What’s So Bad About Works Righteousness?

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.


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What do YOU think?

9 thoughts on “What’s So Bad About Works Righteousness?

  1. wow, again. Exactly what God has been showing me lately. That I should not strive for excellence, but rather keep my eyes locked on HIM. And through loving Him do what is acceptable for HIM, then I would fail less, cause He would fill the gap I will always have. Only He can do that. This is actually paradox: you have to do good deeds, and you cannot go to heaven without good deeds, but the good deeds enter into your mind cause God puts them there and you cannot be saved based on them….is anything simple with Him? Another paradox. Actually everything is simple, calculated, but complex at the same time:)

  2. As always, your posts shed light with a laser focus… today, it was on my sin of competitive pride. At least I’m the first to comment which obviously means I’m holier than your other readers. 🙂

  3. Sam, let me start off by saying I greatly admire your love for the Lord and the wisdom displayed in these posts. Now, this post troubled me as it seems you are saying anyone who does good without grace is doomed to despise his fellow man out of pride in his own righteousness. This seems to impugn the good intentions of many non-Christians who do good out of what I have long assumed was nothing more than a desire to do good! I think people certainly carry the stain of sin regardless of their salvation status, but that does not remove the desire from the hearts of all men to in some way do and foster good (part of the imago dei, if you will). The unsaved may lack in their ability to actually do this to a perfect extent, but nonetheless I think we should honor their efforts, particularly when they get close.

    • Hi Mark,

      I LOVE your direct, challenging question, and asked so graciously. I want this site to be a place we can both affirm and challenge. And that is part of my answer to your question.

      Yes, I want to affirm everyone (believer and non-believer) to be more just, gracious, generous, and kind. Let’s thank, encourage, and respect every good deed, from opening doors for people with packages to fighting the sex-slave industry.

      But let’s also challenge everyone to practice self-examination. Our good deeds usually come from mixed motives, sometimes 95% pure and sometimes 95% self-serving. The purer our motives, the greater the fruit of our good deeds.

      Another reason to challenge all of us is to heighten our sense of “need,” our need for God. Jesus did this deliberately in in Sermon on the Mount when he said that calling brothers a fool is as bad as murder, and lusting is as bad as adultery. And we cry, “HELP ME GOD!!”

      True self-examination always drives us to God.

      But in the meantime, let’s also encourage and reward all good deeds!

  4. A poet once wrote:
    ‘I long for so much
    To have nothing to touch
    I’ve always been greedy that way’
    Sort of encapsulates your very valid point.

  5. I’m a little lost in understanding this post. A person or organization who is living by works righteousness could (or not) treat their employees well, simply because it would be the right thing to do. It would be a matter of the group bootstrapping up a little Kantian or Utilitarian self-righteousness and doing what the employee needs. Alternately, a person or group who lives by faith and is/are empowered by the Holy Spirit can still sin and be short sighted and mistreat its/their employees, because we sin all the way to the Pearly Gates.