It all began last week in a Bible study at a retirement home. The focus was upon a familiar parable, The Good Samaritan. Suddenly, one of the seniors exclaimed, “All of our lives we have heard sermons that, ‘We are not saved by works.’ Yet Jesus’ parable is all about what we do!” She had just finished reading some texts highlighted on her study sheet, specifically Luke 10:25,28,37.
A teachable moment had arrived. Positive instruction could be shared about Jesus’ parable. The breadth of Paul’s usage of “works” could be underscored. Furthermore, the distinction between trying to be justified by works and doing something could be explained.
When Jesus related how a compassionate Samaritan cared for a wounded nondescript human being, “a certain man,” he responded to a lawyer’s attempt to justify himself. The lawyer had hoped to restrict his obligation to love as Jesus explained who qualifies as a neighbor.
Jesus’ parable rejected both the weight that comes from living out of obligation, as well as limiting who the Law commanded God’s people to love. And so, in contrast to the behavior pattern of a priest and Levite who came – saw – passed by, Jesus described a Samaritan who came – saw – was moved to compassion. Furthermore, the Samaritan’s compassion caused him to act sacrificially in a variety of ways, in order to care for another human being. Yes, this parable is anchored in the context of what people do (Luke 10:25,28,37).
Can Jesus’ emphasis upon actions motivated from the heart coincide with Paul’s message that we are not saved by works? Certainly! It is only post-Reformation glasses that might cause some minds to attempt to empower one message to mute the other.
For starters, Paul used the term “works” with both negative and positive connotations. While the Christian message denounces the futility of pursuing the works of the Law to achieve justification, it also exalts the role of “works of faith” and “good works” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Acts 9:36; 26:20; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:10).
So what is the difference between doing works which cannot save and doing good which seems expected? For the seniors in the retirement home, a car illustration provided instant understanding.
Imagine a pile of plastic and raw metal. Can such a pile of material shape itself into a vehicle? Of course not. However, a factory can use those same raw materials to produce cars. Factories manufacture cars to fulfill a purpose, specifically transportation. Just creating a car from plastic and steel is not the ultimate goal.
Now imagine that two cars roll off of an assembly line. One car is sold and provides a family with mobility. The other car is immediately parked in a parking lot. Over the next 50 years it just sits there to rust and decay. Of what value or worth was that second car?
In the same way, when we were spiritually dead, without Christ, outside of God’s covenant people, alienated from God and condemned as sinners, we were powerless to transform ourselves into becoming God’s new people possessing holiness, spiritual life, and salvation. However, just as a factory can manufacture cars, God has the power to make us into his workmanship, a new creation infused with 100% salvation, members of his new covenant people characterized by holiness and a new life. Because of Christ, we can stand before God as those justified. Furthermore, just as a car is made for a purpose, so too in being God’s workmanship we are given a purpose (Ephesians 2:10; 4:1).
Since we are already 100% saved, neither doing good nor pursuing works of faith or love contribute anything to our salvation. They do, however, cause us to fulfill the purpose for which God made us to be his people. As light we shine. As salt we bring saltiness. As the forgiven, we forgive others. As the grateful, we praise God. As those shown love, our hearts brim with compassion for others. As those united in Christ, we preserve the unity of the Spirit in a bond of peace. Thus, God works through us to achieve his good will within this world (Philippians 2:12-13).
Can we achieve righteousness by living up to the standard of God’s Law? Never. However, as those whom God has rescued and bestowed with a purpose, can we seek to live worthy of the calling God has given us in Christ? Always.
The next article in this series: Zacchaeus’ Story Provides Insight Into Salvation