The Christian good works in the Bible don't necessarily include changing the world, and that's a good thing.
If you've been a Christian for any number of years, you may have felt as though your everyday life as a mom, dad, employee, wife, husband, etc. somehow wasn't enough; that what was expected of you was to change the world and spend countless hours devising a plan and path in order to do that. This idea, whether from external or internal sources, may have led to feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, and an inability to measure up to the status of 'ultimate Christian.'
Maybe you've discovered a missionary's blog, heard numerous sermons on pursuing your purpose/destiny, or been taught that it was up to you to discover what assignment God had for you. While pursuing a life dedicated to the Lord is of course what we are to do, teachings centered around discovering your specific 'calling' can often create a sense of insecurity in relation to your ability to serve the Lord and glorify Him. At the surface, 'finding your purpose' or changing the world don't in themselves feel antithetical to the Bible. Unfortunately, the rampant teachings on such things stem not from Soli Deo Gloria (God's glory alone) but rather an exhaultation of self. All too often, such teachings lead down the path of doing and chasing for the glory of man rather than being present to the place where the Lord has you here and now.
In addition, such concepts often derive from a common twisting of scripture. When a believer feels a sense of pressure to 'discover your purpose' and then looks at their 'normal life', it often presents feelings of inadequacy and that one is not being a good enough Christian. This is both a false dichotomy and an incorrect view of what the Bible describes the Christian life to be. Being a Christian is not either because you change the world or not. In fact, the Christian life is in and of itself not about us. The unnecessary pressure to find your purpose, destiny, and additionally change the world negates how clearly Paul teaches that the good works of the Christian life are actually in fact related to a pretty 'ordinary' life.
There will be Christians that jet-set and serve the kingdom around the globe, but even they are not at their core called to change the whole world on their own. What the Father wills for one's life is in fact not about any of us but rather His glory being displayed throughout the earth. God, in fact, doesn't even need believers to make His name known. He could do this on His own, and yet He invites us into this beautiful relationship and invitation of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ - wherever He calls us to be.
So, if the burden of changing the world is not one of necessity, how then do good works and serving the Lord play out in the Christian life? In order to understand this, and ultimately rest in God's plan of redemption of creation through Jesus Christ, we will look at the role of a believer in the Church and what Paul teaches is the purpose and nature of the good works.
Before we even define or unpack these concepts, we have to begin with what the Christian life is at its very core. It is perpetually looking to God, who in His rich mercy and steadfast love, chose a believer before the foundations of the earth to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. As a result of this truth, the Christian life is about denying oneself and our sinful desires, picking up our cross, and serving the Lord for His glory alone. In the "Little Book on the Christian Life" by John Calvin, he describes the Christian life in this way. In it, he says, "We shouldn't seek our own interests but those that are the Lord's, and we should work to promote His glory. This is great progress in the Christian life - that we nearly forget ourselves, that in all matters we hold our own concerns in less esteem, and that we faithfully strive to devote our energies to God and His commands. For when Scripture orders us to disregard our own concerns, it eradicates from our souls the desire to possess things for ourselves, to love power, and to long for the praise of men."
Moreover, Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 16:24 by saying, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." In this passage, Jesus does not instruct where each Christian is specifically to go. It is much less about the location as it is about the pursuit of His glory and His kingdom.
So, if at the core of the Christian life, we are to deny ourselves and follow Jesus wholly in both the mundane and excitement of life, what then are the good works of the Christian life and how do they relate back to this? In the view that we are all to change the world one jet-set at a time, a narcissistic understanding of sanctification is ever-preset. In seeker and purpose-driven churches, a dangerous and unnecessary burden can be placed upon the believer in feeling an inadequacy in relation to where the Lord has them and what they are doing in their day-to-date life. Sanctification, though, is through the Holy Spirit's indwelling of a believer and God's grace. The good works that a Christian does, is not in order to 'earn' more sanctification, but rather for another purpose entirely.
