Doing Right Christian Works
Jesus foretold that in our day some who claimed to have done many works in his name would be disowned by him. What kind of works must we do to gain his recognition and approval?
“BELIEVE on the Lord Jesus and you will get saved.” Those words of the apostle Paul, directed to a terrified Philippian jailer—terrified because an earthquake in the middle of the night had just opened all the doors of the cells and loosed all the bonds of his prisoners—are taken by many to mean that all that is required of a Christian to gain salvation is to believe.—Acts 16:31.
But not so. If a fisherman or a farmer heard a warning about a hurricane or a tornado, would he get saved if he failed to do something about it, merely because he believed the warning? He would have to take whatever precautions he could, which he would if he really believed the warning. So, as the disciple James well points out, belief alone is not enough; for if we stop with mere belief we actually do not believe. “Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if a certain one says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it?” No, it cannot, for “indeed, as the body without breath is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”—Jas. 2:14, 26.
But perhaps someone will say, Does not that conflict with what the apostle Paul taught in his letter to the Romans about being declared righteous by faith? Does he not show that Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith, and does not Paul also insist that works did not bring righteousness to the Jews? Luther and others have so argued, and that is one reason why some of these have even gone to the extreme of doubting the inspiration of James’ letter.
No, what James wrote does not conflict with what Paul taught. The Bible does not contradict itself. It only seems to when we do not understand it. James and Paul are discussing two separate and different types of works. Paul showed that the works required by the Law, circumcision, sacrifices, sabbaths, etc., could not make God’s servants righteous: “Therefore by works of law no flesh will be declared righteous before him, for by law is the accurate knowledge of sin.” Such requirements of the Law were pictorial of better things, which could make one righteous. Besides, the works of the Law could be done by one without his heart’s being in it, as shown at Isaiah chapter one.—Rom. 3:20; Heb. 10:1.
Now James does not contradict this, for he is not discussing works of the Law, but rather the imperative need of backing up one’s faith by consistent works. The proverb “actions speak louder than words” might be applied here. Also, as James observes: “You believe there is one God, do you? You are doing quite well. And yet the demons believe and shudder.” But while shuddering, they do not act in harmony with their belief.—Jas. 2:19.
WORKS OF MERCY
Jesus stressed the importance of works both by his busy life and by his teachings: “My Father has kept working until now, and I keep working.” “We must work the works of him that sent me.” So on the night of his betrayal he could say to his Father: “I have glorified you on the earth, having finished the work you have given me to do.”—John 5:17; 9:4; 17:4.
Of what did these works consist? Many professed Christians take the position that if they are law-abiding that is all that God requires of them. True, the Bible does command that we do honest work: “Let the stealer steal no more, but rather let him do hard work, doing with his hands what is good work, that he may have something to distribute to someone in need.”—Eph. 4:28.
But mere honest labor is far from being all that is required of a Christian. Without doubt Jesus did such honest work as a carpenter for many years before he came to Jordan to be baptized. But being a carpenter was not the purpose for which he came to earth and was anointed or made the Christ. Christian works, therefore, must be the type of works Jesus did after his baptism and forty-day fast in the wilderness.
And what were those works? For one thing, they certainly included many acts of mercy. He miraculously fed the hungry, cured the sick, cast out demons, restored sight and soundness of limb, and even raised the dead. Without doubt he did much to alleviate physical suffering in his day.
Because of this, many professed Christians have concluded that all they need to do is to contribute to charity, help build hospitals, orphanages and suchlike institutions. Others go farther and even dedicate their lives to helping the sick and needy, such as Albert Schweitzer, physician, musician and clergyman-philosopher, who has spent decades in the heart of Africa ministering to the sick.
True, the doing of such acts is a showing of mercy and neighbor love. And in one of Jesus’ illustrations a Samaritan is commended for his thus showing neighbor love. We also read of an early Christian woman, Dorcas, who “abounded in good deeds and gifts of mercy.” Likewise Cornelius is approvingly referred to as one who “made many gifts of mercy to the people.”—Luke 10:30-37; Acts 9:36; 10:2.
No question about it, the early Christians were distinguished for the generosity they showed toward one another. It was for this very purpose that Paul urged the Corinthian Christians to set apart something on the first day of each week. No doubt that is why James used the showing of such kindness to illustrate that faith without works is dead; and why John said that we are to love not only with words but also with deeds.—1 Cor. 16:2; Jas. 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:17, 18.
