“I’m not saying we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing”

In the comments section of yesterday’s post, my friend Tom challenged me, as he often does, on the grace-versus-works question. My response is the classic Reformation one: Good works, including the ongoing repentance from sin—at least the desire to change—will naturally follow from saving faith. But this changed behavior and attitude contributes nothing to salvation. This is not to say we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing.

I appreciate that this answer can seem unsatisfying, even paradoxical, yet I’m happy to live within this tension.

His challenge reminded me of an analogy that I first heard in Mark Galli’s book God Wins, which is also used in the Law and Gospel book I’m currently reading:

Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin![1]

In this analogy, as the last sentence implies, the good works we do are our way of saying “thank you.” It’s a natural response to being saved. If we don’t respond with changed behavior and thinking, however imperfectly, then we should rightly question whether we were rescued in the first place. As the Book of James says, saving faith is a faith that is lived out through good works. Otherwise, faith is dead.

Also, getting back to the life preserver analogy, I want to emphasize this: We are always “flailing in the water” in need of rescue—even after we place our faith in Christ and are justified. (Aren’t we? I am.) God is constantly having to extend grace to us because we’re constantly falling short of God’s glory; we’re constantly sinning. The good news is that the cross of God’s Son has made an endless amount of forgiveness and grace available to us. This is why I emphasize that the cross of Christ needs to be at the center of our lives and faith.

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 73.

35 thoughts on ““I’m not saying we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing””

  1. I may be misunderstanding, but I thought that the degree of one’s reward in Heaven was influenced by the good works one does after regeneration:

    Matthew 16:27
    For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds.

    Romans 2:5-6
    But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds…

    1 Corinthians 3:11-15
    For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

    For this reason, a Christian should strive to do good works. It’s part of working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.

    Am I wrong?

    1. In context, I meant “counts for nothing” toward our salvation. Should we do good works in order to be rewarded in heaven? I don’t think so. Even these rewards are gifts of grace, I think. I don’t deserve them. God may choose to give them anyway, but that’s because he’s very generous, not because I’ve earned them.

      But that’s just my opinion. I realize people disagree on the question.

  2. I have to agree with Grant. All through scripture, including in the passages Grant cites, God promises rewards for good behavior and curses for bad. It makes little sense for Him to do so if such statements are basically irrelevant to motivation (or unimportant). Perhaps a better analogy than the life preserver is the one Jesus gives about workers in the vineyard. God provides the vineyard, but he expects the workers to produce and deliver the “fruit of the vine.” He gave Adam Eden, but expected Adam to till it and keep it up. He gives us talents, but he expects us to use them to create an increase, and rewards accordingly. All these statements and examples weigh heavily in favor of the importance of works. While it is true that we also act out of thankfulness, that cannot be allowed to detract from the call to work and the rewards accordingly. It may well be that God is “being gracious” in the sense that He owes us nothing (which is true), but we can’t use that truth to obscure the “system” that God chose to create pursuant to that grace. We “press on toward the high calling of God.” We wish for crowns (regardless of casting them at Jesus’ feet–don’t you want something excellent to cast?; and, IMHO, I expect Christ to then put them right back on our heads). When Peter said, “What’s in it for us?”, Jesus did not chastise him for his impertinence, but said what the disciples would get. Indeed, how “good” would we think God to be if he cared nothing for acts of obedience as opposed to disobedience? So, while God is being gracious “across the board,” that does not mean that our works are “unimportant” to our relationship with him or how he deals with us.

    1. But, Tom, I’m not saying good works don’t matter. I thought that was clear in the context of my post. Your point yesterday had to do with salvation, not rewards.

      1. I think what triggered my comment above (and possibly Grant’s?) was your statement, “In this analogy, as the last sentence implies, the good works we do are our way of saying ‘thank you.’ It’s a natural response to being saved.” Thankfulness is part of the picture, as I agreed, but the motive is considerably more than just that. A desire for rewards is also important as a motive.

        As to salvation, I agree with you that my comment yesterday went primarily to justification as contrasted with sanctification. I think that Jesus noted several times that salvation itself FOLLOWED faith and repentance, not the other way around. AS I indicated yesterday, it is somewhat of an open question as to what that faith and repentance must consist of in conjunction with salvation, as opposed to sanctification. But I noted, for example, the rich young ruler, who lost out on salvation because he was not willing to give up his riches, Jesus noting, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!” Why “hard”? Isn’t it because God may ask for something “significant” as the “entry fee,” if you will? Again, God provides the “way and means” for salvation, and we can’t “earn” it, but that does not necessarily mean that he calls for nothing on our part to “obtain” it.

      2. Personally speaking, if I work for any reward other than the satisfaction that comes from pleasing the Lord, to whom I owe everything, I can’t stop my pride from creeping in.

  3. I think that God is quite wise here. He knows that, once we are saved, our sin nature might say, “Why do anything else? It’s all up to God.”

