We are continuing our study today on the subject of dead works, which, as we considered earlier, marked out a religious person from a spiritual person, and it is important for you to know the difference.
We have been trying to understand what it means to have a form of godliness without its power. Or, in other words, what it means to be just religious as opposed to being spiritual. Now the danger of this is that religiosity finally makes everybody into a Pharisee. Spirituality is what conforms us to the likeness of Christ. The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees is so great and so vast, we need to see that there is equally vast a difference between being spiritual and being religious.
Dead works are spoken of in the New Testament as something that we need to repent of. We already saw five characteristics of dead works in the previous studies. They are works done without joy, without love, without zeal, works done without faith, and works done for personal gain and honour.
Now we want to look at a sixth characteristic of dead works: These are works which are done merely to ease one’s conscience. You see, all of us have a conscience, and that conscience disturbs us when we do something which we feel a bit uneasy about. In fact, the heathen people also have it. Paul says that all people in the world, even if they have no external law, have a law written in their hearts: ‘‘Their conscience, bearing witness, either accusing them or now even excusing or defending them’’ (Rom. 2:15). It is the same with us.
Conscience develops in sensitivity as we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. But our conscience can sometimes urge us to do something and we do merely to escape this harassing voice of conscience; not out of love for God or because we feel this is what God wants us to do, but merely to escape the harassing voice of conscience! I will give you an example. You may feel one morning that you haven’t read the Bible, and you are getting out for work. Then your conscience tells you, ‘Hey, you haven’t read the Bible.’ And so, you open the Bible, and sit down for two minutes, and maybe read a Psalm or read a proverb or a few proverbs, and then you close the Bible. Your conscience is now eased, and you can go to work peacefully. Otherwise, you may fear, perhaps, that you might have an accident on the road or something like that. This is not spirituality; that is superstition. It is like people keeping the Bible under their pillows to have clean dreams – another superstition that is.
People can pray, when they feel, ‘Oh, I haven’t prayed.’ So I kneel down and spend five minutes just to ease my conscience, and then my conscience is relieved and I get up. I haven’t become spiritual, I am just religious. You know, for the same reason people may go to meetings, or pay their tithe, or give money to beggars, just to ease one’s conscience. All such works are dead works. They are not evil works. I mean, to pray or to read the Bible, how can it ever be evil?
Now there is a difference between doing these things as a discipline. I am not saying that we should read the Bible only when we feel like it. We don’t live by feelings. We do what is right whether we feel like it or not. It is like going to work. You don’t go to work only when you feel like it. You don’t tell your children to go school only when you feel like it. Even if it is raining, you still put on your raincoat or take an umbrella and go to work. It is a discipline; you need that. Similarly, we don’t read the Bible or pray only when we feel like it; Most of the time you may not feel like it. So, there is a place for discipline in the Christian life. That is not a dead work. Discipline is a very, very good thing for all Christians to have; to have a discipline of reading the Scriptures, and of communion with God every day, of going to meetings regularly, etc.. But there is a difference between that and just seeking to do something to ease our conscience.
For example, it also could be in the matter of evangelism. A preacher can stir you up and say, ‘There are millions of people dying without Christ. What are you doing about it? Why are you sitting, earning your living? Why don’t you go?’ And you decide to give up your job and go to reach the perishing millions without any call from God. You leave your job, you go to some other place to do Christian work and, after some time, you are just frustrated. You acted on the emotion of a moment, or perhaps to relieve a guilty conscience. Now isn’t it a good thing to go to some difficult place to preach the Gospel? – It certainly is. But do you know the number of people who have gone to all these places and were frustrated because they did not wait upon the Lord? They did not seek to see or examine themselves why am I going? Is it to ease my conscience, or is it because I love the Lord, and I see the Lord pulling me in that direction? There is a lot of difference. Otherwise, you can end up with an endless round of dead works, like in a merry-go-round you go round and round and round and round and in the end you can waste your life.
