500AD, one of the famous creeds from antiquity still used today in some churches as a measure of orthodoxy, we read:
“At his [Christ’s] coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.”

(2) Traditional protestant theology has admitted that good works are good, but denied their saving value. It places this limit on the value of goodness due to (a) its belief that Paul teaches that no one can be justified by good works, and (b) its theological teachings on sin say that no human can be sufficiently good to be acceptable to God. My observations on these two ideas are as follows:

(2a) In recent years there has been a great deal of study done by scholars trying to understand ancient Judaism. A key discovery has been a new understanding of how the Jews of Paul’s time conceived of the “law”. They thought of it as a culture. It was the ancestral customs of Judaea, which they were determined to defend in the face of the onslaught of Hellenism (Greek culture). This was a big issue in the first century, and Jews were prepared to kill or die for their beliefs. The word “Jew”/“Judean” itself referred to someone who followed the ancestral customs of Judaea. Paul is trying to deal with this factionalism in his churches, attempting to stop them from splitting apart and also from following Judean customs. That is what he is talking about when he talks about the “law” and “works of the law”. So when he says justification is not by works of the law, he is not saying “no one can be right with God by human effort”, he is saying rather that God is indifferent to culture and customs.

Space does not permit a detailed proof of this here. I recommend however that people read the books of 1-4 Maccabees which record the historical background to the Jewish controversy over the Law (these are in the Catholic Old Testament, but not the Protestant one, but are highly useful background reading). Here I will give two examples from Paul: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Gal 1:14) Paul had originally been an extremely strong advocate of the need to maintain Judean culture (a Pharisee). As a result he had persecuted Christians because Jesus had attacked the value of following Judean culture, and Paul saw in Jesus’ followers a threat to his Pharisaic goals of getting everyone to follow the Judean traditions. He says about he was more advanced in “Judaism” (ie maintaining those traditions) because he was more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. As to his Judean-ness, he was: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:5-6) If a person gained favour with God through being Judean and following their customs, then Paul had it with bells on. However, due to the fact that he now follows Jesus’ teachings, he regards all that as worthless, and thinks a person’s culture and race does not count in the eyes of God. (Phil 3:7)

(2b) The theological teaching that no one can be sufficiently good to be acceptable to God is simply poor exegesis. The bible uses righteous versus wicked/sinner terminology the same as we talk about “good” and “bad” people today. You don’t have to be perfect to be “good” or “righteous”. Time and again, the bible shows itself quite happy to call some people “righteous”. Over eighty passages exemplify this usage:
Genesis 6:9; 7:1. 2 Samuel 4:11. Job 1:1, 8. Psalms 1; 5:12; 7:9; 11:3, 5, 7; 14:5; 31:18; 32:11; 33:1; 34:15,17,19,21; 37:12-17,21,25,28-30,32,39; 52:6,22; 58:10-11; 64:10; 68:3; 75:10; 92:12; 94:15,21; 97:11-12; 112:4,6; 118:15,20; 125:3; 140:13; 141:5; 142:7; 146:8. Proverbs 3:33; 4:18; 9:9; 10:3,6,7,11,16,20-21,24-25,28,30-32; 11:8-10,21,23,28,30-31; 12:3,5,7,10,12-13,21,26; 13:5,9,21-22,25; 14:19,32; 15:6,28-29; 18:10; 20:7; 21:15,18,26; 23:24; 24:15; 28:1,12,28; 29:2,6-7,16,27. Ecclesiastes 3:17; 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2. Isaiah 26:7; 57:1; 58:2. Lamentations 4:13. Ezekiel 3:20-21; 13:22; 18:9,20,24,26; 33:12-13,18. Amos 2:6; 5:12. Habakkuk 1:4; 2:4. Zephaniah 3:5. Malachi 3:18. Matthew 1:19; 5:45; 9:13; 10:41; 13:17; 13:49; 23:29; 23:35; 25:37,46. Mark 2:17; 6:20. Luke 1:6; 2:25; 5:31-32; 15:7; 23:50. Acts 24:15. Hebrews 11:4. James 5:16. 1 Peter 3:12; 4:18. 2 Peter 2:7-8. 1 John 3:7,12. Revelation 19:8; 22:11

Therefore to claim that the bible teaches no human can be sufficiently good to be “righteous” in God’s sight is nonsense. The bible teaches the exact opposite repetitively. Generally evangelicals make two exegetical errors which cause them to believe that the bible is claiming no one is righteous before God.

