>Justified through doing good works (!)


“…the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”

– Roman 2:5b-8, New American Standard trans.
We already have an understanding of what Paul’s theology is all about. In fact, it is nearly impossible to read any of Paul’s letters without assuming we know what he means. We always bring our pre-understanding to the Biblical text. We know, if we are children of the Reformation, that salvation comes through faith and not works. We cannot earn our way into heaven. We cannot make ourselves good enough to be saved.

But wait, what does Paul mean, then, by “according to his deeds” or “perseverance in doing good”?

It would appear that Paul is saying that one can be justified by doing good works. If we are to make this jive with our traditional reformed understanding of justification by faith alone then we’ve got some theological gymnastics to do with Paul’s language. Maybe, however, Paul means what he says. Maybe one is saved, gaining glory, honor, and incorruption, by persevering in doing good. If this is true then everything rests on what Paul means by doing good.

I would hazard that “doing good” means just that. With Jesus as our example we lay down our lives for others, setting aside our ambitions and wants for the needs of others that are all around us. We help widows and orphans, we give to “the least of these” and seek peace in a world of constant war and oppression. I believe it also means that we forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, go another mile. We do good by living out the kingdom of God in our daily actions.

If this is true then a significant characteristic of the Reformation, at least in how it is often understood and lived out, is misguided. It also means that divorcing faith from action, separating our ultimate destinies from our deeds here and now, may be a kind of cheap grace. Without a gospel of good deeds we are left with one of the scariest passages in the Bible:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46, New American Standard trans.
I am profoundly and fundamentally challenged by this passage. If I am to be judged by my deeds then I am a failure many times over. I do not want cheap grace but I also cannot afford the grace that is offered. What I need is mercy.

1 Comment

  1. >Hey Tucker, thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is a very challenging passage. I can't think of any response except to ask for grace. I cannot be like a Pharisee, thinking I've got it together and I'm okay. Hope you have a great holiday weekend. Grace and peace.

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