Seventhly, dead works are works that are done out of fear of divine judgment. If you look in the Old Testament you will find that that was the only way God could get most of the Israelites to obey Him. You see that particularly in Deuteronomy 28:15 onwards and right through the end of that chapter that, ‘If you don’t obey the Lord, and do all these things I am commanding you,’ says Moses, ‘you will be cursed in the city, cursed in the country. You are going to have confusion and rebuke and sickness and your enemies will defeat you and you will have poverty and all types of problems.’ And so, the Israelites obeyed. You know, this is the way we get children to obey us – by the fear of punishment. There is no other way to get a little child to obey.
When we obey God out of fear of punishment, it is better than disobedience. Certainly I would say that dead works are better than evil works. But God says, ‘You better repent of doing things merely because you are afraid of punishment.’ Jesus said, ‘‘If you love me, keep my commandments’’ (Jn. 14:15); and not like it says in Deuteronomy 28 – ‘If you don’t want to be punished, keep my commandments.’ There is a lot of difference between the emphasis in Deuteronomy 28:15 to the end of the chapter and what Jesus said in John 14:15. See, many Christians have not really understood that there is a great difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
That motive, the thing that impels me to do something, is what God sees and is what makes us spiritual. For example, if we avoid telling lies because we are afraid we would be caught, well, that is a good motive, but that is not the best motive. Jesus did not refrain from telling lies just because He was afraid He would be caught, but because it was dishonouring to the Father. It is contrary to God’s nature. That is why He avoided it.
Now, if a doctor tells you, ‘Because you have bitterness and an unforgiving attitude towards others, you are suffering from asthma or rheumatoid arthritis or migraine, you better give up your bitterness or wrong attitude towards others and be positive,’ you may do that. What for? – To be healed – Because you don’t want to be punished. But those are not works done for the glory of God. They are dead works. So you see, there are many, many examples we can take where we do something because we are afraid, believing, if we don’t do it we will be punished. You don’t want to get a sickness; you don’t want to get a judgment from God. And with that selfish fear of judgment, we can avoid doing a lot of things and live a fairly upright life. But that is not spirituality.
Let me now tell you an eighth characteristic of dead works. We also find in Deuteronomy 28 opposite of what we have just considered. It is works that are done for the sake of obtaining a reward. You know that that is another way in which we deal with children. We tell the children: okay, if you finish your homework, I will give you a chocolate or take you for an outing. Or, if you come first in the class, I will get you a bicycle to go to school, and then they work hard. In the Old Testament God had to deal with the Israelites like that. In Deuteronomy 28: 1-14, God says, ‘If you are careful to keep all My commandments, you know what will happen? You will be blessed in the city; you will be blessed in the body; God will bless your children; God will bless the animals in your field and your fields will prosper; and you will get rain upon your land and God will bless you in so many ways.’ So they kept the commandment, because they wanted to be blessed.
Do you know how much of this there is even amongst Christians? The apostle Peter once asked Jesus, just after the rich young ruler had refused to give up all that he had to follow the Lord. Peter compared himself with that rich young ruler and said in Matthew 19:27, ‘Lord what about us? We have forsaken everything; I gave up my nets and my job, the security of being a fisherman down in Galilee and I have followed you. What am I going to get out of all this?’ And Jesus answered this question on what was he going to get out of it with a story of a man who employed labourers in his vineyard as described in Matthew 20:1-16.
The essential point in that parable is, if you read it carefully, that the first few groups who came to work, all came with an agreement to receive a certain amount of pay at the end of their work. The last group was the only group who came without any agreement to receive any pay. That was the main difference between that last group and all the other people who preceded them. And what was the result? The last group worked for only one hour whereas the first group worked for 12 hours. In the end, when it came to pay the wages, we see the master rewarding the last group first. They got twelve times the pay of what the first group got. If we compare what their hourly wages were, they got for one hour what the other people got for twelve hours. And there, the Lord was answering Peter’s question: if you work thinking what you are going to get out of it, you are going to be the last. But if you work joyfully, cheerfully, without thinking of what you are going to get in return, you are going to be first.
Dead works are works done for the sake of obtaining a reward. The only type of work that God wants is works done out of love joyfully and cheerfully. Quality means much more to God than any amount of quantity. He is looking for a response of love and gratitude from us, not compulsory service out of fear or out of hope of obtaining a reward.
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.
Leave A Comment