What Good Works Are Good For

Work Sign

In his letter to Titus, Paul emphasizes the importance of good works.

He tells Titus “to be a model of good works”.

Those God redeems are to be “zealous for good works.”

And we are “to be ready for every good work.”

Those who believe in God are “to devote themselves to good works.

At the same time Paul makes clear that though good works are important, they are not good for everything. One thing in particular they are not good for: saving ourselves.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6).

So we are to be diligent in doing good works, but good works do not save us. So why do good works? Some would say …

to prove we are really saved, or

to show our appreciation to God, or

to keep in God’s favor

If these are your reasons for good works, you may find yourself quickly turning the good news of what Jesus did for you into the not-so-good news that a relationship with God depends on your works. People on this road find an ever increasing burden of wondering: If good works prove I’m saved, how many are enough to feel good about me and God? I’ve tried to show appreciation to God, but I’m sure I could have show more. I need to read the Bible so I’ll have a good day …

Stop. Return to the good news: God our Savior saved you not because of your works, but because of his work for you. When Jesus said, “It is finished” He announced the end to the futile attempt to work for God’s favor.

So why do good works? Paul states it most clearly at the end of his letter where he says,

“And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).

We do good works for our neighbor. God is fully satisfied with the work of Jesus on our behalf. He does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. God uses our good works performed through our vocations to provide daily bread for us and our neighbor.

Think of it this way: the grace of God comes down to us (vertically) and as we believe that grace is poured out through us (horizontally) to our neighbor. The vertical is all God. The horizontal is God working through us to our neighbor. The vertical is a one way street – grace flows down. Our good works never flow up.

In answer to the question, “How many good works are enough to prove I’m saved?” I would answer “One: Jesus’ work for you is sufficient. Now go, free from the burden of earning God’s favor, and love your neighbor.”

Down and Out

2kr diagram 2 (1)

A lot of teaching and preaching these days exhorts us to move up towards God by cultivating an inward spiritual life from the heart. Paul’s letter to Titus presents a much different view. In this short letter Paul proclaims a down and out view of the Christian life.

Down

“… our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:13-14

Note who’s doing the action: Jesus gives himself, Jesus redeems us. We do not give ourselves to Him. We do not redeem ourselves. Jesus delivers to us what we desperately need (to be redeemed from our sin) and what we are utterly incapable of obtaining for ourselves. There is no progressively working our way up to God, only God’s grace poured down on us through the work of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Out

“… our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:13-14

 Jesus’ redemption of us frees us from seeking to justify ourselves by our good works. No longer do we wonder where we stand with God. No longer do we look inward and wonder if we’ve done enough or if our belief is correct or if our motive is pure. We turn outward with the assurance that Jesus’ work for us is sufficient. He satisfies the law’s demand for good works. He justifies us before God.

So what does a person do who is redeemed and set free? Good works! Not good works in an attempt to please God, but good works that flow from a life relieved of the burden of self-justification. No longer exhausted from justifying ourselves, we turn outward to love and serve our neighbor with good works.

I suppose Paul knows just how consumed we are with our pride preserving efforts to justify ourselves before God. Our unfinished ladders of good works testify against us, but our nature is to persevere, to fight, to press on. We tell ourselves we’ll do better tomorrow. We promise God it will never happen again. So Paul, only a few verses later, repeats himself:

Down

 “… he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 

Not the work – it’s all downward, from God to us.

Out

… I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”

Titus 3:5-8

Note the impact: as grace comes down, we move out, to love and serve our neighbor with our good works.

One last thought. It’s easy to read this post and think, “I know this – salvation is by grace alone, not my works. I get it. Now I need to do good.” But these verses don’t merely describe salvation, they describe the Christian life! This isn’t something we receive once and leave behind. This is how we live every day. Good works don’t flow from a spiritual insight from the distant past. Good works flow from the one who each morning is awakened with the great grace filled truth that grace comes down. In spite of all the stumbling, falling, and failing of yesterday, we are redeemed by the work of Christ for us. All explanations, excuses, burdens, guilt, and shame can be laid aside. They are no longer needed, for we are redeemed.

