Monday, 2 June 2008

Putting the good back into good works

In the circles in which I move, it seems to be almost impossible to utter the phrase “good works” without putting a “not” in the sentence. Good works have a bad press. The strange thing is that these are circles that seek to uphold the Bible’s teaching, yet when I read the Bible, I never find “good works” used in a negative way. I count 17 instances of ergon agathon(and 2 Thess 1:11 is very close, “good resolve and work of faith”), and 16 of ergon kalon in the NT, mostly in the plural. Being a mere OT scholar, I can’t detect any real difference between these two Greek expressions generally rendered “good work(s)”.

In the first instance, the expression refers to God’s work in us (Phil. 1:6) and then (most references) to the lifestyle of a Christian believer lived in service to God and others as the outworking of this – ethics with a strong social dimension (Matt 5:16; Acts 9:36; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 2:10; 5:10; 6:18). Christian leadership is inherently a “good work” (1 Tim 3:1) and Christian leaders are to model high ethical probity (Tit 2:7). Christian ministry and our Christian meetings are to be used to promote good works (Tit 3:1; Heb. 10:24).

Good works are what Christians are to be passionate about (Tit 2:14). Our remaking in Christ (Eph 2:10) is as part of God’s new world, which, like his original creation, he declares “good”. Our lives are to be worthy of this (Col 1:10; 2 Thess 1:11).

Perhaps our problem with “good works” is that we confuse them with the (peculiarly Pauline) expression “works of the law” (e.g. Gal 2:16) which is used negatively, in contrast to faith. This blog is not the place to deal with this expression (even if I were competent to) except to note that it is treated very differently from “good works” in the NT.

For some of us the most striking set of passages in which “good works” play a part relates to their role in God’s ultimate verdict, e.g. Romans 2 where we learn that “to those who by patiently doing good seek glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7; cf. Matt 19:16; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:1,13) and shortly after, in contrast to those who do evil, “glory and honour and peace is the prospect of everyone who does good” (Rom 2:10). It is this lifestyle of “good works” which will be brought to completion on the last day (Phil 1:6) and will be held up for display for all to see and glorify God for (1 Pet. 2:12).

I’m just doing my usual thing here of making a plea that we allow the Bible to speak in its own terms, rather than filter it too heavily through a grid which is an outcome of controversies of a past age.


Alex said...

Solid post John, thanks. I found your site through a link from Mike Bird.

sujomo said...

Hi John,

what a helpful post emphasising that "we allow the Bible to speak in its own terms"

I also note that in 2 Thessalonians 1:11 ergon is linked to pistis.