None of us are called the change the world on our own. For one, none of us are more special than the other. We all are not enough in and of ourselves, and apart from Christ, we are dead in our sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1). Therefore, the calling to "change the world" is one that no Christian is meant to carry. It is one we are not meant to carry not because the concept itself is sinful but because the heart motive behind it is more often than not, man centered. As Paul says, "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to this labor." (1 Corinthians 3:7-8) If none is more special than the other, whatever calling God puts in your life is no more significant for the kingdom of God than the other. So whether you are a teacher or janitor, pastor or stay-at-home mom, your calling and purpose for the Kingdom of God remain the same - to know Him, make His name known, and to serve unto the Lord in all that you do.
Which God Prepared Beforehand
"For we [Christians] are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you might walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)
After Paul finished writing to the Christians in Ephesus about how it is that they are saved (by God's grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone), he followed it by telling them that they were both God's workmanship and created for good works. If you're anything like me, you may have wondered what Paul was proposing were these good works which God had prepared beforehand for them.
Good works, at their surface, seem endless. There are boundless opportunities to do the deeds of kindness, love, compassion, and other things that could potentially fit into the area of such good works. How does one then choose and discern which to do and which to leave undone? Let me suggest that we should center our focus first on the end of the verse and work our way back to the beginning before we navigate to other passages that describe in further detail what exactly such good works may be.
The phrase 'walk in them' is a presupposed instruction for those that God saved by His grace. It is in these three words that I begin to find rest not in what I am to do but whose I am adopted to be.
The statement that Paul asserts about who determines these good works is emphatically clear. In the few words before, Paul says, "which God prepared beforehand." The God of the universe who accomodated Himself to His creation by sending His Son in human flesh to be a propiatiation and atonement for our sins, prepared good works for His adopted children beforehand. Just as God showed great love and rich mercy even when we were dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:4-5), He predestined good works for each Christian so that we might walk in them for His glory. No where in these words does Paul instruct these Christians to spend their time on an endless pursuit of uncovering what these good works are. Instead, he simply states who prepared them and why.
Additionally, Paul begins this verse by stating a simple but yet incredibly powerful truth about those that are new creations in Christ. Paul tells these Christians that they are both God's workmanship and created in Christ Jesus. Let us attempt to reflect on the enormity of such a concept. The God of the entire universe, who made 100+ billion galaxies and created sea creatures yet to be discovered, describes His adopted children as His workmanship in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
It is important to note that no where in this verse (and the verses prior) does Paul assert that we as Christians are participating in either our salvation or the predestined good works. In fact, the only terms that Paul uses to describe mankind is dead in trespasses, disobedient, and living in the passions of our flesh apart from God's grace. The remainder of these verses assert more about who God is and less about who we are. This is important to grasp in order to orient our hearts not upon what we do but upon Who we are to glorify and do such good works for.
So, before we even begin to understand what the Bible describes as the good works of the Christian life, we are to direct our hearts and minds to whom we are to love, live for, and make known in our life. It could or may be argued that uncovering your calling or changing the world are in fact oriented on God's glory. Unfortunately, this assertion often stems from the idea that we can add something to what God has already prepared beforehand for those that are in Christ Jesus. To be created and purposed for God's glory is to again, to deny yourself and follow Jesus in the moment by moment of your life. In an article by John Piper on God's glory, he explains this idea of both Christian purpose and good works this way.
In it, he says, "Now when God says that he created us for his glory, it cannot mean that he created us so that he would become more glorious, that his beauty and perfection would be somehow increased by us. It is unthinkable that God should become more perfectly God by making something that is not God. It is a staggering but necessary thought that God has always existed, that he never came into being, and that everything which exists which is not God is from his fullness and can never add anything to him which did not come from him. That is what it means to be God; and it should humble us, Oh, how it should humble us, when we ponder his reality!"
If we cannot add anything to God or increase His glory that has always existed by the works in which we do, how then should we live according to that which He prepared beforehand? We are not to spend our time in discovery of some extravagant purpose either we or others tell us exists somewhere in the universe specifically for us. Rather, we are instructed simply to be obedient to the Father alone, trusting that that which He prepared beforehand is what is best and cannot either be thwarted or added to by our innately sinful nature. We, as Christians, are to rest in being God's workmanship, saved by His gift of grace in Christ Jesus, and the steadfast love He showed us [Christians] even as we were dead in our sins and trespasses. For this gift of God is in and of itself insurmountable more than what we deserve.
