The Bible has much to say about good works and also about dead works. Most people assume that dead works refers to overtly sinful stuff and “bad behavior” while good works talks about things like showing acts of kindness towards others. But there’s an aspect of works that most believers skip right over, or most likely aren’t even aware of.
Today I want t take a look at this aspect of works.
Now before I get started I don’t want to imply that I’m disregarding the traditional view of works. There are things we do that are destructive to ourselves and those around us. These things are certainly not life giving by any means. And there are things we do that are obviously good because they lift up others and edify people as well.
This is how most people view works if you ask them about it, whether they are believers or not. I’m not saying this view is wrong. Rather I think it’s missing something crucial.
In the Bible the phrase “dead works” is only found in the book of Hebrews.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.— Hebrews 6:1-3
Repentance from dead works is a foundational thing. Repentance means to change the way we think. We need to change the way we think about dead works.
From the outside looking in we can’t tell the difference between dead works and good works. They can look very much the same outwardly. They can be the same works, but they have different motives.
- Praying can be a dead or good work.
- Attending church can be a dead or good work.
- Reading the Bible can be a dead or good work.
- Telling others about Jesus can be a dead or good work.
That’s why Jesus said:
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’— Matthew 7:22-23
Prophesying, casting out demons, performing miracles in the name of Jesus are all outwardly good things. But Jesus will reject “many” who do those things. Why? Because their hearts are wrong. These people have the wrong motivations for the things they do.
Dead works – Any attempt to find favor, earn acceptance or be made righteous before God by one’s own effort, ability or willpower.
Religion puts the emphasis on doing right. In contrast, Jesus and the apostles put the emphasis on believing right, because when we believe right we will naturally do right as a consequence.
If we can’t tell outwardly, then how do we know what a good work is?
A good work is when we do the will of God as a response to his love, mercy and our new identity of righteousness in Jesus Christ. In our New Covenant with God, grace is the ruling factor.
Grace and truth have come to us through Jesus. (John 1:17) Truth is the law. And the problem with the law is our flesh, our fallen nature.
Grace – Godly ability, the divine influence which works in the heart of man making him able. It is God’s perfect provision for man’s every need.
It takes both truth and grace for good works. We need truth to know what the action of good works are. And we also need grace in order to have the proper motivation for good works.
The term “fallen from grace” doesn’t mean that someone has fallen from sin. Rather it means they no longer have access to God’s ability in them. They have left grace and are fixated on truth alone, and are trying to do good works in their own ability.
But what they get in that case is nothing but dead works instead.