It seems, however, that some dedicated Christians in modern times are prone to come short in this respect, doubtless because of thoughtlessness. Appreciating that material giving is not the most important kind of giving and that there is much spiritual giving to be done, these apparently go to the other extreme and overlook entirely opportunities to lend a helping hand to their brothers who may have need of material things. Included would be the making of a friendly visit when a fellow minister is sick in bed, at home or in the hospital.
Not long ago a member of the Brooklyn headquarters staff had the opportunity of addressing some seventy members of a Congregational Church group on the work of Jehovah’s witnesses. What occasioned this opportunity? It was the fact that the president of this group had noted how faithfully one of the witnesses called on his neighbor, also a witness, during the time of her illness, reading the Bible and Bible publications to her. He was so impressed that he wanted both himself and his group to know more about the witnesses. So let dedicated Christians keep balance in this matter also and not neglect opportunities to aid their brothers in a material way as opportunity affords.
RIGHT CHRISTIAN WORKS
However, as good as all such works are, they are at best only secondary. Even with Jesus the really important work was preaching that “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” That was the primary reason for his coming to earth, as he told Pilate: “For this purpose I have been born and for this purpose I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”—Matt. 4:17; John 18:37.
That is why Jesus said: “Happy are those who are conscious of their spiritual need,” but rebuked those who followed him merely because of the loaves and the fishes, being conscious only of their physical needs. He knew that taking in loaves and fishes meant merely temporary life, but that “this means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.”—Matt. 5:3; John 17:3.
No question about it, to follow Christ we must not only do deeds of mercy but must, chief of all, preach the truth about God, his Word and kingdom. That is why Jesus, at the close of his ministry, stated that by glorifying his Father on earth he had finished the work his Father had given him to do. Thus the apostle Paul urges us: “Become imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.” He took, not the work of alleviating physical suffering, but the work of preaching, so seriously that he exclaimed: “If, now, I am declaring the good news, it is no reason for me to boast, for necessity is laid upon me. Really, woe is me if I did not declare the good news!”—1 Cor. 11:1; 9:16.
Just as Jesus came to earth primarily to bear witness to the truth, so also that is the primary reason for any becoming his followers. As Peter shows, Christians are “‘a people for special possession, that you should declare abroad the excellencies’ of the one that called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” In fact, their salvation depends upon it, as we are further told: “For with the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, but with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation”; a statement, incidentally, combining Paul’s stress of righteousness by faith and James’ emphasis on works consistent with one’s faith.—1 Pet. 2:9; Rom. 10:10.
NO CHRISTIAN LAITY
Most persons who profess to be Christians think they are doing quite well if, in addition to being honest and giving to charity, they go to church on Sunday, listen to a sermon and contribute toward the clergyman’s salary and the other expenses of their religious organization. No doubt this misapprehension of theirs largely rests on the false distinction between clergy and laity. Such a distinction, while very common among pagan religions, never did have a place in true Christianity; it certainly did not exist in the early Christian congregation. As one religious journal observed in commenting on “Layman’s Sunday”:
“Certainly in the little band of Jesus and his disciples there was no division into clergy and laity. Much as any [clergyman] would like to regard Jesus as his counterpart in the early situation, his manner, speech and mood were what we would today call ‘lay.’ And just so, the disciples who might look from here like a [newly formed] laity were really the preachers who were sent out.
“In the rest of the New Testament the word for clergy (kleros) means not a special order among the Christians but all the Christians. And the word for laity (laós) means not a recipient part of the congregation but, again, all the Christians. All are called to one service, and all are God’s people. Our distinction between clergy and laity was not known to the New Testament, so St. Paul could not have added ‘clergy and laity’ to the list of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, men and women who are one in Christ. Had he lived in the second century, however, he might have so expanded his list.”—The Christian Century, October 12, 1955.
This, however, does not mean that to do right Christian works one must mount the pulpit or the public platform and there preach. One can find many opportunities for bearing witness in his own home, at his place of employment, as well as when shopping or traveling. And one can always make opportunities for himself by going from house to house and by accosting strangers on street corners or in market places, all of which methods Paul and the other apostles used.—Acts 5:42; 17:17; 20:20.
Of course, to be able at all times “to make a defense before everyone that demands of you a reason for the hope in you,” we must apply ourselves to the study of God’s Word, heeding Paul’s instruction: “Do your utmost to present yourself approved to God, a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, handling the word of the truth aright.” Assembling ourselves together is also essential, for both mutual instruction and co-operative effort.—1 Pet. 3:15; 2 Tim. 2:15; Heb. 10:25.
Thus we see that while Christians must do honest work and may not neglect works of charity, the works that identify them as Christians are those of ministering to the spiritual needs of the people, bearing witness to God’s name and kingdom.