14 June 2023

Works righteousness: Salvation through good karma.

WORKS RIGHTEOUSNESS 'wərks raɪ.tʃəs.nəs noun. A right standing (with God or others) achieved through good deeds.

Works righteousness is how the world works. We tend to call it karma: If we want people to think of us as good, upstanding, deserving, even holy, we’ve gotta publicly do good deeds. Like doing charity work, making big donations, rescuing needy people, doing stuff for the public good. Not just the stuff ordinary citizens do, and should do, like follow the laws and not be jerks. It’s gotta be actions which go above and beyond.

Or (and this is the much harder way, although many people prefer it ’cause it’s quicker and passive) we’ve gotta suffer a catastrophic loss. One which totally doesn’t seem to fit our circumstances. Like getting a deadly disease, surviving a disaster, losing all your stuff in that disaster, losing all your family in that disaster… basically, Job’s story. He was a really good guy, yet lost all his kids and stuff in a single day. Jb 1 Stuff that’ll make people sympathetic, or even cry.

See, people presume the universe oughta balance things out. Good things should happen to good people, right?—and bad things to bad. When circumstances expose the truth—that the universe is random and meaningless—people are outraged at this illusion getting shattered, feel things are just wrong… and frequently take it upon themselves to fix things. (Then claim, “See? The universe balanced things out.” Yeah, not without human help.) People pour out support to the needy… and y’notice it’s sometimes entirely out of proportion. More than once I’ve seen a news story in which someone’s in need, and the public donated so much money, 100 other people could’ve been helped by it. Sometimes the needy people pass some of that generosity along; sometimes they don’t, but that seldom makes the news.

But as you can see, the world runs on works righteousness. On karma.

The kingdom of God, by contrast, runs on grace. God’s people don’t get what we deserve, much less what people think we merit. Instead we get what God wants to give us, and that’s a lot. Way more than we can ever ask or think. Ep 3.20 He wants to give us his kingdom.

For a whole lot of Christians this idea hasn’t entirely sunk in. When we come to Jesus, we bring our existing ideas, including our existing wrong ideas, with us. One of ’em is the idea we owe God big-time. After all, look how much he’s done for us! But we often conclude we gotta pay him back. You’ll even hear Christians claim this is why we’ve gotta do good deeds: We owe God. We’ll never ever be able to make it up to him; not even after a trillion years of good deeds… but we should try.

Which is simply nuts. And goes against everything God’s trying to teach us about grace. We’re supposed to give without expecting anything back, Lk 6.35 because that’s how our Father gives.

But karma is so pervasive in every human culture, even those of us who know God does grace instead of karma, try to make it up to him in big or small ways. We don’t always do stuff for God out of pure gratitude. We’re still trying to balance out our infinite karmic debt to an infinite God. Good luck with all that.

Nah. The reason we Christians are to be holy and good is because it’s what God instructs us to do. It’s not to earn anything, not to pay anything back, not for any other reason than love. If you love God, do as he says. Jn 14.15 If you don’t really, you won’t really. But forget about earning his love; you already have it. Forget about earning his favor; you already have it. That karma stuff only works on humans. Not God.

Why works righteousness can’t work.

I once had a student who misbehaved so much, I decided he didn’t get to go to gym class that day. Which made him absolutely nuts, ’cause he loved gym. But, I pointed out, if he wasn’t gonna listen to me, how could I trust him to listen to the gym teacher? So he could sit out gym for one day.

He tried bargaining.

HE. “I’ll be good for the rest of the week!”
ME. “You’re supposed to be good for the rest of the week anyway. You’ll just get in more trouble if you’re not. How’s that anything to bargain with?”
HE. “I could grade papers.”
ME. “Oh, that’s not happening.”
HE. “I could do chores.”
ME. “Don’t need chores.”
HE. “I could do my homework.”
ME. “You’re supposed to do your homework.”

He was too young to think of bribery, although that wouldn’t have worked either. He had nothing to bargain with. All he had to offer was either stuff he was already supposed to do, or stuff I neither needed nor wanted.

Exact same deal with God. Our good deeds are the bare minimum of his expectations. And any above-and-beyond efforts we might make, any karmic extra credit, won’t count: He doesn’t want, and didn’t ask, for that stuff. Christians who fast in order to earn God’s sympathy? He didn’t ask us to fast. Christians who recite hundreds of rote prayers in order to achieve God’s forgiveness? He didn’t ask us for that either. Not that fasting and rote prayer aren’t good spiritual disciplines, but if we’re under the delusion they’re a way to earn heavenly Brownie points, we’re wasting our time.