    In order for Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, we must have done something. Our motivation for good works shouldn’t be the rewards, it should be something that naturally follows our regeneration. It is also something that is enabled, or limited by the “talents” which God has given each of us. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Luke 12:48

    Pride is the mother of all sin. It will creep in whenever it can. Therefore, we must be vigilant and conscientious against it. All sin, at the core is of Pride. It’s one of Satan’s favorite tools, along with greed, guilt, and anger.

  4. Okay, see, I don’t accept this idea that looking for rewards is somehow wrong. “He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a REWARDER of them that diligently seek him.” I agree with Grant in his statement, “In order for Jesus to say, ‘Well DONE, good and faithful servant’, we must have DONE something.” However, I disagree with the very next statement, “Our motivation for good works shouldn’t be the rewards….” Why shouldn’t BOTH motives be good ones? Thankfulness AND looking towards those wonderful blessings that God says he is so happy to provide for obedience? Why do you think Paul said to build with good materials because the fire will test them, and if what we have built with survives, we will receive REWARDS, but if it is burned up, we will suffer loss, but still be saved? Why would the Bible so frequently discuss rewards and blessings to be bestowed for obedient conduct if we weren’t supposed to be motivated by that? “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus says. What’s the point of saying that, if we aren’t supposed to be thinking of the “treasures”? Why talk about “crowns”? Rewards and punishments are given as motivating factors from Genesis to Revelations. What am I missing?

    1. Good points. I may have been thinking about how a son might seek to please his father by doing his chores, simply to see the old man pleased. But, I don’t think it’s wrong to work hard for a greater reward either.

  5. Here is when it will happen:

    In the great closing chapter of Revelation Jesus gave us a clear statement introducing to us an event that would follow immediately the rapture. The statement that He made is in Revelation 22:12 and this is what He said: “Behold I come quickly and my reward is with me to give to every man according as his work shall be.” Jesus said I am coming quickly or suddenly and when I come I will have with me rewards to give to men on the basis of what they have done.

    John MacArthur

      1. Remember: I don’t disagree that there are rewards. It’s just that I don’t think for a moment that I’m earning any. How could I? I don’t deserve anything. Inasmuch as I do good works I’m enabled to do them by the power of the Spirit. It’s not nothing, perhaps, but it’s little more than grabbing onto the life preserver again.

  6. Brent, look at it this way: No you don’t deserve a reward, but God, being loving and generous, will look at the whole body of work that constitutes your life, and He will assign a reward, a place in heaven if you will, based on the level of pleasure that your life gives him. It is his gift, but he says that he will weigh your life in deciding your rewards.

    1. I don’t think I’m struggling to understand the concept of heavenly rewards, only motivation… Is it not better to work for God for his pleasure or for your own?

      1. Well, I still disagree. Should a student want to be on the honor roll? Or a football player to be on the starting roster? Paul even uses such a sports image himself. There is nothing “illicit” about seeking for rewards. In my opinion, the Bible commends that, not the converse. You think the motive to “please God” is “higher.” But even “pleasing God” is a reward of sorts. It is still something that you “strive for.” And in any event, I don’t think we should be downplaying a motive the Bible sets out numerous times as being appropriate–indeed, noteworthy.

        Also, as far as “pride” is concerned, the term can have more than one meaning, not all of which are “bad.” The “bad” pride is thinking “more highly of yourself than you ought to think.” We should use “sober judgment.” There is nothing in scripture that I find that prohibits happiness over achievements. Why does the Bible go so far as to give a long list of David’s “fighting men”? Why does Nehemiah say, “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of God and its servants.”? 13:14. I mean, what is the point of the discussion of rewards in the first place if they are not supposed to motivate anyone’s behavior?

  7. Tom, I don’t think we are disagreeing. If the goal is to increase our rewards, then the only way to do that is to increase the pleasure of God in what we do. They are two sides of the same coin.

  8. Okay, but I hear Brent saying, don’t think about rewards at all. That this is a “bad” form of pride. That’s what I can’t accept.

    1. Hold on, Tom… First, I was speaking for myself, not for all Christians: I personally can’t think of rewards without a sinful kind of pride, not good pride, sneaking in. I just can’t! So that kind of reward can’t motivate me without causing me harm. But I can think in terms of the reward of satisfaction and joy that comes from knowing that I’ve pleased the Lord.

      In nearly every situation I face, I have a choice: To bring glory to Christ or to bring glory to myself. I want to bring glory to Christ, even as I often fail to do so. My own glory is always irrelevant. Can you find a passage in Paul where he talks about glorifying himself? If, after a life of trying to glorify Christ, we have rewards from our Lord, that’s wonderful. But the way in which we earn them—by placing God and his kingdom ahead of our own interests—is so contrary to our normal way of thinking about rewards that it’s not helpful for me to think in those terms.

