Rebuilding the Foundations
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Unfortunately, we have to begin this chapter with what good works are not.
One of my favorite Christian singers is Carman. His music is peppy and focused on bold confidence in the Lord. He released his first album the year I became a Christian, and I have been listening to his music for 36 years since. One of his songs, "Overcomin' Child of God," says:
God wants us to share the Lord
Isn't that our Christian task?
So when someone says, "Hey, What's happening, man?"
I say, " Brother, I never thought you'd ask."
I'm proud to be living for Jesus ...
Carman is confident that "Isn't that our Christian task?" is a rhetorical question. There is no other answer but yes. We all know, he supposes, that sharing the Lord is what we are on the earth for. Most evangelicals agree with him.
As a result, when I talk to people about good works, their mind generally jumps to Jehovah's Witnesses going door-to-door, witnessing to the teachings of their Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn. They start thinking that they have to go to church more, give to missions more, join the visitation team, and start disrupting co-workers to "share the Lord" every day.
Except for disrupting co-workers (1 Thess. 4:11), there is nothing wrong with those things. Nonetheless, sharing the Lord is not "our Christian task"; it is one of our Christian tasks; unless, that is, you realize that doing good works is perhaps the most important way of sharing the Lord.
Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
You can scour the letters to the churches in the New Testament, and the only commands to witness to our neighbors have to be teased out of vague verses. For example, a favorite witnessing verse when I was being discipled by the Navigators as a young airman was Philemon 1:6: "... that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus" (KJV). We were told that this meant we should be communicating our faith to others by going out of our way to witness to people.
I do not object to going out of our way to witness to people. I have fond memories of passing out tracts on Miracle Strip in the panhandle of Florida and of drawing illustrations of the atonement on napkins at the Ramstein Air Force Base bowling alley. Nonetheless, Philemon 1:6 is not primarily talking about going witnessing.
Instead, Paul was commending Philemon for his faith toward Jesus and his love for all the saints (Phm. 1:5), because this made the fellowship (Gr. koinonia) of his faith effective. The fellowship or sharing of his faith was effective because those around him acknowledged "every good thing" which was in him in Christ (v. 6).
This is akin to what Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonian Christians became such excellent imitators of the apostles and of the Lord that their example spread all the way to Macedonia and Achaia. As a result, the apostles did not have to say anything because the churches in Macedonia and Achaia already knew about the Thessalonians turning from idols to God (1 Thes. 1:6-9). They were an excellent example of what Jesus promised through those who would do good works. Their good works were a brilliant light that made the church in Thessalonica like a city set on a hill that could not be hidden. They did not have to shout it everywhere;tTheir good works brought glory to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).
However, when some of the Thessalonians decided they needed to give themselves to the work of witnessing full-time, Paul rebuked them. He called them busybodies, ordered that they should not be allowed to eat until they went back to work, and told those people to work "with quietness" (2 Thes. 3:10-12). They should have known this from the first letter because the apostles had already told them to love one another and to make it their "ambition" to "lead a quiet life, do your own business, and work with your own hands." It was this behavior that the apostles said qualified as "walking properly towards those who are outside" (1 Thes. 4:9, 11-12).
I know I am touching, even kicking over, a couple of the most sacred of evangelical cows: preaching the atonement to the lost and devoting our lives to witnessing. That has to be shocking, especially because this book is the product of a talk I gave at a conference put on by my favorite mission organization! I burn to reach the world for Jesus, hopefully just like you do!
Nonetheless, we will reach the world better by obeying Jesus and the apostles than by forming our own plans.
I, and I hope we, cannot ignore the fact that the only passage in the letters to the churches that directly talks about going out and preaching the Gospel says, "How can they preach except they be sent?" (Rom. 10:15).
Yes, Jesus sent the apostles (Matt. 28:18-20). Yes, Jesus wants the Gospel of the Kingdom to reach the end of the world and for everyone to hear it (Matt. 24:14). Yes, he wants workers sent into the harvest (Matt. 9:38). Yes, he wants new Christians to grow into mature Christians, to have a heart like heart of his apostles, and he wants to send those mature, discipled Christians out into the harvest (Rom. 10:15). Yes, he wants us to be prepared to answer those who ask us why we hope in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15).
Personally, I agree and teach that as Christians we want to reach the world with the Gospel, especially the unreached. I have been on several mission trips, I personally know and support several missionaries who would call me a friend. I presented the teaching that grew into this book at a missions conference, praying to God with all my heart that I might help equip the missionaries present in their work.
Yet with all that being true, our best success will happen if we reach the world using the methods the Bible teaches us to use.
This brings us back to the subject of good works.
