There is one work that stands above all others, a gift from God that is offered to every believer. It is the greatest responding act to the gospel, bar none. Nothing else is spoken of as often, in terms of being foundational. It is the most important deed expressible by any human.
Both our faith and our salvation will be evaluated by our deeds. From Jesus’ words on separating the sheep from the goats, to the final pages in Revelation, it is what we do that will demonstrate our standing in Christ.
That is not very Protestant, and especially un-Calvinist, but it is scriptural. There are more biblical words, in both Old and New Testaments, that speak to the divine requirement to live our faith through our works than any other single reference. It is by our choices made evident by how they express themselves in real, physical, meaningful terms, that our eternity will be measured.
But measured, does not mean caused. An important point must be clarified here. Deeds only reveal, they don’t save. This is true of human effort as well as God’s.
It was not specifically the act upon the Cross that saves us, but the mercy of who God is through Jesus (Tit 3:5). This might be confusing to some, but the point is that we are saved because of who God is, rather than because of what he did. God comes first, not his actions. It is his nature that provides the source of life. The actions proceed from him and show his grace in time and space. He is not the product of his actions, rather his actions are the product of him. Salvation was provided on the Cross, but it originated in the nature of God. The same is true of us.
We know the Lord by his deeds, but it is not those works that make God who he is. He remains who he is, regardless as to whether he acts or not. In the same way, it is our deeds that reveal our abiding in Christ, but it is not our efforts in producing those outcomes that save us. Only Jesus saves!
The Cross accomplishes salvation as an act of incredible grace that previously already existed in the foundation of God’s love. From this standpoint, deeds prove what is true, they don’t create truth. As it then applies to our salvation, good works demonstrate Christ in us and show his love for others through us, but they are not the source of salvation, that privilege alone belongs to Jesus.
This also means that Jesus is not the material act of God, but the substance of God first and thereafter the manifestation of God. He is fully God and fully Man, but he is God first and eternally (in both directions). His incarnation demonstrates who he is, it does not establish his identity.
That is how it has been designed regarding human good deeds as well.
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
Our good works in Christ already have their identity “beforehand” in Christ. That identity, however, does not mean they exist absent of our effort, only that their goodness and reality are sourced in the nature and will of God, rather than in our good intentions. Deeds that are measured as righteous before God are good because they stem from the One who is Good, and they are thereafter attributed to my credit when I willingly choose to implement them in my own existence.
It is that crediting of righteousness that the Bible describes as what is measured by God as impacting my salvation. Deeds are righteous because of who Christ is in me; in turn, they are real because of who I show myself to be in Christ. It is this dynamic that allows God to say that our actions determine our eternal standing. When I freely choose to do what honors God, I show that he is the source within me that allows and enables me to accomplish his will. My deeds prove his presence, they don’t ever cause it.
With all this clarified, the question now posed is: what is my greatest deed?
What deed most clearly reveals Christ in me? No two people are alike, and the works of God are unlimited, however, there is one expression that speaks of Christ in me more than any other. Whereas faith points toward God, it cannot yet be developed into an act without this deed. Faith must grow into a maturing act, but to start with such faith is a gift of recognition and acceptance that cannot progress without expressing this foundational work.
This act alone is the identity-expression placed on each and every one, that points in both directions. It is our first required step, once we recognize who Jesus is and what he has done for us. It is the work that initially and continuously proves both who Christ is and who we are, at the same time. It is the key ingredient to humility and forever keeps our relationship to Christ in right perspective.
To answer, we must clearly keep in focus the above revelation. Jesus alone is the Righteous One–there is no other. He alone perfectly reflects who God is. Even though humanity has been made to image God, that origination was a work of creation and not something inherently sourced in ourselves. In other words, both our sinful condition and our from-the-dust origination prove we are a result and not a cause.
That means we cannot ever produce something lasting, we can only ever image reality. That reality is that Jesus is the perfect representation and source of Life–a righteousness from heaven–and we are less. In fact, since the fall into sin, each and every one of us is not only less, we are by nature unrighteous, wicked, and evil. Our greatest deed will reveal and display that truth.
The greatest work of man is to demonstrate that Jesus alone is righteous, that we have been made to image that reality, and that we are completely unrighteous.
