The myth of “works righteousness”

I’m not sure, but I think it was something Francis Chan wrote or said that precipitated the pushback. It was several years ago, but the object of the critic’s wrath is not so important as what he said: The writer—Chan, or someone–was promoting “works righteousness.”

At the time, it was an unexpected response to what I call prophetic ministry. But before you recoil at mental images of the hair-shirt and glazed-over eyes persona, by prophetic I simply mean calling attention to a falling away from biblical standards and calling for a return to those same standards.

When you view it in those broad terms, prophetic ministry is about as radical as sliced bread or tossed salad in bags. Bad, and occasionally weird, examples don’t negate a good and legitimate calling. And it hasn’t been relegated to the “charismatic” wing of the church, like the off-the-main-aisle sections of Christian bookstores marked “Charismatic Interest.”

Of course, since I’ve brought it up, I don’t mean every self-styled prophet has a legitimate calling. “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied,” said the Lord about some so-called prophets in Jeremiah’s day (Jer 23:21).

I’m not taking issue with those who wish to question the legitimacy of someone’s message, of course. “. . . test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thes 5:21).  

The issue is calling prophetic ministry itself—correction, exhortation, occasionally rebuke—a repudiation of the “by grace you have been saved . . . not by works” foundation of our faith. It has the potential to be a very serious problem.

I have been in the church nearly 43 years. And the first thing that occurred to me after hearing this line of argument for the first time is that, in all that time, I have never met a single individual in any church at any time burdened by this oppressive yoke of “works righteousness”—not one.

It’s not that I’ve never met someone who seemed like a hamster on a wheel when it came to the “busyness” of church activity. But there’s a big difference between someone who’s accumulating works like a business traveler does frequent flyer miles and someone who’s trying to please a pastor, elder, Bible study leader or some other perceived monitor of their spiritual activity.

It’s another post for another day, but suffice it to say that one of the most underreported phenomena in church life is the tendency to—say it isn’t so—“practice righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Mt 6:1). You’d be surprised at the lengths some persons will go to please others (or at least avoid visibly displeasing them).

So what’s really happening here? Why the “works righteousness” defensiveness? I believe the problem is nearly as old as humanity itself.

Everyone knows the Lord was pleased with Abel’s offering, but not his brother Cain’s (Gen 4:1-16). What they often forget is the immediate aftermath.

Cain wasn’t summarily rejected; first there was attempted correction: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right will you not be accepted?”

The root problem is this: Cain had a problem with God and he took it out on his brother.

But if he had simply done what is right, he would have been accepted by God—which is what really matters. The offense (i.e., Cain’s resentment and anger), the strife, the murder itself, could have been avoided had he responded to God’s correction.

The irony in this story for our purposes, of course, is that Cain’s offering has often been considered the prototypical “works of my hands” offering that neither satisfies man’s need nor pleases God, while Abel’s was to offer the prototypical Christlike sacrifice—the life of another.

Abel did what was right. Cain didn’t, and resented his brother’s acceptance.

If I wanted to divert believers from a central tenet of the faith, I wouldn’t offer an alternative that is transparently inadequate or false. I’d wrap deception with a benchmark truth that no one would be willing to surrender or even water down.

That way, every attempt to get him to “do what is right” would be met with a martyr’s flint-like determination to resist—and a willingness to anathematize his critic.

In theory, the resolution is simple. Just do what is right. If you don’t, you will succumb to the same envy and resentment as Cain. Do you really want to obstruct the ministry of the Holy Spirit?

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