There are two errors that we can fall into with good works:
One error is that we can prove to God and others by our actions that we are good. The proof that we are right with God is that we are busy doing the things God apparently wants. This happens in many Christian churches that don’t understand the connection between the Sacraments and God’s election of people to salvation. Every day is the pressure to prove to yourself and others that you are part of the elect because you are busy doing so much for the Kingdom.
The other error happens when we react to that and say that “saved by grace” is a pass to do nothing. Thinking we can be “good with God” and not worry about doing what’s important to Him. This is the error the Book of James addresses in very clear terms: “14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-17, 24)
The Church has wrestled the topic of works that are pleasing in God’s sight since before Jesus even spoke these words in the Gospel:
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
But a little later Jesus tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of God.” How can we avoid thinking our good works contribute to our salvation? Martin Luther made a helpful distinction called “two kinds of righteousness.” That is, the righteousness before God—the one which saves us from sin, death, and hell—is received as a gift. “This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ.” The other kind of righteousness is the good works that are done on earth, and those most definitely need to be active, yet it never exists without the first: “This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.”
Another way to look at this is to determine where good works come from. Do they come from you, or is it the result of God’s work in you? It’s very easy for us to think of the things we do as Christians as our choices, our labor, our words. After all, the work is done by us, so why wouldn’t there be an element of personal credit in it?
This is where the Epistle reading is helpful, because it makes clear that following Christ and belonging to the Christian religion is not the work of our hands:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
When Paul preached to the Corinthians, it wasn’t a motivational speech. He wasn’t revving them up to live their best life now, and he didn’t sway anyone with his perfect actions or white smile. If he had, then there would have been a church of Paul. Rather, Paul was serving Christ, the risen-and-yet-unseen Lord of All. They believed not because he preached a message that “made enough sense” but as a demonstration of God’s power in our hearts. If it were a message that “made sense” more people should accept it, but it’s a message that confesses that we are of no account before God. Our choices cannot save us. Our works apart from faith are nothing but “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6 NKJV)
Because the foundation of why we’re Christians is not our work, neither is what we do as new creations in Christ As soon as living a Christian life becomes a kind of self-help routine, you might as well leave God out of the picture. You don’t need Him. He just left us instructions on how to be good and now we can plow forward. And you can see where that leaves the Church.. The groups that have left God and His Word in the dust are the ones which have nothing but good-looking works to cling to. It’s the church bodies that bend God’s word that stress social gospel the most, and all they can pat each other on the back that they agree this is what they ought to be doing.
Just as we don’t receive credit for becoming Christians, neither do we receive credit for remaining in this Christian Church. This is the Holy Spirit’s work. In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 58, the Lord rebukes His people because while their outward works are many, it has become a godless exercise in patting themselves on the back.
“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:3-5)
When we try to take our Christianity and mold it into our own exercise, then we immediately run into problems. If Christianity is a human invention, then why didn’t people think of it sooner? What makes Christianity better than Buddhism or Mormonism? Both of those seem to be a good set of rules for “right” living. And if it were just a matter of getting God’s attention with our works, they’d be a good effort. But those good works which truly please God are His work through us.
I often wonder what God is calling our congregation to, because of what I see other churches doing: hosting a soup kitchen, a clothing bank, giving out gas vouchers. It gives me the feeling that we’re not “doing enough” not being busy in what the Lord’s task is for all of us who gather around this altar.
But it would be wrong to label us as unfruitful Christians because our works are not something we can show to others. The fruits are there, because the Word is there and clung to. The Sacraments are there and believed in for our benefit. The fruits may not be something passers-by will see and praise us for, but what does Jesus say about our works? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:1-4)
The works that I’m privileged to see as your pastor are happening all the time—in families that pray together and teach their children the catechism, who bring themselves and their children to church in spite of hectic schedules when it would be easier to stay home, in sharing their faith with family members and inviting them to hear the Word of eternal life (John 6:68). In coming to Bible studies and desiring to deepen their understanding.
Works are happening in acts of generosity shared with those you meet in need, being generous with the earthly abundance God has given. Prayers ascend abundantly for one another. It’s a beautiful thing to see brothers and sisters showing love and compassion—even toward those who haven’t been able to worship among us because of long-term illness.
But is it these works that will make us right with God? Of course not. These are works that come from God making us salt and light—people who both preserve the world by God’s work through us, and who guide others out of darkness (like the lighthouse on the cover). The confidence that we are in Christ and do good works, is that His Word is preached among us and He promises that His Word will not return to Him void. The one who preaches is not just talking into the air, but God takes that Word and changes your hearts. He makes stronger, more loving, sanctified people out of each of us.
Is there more we can do? Yes, of course, and it’s right for us to pursue that. Is there some way we can better serve Lebanon and the surrounding area? God grant that we’re open to His guidance! Can we grow more in His Word, so that we are equipped to serve our neighbors better? Yes, there are plenty of opportunities. And where we fail, we come back to that perfect righteousness of Christ, which alone has made us right with God and heirs of His Kingdom. As Jesus says, He makes us to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. So it is our prayer that His will is done among us, and we gladly follow where He leads.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, look with favor upon each of us in our vocation—pastor and hearer, citizens, husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers. Give us wisdom, courage, and patience to serve in sacrificial love, and strengthen us each in our callings. And as You have blessed us with various and unique gifts. Grant us the grace and wisdom to use these gifts always to Your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.