Christian Churches of God

We Are Not Saved by Good Works (No. 189)

(Edition 1.2 19970610-20000712)

We Are Not Saved by Good Works


(Edition 1.2 19970610-20000712)

The punch line, You aren't saved by Sabbath-keeping, although valid, has been used to the point of unnecessary irritation, and the current use of it is misleading rather than helpful. One of the current uses of the statement is to drive home the point that we need to focus on saving souls rather than on doctrinal distinctives. But the validity of the point and that focus depend on the audiences we address. Our faith is in the expectation of a system which is symbolised by the Sabbath as a mark of the obedience of the people of God. Our master was obedient unto death, as one of us, even death on a cross.

Christian Churches of God



Copyright ã 1997 by Roy A. Marrs

Editor of the Bible Advocate, the official organ of the Church of God, Seventh Day

(edited by Wade Cox)

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We Are Not Saved by Good Works

The punch line, You aren't saved by Sabbath-keeping, although valid, has been used to the point of unnecessary irritation, and our current use of it is misleading rather than helpful. When it first began to be circulated among us, it had considerable "shock" effect, and perhaps needed to be said as a means of getting our attention; but it is open to question whether it was, or is, being used advisedly. One of the current uses of the statement is to drive home the point that we need to focus on saving souls rather than on doctrinal distinctives. But the validity of the point and that focus depend on the audiences we address.

Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, and the book of Hebrews are doctrinal studies written to the Church. Their main emphases were on understanding the sin problem, the means of salvation, obedience, getting doctrines straight, and admonition to good works. They are not letters to those not saved, and their focus is not on the unsaved.

That is usually true when we stand in the pulpit. It is just about as true when we print the Bible Advocate or tracts. By and large, we are dealing with believers and our messages are tailored for believers. When addressing the Church, that focus on the Church, on the belief and behaviour of believers, is just as valid as it was in the days of the apostles.

Obviously, we need to include admonition from the pulpit and printed pages on witnessing. We need to motivate the Church to sow the seed; but, in doing that, we are going to find, as Paul did, the need to straighten out the doctrines of the believers to whom we minister, whether in the denomination or out of the denomination. That is one proper function of an evangelist, and Paul found himself almost preoccupied with wrong doctrines and behavioural problems in his writing.

The focus of both the Old and New Testaments is on the people of God, and both are addressed to the congregation of Israel and the Church. Although they pertain to the unsaved, their main focus is on the behaviour and beliefs of the people of God.

Even the gospels focus on a proper understanding of God and His Christ and the expectation that we obey our Lord, part of which concerns sowing seed and working in His harvest fields.

So why the preoccupation with what fails to save us when we are trying to focus on what does save us? Is it our conviction that those in our audiences who name the name of Christ are not saved, because they trust in their good works for salvation? If so, the focus of our communications should be on what does save, not just on what fails to save. Possibly, by focusing on what does not save rather than what does save, we are just as improperly focused as when trying to get an unsaved person to keep the Sabbath! We want unsaved people to stop sinning, so we don't harp on the fact that to stop committing adultery cannot save.

Let us consider the logic of the "keeping Sabbath doesn't save" approach, and its lack of focus. It's just as valid to say, You aren't saved by honouring your parents, neither are you saved by keeping any other commandment. When we urge everyone to observe the commandment to love one another, why do we not caution them, Understand, however, it won't save you? Another truth is, loving your neighbour will not save you. Why do we never say that?

The Church of God, Seventh Day, DOES NOT TEACH that observing the ten commandments or any other set of rules, from either the Old Testament or the New Testament, is the means of salvation – and, so far as I know, it never did. We have been falsely accused by many of teaching and believing that. Many writings, even from some of our own people, reflect this misconception of us and our teachings.

Let me illustrate the inconsistency of our false accusers. Consider Paul's statement to the Galatians.

Galatians 5:3-4 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.

Our false accusers reason that if we observe the Sabbath we are also debtor to do the whole law – sacrifices and all.

But they teach we should not commit adultery and eight more of the ten commandments. If literally keeping the Sabbath (one of the ten commandments) obligates us to make sacrifices and offerings, then so does literally observing "thou shalt not kill" also obligate us to make sacrifices and offerings! Likewise, if teaching we should literally not practice homosexuality, then we must observe the entire law of Moses, whether in the ten or in other parts of the law of Moses, for it is in the other commandments through Moses, not in the ten, that we find the commands not to practice incest and homosexuality.

The inconsistency of our accusers not applying the same rule to themselves (observe one and you have to observe all) betrays their prejudice against Sabbath-observance. Further, they accuse us of trying to be justified (saved) by observing the Sabbath.

