Don’t our works actually matter to God?

Q. Many times I’ve heard sermons and read that we are not saved by our works but by grace. However, in reading some passages in the New Testament, I’m not sure that is true according to Jesus. Matthew, particularly, has several of Jesus’ sermons that make me think it does matter how we live and what we do and that we can’t just ask for forgiveness and start over each day. Can you point me to passages that will bring clarity to this?

I think the simplest way to summarize the New Testament position on this subject is to explain that while it doesn’t teach we are saved by works, it does teach we are saved for works. That is, God has saved us so that we will be able to live in the way He has designed.

Paul writes in Ephesians, for example, that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Paul argues long and hard, particularly in Romans and Galatians, against the idea that people who are saved by grace can then live in any way they want, and just ask forgiveness for the sins they keep committing. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks. Paul’s opponents are legalists who are arguing that people have to be bound by rules in order to keep them from going astray. He responds that the law cannot give people the power to do what it commands; however, those who “walk by the Spirit” are able, by the Spirit’s power, to live in the way that God wants and expects.

James, for his part, argues that those who say they are saved by faith can only demonstrate this fact through their works. He challenges those who would say otherwise, “Show me your faith apart from your works.” The implication is, they can’t. James then counters, “I will show you my faith by my works.” But he’s not saying that we are saved by doing works; rather, he’s saying that if our faith does not issue in the kind of works that God has prepared for us, then it’s not saving faith.

And so it’s a parody of the gospel to say that because salvation is by grace, it doesn’t matter how we live once we become followers of Jesus; we can just keep asking for forgiveness for the sins we keep committing. It certainly does matter to God how we live after we accept his gracious offer of salvation, and God has given us the Holy Spirit to live inside us and transform us into people whose lives will consistently and increasingly reflect the righteous character of our Savior Jesus Christ.

[Also see this earlier post: “Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?]

Was Paul wrong to have Timothy circumcised?

Q.  In Acts it says that when Paul wanted to take Timothy along on his travels, “he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, because everyone knew his father was a Greek.”  That’s not a very detailed explanation. I’m interested in more details on what the reasoning might have been and whether we might consider this to have been a mistake on Paul’s part. Was he giving in too much to the circumcision group?

This is an excellent question and it’s fair game to ask whether Paul made a mistake here. I don’t actually discuss this question in my Luke-Acts study guide, so I’d like to share some thoughts about it here.

One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is, “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  Just because the Bible describes, without negative comment, how a leader like Paul did something, that doesn’t automatically mean it was the right thing to do.

In fact, elsewhere in the book of Acts Paul makes a mistake and then later admits it.  After his arrest in Jerusalem, during his preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul realized that the council was made up half of Pharisees and half of Sadducees (who denied the resurrection). In order to split the opposition, he called out, “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection.”

The ploy worked, but Paul later regretted resorting to such devious means.  In his subsequent trial before Felix, he insisted that he’d done nothing wrong so far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, “unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

So it is possible that Paul had Timothy circumcised out of fear of the Judaizers, who insisted that circumcision was necessary for good standing before God.  We can’t know for sure what Paul’s real motive was.  But we can at least ask, “Could he have done this for a good motive?  If so, what might that have been?”

The possible good motive is this:  Paul might have been encouraging Timothy to use his freedom to be circumcised.  Paul wasn’t opposed to people becoming circumcised in general, but only if they thought this was necessary to put them in better standing with God.  At the end of Galatians, Paul wrote, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”  So it doesn’t matter if a person is circumcised.  They can do so for a good reason.

Timothy had a good reason.  His mother was Jewish, and now that he was a young adult who could make his own decisions about such things, he could be circumcised as a way of embracing and expressing that part of his heritage.  This would give him the added advantage of being able to work with Paul among Jews who wouldn’t have the obstacle of seeing him as an “unclean Gentile.”  In other words, this expression of freedom (freedom to rather than freedom from) would open doors of ministry for him.  In that sense, it would be legitimate and well-advised.

To offer a contemporary analogy, suppose you’re a female follower of Jesus who’s living in a Muslim country.  You want to get to know your neighbors so they can hopefully see from your life what a follower of Jesus is really like.  You could choose to wear a head scarf so that your uncovered hair wouldn’t be an obstacle to the people around you.  If you did, would you be giving in to legalism?  Or would you be using your freedom to wear a scarf to open potential doors of opportunity?

I personally believe that was the same choice Paul was helping Timothy make in Acts.

Paul lays hands on Timothy

Why did Jesus tell us to do good works for others to see and then say to do them secretly?

Q.  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  But just a little earlier, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Which is it?  Are we supposed to do our good deeds secretly, so that only God can see, or publicly, so that others will see and praise God?

In these two teachings Jesus is actually addressing two different problems.

