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The Dilemma of Good Works

face of man eyes closed sweat on forehead
Greg and Susan Williams
Greg and Susan Williams

Dear GCI Family and Friends,

Many Christians have a passion to want to do something “for” Jesus, with perhaps an underlying motivation to impress Jesus. The apostle Paul speaks of this conundrum in his letter to the Romans. He talks about having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Even if the intent is energetic and well-meaning, when it isn’t channeled in the true knowing of Jesus and flowing through his power accomplishing his purpose, then it easily moves in the wrong direction. Often it results in tearing down rather than building up. In Paul’s case, his zealousness found him actively persecuting and destroying the church.

Our western culture values being active and productive, and this creates the dilemma of thinking we can somehow achieve and earn salvation with our energy, our hard work, our effort, our sweat, and our pain. Doesn’t that count for something? It does count if it is channeled toward the knowing of Jesus. Notice what Paul shares about his personal journey in his letter to believers in Philippi.

Yet whatever gains (earthly accomplishments and credentials) I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11 NRSVA)

Jesus didn’t become human and fulfill his mission to then throw us back on ourselves. He rescued us from our sins and our human treadmills. He created us for relationship, and it is through knowing him that we can now see our brothers and sisters under the same umbrella of grace. This motivates—even compels us—to make strides in loving our neighbor as ourselves. It really is about the two great commandments.

Paul offers the clarity we need concerning works and grace. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he clearly stated that we are not saved by works, only by the grace of Jesus. He adds, because of grace and our relationship with Jesus we now engage in good works. It is with and through Jesus that we are saved, and it is with and through Jesus that we engage in good works.

Many years ago, I attended a Youth Specialties conference where one of the speakers made an over-the-top challenge. In his attempt to spur us on toward making new followers of Christ, he submitted the idea of us in the next life standing in front of Jesus and being asked by our Lord why we didn’t share the good news about him with every single person that we had encountered in this life. The implication is that somehow, we are responsible for any of these people who may find themselves in the speaker’s version of hell. This rang loudly in my ears with the sensitivity of “What am I doing for Jesus?” Certainly, he must be disappointed in me. I found the “motivational speech” de-motivating and quite perplexing. Is part of our heavenly reward an arena of guilt?

As I continued to sort out this concept of evangelism and making disciples I came upon a fresh approach from another author and speaker from the Youth Specialties circuit, Andrew Root. I found that he had the same perplexities I held. He had discovered that the love of Jesus was unconditional rather than transactional. He had discovered that salvation of humanity was through the vicarious work of Jesus, who was 100% God and 100% human. He discovered the “place-sharing” ministry of Jesus that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written about in the early 20th century. And he had written a book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, that was a huge gift to me at that stage of my life and journey with Jesus.

I count this as one of the huge benchmarks of grace in my life, and it prepared me to be a better minister, educator, and Christ-follower for the roles I have served within GCI.

It is in the true knowing of Jesus, and experiencing his unconditional love and acceptance, that now prepares us to join with him in accomplishing good works (dilemma solved). It isn’t about our individual striving and the “look at me, look at me” attitude that takes us to where we want to be with Jesus. It is not the good works that somehow bring us to Jesus and make us right and just, it is only Jesus who makes us right and just and then from there the good works can flow.

In His Grace and Unconditional Love,


13 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Good Works”

  1. Amen! Let us rest in the work of Jesus as we participate in the good works that have been prepared for us.

  2. Thank you Greg for your message! Charles and I were discussing this topic today. We concluded that a love relationship with our Triune God will, as Dallas Willard said, naturally leads us to do what Jesus would do if he were one of us. As you say, its about knowing and experiencing him. Hopefully, those he brings to me will be loved with the same love with which I have been loved by him. Alas, mostly likely not perfectly in this life, but perhaps with increasing degrees of glory…

  3. Thank you, Greg! God’s love is ours to share as we walk with Jesus. Serving those in need as we have opportunity.

    1. Forgive me, this is totally off topic, but by any chance are you related to Jack Elam, an actor on my list of favorite character actors?

      On topic, it is always good for us to be reminded that we shouldn’t do nice things for others to impress Jesus, but because they need help, and we are in a position to help. I am neither courageous or ambitious, but it is fun to be able to pitch in.

  4. This is truly refreshing to know that God loves all of us and that he offers his Grace to all.

  5. Thanks Greg, Andrew Root approach of learning to walk alongside others with love and with no hidden agenda is a wonderful fresh approach in sharing life with everyone.

  6. Yes, isn’t He wonderful?
    His finished work REALLY saved us and makes it possible for us to join Him in His good works! Thank you!!

  7. Thanks Greg for focusing us on the Grace of God given to us thru Jesus, who has done all the works necessary for our Salvation! We can do nothing without Him but because He now lives in us to both will and to do His good pleasure we can join in and follow Him in doing good works. Phil 2:12-13

  8. Thanks Greg for your article. So many times I try to keep in mind but for the grace of God there goes I. So thankful for God’s love and words that without where would we be.

  9. Yes, it is Jesus who has prepared every good work for us that we may humbly “walk into them” and become partners in what our great triune God has planned for humanity, both at a collective and a personal level. All credit goes to Jesus. So thankful to be his servant.

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