To be consistent, they would also have to say that of all who teach a person should literally not kill (let alone hate), should literally not steal (let alone covet), should literally not commit adultery (let alone lust after a woman because of her looks). If we are trying to be saved by observing the Sabbath, one of the ten, then all who teach literal obedience to the other nine commandments are also trying to be saved by the works of law-obedience. Oh, the virtue of applying the same rules to ourselves that we apply to our adversaries!

Circumcision is not in the ten commandments and therefore not a valid comparison to Sabbath-observance. But the Sabbath is in the ten commandments, and Billy Graham, John McArthur, Chuck Swindoll and many others give lip service to the concept that the ten commandments still define sin.

Of course, all other commandments are literal; but Sabbath-observance now must be fulfilled by finding rest in Christ; they say one cannot now fulfil the fourth commandment by literally observing the seventh day as Sabbath; but on the other hand, literally using Sunday as a day for rest and spiritual convocations is perfectly logical to do – even though the Bible never mentions substituting Sunday for Sabbath.

Why do we see this unbalanced use of one point of the law, Sabbath-observance, to illustrate that works and law-keeping are not the means of salvation? Why is it that ministers who urge us to reject abortion and homosexuality never feel the need to say, Understand, however, refusing to give in to gay impulses will not save you? Why do they never say, Refusing to abort an unintended pregnancy will not save you? It is just as valid to say those things, but it puts the points they wish to make in a negative light. It is just as valid to say, Refraining from murder won't save you as to say Observing the Sabbath won't save you – but nobody does that because they wish to uphold God's command not to murder.

Do we wish to affirm Sabbath-observance? If we do, we should speak positively about Sabbath-observance! Speak of what it will do, rather than what it can't do. God never spoke of the Sabbath as useless in the process of salvation, because that was off the subject, not making the points He wished to make. The same is true of the ministry of Jesus. Not once did he refer to the failures of the Sabbath and what it can't do for man.

It can therefore be concluded that there are two points of negative focus in this matter among evangelicals:

Doing good works will not save you.

Keeping the law will not save you.

In both cases, the motive appears to be to negate Sabbath-observance. Sabbath-observance is seemingly the only objection the majority of Christians have to teaching good works (which the Bible assuredly teaches).

On no occasion does the Bible speak negatively of good works, but some modern preachers, including some Church of God ministers, almost without exception first speak negatively of good works, in the sense that they won't save you, and then sometimes rather apologetically say, But I'm not down-playing good works.

Then why begin with that impression?

In this, do we speak where the Bible speaks? Are we silent where the Bible is silent? Perhaps we need to turn this into a triumvirate: We speak AS the Bible speaks, we speak WHERE the Bible speaks, and we do NOT speak where the Bible does not speak! A two legged stool is hard to stand on in any case!

Good works are mentioned sixteen times in the New Testament (in the KJV and in the Greek):

Matthew 5:16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

John 10:32 Jesus answered them, Many good works have I shown you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me?

Acts 9:36 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.

Romans 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

1Timothy 2:10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

1Timothy 5:10 Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.

1Timothy 5:25 Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.

1Timothy 6:18 That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;

2Timothy 3:17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Titus 2:7 In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity,

Titus 2:14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

Titus 3:8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.

Titus 3:14 And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.

Hebrews 10:24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:

1Peter 2:12 Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.

Note: The Greek words used in these passages are either forms of kalos ergos, or agathos ergos. Good works is a the best interpretation of either phrase.

Every passage presents good works in a positive context. Not one of them brings up good works as a part of the discussion of law and grace! The crowning jewels of the discussion of good works are found in Titus 2:14:

(Jesus) gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works;

and Ephesians 2:10:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

If we wish to square with the gospel as presented by Jesus, the gospel writers, and the rest of the New Testament Scriptures, we will always speak of good works in a positive manner – no exception!

In contrast, we are warned not to do after the works of evil men, that works done to be seen of men are for the wrong purpose, our end shall be according to our works; and all are warned that we shall be awarded according to our works, whether good or bad; and all are urged to do works meet for repentance.

Whereas Paul clearly states that we are not saved by works or law observance, he hastens to point out how we are saved. He balances it off by clarifying that we establish the law by faith; and by stating that the new creation which we become in Christ is unto good works. Paul points out that Christ died to redeem us from iniquity, to purify a peculiar people that is zealous of good works. How zealous will people be of good works if good works are constantly presented negatively? How likely are people to obey a command of God if the main thing we say about it is that observing it won't save us?

To square with the preponderance of evidence in the word of God, we must recognise that God prizes our obedience and our good works, and to view good works as filthy rags when God had His Son die to transform us so we can perform those same good works is a perversion of the gospel message.

