Works Don’t Work, Except on the Proper Foundation

Technically, everything has a foundation, either metaphorically or literally. And generally speaking, the foundation of a building dictates its size and strength. It is certainly possible to create a structure that looks great from the outside, but is actually worthless because it is built on the wrong type of foundation. If the foundation is faulty, then the structure of the house will be faulty as well.

In Matthew 7, Jesus spoke of the difference of the house built upon sand and the house that was built upon rock. ( In our trip to the Holy Land, our guide noted that most structures in ancient Judea were built using bricks or rock, and that Jesus would have been just as proficient working with stone as he was with wood. It makes sense because ancient builders were no strangers to using huge stones as the foundation for large structures (think: Pyramids). As a carpenter, Jesus certainly understood foundations.

The Apostle Paul was no carpenter, but he did do quite a lot of church building; and, as a tent-maker, he certainly understood dwellings and foundations. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of another type of construction: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15, NIV).

What are You Building? And What are You Building it ON?

What are you trying to build in this world? And what are you building it upon? Paul tells the Corinthians that there is only one foundation for good work, and it is spiritual rather than emotional or physical. He makes the somewhat cryptic statement that the only foundation for good work is Jesus Christ. That seems like a rather narrow and pretentious claim, but take a closer look at it.

As humans, we do good works for all manner of other reasons. We do good things to look good, to impress somebody else, feel better about ourselves, or to keep from feeling guilty. We work to perform acts of kindness to pay it forward or to earn Brownie points. But all those temporary motivations to work in our own power do NOT provide the right foundation for true goodness. Technically speaking, all good works that we do to feel or look good are still acts of selfishness. Good works we perform to get to heaven? Still, selfishness…

The Only Foundation that Works

Paul teaches that true goodness resides in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and that he is the only foundation laid for doing good. Unpack that a bit to see why: Grace is free because Christ’s death on the cross was an utterly selfless act. He didn’t die for HIMSELF; he died for US. Therefore our true reward doesn’t come from our own good works but from His. Paul explains that not all good works carry eternal value, and that come Judgment Day, our selfish portfolio of good works may not survive. Many things which we assume will carry a reward will disintegrate when tested by fire; but the foundation will remain.

Paul’s statement echoes what Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” There’s an old saying that it’s amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit. Let’s give God all the credit– and build more good stuff in secret.

Why Work?

Why do people do nice things?
Is there some blessing that it brings?
Perhaps a place in heaven is had
By doing good instead of bad…
Do we do good works because we should,
Or just because we feel so good?
Should we get credit for what we do,
And hope our deeds will pull us through?
Instead of doing works to please,
Do works for Christ that no one sees:
Paul says there’ll be a celebration
Because we built on the right foundation!
“Only one Life, ’twill soon be past;
Only what’s built for Christ will last.”*

*last two lines from “Only One Life” by C.T. Studd

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