The Grace of God

That Brings Salvation Has Appeared to All Men (Titus 2:11)

Dead Works vs. Good Works

Hebrews 6:1-2 contains a list of foundational principles of the doctrine (teaching) of Christ. In order, they are:  repentance from dead works, faith toward God, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

So…what exactly is repentance from dead works?

I have heard it taught that this refers to a repenting of doing good works, and that one must be sure not to do good works when they are seeking salvation.

The gospel, presented with this particular understanding of repentance from dead works, looks like this:

You must repent of doing good works (often called “self-righteousness”) and you must understand there is nothing you can do. Then have faith in Jesus and He will do it all.

This explanation of the gospel is woefully inadequate and dangerous. Some people who hear this message conclude that their works (good or bad) don’t matter at all, and that trying to live a life pleasing to the Father is sinful. They think it would be a better expression of faith if they stop (repent of) trying to do good, and just go with the flow, trusting the mercy of God to cover them. I believe this false understanding is a recipe for spiritual shipwreck.

While it is true that we can’t earn salvation with good works, I do not think this is what the writer of Hebrews had in mind. By dead works, I believe he meant works that lead to death–or in other words, sin.  Remember, the wages of sin is death. We are required to repent of sin/iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19).  We are to repent of dead works, and we begin to do the good works that glorify our Father (Matt. 5:16) which God has ordained for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10). We don’t begin to do those good works in order to earn our salvation, but because we have been converted from the heart to love righteousness and hate wickedness as our Father does.  [For more detail on the necessity of biblical repentance and what it looks like, please read Repentance Toward God.]

Hebrews 9:13-14 also contains the phrase dead works. Look at how it is used–

For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Do we need our conscience cleansed in the blood of Christ from righteous works or from evil works? Evil works offend our conscience and weigh us down with guilt. Notice we go from doing these dead works to serving the living God. In other words, we go from doing evil (serving the flesh and idols) to doing good (serving God.)

Another interesting verse is Rev. 9:20–

But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk.

Notice that the works which mankind was expected to repent of was the worship of demons and idols. They were not condemned because they were trying too hard to please God with good works. They were condemned because they wouldn’t stop worshiping demons and idols.

Elsewhere in Scripture, dead works are referred to as wicked works (Neh. 9:35; Psa. 141:4; Col. 1:21), evil works (Jonah 3:10; John 7:7; 2 Tim. 4:14; I Jn. 3:12), abominable works (Psa. 14:1), works done in the dark (Isa. 29:15), works that are as nothing or vain (Isa. 41:29), works of iniquity that leave a man naked and vulnerable to judgment (Isa. 59:6), works of darkness (Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11), and works of the flesh that will exclude us from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).

Let us remember that Scripture was given that the man of God can be perfect and thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Jesus died for us to redeem us from iniquity and purify unto Himself a peculiar people who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).  What sets us apart from the world and makes us peculiar is that we are zealous for good works rather than for evil works!  Christians are to consider how to provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and we are urged to maintain (continually do) good works (Titus 3:8,14).

Our good works do not atone for the dead works we have done while we were yet children of wrath. We (believers) do not do good works for the purpose of atoning for our sins;  we do them because we love our Redeemer and agree with His ways.

Nevertheless, God commands all men everywhere to repent–to turn from their evil ways and works. Every evildoer is called to repent, and turn from all his transgressions, so that iniquity will not be his ruin (Ezek. 18:30).  Do not let the false explanation of some teachers water down the seriousness of the Bible’s warnings. Repenting of works that lead to death is foundational to the Christian faith, and unless we do repent, we will perish according to Jesus (Luke 13:3-5).

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