In the New Testament, the first guidance we get on reaching the world is in Matthew 5:14-16. It reads:
Y'all are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do y'all light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, let y'all's light shine before men; that they may see y'all's good works, and glorify y'all's Father who is in heaven.
You have probably never seen this passage translated like that, but it is important to distinguish between commands and teachings that are given to us as a whole and those that are given to us as individuals. All of the uses of "you" in this passage are plural. Jesus did not tell me to light my candle and shine my little light. He told us to do good works and thus shine a great light that lights whole houses and can be seen for miles when set on a hill. Jesus is pulling from an Old Testament passage which he himself spoke through Isaiah the prophet:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and Yahweh’s glory has risen on you.
For, behold, darkness will cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but Yahweh will arise on you,
and his glory shall be seen on you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising." (60:1-3)
It is this light that Jesus wants to shine. It makes an impact on whole nations. In the first centuries of the Church that light was so bright that the mighty Roman empire could not ignore it and eventually had to shake hands and compromise with it through the mediation of Emperor Constantine the Great. I do not think the Church should have accepted that compromise, but that is irrelevant to my point. The churches started by the apostles knew that their commission, along with sending out missionaries and evangelists, was to be a glowing light that could not be ignored. As one of their second-century evangelists put it:
He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil. And this indeed is proved in the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors' lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travelers when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 16, c. 155-165)
Notice that Justin listed three ways that Romans were converted by the Church. All three of them involve the remarkable lives of the Christians, not their vocal evangelism. It is not that there were no missionaries or evangelists, for there were. Justin himself traveled around in philosopher's robes preaching the Gospel to anyone who would care to ask about which philosophical school he represented. The issue is that they knew that remarkably holy lives, lived out by people who loved each other and shared their love like families, would shine a light that their neighbors could not ignore. As a result, their neighbors asked a reason for the hope that was in them, and they prepared themselves to give an answer (1 Pet. 3:15).
On a personal note, I remember discussing this subject with someone who objected with, "When was the last time someone asked you about the Gospel?"
Admittedly, it does not happen as often now as it used to. I own a business with many employees, and they all know I am a Christian. I live in the Bible belt, and most of my employees consider themselves Christians whether they are living for Jesus or not. My interaction with them is not generally about the Gospel, but about living for Jesus. Before I moved to the Bible belt, though, I was asked regularly about my faith, especially in the military where I worked with an aircraft maintenance team with about sixty people on dayshift. They knew I was a Christian, they knew I was not like most of them and, yes, some of them asked about it.
If know one asks, your little light is not shining well enough.
The effect of early Christian reliance on the great light of the church was astounding. One of them, an African lawyer from what is now Tunisia, described their witness in more detail. He wrote:
It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. "See," they say, "how [the Christians] love one another," for they themselves [i.e., the Romans] are animated by mutual hatred. "How they are ready even to die for one another," for they themselves will sooner put to death. And they are angy with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity are assumed in mere pretense of affection. But we are your brethren as well, by the law of our common mother nature, though you are hardly men, because brothers so unkind. At the same time, how much more fittingly they are called and counted brothers who have been led to the knowledge of God as their common Father, who have drunk in one Spirit of holiness, who from the same womb of a common ignorance have agonized into the same light of truth! (Tertullian, Apology, ch. 39, c. 197-220)
How effective was this? Tertullian is the same author who coined the phrase we all know, "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow. The blood of Christians is seed." He gives us an idea of just how "more in number" they had grown:
Without arms even, and raising no insurrectionary banner, but simply in enmity to you, we [Christians] could carry on the contest with you by an ill-willed severance alone. For if such multitudes of men were to break away from you and betake themselves to some remote corner of the world, why, the very loss of so many citizens, whatever sort they were, would cover the empire with shame, nay, in the very forsaking, vengeance would be inflicted. Why, you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence … You would have to seek subjects to govern. You would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For now it is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few, almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ. (Tertullian, Apology, ch. 39, c. 197-220)
Most scholars would consider this paragraph highly exaggerated, but Tertullian could not have made such a claim without some basis in truth. The fact is, the divine plan for the churches to "arise and shine" (Isa. 60:1) by displaying good works to glorify the Father and enlighten the world (Matt. 5:14-16) was very effective. Admittedly, this was in addition to those missionaries and evangelists who were sent (Rom. 10:15), but notice the focus that both Justin and Tertullian had on the love of Christians for one another and even for those in the world. Paul was able to give the same testimony of the Thessalonians even way back at the beginning (1 Thes. 1:6-8).
Paul's letters to the churches indicate that our focus should be the same. They are full of advice on adhering to Christ, walking by the Spirit, turning away from iniquity, and doing good works, but they barely touch on evangelism. While we proclaim today that Christianity is not a religion of dos and don'ts, Paul filled the last half of all his letters with dos and don'ts. He cared so much for good works, that he commanded Timothy and Titus not to let anyone back them down on the subject (1 Tim. 1:3-6; Tit. 3:8).