Interpreting the Gospel

My biased attempt to represent various theologies in how I believe they understand one phrase taken from Romans 5:10:

“… we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son …” 

Catholic: “… we were reconciled to God [given a clean slate, a do over] by the death of his Son …”

Calvinist: “… we [the elect] were reconciled to God by the death of his Son …”

Evangelical: “… we were reconciled to God [if we place our trust in Christ] by the death of his Son …”

Baptist: “… we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son [the moment we bowed our heads/prayed the prayer/raised our hand/walked the aisle/threw our stick in the fire] …

Lutheran: “… we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son …”

Your biased views are welcomed in the comments.

No Performance Zone

I usually skip over the Facebook posts of quotes on pictures because … well I just do. This one caught my attention because of my friend’s note at the top:

Evans Quote on Serving

“No performance zone …” 

If only that were true! I read this quote and all I hear is performance.

“God doesn’t want you serving Him only because you are supposed to”

So you are supposed to serve (perform) because you are supposed to, it’s just not the only reason you are to serve. That’s a bullseye in the performance zone.

“He wants you serving Him because you love Him.”

So in addition to serving (performing) because you’re supposed to, you’re also supposed to serve (perform) because you love Him. Double bullseye in the performance zone.

It’s this kind of teaching that leaves people exhausted and broken. When you look within and find a lack of love for God, what is there to do? You do more and try harder. Read more Bible, pray more, confess more, repent more, praise more … and hopefully you’ll feel more love for God so you will serve Him more. Or you give up.

So many gospel believing friends are trapped in the “performance zone.” You know Jesus died for your sins. You know you can’t earn your salvation. It’s all grace. So why isn’t that enough? Why the constant call for more and more with right motives?

When Jesus said “It is finished” he didn’t mean “I finished the first part, now I need you to get off the couch and serve Me and make sure you serve Me out of love.” He meant it is finished. All of it.

Listen, God doesn’t need your service! He’s got this. Jesus entered the performance zone and performed perfectly, for you. Jesus takes all your failure to serve God and all your failure to serve God out of love on Himself. At the cross Jesus died and with Him died all our failed efforts to serve God. And Jesus rose and declares us forgiven.

This is good news, liberating, freeing, joy-filled good news: it is finished! Rather than analyzing motives for serving Christ, simply rest in Christ’s finished performance for you.

And before you google “how to rest in God” and find an article telling you the “Ten Basic Steps to Resting in God”, just stop. Leave the performance zone behind. It is finished for you. Take a nap, watch TV, read a book, go for a bike ride, read the Bible, help a friend, whatever brings you joy. Really, you’re free. It is finished.

 

 

 

 

The King Must Suffer

“Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” … the Son of Man must suffer … Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him … “Get behind me, Satan! … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8).

Peter is the first disciple to confess Jesus as the Christ. Jesus affirms His confession, even says Peter didn’t come up with it on his own, but it was revealed to him by the Father in heaven.

As true as Peter’s confession was, it was incomplete. Peter’s Christ was a warrior king like David who would conquer Israel’s enemies and return the nation to glory. Perhaps Peter would be vice-president in the new kingdom.

When Jesus explains that the Christ will be rejected, will suffer, and be killed, Peter’s head explodes. This is not the Christ according to Peter. So Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct his foolishness. In return Peter gets the rebuke of the Bible: “Get behind me Satan!”

Just as Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness to grab the glory now and skip the cross, so Peter calls on Jesus to man up, be the warrior king, and conquer our enemies apart from the cross.

We know better. We know the cross must come before the crown. The Christ must suffer before the Christ will rise victorious.

But we don’t know better. We live as if the cross were an event in history a long time ago. We’re resurrection people now. We live the victorious Christian life. Those times we stumble and fail only serve to remind us of the need to train harder, have more faith, and claim the victory that Christ has won for us.

We have no patience with suffering. Suffering is merely a test of faith. Or God’s discipline for some sin. It’s surely not a part of the normal Christian life.

We know better. We would never rebuke Jesus. We know He is God and He has a wonderful plan for our life.

But we don’t know better. We’re not as direct as Peter. We deliver our rebukes with a little more sophistication. Our pouting when life punches us in the nose reveals a not so subtle demand for heaven now. Our impatience over the sin that we can’t shake leaves us wondering why God doesn’t come through. The difficult person that God seems uninterested in fixing … where is God we quietly ask?