The challenge is how do we show that? Our ability to display this truth regarding who Jesus is in us, requires that we rightly display who he is and who we are. That is Christ in me, and there is one scriptural prescription for revealing this truth: Repentance.
I “kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Act 26:20).
Notice the Apostle’s description of the gospel of Christ: to prove repentance by their deeds. Biblical repentance is an act that images who we are and who Christ is–it shows that he alone is right and we are in desperate need of that righteousness. It acknowledges our absolute need and complete desire to be filled with who he is in replacement of our own natural orientation.
Repentance is the act, the deed, that more than any other, shows Christ in me. It is that choice to humble myself before a holy God and admit that he alone is good and righteous AND that I am the exact opposite even though I so desire to be filled with him. Recognize the pattern in the words of the prophet:
“The Lord is righteous; For I have rebelled against His command” (Lam 1:18).
All other deeds in Christ are built upon this foundation. Even the greatness of love can only ever develop within one who first accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. Without repentance in response to God’s calling, and an ongoing spirit of humble repentance while living forward, the gift of love will remain hidden. True love does not originate within our hearts or choices. It is granted only to believers who have rightly demonstrated their recognition of who Jesus is and who they are before a holy God, which is why the famous love chapter (1 Cor 13) presents love as a function of spiritual maturing (v.10-11). In the end times, the love of many will grow cold in those who have lost touch with the soil of repentance. It is repentance that rightly reflects the identity of ourselves and God and provides the submissive basis upon which to thereafter express a righteous form of love to those around us.
To those who think they are loving, or doing amazing ministry, or even empowered by the Spirit for miracles of healing, they are still at risk of hearing the Lord say, “but I never knew you”. The reason is that showing love and Spirit-infused activity does not image Christ without being in right relationship with who he is. That is why repentance, which is designed for us to rightly reflect our grasp of his righteous identity in connection to our sinful identity, is the foundation for growing in love, expressing faith, living in hope, and displaying acts of grace.
Ezra, the priest who brought many Jews back to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, recognized that even though God had shown them grace, and that his own promise to restore a remnant was being fulfilled, they remained at dire risk of still being completely destroyed if they persisted in their unrepentant ways. His passionate prayer ends with this acknowledgement of repentance that God is righteous and we are not:
“O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.” (Ezr 9:15).
This insight is why John the Baptist began his ministry with the words: repent for the Kingdom of God is near. It is why Jesus began his public ministry with the words: repent for the Kingdom is at hand. It is why Peter began his pentecostal ministry with the response: repent and be baptized. It is why Paul summarizes his entire calling (as quoted above): that they should repent and turn to God. It is why the Lord declares that the Holy Spirit will initiate its ministry by convicting the world of guilt, because repentance is the human act that deals with such guilt in reflection of the God-act on the Cross.
Repentance is what the risen Lord repeats more than anything else to the churches listed in Revelation as what he expects to see in them, if they want to keep their standing before his throne.
The Lord is less interested in the building of huge churches, the numbers of confessions in successful para-ministries, the eradication of poverty or human diseases, or what we think about how our actions demonstrate love; he is looking for the simple deed of repentance. That alone rightly images the identity of man and God. It alone displays most clearly Christ in me.
Other deeds have their place, the giving of food to the hungry, the clothing of the jobless, the visiting of shut-ins, but all of those can be done in varying degrees by people who have nothing in common with Christ. Repentance is the initial and ongoing act that reflects Jesus rightly within me, and can only be displayed in genuine belief. It shows how fully I recognize who he is, what he has done for me, and how that fits with both who I am and what I so deeply need.
This is the context many appear to have missed in their study of Romans: “God will give to each person according to what he has done”. Those deeds specifically being assessed by God in us involve repentance, because it is the Lord’s kindness that “leads you toward repentance”. It leads, but it does not enforce. That is why the passage also addresses the works chosen against repentance when it says: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself”. Those who seek doing good, do so on the basis of repentance. Those who are self-seeking, do so in rejection of their prepared-in-advance work of repentance.
Repentance is my part, prepared by God, to reveal his identity in Christ and me. It never causes my identity. It can never produce my salvation. Repentance is simply the most pure act that images the work of Christ in me.
Repent, for the Lord is near.