Created in Christ for good Works

Too often the idea of ‘good works’ has been the Cinderella of Reformed discussion. Wanting (quite rightly) to distance ourselves from any kind of meritorious implications attached to them (which lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic view) we have perhaps over-corrected our stance to our own loss. According to St Paul, ‘good works’ lie at the very heart of God’s purpose for his people in redemption. ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Eph 2.10). They belong to the telos – the great goal – of what it means to be a Christian.

These words in his letter to the Ephesians are familiar, but perhaps not appreciated as much as they need to be. Our reading of this epistle can be so focused on the benefits that are ours in Christ forensically that we fail to grasp the equally important benefits that flow from him experientially. However, if we catch the drift of what Paul is saying to the churches to which he is writing, his great concern in practical terms is the latter.

Paul was saying nothing new to his readers about these great doctrines, but the apostle is clearly concerned about their failure to appreciate the implications that flow from them. Even though the bulk of his formal application is found in the second half of the letter, its seeds are intermingled with the doctrinal instruction that dominates the first half.

When we recognise this, Paul’s statement about ‘good works’ takes on a whole new dimension in the flow of the letter as a whole. His choice of words at this point serve as a category label for all the specific changes of attitude, speech, relationships, behaviour patterns and even the way we fight our spiritual battles that are spelled out in more detail in the rest of what he has to say. Every aspect of how we express our humanity which has been corrupted in Adam has been made new in Christ. Therefore, as we work this out in practice, it should translate into our intentionally seeking to do what is right and pleasing in God’s sight. With heart, mind and will renewed by the Spirit through our union with the Son, God’s word engages, encourages and directs us towards that ‘newness of life’ in which we now live as God’s people.

In his comments on what it means for us to be ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works,’ John Calvin argues quite rightly that the ‘creation’ in view here is our being ‘new creation’ in Christ (2Co 5.17). However, it would be wrong to think this means that what we are by virtue of our original creation is irrelevant. The recreating work of Christ by his Spirit in regeneration does not obliterate every aspect of how we have been made. It radically transforms what is by nature dead and ruined because of sin; but it does not alter the fact that God ‘knitted [us] together’ in our mother’s womb (Ps 139.13-16) with all our God-given individuality.  A Christian is still recognisable as the person he or she was prior to their conversion. They still look the same; have the same temperament, the same gifts and aptitudes and so on. What has changed is that they are no longer governed by the principle of death in Adam; but, rather, by that of new life in Christ. We no longer live by the pattern of this present age; but, instead, by that of the new age to which we belong.

The immediate context in which we find this statement shows that Paul is addressing the most obvious and painful issue that was troubling not only the Ephesian church, but many newly formed churches of that time. Namely, that as people were coming to faith not only from a Jewish, but also a Gentile background, they were importing all the baggage of their pre-conversion past into the church. The pride, disdain and prejudice that had marred their relationships before they came to faith were still very much in evidence even though they were now brothers in sisters in God’s family. Yet Paul never says that those who were Jews should abandon their Jewishness, or that those who were Gentile should somehow lose their ethnic characteristics. Rather, each group was to press their Jewishness or Gentileness into the service of their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. And they were to do so because, in Christ, they now had the spiritual wherewithal to do so.

What does this say to the church of our day? In part it challenges us over the kind of divisions in church life that are modern day expressions of those the church faced in Paul’s day. Where there is ethnic, class and cultural diversity in a congregation (which there ought to be in every congregation), we are not called to abandon those things that define us by virtue of our birth and circumstances of life. Instead we are called to overcome things that make us different from each other because we share a common life in Christ that transcends them all. In him we have the ability to live in unity and harmony in a deep and mutually enriching way.

It also means that the ‘good works’ to which we are called must not be artificial. There are some churches that come across as a kind of ecclesiastical equivalent of the movie The Stepford Wives. There is an eerie sameness to how their members behave and what they are expected to do. Nothing could be further from what God intends for his people. Paul will go on to describe the church as a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of beauty (Eph 3.10) that reflects God’s own Trinitarian essence and character for all to see.

The good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do are an absolutely vital component of what we are as his renewed humanity. They are living proof that we have indeed been made new in Christ. We do not simply claim to be different; we demonstrate this by how we live and what we do. It is often said that ‘actions speak louder than words’ and that is certainly true. Could it be that our verbal declaration of the gospel is too often blunted by the absence of ‘good works’ that speak winsomely for themselves and point others to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour?

Mark Johnston