Word Study #39 — “Works”

The long-standing “faith vs. works” controversy is a vivid example of the compounded error that results from misunderstood vocabulary and manipulated “proof-texts”. Any consideration of this subject must include the discussion of “faith/faithfulness” in Word Study #1, which you should review before going any farther.

Several different Greek words have been translated by the English “work/works”. The concept itself is really quite simple: someone is doing something. Classical uses of ergon include heroic or noble deeds (Homer), one’s business or profession, anything done or made (Xenophon), or action as opposed to mere words or argument. Lesser-used, similar words include praxis (business or moral action), and pragma (matters or affairs).
The verb forms, primarily ergazomai (used 28 x in the NT) usually referring to one’s employment, katergazomai(14 x) to earn, achieve, or conquer, and energeo (7 x) to be active or effective, do not seem to have attracted as much “theological combat.” Perhaps they are so obvious that twisting the meaning is more difficult!

Actually, there is very little New Testament basis for all the fuss. Jesus plainly expected of his followers behavior that would allow people to “see your good works and glorify your Father” (Mt.5:16) , and he offered his own “work” as evidence of his identity (Jn.5:36, 10:25, 10:32-38, 14:10-12). He challenged some half-hearted adherents, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and not do what I say?” (Lk.6:46)
“Work” (ergon) frequently refers to a specific assignment, either for Jesus himself (Jn.17:4) or someone else (Ac.13:2, 14:26), or for the tasks assigned to servants (Mk.13:34). It may refer to Jesus’ miraculous healings (Mt.11:2, Jn.9:3,4), and Paul describes the content of his message (Ac.26:20) as “preaching a changed life* and turning back to God, practicing deeds [works] worthy of a changed life”*. (*see Word Study #6 on “repentance”)

When people who ought to know better respond to an admonition like Paul’s to Titus (3:8) that “those who have become faithful to God (should) be careful to keep practicing good deeds” (traditionally, “to maintain good works”), with a horrified accusation of “That’s works-salvation!” as if they were confronting the prince of evil himself, it would be comical if it weren’t so tragic – even pathetic.
Although in no case is “work” represented as the cause of one’s identification with Jesus, it is consistently expected to be the result of that relationship. Please refer to Rom.13:12, I Cor.15:58, Eph.2:9-10, Col.1:10, II Thes.1:11, I Tim.2:10, 5:10, 6:18, and many other similar statements.
God’s gift of various service-ministries in the Body of his people (Eph.4:11-12) is clearly explained to be for the purpose of (pros) “equipping God’s people (eis) to do the work of service”; and even the very creation of that Body is for the purpose (epi) of the “good deeds [works] which God already prepared, so that (hina) we could live [walk] in them” (Eph.2:10). Every one of these is expressed in a purpose construction.

Face it, folks: everyone is continuously doing “works” of some sort: as we have seen, the word refers to “anything that is done or made”! The only question is the choice of the model, or arbiter, of these “works.” Jesus chose to do the “works” of his Father (Jn.5:36), and bluntly pointed out the source (8:39-41) of his opponents’ behavior. Committed followers of the Lord Jesus are continually admonished to display “works” worthy of their new calling (Ac.26:20, Rom.13:13, and others as noted above). The reputation of our King is on the line, as we interact as his representatives in his world.

I suspect that one reason for the misunderstanding with which Paul and James are contending in Romans 4 and James 2, was the prevalent Jewish attitude toward their Law (see the previous 2 postings.) They do not contradict each other! Both apostles make the point that observance of the minutiae of the Law (“the works of the Law”) has nothing to do with genuine faithfulness to the person, Jesus Christ. But both are equally adamant that one’s behavior constitutes irrefutable evidence of to whose Kingdom he belongs.

Don’t forget that when Jesus spoke of judgment (see word studies 9 and 10) in Mt.25 and Lk.16, he said not a word about what the several individuals “believed”, or to what intricacies of “doctrine” or dogma they may have subscribed. His focus was entirely upon their behavior, specifically their treatment of people in need. Their behavior revealed – it did not create or determine – their allegiance (or, if you prefer, their “spiritual status.”  The same idea is obvious in the interview with Zacchaeus (Lk.19:1-10), where Jesus declared, “Today salvation [deliverance] has come to this house”  in response to his declaration of restitution to those he had been cheating.  No one asked what Zacchaeus “believed.”
Likewise, all the similar passages in Revelation – 18:6, 20:12, 20:13, 22:12 – speak of “giving to (each one) according to his/her/their works/deeds.” Paul wrote to Titus of  people who “claim to know God, but deny him by what they do” (1:16). Jesus begins six of the seven messages to the churches (Rev.2 and 3) with “I know your works”, and gives them instructions on how to straighten up.

There is no legitimate distinction or conflict between “faith/faithfulness” and “works/behavior.”
A much healthier focus would be patterned after the report of the onlookers at Pentecost (Ac.2:11), who spoke of how the newly Spirit-baptized brethren were proclaiming the wonderful works of God! That same refrain echoes around his throne (Rev.15:3) as everyone celebrates his marvelous works and triumphant justice! We have the promise (Heb.13:21/ that “he will establish you all, in everything good, for doing his will!” There is only one appropriate response: “And everything – whatever you do – in word or deed – do everything in the name (W.S. #24) of the Lord Jesus, continually giving thanks to God the Father through him!”
That is the “work” of a lifetime – and more!

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One Response to Word Study #39 — “Works”

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Hey Mom, good post.

    A useful point to add is that Luther, at least in the beginning, identified “the just shall live by faith” not in contrast to ALL good works, but rather to the church’s conception of specific precedents to salvation that were materially quite similar to the “works of the law” against which Paul railed. Paul’s issues were circumcision and diet; Luther’s were indulgences, penances, and other forms demanded by or dispensed by the church hierarchy. Luther was quite right to identify those as meaningless in God’s eyes, and not conducive to “salvation” (another loaded word, as you have before written).

    It was only later (and how much this is Luther vs. how much it’s people misunderstanding & twisting Luther, I don’t know) that people got in a fuss over whether God expected/demanded obedience at all…a pretty dumb question I think…by confusing “good works” with “works of the law” past or present.

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