The struggle between good works and faith has deep root in the history of the Church. A key debate in the Protestant Reformation was the role works have in the salvation of a man. In modern times, the lordship salvation debate between John MacArthur and some others in the 1990’s was really a debate about the nature and necessity of works in the Christian life. Numerous Scriptures were used throughout the debates both in the Reformation and in the modern quarrels. James 2:14-24 was beaten to death during the lordship salvation debates. Christ calling His people to obedience throughout the Gospels was also scrutinized. Paul’s letters to Rome, Corinth and Galatia were used on both sides of the argument.
A lesser known letter by Paul gives us some perspective on the issue of good works in the life of the Christian.
Titus was written by St. Paul late in his life, probably between 62-64 A.D. The recipient, a Gentile Christian probably converted by Paul, was left in Crete to finish the work Paul had started there. It is not the most famous New Testament book. It is short and probably preferred by ministers for its pastoral content. You will rarely find it listed in someone’s “favorite books of the Bible” section. Despite its relative obscurity, it has numerous practical exhortations that are worth looking at.
In a recent reading of Titus I found the issue of good works being brought to my attention. Paul’s advice to Titus is particularly important because Titus was a pastor. What was Paul’s exhortation to this pastor on the island of Crete? Did he tell Titus to be very careful about mentioning good works to his people? Did he imply that pressing good works upon the flock will make them legalists, who are earning their way to heaven? Let’s see what was Paul’s admonition to this pastor.
There are seven uses of the Greek word, ergon, in Titus. Normally ergon is translated as work or deed. Here are the seven uses. I am using the New King James Version text.
1:16 They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.
2:6-7 Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, (7) in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility,
2:14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
3:4-5 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, (5) not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,
3:8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.
3:14 And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.
The verses that are most familiar to us are the magnificent encapsulation of the Gospel found in Titus 3:4-5. These verses show that works are not the basis or reason for our salvation. It is only because God is merciful and kind that we are redeemed. Works are left out of this equation entirely. Most Protestants are comfortable with these verses.
It is the remaining verses that make us uneasy. Paul is pushy in exhorting Titus to preach good works to his people. Look at the language Paul uses, “a pattern of good works…zealous for good works…maintain good works…maintain good works.” For Paul good works are not a sign of legalism. Good works are the necessary fruit of a Christian life. They are absolutely essential. Get that last sentence and plant it in your mind. Pastors are to exhort their people to good works. Many pastors who are afraid to use this type of language. They fear they will be misunderstood. They fear they will be accused of being Roman Catholic or legalistic. But if we are going to preach Titus 3:4-5, we must also preach Titus 3:8 and 14. Paul did not shrink back from telling his people and his pastors to make good works a priority. A man who wants a ministry like Paul’s must not either.
Legalism can be a problem in churches and must be avoided. However, a greater issue in the modern evangelical church is the failure to be holy, the failure to be zealous for good works. An effective minister will know which way the cultural wind is blowing and fight against it. In our age the danger is not mainly those who create new laws, like the Pharisees, but rather those who reject God’s Law altogether or pick and choose which part of the Scriptures they want to obey. One way a pastor combats this is to preach the necessity of good works.