The Failures of Works-Righteousness

J.D. Greear — October 26, 2015

One of my frustrations when sharing Christ with Muslims was that I had a hard time getting them to disagree with me that only God’s grace could save us. When I would say something like, “We can only be reconciled to God by his grace,” they would say, “That’s exactly what we believe!” But the reality of Islam shows a very different idea of “grace” than the gospel.

The Qur’an gives a long and detailed list of how to act, dress, think, and behave. If you follow carefully these instructions, Allah will approve of you and you are more likely to be accepted into eternal bliss. Islam is the ultimate religion of “works-righteousness,” and works according to the principle, “I obey; therefore I am accepted.”

But there are three reasons this kind of righteousness just doesn’t work:

  1. Works-righteousness fails to address the “root” idolatries that drive our sin.

The root of sin is esteeming something to be a more satisfying object of worship than God. Works-righteousness religions, including Islam, fail to address that issue. They simply give a prescribed set of practices to avoid judgment or inherit blessings.

Islam, for example, warns Muslims of the terrors of hell and uses that to motivate Muslims to obey. It promises them the sensual luxuries of heaven if they live righteously. Many Muslims pursue these things without caring for God at all. They are using God. For them, God’s favor is a means to an end. And any end other than God is idolatry.

The starkest New Testament example of this kind of attitude is Judas Iscariot. Most New Testament scholars believe that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was disappointed with him. Judas wanted a Messiah who would reward “the righteous” (himself included) with power and money. Jesus taught that he himself was the reward. Judas never perceives the value of simply knowing Jesus. Jesus, for Judas, was a means to something else, and never the end itself.

Love for God is genuine only when God is a means to nothing else but God. Righteous acts are righteous only when they are done out of a love for righteousness and not as a means to anything else.

The Qur’an, however, is not an adoring, worshipping love letter about God. It is a guide for what behavior will increase your chances of avoiding hell. Merit, threat, and reward form the entire foundation on which Islam is built. And this never addresses the root of man’s sin—our desire to substitute God with something else.

  1. When our acceptance is based on our performance, we exacerbate two root sins in our heart: pride and fear.

When we meet a religion’s standards of goodness and acceptability, we feel proud and look down on those who don’t meet those same standards. At the same time, we live in constant fear that if we don’t meet those standards, we will be rejected. Our religious devotion is fueled by our fear of rejection and love of praise. This kind of motivation might change our outward behavior, but only at the cost of magnifying the root sins in our hearts.

Islamic culture is rife with both pride and fear. Pride is easy to see in the ostentatious rituals of many Muslims, the way shameful elements are hidden in Islamic communities, and in the condemning violence some Muslims commit against outsiders. Fear is present in the heart of even the most ardent Muslims, because their status before God is never sure. Islam has no way of gaining assurance of the tender affection of God.

  1. The insecurity of always wondering if we’ve done enough to be accepted causes spiritual fatigue and even hatred of God.

When you constantly wonder if you’ve done enough to be accepted by God, you resent the God that threatens you with punishment. You may outwardly continue to attest your love for him, but inwardly you will inevitably rage against the God that “enslaves” you. As the wickedness of your heart surges inside of you, you begin to resent the God who makes you act contrary to your heart’s desires and holds you captive only by his power to throw you into hell.

The apostle Paul was a great example of a religiously zealous man who hated God. Paul said of himself that, though zealous for the law, he could not keep his heart from coveting. The commandment of God to “not covet” only exacerbated his desires, stoking the power of sin (cf. Rom 7:10). In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of people—like he once was—who are zealous in religion, giving even their own bodies to be burned in sacrifice. But for all their devotion, they cannot produce an ounce of love in their hearts for God. Without the love of God, Paul says, all religious devotion is “worthless.”

Such a description matches Muslims perfectly. They live with the understanding that after living the best life they can, they must still walk the tightrope of God’s judgment, unsure if their goodness is sufficient to carry them to heaven. This produces fear, fatigue, and resentment of God. You cannot really love someone you fear rejects you.

Only the gospel of God’s perfect, unconditional love for us can create a real love in our hearts for him. Realizing how much God has loved us, we begin to delight in him. His love for us begins to overflow in us toward others. We begin to serve others not as a way to gain favor from God, but because we know that we have it. We don’t do religious, moral, or “loving” things because we have to, but because we want to. Love begets love: love from God produces love for God.

As the Puritan John Owen once said, religious devotion may trim down the fruits of sin, but only the love of Jesus can pull up the roots.

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