We want to be beyond the cross. Jesus invites us to take up the cross, to die to the demand for heaven now, and to follow Him. We won’t find freedom from suffering, but we will find a Savior who suffers for us. We won’t obtain a complete understanding of the Christ, but we will find rest in the Christ who completed His work for us.

 

 

 

Keep Perspective in Your Fight Against Sin

Anyone who attempts to be free of a sin habit knows it’s an uphill battle. This world provides the higher ground for the enemy, giving him the advantage. Your sin nature serves as a traitor within who undermines your fight. Your enemy far surpasses you in experience as he has been stealing, killing, and destroying far longer than you’ve been alive.

By way of perspective, two truths to keep in mind …

  1. You have a sin nature. Your sin nature insures you will never be completely free from sin in this life. In this life you walk with Christ aware of a weight that slows you down and trips you up and wearies your soul. At times the weight of your sin nature feels lighter, other times heavier, but know it will always be present in this life.
  2. You will be free from sin. When you see Jesus face to face you will be like Him. Your sin nature will finally be destroyed. You will walk in pure freedom with Christ, no longer hindered by sin.

We hinder our fight against sin when we focus on only our sin nature or only on the freedom to come. Focusing on our sin nature can lead to a passive acceptance of sin that accepts its presence as normal in this life.

Focusing on the freedom to come can lead to a perfectionism that sees every sin as evidence we’re not really walking with Christ. The goal becomes the absence of all sin as evidence we’ve truly matured in our faith.

We live in an in-between time. Sin no longer rules as our master, but we still retain our sin nature. Its been dethroned, but not yet destroyed. As such, we can experience a greater freedom from particular sins. But even here be warned: As you fight against sin, and Christ grants you victory over particular sins, you find yourself in a new place on the battlefield which gives you a new view. The new view reveals sin you never before saw. You’re not worse than you were, but you’re more aware of sin in your life. This isn’t defeat, but the slow grind of victory as you take on more deeply ingrained strongholds of sin.

 

5 Questions to Ask Everyday

Most families live life at a pace that makes reflection near impossible. Just getting through the day without a major logistical failure counts as success.

But without reflection, we fail to notice drifts in direction. Drifts in direction, if uncorrected, will leave us in places we never intended to go – places where relationships are strained, busyness takes the place of significance, and choices are made out of exhaustion.

I find almost any tool that gets me to pause is helpful. Here’s one (you can read more at http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/5-important-questions-to-ask-yourself-every-day.html):

1. What was the best thing that happened to me today?

2. What could I have done better today?

3. What is the most important thing I must accomplish tomorrow?

4. What new thing can I try tomorrow?

5. Who are the most important people in my life and what am I doing for them?

Asking for What You Already Have

If we’re forgiven in Christ, why does Jesus tell us to ask for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer? Why do we need to ask for something we already have? Is our forgiveness dependent on our asking?

Martin Luther provides a helpful thought in his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer:

“There is here again great need for us to call upon God and to pray, “Dear Father, forgive us our trespasses.” It is not as though He did not forgive our sin without and even before our prayer. (He has given us the Gospel, in which is pure forgiveness before we prayed or even thought about it [Romans 5:8].) But the purpose of this prayer is that we may recognize and receive such forgiveness.”

The Large Catechism, The Lord’s Prayer, 88-89

In the Beginning

Many of the classic works of literature begin with a memorable line. A few I like:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis.

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

And of course …

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis

The apostle John begins his gospel in the same way …

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

This Word is not like our words, for this Word has the power to accomplish what it commands and what it promises. When this Word says, “Let there be light” we immediately read “there was light.”

This Word is truth. Our belief or disbelief has no bearing on it. It simply remains as it has always been and always will be: the whole truth. This truth shines a light into our darkness.

This Word sets us free. We find ourselves born into slavery –  a slavery we inherited and a slavery of our own making. But the Word sets captives free by announcing the arrival of a new kingdom. In this kingdom, the weak are made strong, the hurting are healed, the lost are found, the deaf hear and the blind see, and forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world.

This Word is alive. The printed page cannot capture it. It speaks today as loudly and clearly as when it was first spoken. Much noise in our world makes hearing a challenge, but the Word is present, speaking forgiveness and life. It’s this Word I want to hear and receive. It’s this Word that transforms hearts, relationships, and eternity.