If the point really being made by some of our ministers is that Sabbath-observance is not important, then we ought to be honest about it and say so. If we believe it is still a valid expression of the will of God for our lives, and not just a nice thing to do, then every time a person mentions you can't be saved by observing the Sabbath, that same person ought to affirm not only that it's a nice tradition in the Church (the Worldwide approach), but the speaker also should affirm they believe God still wants the Sabbath observed (not the Worldwide approach), and that Sabbath-observance is a commandment of God. Is it, or is it not? If it is, we have no right to speak negatively of it.

Suppose you were to be asked, Would you die for the Sabbath? How should you answer? You should answer with care. Behind the question is implicitly the broader question, Are you willing to die rather than disobey God? To say, No, I'm not willing to die for the Sabbath without explanation, can leave a very clear situation ethics message in the minds of young and old that obedience is not worth dying for. We need always to speak with clarity.

Our belief is that it is worth dying to maintain obedience to God. If Jesus died to correct our disobedience, it is worth our dying to prevent our disobedience. It is a fact of history that most of the apostles paid with their own lives to be obedient.

If we diminish the importance of any of God's commands that continue to be valid, God will chastise us vigorously for implying that anything He commands us to do is optional (see Matt. 5:18-19; Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 22:11-14,19 ed.). It appears that some people take the expression Observing the Sabbath won't save you, as meaning the Sabbath is optional. It is not optional, it is a commandment of God. The logic used by our Church of God forefathers is sound. It went something like the following:

James 2:10-11 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

This system of logic is just as valid when worded, For he that said, 'Thou shalt have no other God's before me,' also said, 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images'; or, For he that said, 'Honour thy father and thy mother' also said, 'remember the Sabbath.'

Conclusions to be Drawn

The way we speak about good works and Sabbath-observance has very important implications for the peace of the Church. If we are not aware, then we need to become aware that the expressions we use in our pulpits, in our articles for the Bible Advocate or lessons for Sabbath School, are either pacifying or inflammatory, edifying or destructive. They seldom are neutral. Our current rhetoric about Sabbath-observance and good works not saving us is unbalanced, and both inflammatory and destructive, with no useful purpose being served.

We need to speak positively about the things we teach, the things we affirm, the things we believe.

We need to differentiate between what it is that saves us and that which condemns us. They are different functions. It is clear from the Bible that we are not saved by good works, but it is just as clear from the Bible that God applauds good works, that He expects us to perform them, and that we are known to be acquainted with God or not acquainted with Him by our works. It is just as clear that we are condemned for lack of good works as it is clear that good works do not save us.

While good works are not a function of the process of salvation, lack of good works and evil works are both a function of the need for salvation! Disobedience to God is a cause of the need to be saved.

If God wills that we observe the Sabbath, let's be straight forward and say so in a positive way! If observing the Sabbath is not an expression of the will of God, then let's be straight forward and say so!

Paul wrote, "Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power (authority) which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction" (2Cor. 13:10). May our own intent and the effects of our actions serve to edification.

If you want your congregation to begin witnessing rather than being inverted in their focus, take them by the hand and say, Brother, let's go find a sinner to witness to. It's a lot more effective than telling saved people what can't save them.

[On working on this text I wrote to Roy Marrs about the work and showed him the following comments with which he concurs and they are appended in accordance with his wishes (ed.).]

Obedience to the commandments of God is an expression of faith. He who gave us the law did so because the law comes from His nature. We are partakers of the divine nature (2Pet. 1:4). Obedience to the law is a result of the Holy Spirit and we keep the law from our hearts. We no longer need teachers because we have the Holy Spirit. The Sabbath is one of a series of commandments which are extended in the laws of the Old Testament to embody the responsibilities we take unto ourselves when we become part of the Kingdom of God. We are not justified by the law. We are justified by faith. The patriarchs and all who followed them were justified by faith (Heb. 11:1-39). Faith is the assurance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1 ff). Yet they did not receive the promise since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb. 11:39). By faith, we hope for a system of law and government that emanates from the very nature of God. By faith, our sacrifice is made as living stones in the Temple of God of which we are and we are governed by the laws of God in our hearts and minds.

The Sabbath is a test commandment because it marks God's system. Those who profess the faith, yet do not keep the Sabbath, fall short of the glory of God. By their works they show us the shortcomings of their faith. We, by our works, demonstrate our faith (Jas. 3:18). Our faith is in the expectation of a system which is symbolised by the Sabbath as a mark of the obedience of the people of God. Our master was obedient unto death, as one of us, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). The Sabbath is a mark of the system of rest that God established for us in Jesus Christ.