The Bible does, though, teach on what are the good works of the Christian life. It does not line out sentence by sentence what each calling or job looks like for each Christian. To approach the Bible in this way, is to in many ways, look at it as nothing more than you run of the mill dangerous destiny card or palm reader. The Bible, though, is the infallible and inerrant Word of God that is in no ways about us but rather about His glory and redemption of our fallen nature through Jesus Christ.
So, finally, what are these good works?
Christian Good Works
First, I must mention that much of what I will teach you is from one of my favorite Bible teachers, Chris Rosbrough. He is both an incredible Biblical scholar and fervent servant of Jesus Christ. You can check out his Youtube channel, Fighting for the Faith, in order to further understand what the Word of God actually says in light of what those claim in its' name.
Let us navigate to over to chapter 5 in the book of Ephesians. Paul starts by saying, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." We can infer, then, that Christians are to be imitators not of this world but of who? Of God. Never will we be perfect imitators, but Paul instructs that He [being God] alone is who, His beloved children, are to imitate. Similarly to Ephesians 2:10, Paul says to "walk in" something. In the prior verse in Ephesians 2, Paul said to walk in the good works God prepared beforehand. In this passage, he is instructing to walk in love. How are we, as Christians, to walk in love? As Christ did when He gave himself up for us.
Paul is not saying we are to each die for one another every day. Rather, he is speaking in a similar fashion to 1 John 4:7-8 where it says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." We are to love others in a sacrifical manner just as displayed through Christ's love for us. So far, we learn that good works include being imitators of God as beloved children walking in the love of Jesus even in the face of our enemies.
Paul goes on to write, "But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joining, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." If you're anything like me, you have done every single one of these things. For that, Jesus calls us to repent, or turn away from, and to call upon the Holy Spirit for strength to live a life as imitators of Jesus, walking as adopted and beloved children of God. Paul goes on to teach that we, as Christians, are not to take part in the unfruitful works of darkness and to walk as children of light. As Paul's instructions continue forward, he inserts an important reminder as to why we as Christians are live in such a way. He says we are to do this in order to "understand what the will of the Lord is." (Ephesians 5:17b)
After these verses, Paul writes briefly some specific examples of the good works in the Christian life. We are to file all of them not as guarantees of what our life will look like (i.e. husband/wife/parent) but rather in the vocations we find ourselves in. These good works, are actually incredibly 'ordinary' aspects of many people's day-to-day lives. No where, in these verses or others, does Paul assert that Christians are called to save the world. He actually spends the remainder of this epistle describing how to be a wife, husband, child, parent, employee, and boss. That's it. There is not giant list or three-step program in discovering the will of God for your life as some pastors assert. Rather, the good works are in being imiators of God and loving others in the way that Christ loved us in the day-to-day of where God has placed us.
We do not discover the will of the Lord by spending countless hours and days attempting to discipher what each of our individual callings or world changing assignments are. Much of the world around us implies that the point of our lives is to achieve success through individualistic ideals and pursuits. To say, then, that we as Christians are to do something similar is actually incredibly atithetical to what Paul teaches over and over again in his epistles. In fact, Paul teaches in Romans 12:2 that we uncover the will of the Lord by not conforming to the likeness of the world. Instead, we discern what is the will of God by being transformed through the renewing of our minds in God's Word.
The will of God is not to give us our hearts desires of wanting to change the world or discover our individual destiny and calling. The will of God, which directly correlates to the good works that He prepared beforehand for believers, is not in any way correlated to making our names known. Our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ has and always will be to know Him and make His name known.
The will of God is found in the inerrant and glorious words in the Bible; for the Bible is the literal Word of God for where we move, live, and get our being. Our good works are not and should not be about us. Our good works are prepared beforehand by God Himself so that we might walk in them for His glory alone. We are not called to change the world or spend our lives in discovery what our individual callings are. Rather, we are to abide in Christ knowing that alone is how we bear any good fruit. We don't have to discover our destiny or calling in pursuit of changing the world in any fashion, and that is a good thing. Rest in Him.
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31)