Proof of Life: My Good Works; Really?!

If I hear, one more time, that ‘my good works’ are proof and evidence of my salvation, I think I might loose it! When someone asserts that (as a Protestant) that my good works–even though still tainted–are evidence and proof that I am one of the elect or “saved,” I always wonder what in the heck! they are asserting; other than platitudes that are just that. This is common refrain from our Puritan bogus past of experimental predestinarianism, practical syllogisms, etc.; but how in fact this can actually be the case, either theologically, or even exegetically is incredible to me. I am not ranting from, necessarily, an exegetical vantage point at the moment (but theological? Yes!); I am ranting from the crass reality of lived life–the observable kind! If good works are the standard and proof of Christianity, proof of life, my good works and your good works; then I would say we are all damned, serious! If this proof of life, of election, by good works, just has to do with motive, then we are damned (we don’t have good motives apart from Christ’s from whence we participate). If this proof of life, of election, by good works is manifested concretely by good actions that I do, then who is to say that these were not just done out of deontology and duty driven motives (like keeping the law), and not actual Christ centered? And if this mix is so hard to discern, then how in the heck am I supposed to find certitude of my election, of my salvation, by looking at manifest good works in my life; and further, how am I supposed to discern this in your life?!

The above scenario is absolutely bogus! If you have a system of salvation that requires you to look at your good works, first, and then only reflexively at Christ, then you have a bogus system of salvation, and you should repent of it and repudiate it. You should quit telling people that this is what the Bible teaches, because it surely does not! The Bible teaches what our hermeneutic says it does, what our prior theological commitments dictate it does. I don’t see any way around this. I am irked as I write this, because I have grown very weary of this irresponsible non-sense being foisted on the body of Christ at large. If you are telling people that they need to demonstrate their salvation by their good works, you are preaching a false gospel, that in my strong opinion is anathema!

Does this mean that I am accepting, then, an anti-nomian gospel? No, it means that I am affirming a Christ-concentrated conception of the gospel. See my last post. Are good works part of being a Christian? Yes! But that is just it, they are part of being a Christ[ian], part[icipation] in Christ’s sufficient/efficacious good works for us. His good works have demonstrated that He is the only One who is truly good, God. Good works bear witness (Mt 5) to His life, to His full and complete “saved” life and vicarious humanity. Does this objectify salvation? Absolutely! Good works are witness bearers to the only one who is truly good, and truly saved; Jesus Christ.

Rant, over. I feel a little better now. Proceed with the rest of your day now.

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6 comments

  1. I have had many of these rants myself. I know exactly where you are coming from.

    Yet, I do struggle with the exegetical angle to this. It is hard to escape the overwhelming impression from the epistles (not to mention the gospels!) that the apostles make “good works” — or, better yet, “fruits” of the Holy Spirit — an expectation for believers and, thereby, something like a test. You know the standard passages: Rom 6, Gal 5, Eph 5, Heb 6 & 10, First John (!), and some salient moments in John’s revelation. And moreover — apart from the heavily quoted Rom 7 among Protestants — the “touchdown” between grace and life (divine and human agency) does not appear to be an especially difficult thing to grasp among the apostles, which is in marked contrast to Barth’s (and Luther’s) significant hesitancy to say that Christians are even capable of “good” or “love.” It is not until CD IV.2, “The Act of Love” (pp. 783-824) that Barth finally tackles this prominent theme in the biblical witness. It is an extraordinarily fascinating section within the CD, where Barth recognizes (briefly) some weaknesses in his own past work on this point, yet his hesitancy still shines through.

    I am still on board with the (Reformed-Lutheran) Protestant camp on this, but there is an exegetical chasm of sorts between the NT context and our own theological concerns since the Reformation. This does not invalidate the latter — as Roman Catholic apologists are quick to do — but it should be recognized and addressed.

    That’s all — just my thoughts at the moment.

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  2. I was going to ask Bobby what he does with 1 John but then read Kevin’s post, which is good. I like your last paragraph Bobby because you are attempting to try to put “works/transformation” in a proper context. I’m moving more and more to seeing the change that must occur in us as an act of God’s grace. We are physical, material creatures. We are oriented by see, feel, move, act, etc. and even, in a sense, thought that has weight. When we become Christians then, as we learn and change, God’s work in us becomes gracious confirmations that we are indeed His – and we need this to help us in the battle because it continually drives us back to Him who is our life with an attitude of thankfulness and wonder (this helps us leave failure behind and just keep moving). I liken it to the resurrection. The Lord had done enough in His life and teachings to convince the disciples that His word is truth – that He came from God and would return to God in resurrection – He did not have to show Himself to them, they should have believed Him (the place we are in – Jn 20:29). But He did show Himself in an act of grace to help material creatures be confirmed in their faith. This may be a bit “out there” but I don’t think too “out there”. I approach these things with this, any teaching that pulls us away from “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” needs to be fully examined. I’ve never been under teaching that didn’t put works in a proper context, which is Christ always and only, so I don’t feel the burden/emotion that Bobby expresses – I guess I’ve been blessed!

