Romans 14:12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. (Romans 12:12
Throughout his writings, the Apostle Paul often emphasized the importance of faith to those who had consecrated their lives to the service of God. In the eleventh chapter of Romans, Paul uses the picture of an olive tree to represent the nation of Israel, specifically in terms of the nation being the favored people of God and as such, inheritors of the promises made by God. He then discusses how certain unproductive branches of the tree were “pruned out” to make room for branches from a “wild tree” to be grafted into the olive tree. He uses this picture to illustrate how the descendants of Israel, who had for centuries been “called out” to be God's chosen people, had the opportunity to demonstrate their faith to God by being the first among mankind to accept the Messiah that God had sent to them. Through a lack of faith, this opportunity was forfeited by many of the Jewish people, and offered, instead, to non-Jewish people, referred to as “Gentile people” as well. Paul expresses that those who wish to serve God and consecrate their lives to His service do so by faith:
Romans 11:20 "Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:"
Paul closes chapter eleven with a word of warning to those of the Gentile background who now found themselves accepted by God. Though faith may now allow them (and us) to be accepted by God, this acceptance may be lost, just as it was lost by those of Jewish people (the "natural branches").
Romans 11:21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
The message in Paul's closing words of chapter eleven is clear. Although faith is necessary in order to please God, something additional is required in order to stay pleasing to God. In the opening verse of chapter 12, Paul explicitly declares what this requirement is:
Romans 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
The word “service” as used in verse one is Strong's Greek word 2999, which carries the thought of “worship” in addition to service. Further, the word “reasonable” from the same verse is Strong's Greek word 3050, which carries the thought of not only “reasonable”, but “rational.” The RVIC translation of the verse reads “your logical service.” Thus, the concept of “service” brings with it more than just the possession of faith. The idea of “service” is one of action; one of doing, and further, actions that are not bizarre or inexplicable, but reasonable and rational. In short, faith is expected to result in works.
This idea is not limited, in the scriptures, to Paul's writings. James emphatically underscores this concept in his writings as well:
James 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
There are some strong thoughts expressed in just the few scriptures so far examined. First, it is possible, after having been accepted by God into His favor, to lose that favor, just as some of those among the Jewish people lost their favor. Second, the concept of works is as important as faith. If we are to “show our faith by our works” and if our works will be used to “give an account of ourselves” to God Himself, it then follows that it is vitally important to understand what “acceptable works” actually are.
Jesus was, and is, the most perfect example of pleasing God declared by the scriptures. Matthew chapters five through seven record an account of Jesus addressing his disciples (Matthew 5:1). The fact that these words were specifically delivered to his disciples implies that these were not general words, but words intended for those “of the olive tree” - those of the Jewish nation that Jesus considered his followers and members of the class considered as “the little flock”. Thus, the words in these three chapters have a direct relevance to the examination of works expected by members of “the little flock”.
Each of these three chapters include many important lessons, directions and examples for any follower of God to reflect on and embrace. Particularly, in chapter seven, Jesus outlined a difference between those who truly follow God and those who only profess to do so. In verses 16-20, Jesus delivered a series of statements, likening these two classes of people with fruit trees:
Matthew 7:16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Matthew 7:17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
Matthew 7:18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Matthew 7:19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Matthew 7:20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Jesus' words in verse 20, describing how a good tree and an evil tree may be identified by their fruits, is very reminiscent of Paul's words in Romans 12:1 examined earlier. Jesus was teaching that one's actions, one's “fruits”, may be used to understand one's character and one's heart condition. Expanding on this thought, Jesus then stated that there will be some who will only profess to know him, but not truly understand him or the Father who he serves:
Matthew 7:22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
In these words, Jesus taught the same theme that both Paul and James attempted to convey in their writings. There will be some whose faith allows them to recognize Jesus, as pictured by those who call “Lord, Lord.” This faith, although sufficient for recognition, is not strong enough to spur this class to any further works, such as a consecration to God, service to others, or in study or pursuit of understanding God's word and plan for mankind. Those of this class may outwardly profess to know Jesus, or to know God, but without corresponding actions, or works, that faith is thin at best, and does little, if anything, to glorify God.