The first of those mistakes is to read Paul’s Spirit/Flesh discussions as if “flesh” referred to “sinful humanity”, and spirit referred to God’s action within us. In this reading, we sinful humans can do nothing good without God’s spirit transforming us. However dividing the mind conceptually into opposing components was a common Greek practice that went back at least as far as Plato (Republic 436c ff, Phaedrus 246b ff). The idea was that wherever we have conflicting desires, it must be because one part of our mind has a desire for one thing, and another part has a different desire. Paul, following this tradition, classifies these as the fleshly part of our mind which represents the desires of the body (for food, drink, sex etc) and the spiritual part of our mind, which represents desires for abstract goods (honour, justice, mercy etc). Such a division is exactly in line with standard Greek philosophy when discussing morality. If both the spirit and flesh are parts of our mind, then the traditional protestant exegesis of these passages falls apart, and Paul is not at all saying that we as humans are nothing but sinful flesh.

The second of those mistakes is to read Paul’s list of quotations in Romans 3:10-18 as if it were saying that no human in the world was ever righteous before God. Such a reading would put Paul’s argument at odds with the original context of every single one of the six passages he is quoting from (all of which contrast righteous people to unrighteous ones). What Paul is actually arguing is that following Jewish culture makes no difference in God’s eyes. Thus he quotes examples of specific times and places where people following Jewish culture have been called wicked and sinners because they did moral evil. This proves that simply following Jewish culture is not what makes a person right with God, but rather how they act. What is important, Paul argues, is morality, not culture: There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:9-11) It does not matter to God whether a person follows Judean culture or Greek culture, what matters is whether they do good or evil deeds.

(3) Protestant theology has traditionally translated pistis (faithfulness) to be “faith” and “belief”. Their idea was that this word represented the opposite to “good works”. They thought Paul was arguing against salvation by human effort, and in support of salvation by doing nothing (“faith”). However recent research into understanding the cultural context in which Jesus lived has totally failed to agree with that assessment. (Rather, Paul’s use of “faithfulness” and “favour” (aka grace) are related to the ancient Favour System) Faithfulness to Christ is about committing yourself to his teachings and message and living by them. Think of what it means to be a “faithful servant” (Mat 25:21). No one is stupid enough to try and translate that phrase as meaning “a servant who believes their master died for the sins of the world and does not try to earn salvation by works”. Yet evangelicals don’t seem to blink at translating faithfulness to Jesus to mean that. In reality, faithfulness to a person is loyalty to them, and acting as they would have you act. Paul is not afraid to talk about the “obedience of faithfulness” (Romans 1:5, 16:26) nor “work of faithfulness” - indeed he treats that phrase synonymously with “labour of love” (1 Thes 1:3) and “good resolve” (2 Thes 1:11). To Paul, “faithfulness to Christ” means following his teachings and living our live by doing the good works that Jesus taught us to do. Since Jesus criticised the value of Judean ancestral customs we have a choice – we can be faithful to Christ’s teachings, or we can start emphasising the value of Judean customs. Thus for Paul it is a choice between whether a person seeks God’s favour through faithfully following Christ, or whether we start following Jewish culture and do “the works of the law”.


Anonymous montecelsus said...

