In praise of works

The Participation/Engagement/Ownership architecture runs on sanctification software.

That is, absent a robust theology of sanctification, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about growing champions comprehensively in the likeness of Christ.

That’s particularly challenging for us in a day and age when no small portion of contemporary evangelical Christianity refers to the term “works” only perjoratively , in conjunction with the term “righteousness”.

Christianity today has a surprisingly hard time distinguishing between sanctification and works righteousness.

I say “surprisingly” because although some branches of the Protestant family tree may talk about sanctification more than others, all branches–whether Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, or Anglican–have always historically affirmed that Christ not only frees us from the penalty of sin, but that He also progressively frees us from the power of sin.

In say “Christianity today” because I was absolutely shocked by Mark Galli’s article, We’ve Won the Lottery–Now What?, on Christianity Today’s website at the end of July.

Galli begins with a fair question:

Why does the evangelical community end up with sinners like Governor Mark Sanford (adultery) and Ted Haggard (immorality) and CEO Kenneth Lay (fraud) and evangelist Jim Baker [sic] (licentiousness)—to take but a very few examples!

His analysis?

What has gone wrong? The first answer seems to be that we are not thinking right or doing enough. Some put their chips on redefining the gospel in social terms; they assume the problem is individualism. Others bet on spiritual formation; the problem is that we’re lazy and spiritual disciplines point the way to a more godly future. Some say we need the dynamism of the Holy Spirit; the problem is formalism. Others plea for more accountability groups or more thoughtful worship music or more time in prayer or more of some other magic bullet. If we only do something more, things will improve.
We’ve tried all these, and tried them time and again. The lamentable conclusion seems to be that while the gates of Hades will never prevail against the church, the spirit of moral mediocrity has pretty much won the day. This is not to deny those wonderful moments when the church really acts like the church, when outsiders notice Jesus Christ as a result! Such moments are pure gifts, signs of the coming kingdom. But history suggests they are intermittent. The usual reality is that the church, from corrupt Corinth to amoral America, remains a sinful institution, full of sinful people.
Perhaps it’s time we try a new approach, and do less.

What has gone wrong? The first answer seems to be that we are not thinking right or doing enough. Some put their chips on redefining the gospel in social terms; they assume the problem is individualism. Others bet on spiritual formation; the problem is that we’re lazy and spiritual disciplines point the way to a more godly future. Some say we need the dynamism of the Holy Spirit; the problem is formalism. Others plea for more accountability groups or more thoughtful worship music or more time in prayer or more of some other magic bullet. If we only do something more, things will improve.

We’ve tried all these, and tried them time and again. The lamentable conclusion seems to be that while the gates of Hades will never prevail against the church, the spirit of moral mediocrity has pretty much won the day. This is not to deny those wonderful moments when the church really acts like the church, when outsiders notice Jesus Christ as a result! Such moments are pure gifts, signs of the coming kingdom. But history suggests they are intermittent. The usual reality is that the church, from corrupt Corinth to amoral America, remains a sinful institution, full of sinful people.

Perhaps it’s time we try a new approach, and do less.

Inexplicably setting aside two-thirds of what the Apostle Paul actually wrote, Galli asserts:

The primary issue for Paul was not striving for transformation but resting in forgiveness. That he continued to sin, and sin woefully, was not as important to him as the fact that no sin he could commit was beyond God’s desire to forgive—nothing, not even his ongoing sinfulness, could separate him from the love of God in Christ! No wonder he lived in gratitude—doing less!

Since when did a robust theology and practice of sanctification become antithetical to justification by faith? Certainly not in either the New Testament, the Protestant Reformation, or orthodox Christianity through the ages.

It’s hard to get less controversial a resource than The New Bible Dictionary, which ticks off without hesitation the abundance of New Testament passages relating to the essential and praiseworthy nature of works in the Christian life:

The believer also demonstrates by his good works the divine activity within him (Mt. 5:16; Jn. 6:28; 14:12). Conversely, the man who has no faith demonstrates by his evil works his separation from God (Jn. 3:19; Col. 1:21; Eph. 5:11; 2 Pet. 2:8, etc.). Good works are therefore the evidence of living faith, as James emphasizes in opposition to those who claim to be saved by faith alone without works (Jas. 2:14-26). James is in harmony with Paul, who also repeatedly declared the necessity for works, i.e. for behaviour appropriate to the new life in Christ following our entry into it by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-10; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:16-26, etc.). The works rejected by Paul are those which men claim as earning God’s favour and securing their discharge from the guilt of sin (Rom. 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5). Since salvation is given by God in grace, no degree of works can merit it. The good works of the heathen are therefore unavailing as a means of salvation, since the man himself relies on the flesh and not on the grace of God (Rom. 8:7-8).

Wood, D. R. W. ; Marshall, I. Howard: New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1996, S. 1249

Do we really want to submit Sanford, Haggard, Lay, and Bakker–and by extension adultery, immorality, fraud, and licentiousness among Christians–as evidence that we Christians have taken spiritual disciplines, accountability groups, and moral training too seriously?

Or is it possible that the church has, by and large, simply lost the ability to disciple Christians and that Apple Computer does a better job in this arena than we do?

Participation/Engagement/Ownership should never be diminutively understood as an organizational fundraising strategy. It is nothing less than an effort to restore works to their rightful place in the Christian life, in the context of a robust theology of sanctification that arises not in opposition to justification and forgiveness but rather as its boon companion, like thunder follows lightning.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to In praise of works

  1. Pingback: A Generally Favorable Review of Kelly Kapic’s New Book, God So Loved, He Gave | Transformational Giving

  2. Pingback: The Theology of TG: Two Excellent New Articles to Undergird Your Practice of Transformational Giving | Transformational Giving

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