If all it took to be saved was good deeds, Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to die for our sins. He could’ve come to earth, told us, “You know those commands the LORD gave to Moses? Keep it up.” Then got raptured to heaven without dying any gory death. Way easier than what he went through.

But even the best of us bungle those commands. And there’s no possible way for us to balance out the universe after we’ve sinned. Ancient peoples tried ritual sacrifice—kill a goat or cow, and offer its life in exchange for our own—but they were fully aware an animal’s life is not equivalent to our own. That’s why many of ’em resorted to human sacrifice. But every human has their own sins to atone for, so how’re they gonna atone for yours too? Nah; maybe if you sacrifice innocent babies, but that just makes you way more evil.

Hence humanity’s dire need for grace, and the fact God already thought of it way before we ever did.

Titus 3.4-7 NRSVue
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Works can’t make us righteous. Trusting God does. Trusting that he’ll make us righteous, despite our sinfulness, does. Trusting him enough to where we don’t throw up our hands in despair, but keep striving to walk the path God laid out for us, does. 1Jn 2.6

Like Paul made clear in Ephesians, it’s not that we needn’t do good deeds anymore. As Christians, we have all the more reason to do good: We’re representing Jesus, we’re not ingrates, and we’re helping him spread his kingdom. But as far as salvation is concerned, we humans don’t earn it, and never did. The Hebrews weren’t given the Law, then told, “Only once you’re good will I save you from the Egyptians.” The LORD saved ’em first—exactly like he saved us in Christ first.

Ephesians 2.8-10 NRSVue
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them.

Problem is, sometimes we teach just the opposite—that we gotta clean up before we can be forgiven. That we gotta do good deeds, and continue to do good deeds, lest God decide, “Look, you dirty sinners, you were supposed to do good deeds now that I’ve saved you, and if you won’t uphold your end of the deal, I’m gonna withdraw my salvation.” That’s not grace! God doesn’t work like that (and not just because he already knew we were gonna suck back when he saved us; our behavior never catches an all-knowing God by surprise). If we trust him to save us, he’s gonna save us. Good works are the effect, not the cause. Trying to flip things around and make ’em the cause, indicates we believe they save us, not God. So we’ve not trusted God; we’re still following karma.

Lawless Christians and works righteousness.

Ever had a Christian look at your good deeds, and presume you’re trying to be good because you’re trying to earn salvation?

It’s happened to me a bunch of times. It used to confuse me, because I didn’t see how they came to that conclusion. I never taught works righteousness; I never said, “If you’re not good you’re going to hell.” (Back in my Fundamentalist days I might have, but even then I knew there was something askew with that statement.) I never tied works to salvation, because I know better than to claim works will save anyone. They never saved anyone.

I realized later it was more about their personal issues and hangups, than anything I was doing.

IGNORANCE. Let’s not forget: Karmic thinking has leaked into a lot of our churches, and there are a lot of Christians who grew up under it. Some of ’em still think good works are how we get saved. And even if they don’t, most churches think good works are how people become holy.

When these Christians finally learn what grace is—how God saves us, not our good works—well, humans are creatures of extremes. Lots of them will immediately, and wrongly, reject good works. “Good works don’t save; therefore we mustn’t do them any longer, lest we backslide into that old thinking, and believe again they do save.”

Um… goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. Saying “No more good works” is like saying “No more love; loving people is bad!” It’s dumb. But we shouldn’t be surprised when spiritually immature people act dumb. Hey, they don’t know any better.

So they might be worried I’m repeating their old error—that the only reason I do good works is because I might wrongly think I’m saved by them. That’s easily fixed: I let ’em know I’m fully aware we’re saved by grace, and I do good works because I’m trying to follow Jesus. Don’t they try to follow Jesus too?—and don’t they notice, when they follow him, they wind up doing good deeds? It should be a natural byproduct.

And to be fair to spiritual dumb-dumbs: Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re dealing with a Christian who’s totally trying to earn favor with God through good deeds. Plenty of us pray regularly, read bible regularly, go to church regularly, do good deeds regularly, and strive to be good—not out of gratitude, but out of fear. They worry they’re gonna lose their salvation if they don’t keep it up.

They may have started their Christianity by believing in grace, by recognizing God saved us when we believed in him. But this can easily be undermined if you go to a church which emphasizes “holiness”—by which they mean goodness, not actual holiness—and claim if Christians wanna stay in God’s grace, we gotta make an effort. To them, Christianity’s like if your dad gives you a brand-new car, then says, “But you have to make the car payments, pay the taxes and registration and insurance, buy the gas, and get the oil changed regularly.” Wait, I have to pay for everything? Did he actually give me a car, or did he just saddle me with a bunch of unexpected responsibilities?

