This week I typed an end-of-third-quarter email to all my students. I notified them that their grades were finalized; I summarized the past quarter; I wished them a happy spring break; I thanked them for their efforts; and I told them “Good work!” for another quarter well completed.
And I wondered: in that “Good work,” what did I really communicate?
It’s a phrase that slips from my mouth often in the classroom. To express gratitude to my students, as they turn in papers I thank them for their good work. To encourage them in participation, as they walk out of class I tell them they’ve done good work. But when I say this, what have I said? More importantly, what have my students heard?
I would wager that when I say “Good work,” my listeners hear “Good student”—maybe even “Good person.” An insidious transference of meaning carries my commendation from a particular effort, to the student’s habitual efforts, to the student’s habitual self. My casual commendation becomes a critique of character, an opportunity for students to base their worth on their work.
Put that way, this transference is clearly misguided, unhealthy—and part of human nature. Basing our worth on our work comes so naturally, especially in the West. It underlies our habit of introducing ourselves by describing our jobs or of having “good days” and “bad days” based on how much we accomplish. Most devastatingly, it causes us to evaluate our standing before God based solely on our actions, whether we’re unbelievers who thing we’re “good enough” for Heaven or believers who think our deeds of mercy make us “good Christians.”
Scripturally speaking, of course, that is a lie. Our works alone do not make us good: Jesus Christ does. “By that will [of God] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” writes the author to the Hebrews (10:10). In Christ, not in ourselves, we are new creations.
But, as paradox seems to dwell deep in every Christian doctrine, perhaps it’s to be expected that a mere fourteen verses later the author to the Hebrews is nevertheless urging us to do these works: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” he writes (Hebrews 10:24). So, if the works do not make us good—if our worth is not in the works—then why must we still do them? And why are they called “good” at all?
Such questions have been on my mind because I’ve been reading Luther, and few others have had to confront them so seriously as did he. In the aftermath of posting the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, these questions were hurled at him by those itching to preach what they perceived as a justified antinomianism and by those enraged at what they perceived as a heretical divorce of faith and works. Confronted by his supporters’ chaos on the one hand and the Church’s threat of excommunication on the other, Luther wrote his 1520 “Treatise on Good Works” to rebuke the former and plead with the latter. Good works are not necessary conditions of faith, he explained, but they are necessary effects of faith; in Aristotelian terms, faith and works are distinct—but emphatically not separable. Despite his treatise, many calling themselves “Lutherans” would continue to preach antinomianism, and Luther himself would be excommunicated the very next year. Neither side, apparently, loved his explanation of why we still ought to do good works.
But what has impressed me in reading Luther is his take on the second question of why we call the works “good.” Permeating Luther’s treatise is the idea that works are good in themselves—that we are staggeringly privileged to be given work to do that is good. Catch the tone here:
Christians, therefore, who live with this confidence in God, know all things, are able to do all things, trust themselves to do what is needed, and do it all joyfully and freely, not in order to accumulate meritorious deeds but in order to fulfill their desire to please God in this way. For them to serve God sincerely and without return, it suffices that God is pleased.
Since, therefore, human nature requires us at every moment to be doing something, either tolerating or fleeing from what happens (for life never rests, as we see), let those who desire to be godly abound in good works, practicing faith in every situation and learning constantly to do everything with that trust. Then you will discover how much there is to accomplish, how everything is comprehended in faith, and how you can never be idle because even idleness occurs within the practice and work of faith.
The tone here is marvelous: Luther speaks as a child who, when morning chore-lists were passed out, expected to be told to scrub toilets and instead was sent to arrange flowers for the dinner table. And is this not exactly what has happened, metaphorically speaking, in our salvation? We’ve been caught up from the world under the sun, in which wisdom, pleasure, toil, wealth, honor are all vanity, vapor, chasing the wind; and we’ve been raised and seated with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places. And we’ve been told that all this is “the gift of God, not a result of works”—yet that, as His workmanship, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). From works of futility we’ve been saved unto works of goodness. And should we not rejoice?
Paul’s words in Ephesians hint at a further wondrous resonance to the “good works” we are called to do. “We are His workmanship,” the apostle declares, reminding us that in the beginning God made man in His image and saw that he was very good—reminding us that the first good works were God’s. And so the call to good works is not a burden, but a vocation; not a punishment for sinful man, but the imitation of God Himself. God’s good works were creation; our good works are, as Tolkien or Sayers would say, “subcreation.” To obey the commandments, serve the Church, worship God, raise a family, write a paper, plant a garden, build a house, balance an account, or cook dinner, all in faith—these works may bring something fresh into the world; they may break the cycle of vanity; they are good.
This is what I want my students to know: that the benediction of creation is not a word of self-evaluation, but a word of rejoicing in the things that call us outside ourselves. That the goodness of work does not come only when it is complete, but is fresh and present throughout the whole task itself. That our labor in the classroom is not futility, but subcreation.
I told them “good work” at the end of third quarter. Perhaps, when we return from break—before any work has been done—I will open fourth quarter with those same words, in gratefulness for what’s ahead.