The problem he addresses first is people who have a sincere faith but who aren’t living it out through generosity and service to others.  They are like “salt that has lost its saltiness” and a “lamp hidden under a bowl.”  In other words, they’re supposed to be having a preserving influence on their community and setting the right example, but they’re not.  So Jesus tells them to live out their faith through “good works” (not religious performance, but kindness and generosity), and this will lead others to recognize God’s compassionate character and praise Him for it.

The problem Jesus addresses next is people who are doing good works, but with bad motives.  They’re giving to the poor just “to be honored by others.”  Jesus says that if our sincere desire is to help those in need, we should do so discreetly and quietly, not to be praised by others, but to be part of God’s work of compassion in the world.  When we do this, God will be pleased and will bless our efforts.  (“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is an example of hyperbole or exaggeration, a technique Jesus often used to make a point.  It’s impossible to do literally, but it actually means not calling attention to what you’re doing.)

So we do “good works,” on the one hand, in a way that others can see, not so that we will be praised, but so that God will be glorified for His compassion.  But on the other hand we carefully avoid any self-promotion, because it’s not about us being honored, it’s about God’s purposes being advanced and God’s ways becoming known.

There’s a fine line to walk here.   A donor might want to make a gift public, and even agree to have their name on a building, for example, to encourage others to give.  That would be letting their light shine. But they’d always have to keep a watchful eye on their true motives.

Former President Jimmy Carter volunteers publicly with Habitat for Humanity to encourage others to take part in charitable work.

Cultural practices and Christian identity—some further thoughts

In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

I answered this question in my last post, but it has suggested some further questions to me that I think would make for interesting reflection and conversation:

– If we’re members of a community of Jesus’ followers in a particular place and time, chances are it has some “insignia” of its own.  But we often take these for granted and don’t recognize them for what they are. Can you identify the insignia of your own community?  Is it legitimate for a community to expect its members to follow some specific cultural practices (in the narrower sense of the word culture), not to be accepted by God, but to further the community’s mission in its place and time?  What happens to someone in your community who doesn’t adopt these practices?

– Can a person who’s coming from the background of another religion continue to maintain some of their previous insignia as cultural practices (in the broader sense), without this constituting any disloyalty to Jesus or the community of his followers?  For example, if Jewish followers of Jesus can legitimately continue to practice circumcision, observe the sabbath, and keep kosher (as the New Testament says they can), can a person from a Muslim background who becomes a follower of Jesus continue to fast during the day in the month of Ramadan and eat only halal food?

–  Are some insignia, such as baptism and communion, expected of all followers of Jesus, based on Jesus’ own commands?  (“Do this in remembrance of me” and “Go and make disciples, baptizing them”)

Corrado Giaquinto, The Holy Spirit, 1750

–  Will followers of Jesus in different cultures live out in different practical ways the mandate to forsake the acts of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even if their internal values and attitudes are basically the same?

– The study guide question is originally about the Holy Spirit:  Has our experience of the Spirit been such that we recognize that insignia are not needed to make us more acceptable to God?  What kind of experience have you had of the Holy Spirit’s presence and transforming power?

As a rule this blog presents my answers to questions I’ve been asked, but in this case I wanted to ask a few questions of my own!

If followers of Jesus don’t need to add any “cultural practices” to faith, doesn’t this mean they don’t have to add anything at all?

In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

You make an excellent point—everything we do is, in some sense, cultural, so if no cultural practices needed to be added to trust in Jesus, then nothing practical at all is expected from those who trust in him, only believing.  But as you point out, Paul does expect believers to exhibit a dramatic change in life (not to be accepted by God, but because they have been accepted).

So yes, I am the term “cultural” in a narrower sense.  Your question has helped me clarify what this is.  What I actually mean by “particular cultural practices” is practices that have been given a religious significance within a particular cultural setting, which people are expected to adopt in order to be recognized and accepted as members in good standing of a religious community.  (These are sometimes called “insignia.”)

The main issue in Galatians is whether Gentiles should be required to adopt the practice of circumcision in order to be recognized and accepted as members of the community of Jesus’ followers.  As I note in the guide (p. 30), circumcision “has been practiced in a variety of cultures for different ceremonial and medical reasons.”  For the Jews it was the necessary sign of community membership.  But Paul’s argument in Galatians is that God’s people are now a multinational, multiethnic community whose members are not required to adopt the insignia of any its constituent ethnic or national groups, not even those of the foundational Jewish community (also including sabbath observance, annual festivals, and kosher diet, which he mentions in other letters such as Romans and Colossians).

Club soda

This would apply equally to the insignia of any modern-day Christian community, such as (for example) not dancing or abstaining from alcoholic beverages.  But members of the community of Jesus’ followers everywhere are expected to forsake the “acts of the flesh” and live out the “fruit of the Spirit” as their lives are transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit and of the community of believers to which they now belong.

See some follow-up thoughts on this topic here.