Very good, Andrew! I have read your other texts on "faithfulness" on this blog (October 2004) and they have been very helpful for me. In fact they confirmed the thoughts I had myself, but I could find very little written about this. Please write more blogs about “works/faith” and “faithfulness like Christ’s”

Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

I'm not familiar with the "evangelical theology" you talk about. I consider myself evangelical, but certainly don't identify with the following statements:

"Protestant theology has traditionally translated pistis (faithfulness) to be “faith” and “belief”. Their idea was that this word represented the opposite to “good works”. They thought Paul was arguing against salvation by human effort, and in support of salvation by doing nothing (“faith”)."

I certainly don't see faith as "the opposite of good works", nor am I in support of "salvation by doing nothing".

I would be interested if you could quote a Puritan or reformed theologian to that effect. I know that Luther called the book of James "an epistle of straw", which I think is a shame, because it is an epistle that truly reconciles the doctrines of faith and good works.

The evangelicalism, Calvinism even, that I identify, is a gospel that endorses the relationship between salvation and good works, but is very careful to give the glory and credit for those works to the Spirit and grace of God - "That they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven".

The doctrine of justification by faith is not the opposite of justification by good works. You talk about the way the early chruch fathers helped Jewish Christians see the priority of moral (loving, just & merciful), action over legalistic/cultural action. But it was more than that. When you read Jesus' sermon on the mount you see that as important as the act are the thoughts entertained in the mind. As important as what you did was why you did it. And this is the reality that evangelical theology tries to address.

Moral action truly motivated by God, truth, love, justice and mercy cannot come out of nature, but is born by God and God alone. This is why Jesus talks of the need to be "born again". This is why the Apostle John says "whoever does not love is not born of God because God is love". This is why evangelicalism is not only friends with good works, but even crucial to good works - for it admits our inability to do that good out of our own nature and helps us understand our need for God's grace and empowering spirit. It alleviates us of our sense of hopelessness when we discover the depravity of the motives of our soul, and leads us to a new reality where we discover the love we are born into by the Spirit. But most importantly, it puts good works in their proper place and brings them to their proper purpose - to show the glory of God, and the miracle and wonder it is to be born of his Spirit. That God would get the glory, lest any man should boast.

Blogger Andrew said...

a.j. chesswas,
You denied that humans could acheive righteousness by their own efforts, and insisted that it all has to come from God. That is exactly the position I am arguing against. No doubt I phrase it different to how you personally would phrase it - everyone likes to phrase things slightly differently, so I cannot please everyone.

Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

But what I am saying is righteousness, both in terms of our atonement and our regeneration, is by God's grace - a gift of God, lest any man should boast.

"For God gives grace to the humble, but opposes the proud"

Despite your description of "evangelical", your position and my position look the same on the surface - ie Christians committed to good works. As I have showed, evangelicalism and good works are entirely interconnected. The difference between your position and mine, rather, is who gets the glory for those works.

You haven't shown why the position of "man's efforts" is superior to "God's grace" with regards to my own position. The sorts of posotions you refer to would be considered "high Calvinist", and those views are pretty much extinct in academically rigorous evangelical circles today.

Blogger Andrew said...

what I am saying is righteousness, both in terms of our atonement and our regeneration, is by God's grace - a gift of God, lest any man should boast.

And that is exactly what I disagree with. I am arguing for salvation by works.

The difference between your position and mine, rather, is who gets the glory for those works.

The difference is that you deny the saving value of human good works.

Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

The thing is, if human works have a saving value, then it is easy to get into the mindset of doing those works for selfish reasons. Grace, on the other hand, works along the lines of the "Pay it Forward" model (have you seen the movie?). As the Apostle John said, we love because God first loved us.

So the issue, when we find we are not doing good works - when we are not acting in love - isn't just to change our behaviour, but rather to ask God to change our hearts - that we might be born again by his Spirit, and born into love.

