We want to continue with our study on the difference between being religious and being spiritual, to see what the Bible says about dead works as opposed to good works and evil works. We saw in our last study that there is a difference between the works of the flesh – evil things that are so obvious that our unconscious tells us about them and dead works, which could be good works, but works that spring from a corrupt source. We have considered two of them in our last study; works, those are done reluctantly or grudgingly without joy and works those are done not out of love for God.
Now we want to continue looking at some other works which may look good on the outside but which are dead in God’s eyes.
Third dead work that we shall look at is works done without zeal. We read in Revelation 3:15-19 about the Lord speaking to the elder of the church in Laodicea and saying, ‘You are lukewarm, you are neither hot nor cold, you are not on fire, and you are half-hearted.’ Further He says, ‘I wish you were either cold or hot.’ Now in the world, there is a saying: ‘Something is better than nothing,’ but the Lord, apparently, doesn’t believe in that. He says, ‘I wish you were cold – dead or on fire. But this half-hearted type of Christianity, I am not interested in’, and, finally, in verse 19, the Lord says, ‘therefore be zealous.’ Half-hearted works are dead works.
In quoting an Old Testament commandment, Jesus said in Mark 12:30 that we are to love the Lord, our God. It doesn’t just stop there. We must love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our money, and all our strength. He said that that is the first commandment. In other words, our whole being must be taken up with the love for God. For example, when you worship God, there is a lot of difference between a whole-hearted worship and a half-hearted worship. When you praise the Lord, you can say hallelujah, and the other person says hallelujah, there can be a lot of difference between the two. In the other, it springs from the depth of his heart; he is really thankful to God and he praises the Lord with all the heart. But you have gone through the ritual. You have said the right words. It is not a sin to say hallelujah, but it is a dead work as far as you are concerned. It doesn’t come from the depth of your heart; it is lifeless. Our worship and our praise must be whole-hearted.
Again, if you listen to some people praying, you can see the difference. I mean, they are not saying anything sinful in their prayer, but the whole thing is dead. You know what a dead prayer meeting is. What is a dead prayer meeting – that people prayed for sinful things there? No, they prayed for good things, but they were lifeless. Works, prayer, praise – any activity done without zeal is a dead work.
The Bible says (with one translation putting it like this) that we must be ‘aglow with the Spirit’ – on fire in the Spirit at all times (Rom. 12:11). Fervent in Spirit means on fire in the Spirit at all times. There was a law in the Old Testament which says that ‘‘the fire must burn on the altar perpetually’’ (Lev. 6:13). It must never die out. Paul told Timothy, ‘‘Fan to a flame that gift which is in you.’’ There was a danger of it dying out. It is not a question of just exercising them in a half-hearted way. You have to fan to a flame even the gifts of the Spirit that God gives us. Just because some other people abuse them doesn’t mean that we should ignore them and throw them in the wastepaper basket. No, let’s exercise them in a proper way.
A lot of Christian churches, today, are not probably living in gross sin, but they are lifeless, lacking the burning fire of the Holy Spirit. They are not cold, but they are not hot either. And the Lord told that the whole church in Laodicea, ‘‘Because you are lukewarm, I’ll just spit you out of my mouth.’’ You see how dead works can lead to a lifeless type of Christianity which, finally, the Lord rejects? We need to repent works done without zeal.
And then fourthly, dead works are works done without faith. In the Old Testament there is no such phrase called ‘The obedience of faith‘. It was only ‘obedience’ – you obey what the Lord says you to obey. But, when you come to the New Testament, you see in the first paragraph of Romans 1 and in the last paragraph of Romans 16, this phrase repeated: ‘The obedience of faith‘. James says that faith without works is dead. I would also say, works without faith are also dead, because without faith, it is impossible to please God.
Supposing you do a good work, and it is not in faith, it is a dead work. For example, you pray for half an hour, and you pray for a lot of powerful things but you don’t believe that God is going to do one of those things, what is the use of that type of prayer? What is the use of a one-hour prayer meeting where you don’t believe one single thing that God is going to do for you? Isn’t that a dead work? You can have an all-night prayer meeting which is a dead work because people don’t believe. Praying without faith is a dead work. In fact, one minute of prayer, with faith, is far more acceptable to God than an all-night prayer meeting which is just a ritual, without faith.