In modern churches, we want to invite our neighbors into our church meetings so that we can convert them with talk, whether from the pulpit or from discussions in Sunday School. As a result, our church meetings that are geared as much for outsiders and nominal Christians as they are for the truly committed church members. But what has this resulted in? It is possible that American Christianity is as much or more a testimony against Christ than a testimony for him. Jesus prayed to God that we would be as unified as he and the Father are, and he said that this unity would prove to the world that the Father sent him (Jn. 17:20-23), but we are too busy talking to hear him.
In such an environment. we do have to focus on evangelism by talking. Our unity and behavior do not do the talking for us. Happily, there are notable exceptions, both individually and corporately. More and more churches are beginning to realize the desperate need to disciple their members. A discipleship conference I attended in Nashville in 2017 drew over a thousand attendees. Sixteeen organizations were there to present their various plans for discipling churches by discipling individuals. This is very encouraging to see.
Overall, though, no one can miss that the general testimony of Christianity in the western world is of division and worldliness rather than the unity and holiness we are called to. In the early churches, there was first and foremost the glorious light shone by the churches, then the missionaries and evangelists. Today, that is impossible.
The problem does not stop in the congregations. If we do not raise up disciples in our churches, then whom are we sending out as missionaries and evangelists? We are sending out people who are reproducing the kind of Christianity in which they grew up spiritually, every bit as negative a testimony as American churches are.
This can be seen in the results. It is a common saying in west Africa that African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. I have heard it from several missionaries, but the most telling source of that saying was the mayor of Gulu, Uganda!
I was in Gulu at the invitation of a mission there, and somehow we wound up at a civil function. The mayor was talking about ending corruption, and he wanted help from the churches, but they needed cleaning up as much as the government did!
It is the Bible that teaches us to equip the people of God to do good works and to love one another. This equipping is tied directly to evangelism and to reaching the world in the verses we have looked at. We have seen that evangelism is among the good works the Scriptures, grace, the atonement, and the Spirit equip us to do, but it is not "the" work that we are equipped to do. Let us now move on to what those good works are.
We have several sources from which to find the good works that we are created in Christ Jesus to do. There are commands in every letter Paul wrote. There are things to avoid, and there are things to do (e.g., Rom. 11:9-12:1; Eph. 4:20-32). Many powerful church movements, blessed by God, have made the Sermon on the Mount their resting place (Matt. 5-7). I would argue that there are no better chapters in the Bible to show Jesus' opinion of good works than those three.
If God meant Psalm 119 to have any permanent influence on the world, which I am sure we all agree upon, then taking the time to learn the commands and teachings of God is central to our lives as Jesus' disciples. Peter told us to add virtue to our faith, but the first thing to add to our virtue is knowledge. We come to Christ with some knowledge, whether from our culture, our parents, or our conscience, of what is virtuous, and Peter told us we begin our walk with that innate knowledge of virtue. The next step, though, is to refine that virtue—those good works—by gaining knowledge from the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14-17), from the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:3-4, 13-14; Gal. 5:16-24), from our church leaders (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Thes. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17), and from one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25).
Simply put, to learn to do good works is to learn to do the commands of Christ. This does not mean just learning rules, because it requires the power of the Spirit to be a doer of good works as pointed out throughout this book. Jesus said that apart from him, we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). The commands of Christ are all over the New Testament because they issued not just from him, but also from his apostles (1 Cor. 14:37).
Of course, we know that Jesus put two commands above all the others, saying the Law and Prophets depend on those commands (Matt. 22:40). Paul says love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:10). The apostle John, despite all the frightening statements that are in his first letter, wraps them all up in love as well (1 Jn. 4:7-8). He uses "love" 23 times in the 105 verses of 1 John.
Finally, I do want to put one brand of good works in a special class. James, the Lord's brother, wrote, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (1:27).
James included "unstained by the world," which, in a sense, covers all the commands we are given, including walking by the Spirit. He singles out, though, taking care of orphans and widows. Jesus seems to agree. When he describes the judgment of the last day, he focuses on a narrow category of works. Those who enter eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 25:34,46) are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, took in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned (vv. 35-36). Those who go into everlasting fiery punishment (vv. 41,46), are those who did not do those things (vv. 43-44).
Of course, all those things line up with the greatest command beside loving God, which is loving each other.
Surely the emphasis put on these types of good works by Jesus and his half-brother James indicates that they are acts of love even more than other commands. Whether that is true or not, what is true is that Jesus singled them out to represent the works, good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10), for which we will be judged.
And since we are now on the judgment, this is an excellent place to discuss it.