Talking about the importance of works in the Christian life typically makes Evangelical Christians break out in a theological rash. As quickly in the conversation as possible they interject with sobriety and gravitas that we are saved by grace, not works. Many share testimonials about how they used to be on the “works treadmill” but now are “learning to just be.”
(When probed a bit more, their “works treadmill” appears to be more a “church treadmill” of committee memberships and congregational events than it does an honest-to-goodness Ephesians 2:10 treadmill of “good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life” where they have been distracted from the essence of their Christian life by spending too much time loving enemies, visiting widows and orphans, and daily taking up their crosses.)
Works, in other words, are regarded as potentially dangerous. Distracting. Like brandy and cigars, some Evangelicals these days are willing to dabble in them with moderation. But works as an essential part of the Christian life makes the Evangelical spider-sense tingle.
Some Evangelical pastors try to split the difference by redefining what works are so that in essence works properly understood become non-works. For example, John Piper, trying to make sense of Christ’s call in John 14:15 to keep his commandments, writes:
Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me, you will keep my moral behavior commandments.” He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (verse 15). So if you read through the Gospel again, what you find is lots of commandments like: “Receive me” (1:12). “Follow me” (1:43). Get up, crippled man (5:8). Rise from the dead, Lazarus! (11:43). “Believe in the light” (12:36). “Believe in God” (14:1). “Believe me” (14:11). “Abide in me” (15:4). “Ask whatever you wish” (15:7). “Abide in my love” (15:9). “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). These are the commandments that are all over the Gospel of John.
Now how does that confirm the way we have understood love for Jesus in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”? Because if the commandments in the Gospel of John are overwhelmingly receive, believe, ask, abide, then it makes perfect sense that Jesus would say, “If you love me — if you desire me and delight in me and treasure me — then you will receive me, and believe me and abide in me.”
And yet, three times in the same message in which Jesus tells us to keep his commandments he repeats the same commandment–a new commandment. It is not abide, believe, follow, or rise from the dead.
It is love one another as I have loved you.
In addition to repeating this same new commandment three times, he specifies what will happen when we keep it, ostensibly as we are believing, following, and rising from the dead:
Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them
will be one who loves me;
and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I shall love him and show myself to him. (John 14:21)
Of course works don’t earn the favor of God. The way Jesus defines them they can’t even be undertaken except as one has experienced how Christ first loved us, since Jesus commands us to do our works as according to that love. They are first his works, and only secondarily our own, as he deigns to permit them to pass through us to others.
And that is why works of faith are means of grace: When we love others as Christ loves us, we of necessity must continuously meditate upon and worshipfully express the love with which he first loved us. And when we do that, how could he not show himself to us?