Works done without faith are dead works. Now I am not against long prayers – Jesus prayed all night, and there may be times when we need to do that. But Jesus praying all night was not a dead work; He prayed in faith. Faith also means personal conviction. We read in Romans, ‘‘The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God’’ (Rom. 14:22). We must have a personal conviction about the truths of Scripture. The faith which you have, it says here, let it be your own conviction before God. When you do something merely to imitate what somebody else is doing, or merely because some man of God teaches it, without personal conviction, it is a dead work. Maybe it is a good work, and maybe that great man of God teaches that particular doctrine and tells you to do it, in some way you imitate him, it is not going to bring life in you; imitation always brings death.
Let me give you an example of it. We read in Hebrews 11:29 that the Israelites, by faith, crossed the Red Sea and then, it says, the Egyptians imitated them. What happened then? – They drowned. What did imitation bring to the Egyptians? – Death. Now the Israelites went through by faith. The Egyptians didn’t have faith. They just imitated what the Israelites did. It was a dead work. That is written for our warning. You may see another brother doing something in faith – a ministry, for example, he does it in faith and you imitate that. What is it going to be? – A dead work. God never called you to do that.
So we are not to imitate another man’s ministry, or the emphasis that another man has in his ministry. The Bible says, ‘‘Prophesy according to the proportion of your faith’’ (Rom. 12:6). God doesn’t want us to be imitators; you know, like parrots, repeating what somebody else says. He wants us to have personal convictions, and what you do without personal convictions is a dead work, even if it is a good work. God has no value for it, because it doesn’t come out of your personal relationship with God.
Let me say this for your encouragement. God does not want you to be like somebody else; He wants you to be yourself. He made you to be yourself with a particular personality and a particular background and upbringing. Just be thankful and do what you can. And that will be far more acceptable to God than if you try to imitate somebody else.
A fifth way in which we can do dead works is when we do works, which may be good works, Christian works, but which are done for personal gain or honour. The Lord told the leader of the church in Sardis, ‘‘You have a name that you are alive.’’ Sometimes we can do Christian work to get a name that we are alive, and we can build up a reputation. And to continue that reputation we keep on doing certain things. They look very spiritual in the eyes of others, but God sees the underlying motive in everything: you want to get a name that you are alive. And what is the result? All your works are dead works. Anything that we do to impress another man is a dead work.
A living work, on the other hand, is one that is done to impress God. Living works are done in secret, before God’s face alone where your left hand does not know what your right hand has done, where you keep it hidden. You pray, but you don’t let anybody know that you pray. You fast and you don’t let anybody know that you have fasted. Those are living works. But dead works are works done to impress people, and you don’t conceal it from the eyes of men. We could say that those are works which we later on meditate on and glory over.
I wonder if you noticed this expression in Acts 7:41 where Stephen was speaking about the Israelites that ‘they worshipped the work of their own hands.’ You know what that means? To do something, and then to look at your work and say, ‘Boy, that is something good I’ve done.‘ Do you remember how Nebuchadnezzar walked on the roof of the palace in Babylon (Dan. 4:30) and he said, ‘This is a tremendous kingdom which I have built, a huge palace with its hanging gardens and all that, and what must people be thinking about it?’
Do you know, my friend, that when you serve the Lord and you do some work – maybe God has used you in building a great ministry for the Lord – and then you look over it, like Nebuchadnezzar did, and say, ‘It is tremendous what I have done’ and you are thinking about the opinion that others have about your work. It is a dead work. You have got to take all those thoughts and throw it in the garbage bin. It is Babylon. What Nebuchadnezzar built was Babylon, and what you are doing is building Babylon too. Our righteous acts, in human eyes, are an abomination fit to be flushed out into the sewage system in the sight of God. ‘‘All that is great in man’s eyes is an abomination to God’’ (Lk. 16:15).
If you are not going to be radical in eliminating dead works from your life, you will never be a spiritual man. If you do God’s work, for example, for a salary, it is a dead work. God may give you money to care for your needs, but if you serve the Lord only because you are paid, what is that? You can call it Christian work, but it is not really serving God; it is serving God and money.
May God help us to have our eyes open, so that we are free from dead works.
This is part of the Basic Christian Teachings Series, a set of 72 short messages presented by Zac Poonen. You can download the audio mp3 files or listen to Basic Christian Teachings by clicking here.