Evangelicals have an interesting relationship with the concept of works, because on the one hand, we want to clearly and confidently affirm that a person is saved by grace through faith, and it’s not of themselves, it’s not from their works. Works, at least our works, do not contribute to our salvation; it is Christ’s work and our faith in his work on the cross, and in him more specifically, that brings about salvation.
But then, on the other hand, how do we live after that? We would correctly affirm that our works after salvation are important, they do matter, not that we could lose our salvation if we didn’t do them, but that we would show ourselves to never have had it if we don’t live out our supposed faith.
All of this also has another dimension, because a lot of times, when it comes to evangelism, and the sharing of our faith and the gospel, some people put a very high emphasis on works. And actually, my point for today is that many people unknowingly, and perhaps unintentionally, are proclaiming a gospel of works by the way they live and by the way they approach sharing the gospel. I’ll explain a little more about what I mean by that in a minute.
Along the way, we’re going to have to answer some questions, like what does it even mean to share the gospel? What does it mean to witness or be a good witness? Can you love someone well, and not share the gospel with them? These are they types of things we’re going to answer. But just so you understand right where I’m coming from:
If you’re sharing the gospel only by how you live, you’re not actually sharing the gospel at all.
If you’re just sharing the gospel with only your works, you’re actually proclaiming a gospel of works.
I’m not saying if you try and live in a godly way, and you also use words to communicate the gospel, that you’re communicating a false gospel. No, hopefully we do live in such a way that our works are a testament to our message. But if the only message you’re conveying is done via your works, and let’s even say they’re really good works, you’re communicating a gospel of works, which in some ways is a false gospel. I’m not saying you’re a heretic, or anything like that. I’m simply saying if we are doing that, we are not fulfilling what Christ expects of us and has revealed for us to do in scripture.
Works are not self-interpreting
Let me try and support that point a little. The first thing I would say is that works are not self-interpreting. When you do something good for someone, they don’t know why you’re doing it. You could hold the door for someone so that you look good in front of your girlfriend. You could hold the door for someone because you have compassion on them because they’re walking with a cane. The person doesn’t know why you’re doing a good work. They don’t know if you’re holding the door for them out of compassion because you’re a Christian, and Christ says we should have compassion on people.
When someone simply does good works, unless they open their mouth and use words to communicate, we don’t know why they’re doing the works, and that’s really important. If we’re going to talk about communicating the gospel—the good news of what Jesus came to do for sinners, and who God is and who we are, and our sin and depravity before him, and the necessity of Jesus coming to Earth and living a perfect life, and going to the cross, and dying and rising again, and paying for the sins of his people— you can’t communicate that only through works. It doesn’t matter how many works you do and how good they are. You can’t communicate the gospel through works. If you’re intending to, it’s not the actual gospel you’re communicating, it is something else, because works are not self-interpreting. They need words to put them in their context, so we understand why you did what you did, what was your intent, and that sort of thing.
Works are not distinctly Christian.
Another point is that works are not distinctly Christian. There are almost no individual works that could be done in such a way to communicate the truth of Christianity, that someone that wasn’t a Christian couldn’t do. A non-Christian could hold the door for someone. A non-Christian could donate to charity. A non-Christian could be very kind. A non-Christian could never curse. A non-Christian could vote for all of the “right”–tongue-in-cheek–republican candidates.
I would challenge you to find an action a Christian can do, and then find a non-Christian who couldn’t do it. What I’m getting at here is works are not distinctly Christian, in and of themselves. Even going to church, we might call a Christian work, but non-Christians can go to church. Non-Christians can take the Lord’s supper, though they shouldn’t. If we’re just communicating, or trying to communicate the gospel with our works, we’re left with something that is distinctly un-Christian, that a non-Christian can communicate, and in fact, that doesn’t communicate Christ. Because if Christ didn’t need to die and rise for your communication of the gospel, to communicate the truth of the gospel, it’s not the gospel you’re communicating.
It’s been said before, of preachers, that if Jesus didn’t need to die and rise from the dead, in order for your sermon to work, go back and start over. It’s a bad sermon. If Jesus, in his crucifixion, and resurrection, and work on the cross, is not necessary for our story, then our story and what we’re sharing is not Christian. If Christ is not in it, it’s not Christian. Holding a door for someone, doing the best of actions for someone is not Christian distinctly, and it doesn’t communicate the gospel on its own. I’m not saying works are bad–we’ll get to that–but I am addressing an extreme here.
I think this is also evidenced by the fact that Mormons have a reputation, where” you can’t out-nice a Mormon,” because they are known and regarded as some of the nicest, most kind people. But we have vastly different conceptions of the gospel. And yet if you just judge the truthfulness of religion on how people lived, you might come away thinking for some reason Mormonism is more true. But that’s because we haven’t actually evaluated what the religion teaches, what is the gospel of Mormonism versus the gospel of Christianity? Works are not self-interpreting and they’re not distinctly Christian.
A works-only approach conveys that behavior is the most important
But more so, a works-only approach conveys that behavior is the most important thing and that people should simply try harder. If you’re setting an example with your works only, what are you showing? That this is what Christianity looks like. What would you be communicating otherwise? If our works are the primary thing we are using to show our Christianity, we are showing that Christianity is primarily about works, which it is not, unless we’re talking about Christ’s work on the cross.
A works-only approach can lead to despair.
Kind of dovetailing off of that, a works-only approach can lead to despair. If your coworker sees that you are just so distinctly a good person, you do everything right, even your intentions seem right, and they know nothing of Jesus, this could very well lead them to despair, because they know that they are not a good person. They see you and they think, “I could never be like that.” Instead of your message communicating hope, it actually leads the person to despair.
