An Age-Old Dilemma – Distinguishing Works From Work
Most of us have played the game, Simon Says. Remember how hard it was to follow those ever-changing directions? As Christians, we often find ourselves trying out the latest idea for living the abundant Christian life. But, it’s important to ask ourselves, “Who Says?” Is it really God, or is it a “Simon?”
Let’s face it, it’s way too easy to let someone else decide what we do or what we shouldn’t do. We learned it well, for very good reasons when we were children, but the pattern often continues as we mature and move into our own realm as adults. We question our intelligence, our strength, or our ability to know what’s right or wrong. So we look to teachers or friends, charismatic speakers and writers to “reveal” what that “best” path is.
And that’s where we get into trouble. We stop reading God’s word for His desires and commands. We stop looking to our own conscience, or the Spirit, for the answers. We start measuring our worth or our character by another person’s idea of what matters. We start believing that we can’t decide these values or qualities ourselves. And thus begins the confusion between “works” and “work”.
“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Hebrews 9:14
The Ongoing Debate
So why is there so much confusion (and debate) between works and work? Between godly standards and legalism? A new convert is often zealous to “arrive” like those they see around them. A rule follower, needs to know what the “right” thing is to do. A seeker may desire “new life” in Christ, yet miss the only way to find it – repentance. And so they “put on” the robes of righteousness not knowing they are but filthy rags. If you stop long enough to consider it, we are easily confused about “freedom in Christ” versus “working out our salvation.” Personally, I have been too easily led astray over the years, but God…..He is so good to be restoring my soul, getting me in line with His “plumb line” (Amos 7:8). And so I write.
Let’s Define “Works”
- Works get us to a better place (in someone’s estimation). It might be our own or another’s, but there’s a good chance God’s “better place” is different than ours!
- Works create an artificial value to a task or external action. This creates a burden if we don’t reach this artificial value or an end to the task.
- Works are defined by a measuring stick created by our own or someone else’s false presumption or standard.
- Works are dead. (see verse above)
- Works build pride, created when we think we’ve “arrived” in an area.
- Works create a hypocritical spirit as we think we’ve arrived and then look down on others who haven’t.
Our job is to consider whether the end result of these statements is found in our life. Am I trying to get to a better place? Do I feel like I’ve “arrived” or do I look down on others? Is there real value in my action or does my value come from God? Really ask the questions. Seek the truth in our answers.
Bear with me on this next point. It takes being humbled, exposed, and raw to really discover the answer to the next question. The real determination of whether we are doing “dead works” or the “working out our salvation” is in the foundation. It’s in the motive.
One simple question can reveal the heart. “Who am I doing this for – really?”
God’s plan in our life, is for us to discover that we can do nothing for vain glory or selfish motives, but live for Him completely. Am I really doing this for myself? Oh, we can convince ourselves it’s for others (I know, I’ve done it!) but truly, does a “ping-pong” effect bringing it right back to me? Does it make me feel better? Does it take away the guilt I feel if I do or don’t do this ‘thing’? The core and foundation of our behavior is really the key here. All it takes is asking ourselves these few foundational questions.
The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the LORD weighs the motives. Commit your works to the LORD and your plans will be established. Proverbs 16:1-3
“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” James 2:26
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” James 2:17
Let’s Define Work
In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul calls us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Isn’t that a thought-provoking sentence? Haven’t we been told salvation is free, no work involved?
But as we seek God’s beautiful plan and His Truth-filled Scriptures, we will come to understand that salvation is free, but the life of a Christian is work. It’s the work of obedience to our heavenly Father, one Whom we trust and worship for what He has done for us. He gives us new life; we value His gift and offer our life in return.
It takes work to:
- take our thoughts captive when we’re angry, hurt, or fearful.
- to use our tongue as an instrument of peace rather than a weapon.
- raise our children for God’s glory and not our own.
- care for our sinful and selfish bodies without indulging in things harmful to us.
- differentiate when we are “working” for ourselves versus giving glory to the living God.
We need to grow up. My son reminds me often, “Life is work.” Work is what this life is all about. Work to eat. Work to keep warm. Work to repair what wears out. Work to keep relationships healthy. Work to live for God and not ourselves. Just. Plain. Work.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Grace Enters In
A life of work might sound tiring, so let’s get to the next wonder of God’s plan. Grace.
We can’t leave out grace and the beautiful freedom God offers us when we realize we can’t do this work on our own strength. It takes humility to see our need and our often-times frustrating inability to get it right on our own. And it takes God’s unconditional forgiveness when we humble ourselves and repent, asking for His help. Then there is the “working out” the salvation He freely gives! Might sound confusing, but remember, the things of this world are silly to God and the things of God are silly to the world aka “us”! It won’t all make perfect sense to our finite minds; we won’t be able to see it all at once! But the love of God in infinite and He has it all worked out. Really.
The beauty of the following verse reveals the heart of God! God’s grace. Salvation through Christ. Our work of actively pursuing godliness. The glory of Christ’s return.
Resting in the grace of God, let’s pump iron together!
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” Titus 2:11-14
If you’re interested in more information on legalism or discerning where your heart lies on the matter, you can find the first two part of my Legalism series here: Legalism – Tearing Down Babel – Part 1 and Legalism – Following The Pied Piper! – Part 2.