If we’re going with this car simile, God is in fact the dad who gives us a brand-new car, and pays for everything. No payments; he paid cash. Plus registration, insurance, gas, oil changes, regular car cleanings and detailing, and even parking. And if we’re caught speeding or illegally parking, he pays the tickets! And if we smash it into things—even for evil fun!—he pays the repair bills. He doesn’t want us to speed or smash the car; he ordered us to keep it in good condition. If we truly love him, that’s what we’ll strive to do, and not take him for granted. But grace means he paid. All we need do is accept his gift.

HYPOCRISY. Sometimes we’re dealing with lawless Christians who aren’t actually worried we’ve misunderstood salvation; what they object to is the fact we’re trying to follow Jesus, and in so doing, we’re making them look bad. Yep, we got hypocrites.

Most lawless Christians don’t even try to do good deeds. Don’t even try to be religious. They take GOd’s grace for granted: They realize they can keep right on sinning, and God forgives all, and isn’t his abundant forgiveness awesome? Ro 6.1 Now they can jump around in it like a bounce house.

There are some “good works” these Christians permit themselves. But they tend to consist of minor, petty stuff. Behaving themselves in public. Not cussing. Not otherwise behaving in any manner inconsistent with all the other Christians they know: They’re basically trying to conform to popular Christian culture. But it’s not about following God; not about actual goodness. It’s about decorum.

That, and these Christians wanna make sure they have good theology. They figure correct beliefs are the real evidence of God’s work in their lives. Less so the Spirit’s fruit, though they kinda expect fruit to happen spontaneously, with zero effort on their part—as if self-control isn’t one of the fruit.

Basically these folks abuse grace. And they’re the ones who are quickest to point the finger at Christians who are striving to do good deeds, and claim our motives have nothing to do with love for God, nor love for others, nor compassion, gratitude, generosity, kindness. We must be doing this because we’re feathering our heavenly nests: We’re trying to earn karma points, and achieve salvation by our own efforts.

Yeah, it’s pure projection. They aren’t acting out of love, kindness, or any fruit; they figure we can’t be acting out of those motives either. We’ve gotta be working some angle. It’s pure cynicism.

POLITICS. Related to hypocrisy is civic idolatry—the sort of Christian who insists the only true Christians are the ones who agree with them politically. But the Christians who don’t agree with them politically: They’re heretics, and everything they do is suspect. Oh they may look like good orthodox Christians, but they can’t be; they vote for the other guy!

So while they recognize the reason they do good deeds is out of love for God, the other team clearly doesn’t know God, and therefore must be doing what they do for all the wrong reasons. Left-wing Christians presume the Christian Right only does what they do out of works righteousness, and right-wing Christians believe precisely the same of the Christian Left.

Yep, no benefit of the doubt. No attempt at Christian unity. It’s pure partisanship, and projecting evil on the other team solely because you wanna demonize them. If you thought the hypocrites were cynics, this is extra-pure cynicism.

In general, all these accusers share one thing in common: They’re not properly following God; hence the lawlessness. And because they want to justify themselves, they’re suspicious of those of us who do good deeds. Their consciences condemn them, so they’re trying to shout ’em down. They tell themselves, and anyone who’s similarly motivated to believe them, that it’s even righteous of them to practice no good deeds. This way they’re totally dependent upon God’s grace to save them: They never even give works a chance.

But in so doing, they’re disobeying God. And they’re proud of it.

This behavior has its own consequences. The biggest of all is how it demonstrates they have no faith. Faith without works is dead. If you claim to have faith, yet we can’t tell any such thing because your actions reveal otherwise, can we even say you’re Christian? If we Christians are indistinguishable from pagans, how are we possibly Christian?

These folks embrace the poisonous idea of, “I did what God asked of me”—namely some small, minimal, token act of obedience—“and therefore God’s obligated himself to me.” We said the sinner’s prayer, and now God has to save us. What never remotely occurs to them (and what you only now might suddenly, startlingly notice), is that if our salvation is in any way based on what we do, and what God owes us because of what we do, it’s no longer grace at all. It’s just a different form of works righteousness. Since I said the sinner’s prayer, I now have 10 billion karma points and I win heaven.

Yeah. Just when you think you’re not trying to earn your righteousness, turns out the only reason you think so is because you pretty much think you’ve already earned it.

It’s no basis for a relationship. A proper relationship with God is one where we Christians, in response to his abundant grace, love God back and do for him. And he for us. And we don’t keep score, ’cause love doesn’t do that. 1Co 13.5 We don’t bother with karma points, which God neither recognizes nor cares about: We follow. He empowers. And we work together.

And we do good works. After all, what other sort of works ought God’s followers do? But not because they save us: Simply because now we can.