      Do you not see any possible temptation to pride here?

      Regardless, this isn’t the point of my original blog post.

  9. I agree with that. I think that God wants for us to strive in our seeking, and to take pleasure in it. A son should take great pleasure in pleasing his Father. The Christian walk should be enjoyable, not an unpleasant chore. I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis. If I feel “put upon”, then I’m not doing it with a right heart. Jesus only did that which was pleasing to the Father, and we are told to emulate Him.

    This whole discussion has made me think about this in a better way.

    1. I agree that God wants us to take pleasure in serving him. In fact, that’s the only path to true and lasting happiness. That is itself a reward, right? When we get to heaven, the basis of what counts as a “reward” won’t change: it will still be based on self-sacrificial love and glorifying Christ, right?

      So let’s say you receive a reward in heaven. Why wouldn’t you, for example, want to share it with others rather than keeping it for yourself? And then, in sharing it with others, you’re bringing glory to Christ, which itself brings you happiness, which itself is a reward to you—and a reward to others. Doesn’t that sound heavenly? It does to me.

      Or has the meaning of Christ-like love changed?

      1. Brent, maybe two things are getting confused here–being motivated by rewards, versus what sort of conduct gives rise to rewards. I totally agree that what will generate rewards in the life to come is self-sacrificial behavior that works to glorify Christ in this life. So reads Hebrews 12:1-2, as I understand it. We don’t attempt to advance our own earthly interests. (Cf. the parable of the sheep and the goats.) But, still, a heavenly reward for such “humble” behavior is repeatedly taught, and I can’t find any reason for such a consistent teaching other than as a proper motive.

        Finally, I think I hear you saying that what is most rewarding is pleasing God. I can’t argue with that. And don’t mean to be. But the point is, that is the type of behavior that generates “treasures in heaven,” as Jesus refers to them.

      2. OK, maybe we’re getting somewhere… If the basis of a reward in this world (of any reward that is genuinely “rewarding” and worth possessing) comes from pleasing Christ, giving glory to Christ, and loving God and others with self-sacrificial Christ-like love, then surely rewards in the world to come will be on the same basis and of the same character.

        If that’s the case, then I agree that that kind of reward can be a good motive for service. But my ego is STRONG. It’s hard for me to think of rewards in this counterintuitive way.

      3. It’s that “last will be first, and first will be last” thing that trips up our human nature.

        Both passages are spot on this discussion!

  10. Brent, you asked: “Can you find a passage in Paul where he talks about glorifying himself?” What about Romans 2:5-7, particularly v.7 (“To those who by persistence in doing good SEEK GLORY, HONOR and immortality…”).

    1. Yes, but whose glory? It can’t be their own, since Paul contrasts the people of verse 7 with the people of verse 8, whom he describes as “self-seeking.” Obviously there’s a kind of glory we can seek that isn’t our own. That isn’t glorifying one’s self.

      1. I think the difference is, “self-seeking” is seeking self-benefit to the loss or exclusion of someone else. (We should “consider every man as better than himself.”) Also, IMMEDIATE self-seeking (as with “godless Esau”) as opposed to ETERNAL (as with Hebrews 11 saints). That the “glory” sought is that for the individual, however, is borne out by the inclusion of “immortality.” Thus, that latter clearly is something sought by or for the actor, so it seems incongruous to say that he is only seeking PART of the “equation” for himself, and the other for another. Also, note that it is by “persistence in doing good” that the “glory and honor” is sought–clearly tying the glory and honor to the one performing the deeds, and especially so in that the preceding verse speaks of “rewards.”

      2. But how do we achieve immortality, according to Jesus? By dying to ourselves, seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. I think Paul is speaking with some irony, because he understands that the way that people normally go about achieving these things is very different from the way that we actually achieve it.

      3. I’m not sure I disagree here–admittedly the way we go about seeking “heavenly” glory is the exact opposite of how people usually go about seeking earthly glory. Jesus “turned this upside down.” For example, when the disciples argued over who was the greatest, Jesus brought up a little child to show them eternal greatness. But, note, he did not say there would be no heavenly greatness; rather, the idea of how to achieve that was backwards.

  11. Another point: God looks at the motive for our works. This might be bad news for some of the points we have been making here.

    1 Corinthians 4. “God will reward every man according to God’s knowledge of the secret motives of his heart.”

    If we are doing in order to be rewarded, is that a good or a bad motive? Shouldn’t we just want to do what’s right, because it’s right?

  12. It’s not a “bad motive” to seek heavenly rewards (as opposed to, for example, the “praise of men,” as Jesus decries). I don’t recall anywhere in scripture where we are told to “be good for goodness sake.” Everywhere there is a promise of reward (and curses for bad behavior). Therefore, it can’t be wrong to desire those good blessings.

  13. And, that’s fine. If the “secret motives of his heart” is acceptable to God, then that’s none of my business. Psalm 139 territory here…

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