A Foundation of Rock and a Foundation of Sand
Brother Russell explores the importance of the relationship between faith and works in the article "Who Are Real Christians?" (R3317-3318). The article proposes that there is a segment of Christianity who know something of God, and something of Jesus, and are taught that accepting Jesus as their savior, and symbolizing that acceptance through the outward act of baptism, is sufficient to obtain a heavenly reward after death. This corresponds to the class of people described by Jesus in Matthew 7:22, who say “Lord, Lord.” This class fails to understand that while acceptance of Jesus as one's savior is critical for those who seek a heavenly reward, that acceptance is only the beginning of the requirements. A heavenly reward requires a lifetime of consecration to God, committing one's time and talents over the course of one's life in praise and service to God, and in developing a character, attitude and heart condition that will be acceptable to Him.
Later in Matthew 7, Jesus uses a picture of two men. One of the men builds his house on a rock, and the second builds his house on sand. When a storm came, the house that was built on the sand, having a weak foundation, crumbled.
Matthew 7:24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
Matthew 7:25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
Matthew 7:26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
Matthew 7:27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
The article cites Jesus' descriptions as a picture of these two different classes of Christians. One class, who exhibits enough faith in God and in Jesus to engage in the outward symbol of baptism, but then generally goes about their lives unchanged, is likened to the man who builds his house on the sand. The class who follows through with their consecration vow and genuinely works toward dedicating their life to God corresponds to the man who builds his house on rock. Through a lifetime spent studying God's word, serving others, particularly those others who have also dedicated their lives to God, and by seeking to put aside the distractions and passing pleasures of the present world in favor of spending their time worshiping and serving God, this latter class builds a stronger character that fundamentally relies on God for guidance and accepts His wisdom in all things. That character is built by actively acting on faith; on joyously spending their days in service to God. This expenditure of energy, fueled by faith, defines this class's lifetime of works.
A Consideration of Two Different Accounts of Works
The scriptures record two different accounts which, at first reading, may appear unrelated to each other, or even the topic at hand, but upon contrast, harmonize with the thoughts of these two classes of Christians. In Matthew 18:16-22, a man approaches Jesus and asks how eternal life may be gained. This account is also recorded in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. The Luke account specifically states that the man was a ruler (verse 18) and that he was rich (verse 23). Jesus begins to answer his question by quoting various elements of the Jewish law to the man:
Luke 18:20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.
The man, in turn, responds to Jesus that he has kept these commandments throughout his life:
Luke 18:21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.
By his own admission, the ruler felt that he had kept all the commandments of God. This keeping of God's commandments doubtlessly required effort and resources on behalf of the ruler, and this effort could accurately be referred to as the "works" of the ruler. Although the scriptures do not specify his motivation for keeping these commandments, it is a safe assumption that the ruler would have had familiarity with God and His laws in order to keep them. This further implies some manner of faith in God; that He existed, that His laws were to be kept and obeyed by those who sought Him. Yet still, despite these works being “kept from [his] youth up”, the man must have been troubled in either mind or heart to the point that he sought out Jesus to ask for guidance. At some level, he must have felt that his works, even if they were beyond what many others may have performing, were somehow lacking. Perhaps sensing this unrest in the man's heart, Jesus gave the man one further response:
Luke 18:22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.
Despite all of the works that the rich ruler may have performed throughout his life in keeping the letter of God's laws, Jesus surely must have sensed the man's troubled heart. If the rich ruler's works were performed out of a sense of obligation, a perfunctory checklist to be followed, perhaps those works then lacked the ability to bring the ruler's heart to God. Clearly, the works were insufficient for the man to have faith that they were accepted by God to the extent of achieving “eternal life” (Luke 18:18). Jesus may have sensed that a greater work was necessary to develop the faith in God that the man sought. A work of faith such as selling all that he had, giving the proceeds to the poor, and leaving his life to follow Jesus would have been a significant act of faith, and certainly a life changing event for the man. Jesus doubtlessly could read the man's heart, and understood what a "reasonable" work for this man, in particular, needed to perform to draw his heart closer to God.
Some time later, after Jesus's death and resurrection, the book of Acts describes a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was not a Jew, but a Gentile, and further, was a Roman centurion:
Acts 10:1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,
Acts 10:2 A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.