I’m reminded of a story that a professor I had in seminary told, that’s very similar to this, where a man worked in an office, and he tried to be the best “witness” he could be through how he lived his life and through how he behaved at the office. He always thought about maybe sharing Jesus directly with his coworkers, but he never did. He thought his actions would do the talking for him.
One day, his coworker, a guy he’s thought of before, and realized didn’t know Jesus, this guy comes to him and says during lunch, “I would like to talk with you about Jesus. I actually just made Jesus lord of my life and I want to talk with you, that you might know him.” And the man says, “I know him. I’ve been trying to communicate that with how I live.” And the guy who just became a Christian said, “For the longest time, I didn’t think I needed to be a Christian to be good. I saw you and I didn’t know you were a Christian, and you seem to be so moral, so it didn’t even seem like God was necessary.”
What you see with this story is when the man only communicated or tried to communicate the gospel with his actions, he communicated a gospel of works that made it seem like Christ was not even necessary, so it had the opposite effect. A works-only approach can actually lead to despair or an opposite understanding of the gospel. But a works-only approach doesn’t take seriously Paul’s argument in Romans 10, that faith comes by hearing the good news of Christ, not by seeing the good works of Christians.
Good works may very lead someone to ask the question, ?why would someone behave like that?? But I’ll be straight with you, and you probably already know this: what Christ considers a good work, society is more increasingly considering to be evil. Christ considers defending the unborn life, and its mother, a great good, because that life is created in his image, and yet society considers our opposition of abortion to be evil. Society considers contending for the traditional understanding of biblically rooted gender roles, and sexual orientation and marriage to be evil and oppressive, and harmful, and bigoted, and yet Christ would consider that to be a good action (obviously this depends on how that’s done). The middle ground of overlap between what biblical Christianity says is good, and what culture will accept as good, is shrinking. There is even less of an opportunity to communicate what society considers as good for the Christian.
We cannot only rely on our works, because faith comes by hearing, not by seeing the good works of people. It comes by realizing that I can’t justify myself, but that it is God who justifies the ungodly. Works have a place, we’ll talk about that, but they can’t be primary.
You will never out-live our convictions
My last point is that you will never outlive your convictions. People will always aspire to more, believe more is right than they will ever actually live out. It should be this way for the Christian. In some ways, it’s lamentable , but it actually should be the case that we believe correct things and yet also one of those correct things we believe is that we will fall short in our actions of those correct things, this side of heaven. Because a correct Christian belief is that we are still sinners. We still need forgiveness on a daily basis, that we still need repentance on a daily basis. What that presupposes is that we are not living up to our convictions, but that means that our convictions are higher aspirationally than our actions. If we’re only limiting ourselves to communicating the gospel with our actions, we’re not even communicating the full extent of our beliefs, because we’ll never live up or live out the extent of our beliefs.
You may have heard this phrase, “Share the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” That’s a horrible phrase. That’s kind of like saying, “Feed the poor at all times, and use food when necessary.” Food is always necessary. Words are always necessary to share the gospel. Faith comes by hearing the preached word of Christ, not by seeing someone hold the door or do some even really good action.
I hope what you’ve been convinced of so far, is that if you’re relying on your works to communicate the gospel, you shouldn’t be. We must open our mouths. We must speak. But works do have a place. They should flow from a heart that’s been changed, a heart that’s been regenerated to beat for God, to live out and show obedience and love to him, through following his commands as revealed in scripture. And in fact, our works reveal our continual sanctification, as the spirit works to change our desires in our heart.
Our works can either be a credit or a detractor from our message, they can make or break our message. The reason for that is if I’m saying that Christianity is about a selfless God who came to Earth to die of his people, to atone for their sins, out of love for himself and for them, and yet I behave in a very selfish way consistently, I am a detractor from my message. I am tarnishing that message. I’m not saying that Christians won’t be selfish, but what’s the pattern there?
Do I defend my sin? I think that’s a really important question for our point in time, when our personal defense and even corporate defense of some sins is at an all-time high. Once again, the question is not do I sin, because I should be clear when I communicate the gospel, that it communicates that that person is a sinner, and that I am still a sinner, and the main difference between the two of us is that Christ has forgiven me my sin, and he has not forgiven that person, because they have not yet placed their faith in him.
Part of our message, like I mentioned before, is that we communicate that we are still sinners, that we do things wrong, that we are not perfect. But our works and our pattern of works can either credit or detract from our message. As Christians, one of our works should be when we do sin, which we will, we ask forgiveness, even from the non-Christian. We shouldn’t be trying to live so well, that we make it seem like we didn’t make a mistake by not asking for forgiveness. We should be the first to ask for forgiveness, because it is our God who has forgiven us, and sets the pattern for what that looks like. We should be quick to forgive when we are offended. We should also be slow to be offended, which is a virtue in our society today, that is not often lived out.
So all of that to say, works cannot be the primary way we communicate the gospel. They aren’t actually a way to communicate the gospel. They can either adorn our message or they can tarnish it, but they are not the message itself. The only work that is the message is the work of Christ on the cross in his sinless life and perfect atoning work for us, when our works could not even save us, they certainly cannot communicate what Christ did for him. That’s why he has given us his word and the ministry to share his word. That people would be reconciled to him.
I hope this has been helpful at helping you think through the role of works in evangelism and how we live. I look forward to talking with you next week on Unapologetic.