We are working through an article by Scott Thomas on replanting an existing church, that is, renewing a church so that it grows and matures as a church plant does.
The deeper meaning of “good works”
(Eph 2:10) For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do [walk in them].
What on earth does “prepared in advance for us to do” mean? The Greek word is proitomazo, meaning either prepared or ordained before. It’s the same word used in Rom 9:23 —
(Rom 9:23-24) What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
In Romans Paul has several prophetic passages in mind, which he refers to. I imagine that the same is true here. The commentaries are pretty useless here, pursuing the Reformation’s works/faith issue and paying little attention to this question. So we search the Old Testament for similar passages that Paul may have had in mind. Consider —
(Exo 18:20 KJV) And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
(Deu 10:12-19 KJV) And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, 13 To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? 14 Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. 15 Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: 18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. 19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Jer 6:16 KJV) Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.
I use the KJV as the NIV is too paraphrased to show the parallels. Paul refers to the need for God’s people to “walk” in “good works.” It sure sounds like an allusion to Exo 18:20.
Deuteronomy repeatedly uses “walk in his ways” to mean “love God and keep his commandments.” In Deu 10:12-19, God begins to announce the Law to the Israelites — and he starts by reminding them who he is and what he cares about — the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger (alien). He tells them that these laws are for the Israelites’ own good. And he tells them they need to be like God and care about what he cares about.
Jeremiah urges the Judeans to walk in the “old paths” and the “good way.” This is not a call for return to First Century Christianity, but a call to return to the Law of Moses. Jeremiah shortly explains what the “old paths” are —
(Jer 7:5-7) If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.
These are the “old paths.” It changes things, doesn’t it?
Isaiah writes along similar lines —
(Isa 1:15-17) When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds [ma’alal = works] out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
What are good works? Well, the opposite of evil works: helping the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow.
David reads Deuteronomy as I do —
(Psa 68:4-7) Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds — his name is the LORD– and rejoice before him. 5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. 7 When you went out before your people, O God, when you marched through the wasteland, Selah
To be like God is to care about the fatherless, the widows, the lonely, and prisoners.
When Paul speaks of how Christians must “walk” in good works prepared (or ordained) in the past, it sure sounds like he’s thinking along these lines. He’s not calling for a return to the Law of Moses as a path to salvation (he just said so!). But he is calling for the “good works” as defined by the scriptures written “in advance.”
And, of course, this is Jesus’ own interpretation —
(Mat 25:34-36) “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'”
James read the same passages and came to the same conclusion —
(James 1:27) Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Therefore, the good works prepared (or ordained) in the past for us to walk in are the good works that God redeemed Israel to do. We are Israel, too. And the overwhelming emphasis in the scriptures is care for the needy and oppressed.
Is this the totality of Paul’s reference? Is this all of “works of service”? No, evangelism is part of it, too, for the reasons explained in the previous post. Paul does not teach the social gospel in the sense that salvation is freedom from poverty. Paul would be the first to argue that the deepest poverty is separation from Jesus — but Paul would also be the first to insist that his followers care for the needy.
Remember the several chapters that Paul dedicates to raising money for the poor in Jerusalem. He teaches charity by teaching giving.
(Gal 2:10) All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
“Good works” and “works of service” are about the Judgment Day scene Jesus paints in Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, not lining up deacons to count attendance and distribute communion. It’s not running the machinery of routine church attendance. It’s participating in God’s mission to redeem the world.
(Eph 1:9-10) And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Paul began Ephesians by declaring that God’s purpose is to bring everything into submission to Jesus.
(Eph 1:11-12) In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Part of this plan is for Christians to be “for the praise of his glory” and this will be “in conformity with the purpose of his will.” In other words, we are called to participate in God’s work of redeeming everything — in a way that brings praise to God through his church.
(Eph 3:10-11) His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God’s plan is that the church will make God’s wisdom known to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” — that angels and demons will see the glory of God through his church.
The church must, therefore, reflect the nature of God. We must be Christ-like and God-like, and so we must share in his redemptive work. And this boils down to the basics of Christianity: love, unity, and works of service because God is love, God is one, and God serves those whom he made.
God began in Abraham a covenant community to bless the nations and bring redemption to the Creation. We see God’s character reflected over and over in his dealings with his people. And his cosmic, timeless plan is to form a God-shaped community that reflects what the Creation was supposed to be like before sin entered the world. He wants us to be a Spirit-filled, cross-shaped community that shows the world how very good God is.
Therefore, our “good works” are a demonstration of the nature of God to a lost and hurting world.
(Mat 5:44-45) “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
And so, yes, it’s benevolence and evangelism, but it’s benevolence and evangelism as reflections of God’s character in us. It becomes, therefore, the heartbeat of the church. Church is not about getting the rules and liturgy right. It’s about getting the heart right — having God’s heart in us.