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Works, Terrible Works

January 30, 2012
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Having written “Relating to the Vending Machine”, I was discussing the central idea of that article (transactional relationships) with a friend. He asked a rather natural question: what about the set of people who really do need to be warned that one cannot earn salvation rather than the ones who like to go into long discourses about how one can’t? Does this model have something to say to them?

Let’s recap the issue. When you talk about salvation and the Christian life you want to accomplish two things: first, you want people to do what Jesus tells us to do and second, you want people to keep in mind the fact that they did not earn their salvation by cooperating with Jesus. The problem comes in when you impose a transactional model on all this. Once you talk about earning then it starts to sound like a business deal – a transaction. The problem with transactions is that if you give something in a transaction and get nothing back in return, what you gave is useless. The whole point of transactions is to get the thing you want (salvation, in this case). (This is true even if you get something back but it’s not in return because what you gave wasn’t enough to earn what you got – giving fifty cents to the car salesman in return for a thirty-thousand dollar car is useless.) So when you say, “You don’t earn salvation by works,” you run the risk of saying, accidentally, “Works are totally useless and I have no idea why you shouldn’t just go put babies on spikes.”

One route around this is a relational model whereby we think of salvation (in the sense implied by the question, “Are you saved?”) as a right relationship with God and works as proof that we are in that right relationship. Imagine that you had a friend who always said that he was your friend but never hung out with you. This isn’t because of a lack of time or other logistical issues, just a lack of interest. Is that person your friend? No, he’s a liar. That’s a relational model with works. (“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”) On the other side you don’t have to worry about earning because you don’t earn relationships (prostitution is a transaction, not a relationship). Relationships come about because the other person likes you, not because you earned the relationship.

Most of the first article was pitched at explaining this assuming that the kickback would come from people who were hesitant to let works be anything but bad. But what about those who readily embrace works and think that works will save them? Does a relational model have anything to say to them?

Yes. If someone says, “Yes, I can earn my salvation through good works,” they are embracing transaction. The problem with embracing transactions from the end where you try and please God with works is effectively the same as the problem with legalism: it becomes a way to buy God off rather than relate to Him. Good works that stem from love of God (an existing relationship) are good. Good works that exist to gain favor with God are bribery.

The issue for the person trying to bribe God is that they don’t love Him The attempt at bribery is a denial of love: it says, “No, I do not want to relate to you, I want to do business with you.” It denies the relationship and shoves it aside in favor of something more easily compartmentalized. Since the relationship is the goal (the relationship of salvation) this will never work. This sort of thing is common in stories – someone has an idea in their head of what the thing they are looking for is like and they ignore the real deal because it doesn’t align with what they were imagining.

However, the problem here may be deeper than mere misidentification. If you’re Luke Skywalker and you get irritated with the funny little green alien who speaks in backwards syntax because you’re trying to find Master Yoda, this can be resolved relatively easily. If you’re looking for salvation but really want a get out of jail free card and don’t want transformation into one of the righteous you’re in deeper trouble. You may actually hate the thing you claim to be seeking.

Of course, just as many who use transactional language to deny the worth of good deeds still do them many who grant too much power to good deeds do so because they’ve grasped God’s love of goodness even as they’ve put it in the wrong framework. The problem has always been with those who want to be lazy in some way, either with works or paying attention to God. The transactional framework has some wiggle room in it that allows people to slip out at either end.

The beauty of relationship, though, is that it tolerates fault. I’ve had friends who occasionally attempted to bribe me to stay friends with them. It wouldn’t have worked except that their fears were unfounded – I wanted to stay friends anyway. I’ve had friends who’ve attempted to bribe me to do things for them. If I like them I tolerate this, too. (Of course, I’ve been a bad friend as well, but it’s always much easier to see these things from our end so it makes for more relatable examples.) Perhaps the worst offender of the lot was a person who had frequently had fake friends and had developed some real issues from this. In this case the attempted bribes weren’t even insulting – they simply made me wish this person realized I liked them and not what they could help me with or give me. This is effectively where we all stand with God. Compared to Him we all need psychotherapy. But, in the beauty of His love, He wants to enter into a relationship with us that sanctifies and saves us. He wants to set us right because He loves us. So, while it’s a bad thing to try and bribe Him, it’s worth also remembering that God is not engaged in a series of transactions with us, some of which we fail. Instead, He relates to us even though we are often terrible children.

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