Works righteousness: Salvation through good karma.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 August 2017
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, and deserving, 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 a number of people prefer it ’cause you can do it passively) we’ve gotta suffer some kind of catastrophic loss. One which totally doesn’t seem to fit our circumstances. You know, like Job being a really good guy, yet losing all his kids and stuff in a single day. Jb 1 Getting a deadly disease, getting your house flooded, getting your dad murdered—stuff that’ll make people sympathetic, or even cry.

See, people assume the universe oughta balance things out. Good things should happen to good people, and bad things to bad. But in reality the universe is random and meaningless. When circumstances expose this truth, people feel it’s just wrong—and often take it upon themselves to balance things out. (And then claim, “See? The universe balanced things out.” Well, it needed help.) People pour out support to the needy—but y’notice it’s sometimes entirely out of proportion. More than once I’ve seen a story in the news about people in need, and people donated so much support, 100 times the people could’ve been helped by it. (Hopefully the needy people passed some of that generosity along.)

But yeah, the world runs on works righteousness. On karma.

The kingdom of God, on the other hand, runs on grace. People don’t get what we deserve, much less what people think we merit. Instead we get what God wants to give us, and he wants to do for us way more than we can ever ask or think. Ep 3.20 He wants to give us his kingdom.

Problem is, 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 conclude we therefore have to 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. Still, they insist, 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 karmic debt… to an infinite God. Good luck with all that.

Nah. The reason Christians are to be good, is because God instructs us to be good. 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. “No, that’s not happening. I grade the papers.”
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. It was either stuff he was already supposed to do, or stuff I neither needed nor wanted.

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

Titus 3.4-7 KWL
4 When kindness and love for humanity was revealed by our savior God,
5 it wasn’t from the righteous things we’d done.
Instead, he saved us from his mercy, by the Holy Spirit’s washing, rebirth, and renewal.
6 He richly poured out his Spirit on us, through our savior Christ Jesus.
7 Because we’re declared righteous by that grace,
we can become his heirs, and have 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, “Be good and I’ll save you from the Egyptians.” The LORD saved ’em first, exactly like he saved us in Christ first.

Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
8 You’re saved by grace, through a faith which doesn’t come from you: It’s God’s gift.
9 It doesn’t come from good deeds; nobody can brag about it.
10 We’re God’s poetry, composed in Christ Jesus,
so we can do the good things God got ready for us, and 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, “You’re supposed to do good deeds now that I’ve saved you, but since you’re not, I’m gonna withdraw my salvation.” God doesn’t work like that! If you trust him to save you, he’s gonna save you. Good works are the side effect, not the cause. Trying to make ’em the cause, indicates we don’t really trust God, and are following karma instead of him.

Accusations of works righteousness… from lawless Christians.

There’s a common, and irritating, phenomenon. It’s when fellow Christians look at our good deeds, and assume because we’re striving to be good like God commands, we’re really doing them because we don’t really trust God to do all the saving. We’re practicing works righteousness.

Why do they claim this? Three reasons.

The most obvious reason… is they’re totally right. There are Christians who try to earn favor with God through their good deeds. The Christians who pray regularly, read bible regularly, go to church regularly, do good deeds regularly, and remain 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 over the years they got the idea that maintaining this state of grace required effort on their part. To them, Christianity’s like if your dad gave you a new car, then said, “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, you have to pay for everything? Exactly what’d he give in this arrangement?

If we’re going with the car simile, more accurately God’s the dad who gave you a new car and paid for everything. Including payments, registration, gas, oil changes. And if you’re caught speeding or illegally parking, he pays the tickets. And if you smash it into things—even for evil fun!—he pays the repair bills. He doesn’t want you 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 it for granted. But grace means he already paid for everything. All we need do is accept his gift.

The more common reason has to do with the accusers’ own lack of good deeds.

As I pointed out in my article on legalism, a number of Christians don’t even try to do good deeds. Don’t even try to be religious. They recognize they’re saved by grace, but figure now that they’re saved, they needn’t do anything more. They can keep on sinning, and God’ll forgive them for all those new sins, and isn’t his abundant forgiveness awesome? Ro 6.1 Now they can flail around in it like a kiddie pool.

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 fruit of the Spirit, although they kinda expect fruit to come automatically and naturally—as if self-control isn’t one of the fruit.

Basically these folks are abusing 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. It’s 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.

And that leads to the third reason: Politics. Civic idolaters believe the only true Christians are the ones who agree with them politically. If you disagree with them, for whatever reason, you’ve gotta be a fake Christian. You don’t really know God. Your motives for good deeds can’t be because you know him and wanna follow him; they’ve gotta be because you don’t know him and are trying to butter him up with your good behavior. You know, like pagans do. It’s extra-pure cynicism.

Suffice to say many left-wing Christians assume the Christian Right is purely acting out of works righteousness, and right-wing Christians believe precisely the same of the Christian Left.

In general, these accusers share one thing in common: They’re not really following God, and they’re suspicious of those of us who do. 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.