Can you not see how much of scripture these doctrines of total depravity and regeneration make sense of? Can you not see the issue of self-centredness that works-based salvation causes us to remain in? In becoming Christian we are baptised into Christ, and born again into his Spirit and his mind, that we might think and act with the mind of Christ. And why does Christ do good works? Certainly not for his salvation, as he is God, but rather because of his love and his grace.

Blogger Andrew said...

Can you not see how much of scripture these doctrines of total depravity and regeneration make sense of?

No. I think they make nonsense out of most of scripture.

Can you not see the issue of self-centredness that works-based salvation causes us to remain in?


Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

"If he was ready to receive them he would have regenerated them, and if he’d regenerated them they would have come."

What is the basis of this logic?

"We may ask: What was the point of such a message? The people who God hasn’t regenerated can’t turn from their wickedness no matter what the prophets say."

"But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith."

Classic Calvinism, and The Bible, asks your question - "what was the point of such a message?" To show us our sinfulness and our inability to earn his favour.

"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?"

“I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people” is God's way of illustrating the total depravity of man without the regeneration brough by his Spirit.

"1) He moans about the present that he himself foreordained;
2) He tries to talk people into following him when he is well aware they cannot follow him because he has deliberately chosen not to enable them to do so."

And how, exactly, is this moronic behaviour?

"Yet consider Calvinism’s picture of man and God: That man cannot possibly turn to God without God acting upon him supernaturally to regenerate him, in which case the regenerated man would inevitably turn to and follow God. In the Old Testament in his interactions with Israel, God seems ignorant of this."

How so? His ervant David seemed to understand he owed his blessings to God's grace, and that he needed God's regenerative power to better serve him.

"God clearly hasn’t realised the Calvinistic Truths: that He is sovereign and the world is the way it is it is because He wanted it to be that way, so it is nonsensical of Him to complain about the way Israel are acting; that Israel simply cannot follow him unless he regenerates them which he has chosen not do."

Your assumption is that if God foreordains something he doesn't like, he has no right to complain. What if his purpose in complaining is to emphasise our need for his grace? He is not complaining on the basis we have the power to resolve his complaint, but rather to shoiw just how much we need his regenerative grace in order to please him.

Now, if Calvinism renders the Old Testament senseless as you allege, then what sense does Synergism make of Jesus' words;

"No man can come to me unless the Father draws him"

"Unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God"

"The Holy Spirit will come, who will convict you of sin, righteousness and judgment"

I understand your concept of what Paul means when he talks about the law, but;

"The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise." - Galatians 3:16-18

Here Paul explicitly defines "the law" as pretty much The Torah.

Romans 7:6
"But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code."

Read Romans 7, and then consider The Apostle John's treatise on love and being "born of love", "born of God": Born again.

"Can you not see the issue of self-centredness that works-based salvation causes us to remain in?


Well, then, please explain to me your understanding of the word "love" ("agape").

Blogger Andrew said...

"what was the point of such a message?" To show us our sinfulness and our inability to earn his favour.

I am afraid that I see nothing in the bible to suggest this at all. The clear and obvious meaning of the passages in which God exhorts and cajoles Israel to turn to him is because he actually wants them to. There is nothing that says "while it may look as if I am trying frantically to get Israel to do what I want, ACTUALLY I am merely demonstrating human sinfulness". You are distorting the bible when you read such assumptions into it. As I made clear in my post on the value of good works, the Bible does not at all teach human depravity, and fully endorses the view that humans can please God through their efforts.

Your assumption is that if God foreordains something he doesn't like, he has no right to complain.

Well, he has the "right", it would just be dumb. Making a decision and then complaininig incessantly about your own decision is just stupid.

What if his purpose in complaining is to emphasise our need for his grace?

What would be the point? Total depravity means that no one can actually learn from such a lesson. Regeneration means no one actually needs such a lesson. Nor is the lesson very clear at all - I for one don't believe that is at all what the bible is teaching, so if that is really God's lesson then he taught it pretty badly.

what sense does Synergism make of Jesus' words;

I think you need to remember that synergism says that both God and man are involved. It doesn't at all in any way deny the importance or necessity of God's involvement. So quoting verses that speak of God being involved and suggesting that this somehow is evidence against synergism is silly.

Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

"Monergism teaches that salvation is entirely a work of God; That man can contribute nothing toward the price of his salvation and that one is saved wholly and unconditionally by grace through faith. That faith itself is a gift of God (Eph 2:8, John 1:13, 2 Tim 2:25, Phil 1:29, Hebrews 12:2, 1 John 5:1, Rom 3:24, Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:26-27) which is not the cause, but the witness of God's regenerative grace having worked faith in the inner man. This gracious act of God was based on nothing meritorious in the individual, but rather, entirely on God's sovereign good pleasure (Eph 1:5). It was not because God knew which persons would believe of their own free will, for there are no persons which fit that description. This is because apart from grace their is no delight or inclination to seek God (in man's unregenerate nature). And since those dead in sin will not seek God (Rom 3:11), regenerative grace precedes justifying faith. God must, in effect, raise them from the dead- (see Eph 2:5, Col 2:13)."

I tried arguing with John Hendryx as a Synergist only about a month ago. I have since been overcome by just how Biblical monergism and Calvinism is, and how much it lines up with my own experience. I know that the uinconditional, unfavouring love I have for people since I was born again is a complete blessing from God, something that before I was born again I was not capable of.

What does God require of us? To act justly and love mercy. To love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Before I was born again I was incapable of doing this unconditionally, unfavouringly, faithfully and surely. I was much more likely to do good works out of selfish motives, such as the desire to obtain eternal salvation.

Blogger Andrew said...

This thread is not intended to be a debate on the merits of calvinism. I don't consider calvinism to be remotely tenable from biblical or theological perspective.

If you want to believe in an malevolent and horrible "god" who deliberately creates people with the knowledge that they will be incapable of doing good and then who makes them suffer eternally for being who he created them to be, and who is so moronic as to whinge continually about people doing exactly what he has made them do, and who is supremely in control and thus responsible for every act of evil and wrong ever done in history, then that is your business. But do not expect me to take it seriously nor tolerate it on my blog.

Frankly, I am getting bored with your continued insistence on claiming such a horrible system as being biblical and reasonable, so I will probably delete any further comments on the subject - this post was not intended for discussion of calvinism and I do not consider calvinism to be within the bounds of sane discussion anyway.

I also see you commit the common calvinist fallacy of generalising your own experience. Not everyone has the same experiences.

Blogger A. J. Chesswas said...

Well sorr-ry

Blogger Dan said...

Imagine if everybody became bored with, 'deleted the comments' of, and questioned the sanity of those they disagreed with.
It would be nigh impossible to get along with anyone, let alone have any inclination to serve them graciously by performing good works, whether or not those good works lead to salvation.

Blogger Andrew said...

How terrible of me to threaten to delete off topic posts...

Anonymous Alex said...

I'm very impressed by the original post. I don't know whether I agree with it or not, but it's one of the first times I've ever seen somebody defend the concept of salvation by works, which very few people want to defend. I don't know why, but it seems like nobody wants to be associated with it. It's the single biggest Protestant taboo, and many Catholics don't want to emphasize it, either. (Personally, I think salvation by works is a beautiful and comforting concept, but that's just me.)

Blogger Duane said...

You talk of what evangelicals believe but you have not represented correctly what we do believe. Salvation as Paul says is Ephesians 2:8 is by the Grace of God not the works we do. But when you talk about faithfulness it is a totally different thing. When your are saved God requires faithfulness in order to prove to the world the we truly know Jesus. James says we must show our faith by our works which means that if you donnot follow the commands and examples set forth by Jesus you may be saved but you had better do some real soul searching becuase you are not a faithful servant. The Scripture refers to salvation as an adoption and to be adoption requies only that you recieve the gift of family from those who are making the offer.


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