Several conclusions can be drawn from just these two simple verses. First, although a Gentile, the scriptures describe Cornelius as a “devout man” who “feared God with all his house”. His fear, or faith, in God was further exemplified in his works, some of which are commented on in verse two. Like the rich ruler from Luke 18, Cornelius performed works such as giving alms to the people. However, verse two specifically states that another of Cornelius' works, the evidences of his faith, was that he “prayed to God always.” It is interesting to note that this work of prayer was not listed in the account of the rich ruler. Further, the account states that all of Cornelius' house also feared God, implying that the sincerity of his faith, and the works that resulted from them, were observed by those around him to the intent of inspiring them to God's worship and service as well.
Acts 10:3-7 records a vision sent to Cornelius. He was to seek out the Apostle Peter, who was visiting a neighboring town. Cornelius immediately dispatched messengers to bring Peter to his household as the vision had instructed him. At about the same time, the Apostle Peter also received a vision from God, which he interpreted to mean that God's instructions were that prospective membership in the chosen church class was now to be open to Jewish and Gentile people alike. Responding to this vision, Peter went with Cornelius' messengers to Cornelius' household, where, in verses 44-48, Cornelius, as well as many others, made their consecrations to God and received the Holy Spirit.
Many similarities between the rich ruler who approached Jesus in Luke 18 and Cornelius in Acts 10 may be drawn. As a Roman centurion and head of a household, Cornelius was evidently a man of some worldly wealth and standing, as the rich ruler may also have been. Both had some familiarity with God, to the point of influencing the actions and works they performed in their lives. The scriptures record that both gave a portion of their wealth to the poor, for example.
Yet, when the rich man approached Jesus, he approached Jesus alone. The scriptures do not record any of his household with him, nor do the scriptures record any impact upon the community or his own household made by the rich man or his actions. In contrast, the scriptures clearly record that Cornelius' household feared God as he did. Worldly fame is not an important consideration when considering service to God, but clearly, Cornelius' faith, and the works he performed as a result of that faith, had an impact on those around him. Cornelius' faith and resulting works no doubt influenced them to also seek and serve (“fear”) God. The description of Cornelius in Acts describes him as a man who prayed to God fervently and consistently; no such description is given of the rich ruler. Jesus told the rich ruler that in order to achieve “eternal life”, he must give up all the riches he had, give them to the poor, and leave all to follow Jesus. The scriptures do not record such instructions from Peter to Cornelius, nor do they record any visions or instructions from God to Cornelius to sell all his household before being accepted by God. Clearly, there was a difference between the two men that made a work “reasonable” to one of the men, but not “reasonable” for the other. This difference may have been the faith that inspired the works of each of the men.
Consider Jesus's parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In this parable, Jesus describes a man leaving his country for a time. In his absence, he entrusts certain portions of his wealth, in the form of talents, to various of his servants. Some servants are given the responsibility of managing more talents than others, according to their abilities. When returning home, the man gathers the servants together and asks for a report on what was done with the resources with which they were entrusted. Some were entrusted with a great deal, and likewise, returned a great deal back to their lord. Some were entrusted with only a little, and returned little in return. The parable records that the master was pleased with the servants who returned much or little, implying that the master understood that the magnitude of the expected return depended on the abilities of the servants. The parable states that only one servant displeased the master. This servant buried the talent in the ground until his master returned, performing no work with the talent. The servant attempted to return the talent to the master. The master, however, was displeased to have only his original talent returned without even an attempt at an increase.
Perhaps the manner in which Cornelius conducted his household, the faith in God that stood behind his works, separated him from the rich ruler in a manner similar to the separation between the servant in the parable who, entrusted with many talents, through works, returned many more talents to his master, and the servant who returned only the talent entrusted to him. Burying the talent in the ground was a work on behalf of the servant, with the intention of returning what was entrusted to him, but was a work devoid of value to others, as a talent hidden in the ground was useless to any, and thus, returned no increase to the master.
