What is works righteousness and what’s wrong with it?
The week before Christmas I heard the best argument against Christianity I’ve heard in years. I met with a professional woman who had worked seven years for near minimum wage in the administration of a Christian ministry. When they decided to move their headquarters, they abruptly dismissed her with two weeks’ severance. She felt used and discarded.
And she felt anger: How could they treat her so callously after seven years of sacrifice? She said, “If they believed God would judge them for their callousness, they would have treated me more generously.”
She added: “What’s so bad about works righteousness?”
Just for the Sake of Argument
The classic Christian answer is, “We can’t be good enough, our ‘good deeds are as filthy rags’” (from Is. 64:6). So, one problem with works righteousness is its impossibility.
But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that we could act good enough to get into heaven (or bad enough to find our home in hell). If everyone believed this, wouldn’t the world be a better place?
- Bosses would treat employees as though their own future happiness depended on it.
- Doors would remain unlocked because no one would steal; and if someone did rob us, we’d have a chance to turn the other cheek.
- The most lucrative job in the world might be panhandling, because everyone would give generously.
So, what’s so bad about works righteousness? Why didn’t God design salvation that way?
There’s Something Wrong with the Human Heart
Whenever we succeed in our natural strengths, we despise others who fail: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
We don’t call it disdain, because we’re too proud to admit it, but scorn it is:
- We exercise and eat right, and we “wonder” about our fat friends;
- We gain spiritual insight (about the Holy Spirit, good heart, or God’s sovereignty), and we “offer” it to others rather than receiving what God might say through them to us;
- We raise our kids well, and we “pity” our less disciplined neighbors.
And if we successfully fight our pride (good luck with that), we wish others could be a bit more humble. Like us.
Our Greatest Need is Need
Flannery O’Conner once described a character this way:
There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.
The impossibility of works righteousness is one thing; but the biggest problem with works righteousness is that it obscures our need for God. And we hate to need; we despise dependence; we (arrogantly) think to ourselves, “It is better to give than receive.”
God says our only hope is our need for him, our dependence on him, and to receive from him.
Knowing our need creates humility, and our friends and family need our humility more than our wisdom or even our natural good deeds. They need us supernaturally changed so that our good deeds surprise us as much as they surprise them.
The only fruit of our lives of substantial value is created by our intimacy with God.