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  3. Three thoughts:

    1) I read Eduard Thurneysen (sp?)’s work on the Sermon on the Mount recently, and he made an excellent point. We read the bits on ‘fruit of the Spirit’ and become navel gazers about things we’ve done. His thought was that we need to accept this as a promise. If we are Christ’s, then we shall produce fruit. The promise, despite everything else, is that we who follow Jesus are predestined to conform to His image.

    2) A lot of the judging by fruits is always on the other. We look at others at their works and make a judgement but we see. Obviously we can only look so far into another, and should temper reading these passages like some of the Puritans.

    3) I tend to think the difference between being and growing “in Christ”. I run over some Reformed distinctions in saying that we are at once Justified and Sanctified (to pick two of many), completely and totally, and yet at the same time awaiting to be justified (language of awaiting vindication in resurrection) and awaiting sanctification. This is in context of 2 Peter 1:5-11. We grow in our knowledge of Christ, but contrary to the Medieval System, it has nothing to do with purgatory or earning salvation. More like a man brought back to life. Whether his breathing starts rough and normalizes quickly or slowly (or really, really slowly), he’s still alive. Good works, perhaps when best told back to us by others and not self-examination, may reveal our growth into the reality the christian is apart of.

    But anyway, I’m all on board for the criticism. That sort of thinking usually creates fearfulness, pride, and despair. I may be a long way from imaging the Son, but I trust Jesus, and in that I can know I’m saved (and will be saved!). Self-evaluating be damned!

    Food for thought,
    Cal

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  4. Could not agree more Bobby. I am beginning to think that almost the entire Puritanical doctrinal framework is designed to hide the fact that, for all practical purposes, they (and their neo-puritan progeny) believe in salvation by works (or at the very least, that there is no assurance of grace whatsoever apart from works).

    If you are interested, my latest post is on the perspicuity of scripture. I actually think that this doctrine works in a similar way to experimental predestinarianism, in that it works to obscure (through an anti-intellectual premise) the fact that the neo-puritans believe that salvation is contingent upon one’s intellectual capabilities.

    I do want to say one thing in regard to the other comments on this thread. I appreciate their perspectives, and they are no doubt thoughtful individuals. I would only ask if they believe that we are supposed to see the “testing” passages as “proof” or “assurance” of God’s grace? Or are we to assume that God’s grace is a given for all of humanity, in which case the “testing” would have more to do with how well we are appropriating the grace that we assuredly possess? Does that make sense?

    I would also like to suggest that the 1 John passage, which is typically the knockdown verse, could be read as referring not to people who once professed to be Christians but have apostatized, but rather, Jews who, when confronted by the Christ event, chose a different, non-Christian Jewish path. To me this makes more sense of the letter as a whole (think of 1 John 2:1-2 as a guide).

    Just throwing those thoughts out there…

    Great post regardless.

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  5. I just want to clarify that I was not trying to be confrontational towards the other commenters if my last comment came off that way. I was in a rush when I wrote it.

    I am honestly trying to understand these issues better and appreciate any further illumination, feedback, pushback, etc.

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  6. @Kevin,

    Thanks for your thoughts, as usual. Yeah, there is a genuinely dialectical struggle here … at least for me. And as you note, this is even something, in the history of interp that is not as clear as so many would like us to believe.

    I am almost, exclusively, speaking though from my own experience; and my own realization that if anyone thinks that their good works prove something, it might only prove that they occasionally submit to the Spirit’s wooing and Christ at work in their (our) life.

    @Steve,

    Yes, my point with this post was largely to place works in their proper context, and not to deny their reality and validity for the Christian; good eye.

    @Cal, thanks. I would say the antidote to your point is Calvin’s double grace theology and union with Christ. So it is all about a participationist view of salvation and anthropology and not about a performance based view of salvation this is attempting to epistemologically ensure to oneself that they indeed are ontically united to God. Good works in this false-scheme take on the function as an absolute bridge, even if we attribute our steps to Christ’s. I don’t see salvation as a ‘bridge to life’ but I see salvation as God’s life itself, made real for us in Christ. He is not a bridge, he is Godself; so there is no gap between us and God in Him; and so we cannot absolutize his work in ours, we can only bear witness to His absolute work in our lives. Witness bearing presupposing a living reality, it is not obsessed with proving what it already has.

    @Brian,

    Great to hear from you! I’ll check your post. Yeah, your point on the universality of grace makes sense. See my point made in my response to Cal; I think witness bearing should be the way we frame works in a gracious frame.

    And I think I John is also in contrast to an incipient gnosticism as well; where “knowledge” and elitism is the badge for what it means to be a Christian–which really is just a “work.” And so the stark contrasts that John makes in his epistle, I think, in contrast, points to the finished and absolute work of salvation in Christ. The problem comes, I think, when we dualistically abstract work from the person; Christ’s person is his work. Again, as we participate, we bear witness to Him and magnify Him … the work of the Spirit. I just see no dogmatic category for a practical syllogism in the text of Scripture or given by God’s Self-revelation.

    @All,

    Thank you.

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