Consider again Jesus' words from Matthew 7, examined earlier. Jesus knew that among mankind, many would know of God, and of himself (Jesus), but not be able to truly understand the spirit of faith and love that God would require. These would be the people who, in verse 21, Jesus describes as saying “Lord, Lord”. Like the rich ruler, there would be those who would understand the concept of God and would be familiar enough with God to allow that familiarity to influence their works to some extent or other, but lack the true heart condition and zeal and love that God requires. If the rich ruler lacked this zeal, the zeal and love for God which would benefit and even perhaps inspire others to know and praise God, then his riches and his household were meaningless to him. From this perspective, an act of faith and love for God, a “reasonable service” on behalf of the rich ruler could have been to give away his riches to the poor, and in so doing, recognize that which had been lacking in his heart. Cornelius was described a “devout man”, who “prayed always”, and had a household who did the same. No doubt, Cornelius' faith inspired him to act in certain ways that could not help but be infectious to those around him. His faith and the acts that his faith spurred him to do encouraged others to also know and serve God. Like the servant entrusted with many talents, he used what he had been given in recognition and service to God, and was thus rewarded with the Holy Spirit, a symbol that his consecration to God had been accepted, whereas the rich ruler walked sadly and emptily away from Jesus.
From this perspective, it becomes appropriate to compare the rich ruler with the picture of the man who built his house on the sand. It also becomes appropriate to compare Cornelius with the picture of the man who built his house on rock.
Not “Justified by Works” - An Important Distinction
Although the scriptures clearly stress the relationship between faith and works, an important distinction remains between faith driving one to perform works and an expectation that one's works can, in any way, provide one with righteousness, or justification, in terms of God's law or justice. God created mankind to be perfect, and as perfect beings, would have enjoyed everlasting life. However, through an act of disobedience to God's commandment, that right to life, that justification was lost, to them as well as to all their descendants:
Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Many generations later, God chose the descendants of Israel to be His favored people, and delivered to them a law. This law, if kept perfectly, would provide the keeper with justification, or righteousness, with God, and thus have a right to life:
Leviticus 18:4 Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 18:5 Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.
This concept, of obtaining righteousness through the perfect keeping of God's laws, is often referred to as “justification by works.” The “works” were the actions that one would perform in the perfect keeping of God's law. However, the concept of “justification by works” proved difficult for mankind in two ways. First, God's law, and thus the opportunity for this kind of justification, was only open to the descendants of Israel, and thus not available to the majority of mankind. Second, justification by works could only be achieved by a perfect keeping of God's laws, in both deed and in spirit, and mankind, having fallen from perfection, could not achieve this standard, at least until Jesus.
Jesus perfectly kept the law, perfectly, and was the first (and only) person to achieve justification by his works:
Matthew 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
Matthew 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Having fulfilled the law, Jesus not only brought the law's potential to provide justification to an end, but by sacrificing the life that he was entitled to, facilitated a new type of justification to replace justification by works. This justification relies on having faith in Jesus's sacrifice as a ransom price for mankind, and for the individual. This type of justification is often referred to as “justification by faith”, and is summarized by Paul in his letter to the Galatians:
Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
In this statement, Paul makes it clear that no works performed by an individual are capable of providing any kind of justification, or righteousness, in terms of God's justice. This is an important distinction. Although faith is expected to spur one to perform works, and those works will, if blessed by God, potentially benefit others and glorify His name, those works cannot provide justification to the individual performing the works. Only faith in Jesus as the redeemer of mankind, the payer of mankind's ransom price, can provide the hope of such justification.
Faith is crucial for all those who wish to serve God and be prospective members of “the little flock”. Faith in God is what pulls one out of darkness and into a light so beautiful that, when shone on a good heart, cannot help but to inspire. That faith, though, needs to be developed and strengthened over the course of one's life with study, with worship and praise to God, and with service to others, particularly to those others who are also striving to serve God to the best of their abilities. Such faith is like notes ringing forth from a music hall, too powerful and too urgent to be contained by four simple walls. The notes and the sounds and the harmonies spill over into the world outside the music hall and are evident to all those inside and outside the hall. Faith and works, like the song, will be heard and known, and will, if pleasing to God, have an impact. Those impacts, those works, serve as the reinforcing of the faith that inspired them, becoming, through the Lord's grace, as firm and as solid as the foundation of a house built on the sturdiest of rocks. Such a faith will help the laborer remember that even though the best that can be offered are imperfect works, the scriptures promise that through the mercy of our Lord, even imperfect works will be accepted if forged with the correct heart intention. All who so labor are assured, by the scriptures, that they will stand by faith, and by their works, they will be known.