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Jesus & "Works"

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

11/08/14 Trinity 8
Zech. 4:1-10; Ps. 119:33-48; Rom. 8:12-17; Mt. 7:15-21

Contrast: Jesus & Paul...

What does Jesus have to say about “works”? We hear so much about what Paul says...

The Gospel from Matthew and Epistle from Paul for today are two very rich passages, bringing us into the deepest issues of salvation and sanctification. Zechariah chimes in as well from the Old Testament.

If you set the Gospels along side of the Pauline epistles, you find some rather interesting differences. In the Gospels, Jesus is never recorded as using the word ‘grace’, whereas Paul uses it over 70 times. Jesus is constantly commanding the disciples and others to “do” some work to be saved, whereas Paul keeps reminding us that it is not by our works that we are saved. What are we to make of this contrast?  Is this contrast a contradiction? 

Jesus says in today’s passage from Matthew, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

Reading the Gospels by themselves, one might not guess that there even was a problem about grace and works. But reading Paul’s epistles, that problem is a central theme. Moreover, the whole of Christian theological history tends to weave around that issue, grace vs. works, especially from the time of the Augustine-vs.-Pelagius debate about 400 AD, right through to the Reformation 11 centuries later, and beyond to our present time.

But doing, behavior, works... is not itself the real issue. The basic issue is... what we expect those behaviors to do for us. Jesus tells us to do things so that we will enter the Kingdom of heaven.

Paul, however, is concerned about using good works to buy one’s way into heaven, using the moral capital of good works to obligate God to let us into heaven. “I did this, so You own me entry.... I’ve paid for my ticket.”

But there is nothing in any or all of our works which can obligate God to let us into the Kingdom of heaven. There is nothing we can do to obligate God at all about anything. God is the sovereign, which means that it is He, and He alone, who can obligate us. We, not God, are the recipients of obligations. God is the giver, the imposer, of them. That is the meaning of the word ‘command’.

Once we understand that we cannot obligate God, then our good doings, our good works, are no longer a problem – in that they might give us moral leverage over God so that He is obligated to give us the blessings of heaven. We cannot earn our way to heaven.

The word ‘good’ means ‘that which is life and relationship enhancing’. The command to love our neighbors like ourselves is a command to do for them that which is good – that which builds up life and which builds up healthy relationships of trust and obedience, relationships of healthy, open exchange – whether casual conversations, monetary exchanges, political exchanges, or family exchanges. Paul describes this kind of healthiness with three words: faith, love, and hope – the three which endure, in his chapter on love (I Cor. 13). The Kingdom of God will have those kinds of relationships commonly and in an enduring way.

So, good works are good, not because they obligate God in our favor, but because they are the kinds of behaviors which help build good relationships. The Kingdom of God is, above all else, a relationship of love between God, ourselves, and one another. Relationships must be built, not earned. You cannot earn your way into a relationship, you have to build your way in – cooperating with the other person or persons.

That is the nature of any stable, enduring community. We build ourselves into that community. If we do it with God, that is how we become Peter’s living stones of the Temple of God. Without God, it aborts into competition and strife.

Building the heavenly relationship is what Jesus came to earth to show us how to do, by obedience to the law, and to enable us so that we could do it, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus spoke so freely of works.

Paul, on the other hand, had come out of that crushing legalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which taught that we earned our way by doing this or that deed. We earned our right to be, our right to acceptance, our right to freedom. No wonder the Pharisees made such a show of their good deeds. That was their ticket to being a social “somebody” rather than a social “nobody”. The nobodies were the sinners, those who could not measure up by the Pharisee standards of behavior. That is what Jesus attacked with such severity. To which they responded with death – in order to protect their method of being the somebodies.

There is a huge difference, then, between deeds which earn our worth and deeds which build good relationships. They tend to run directly counter to each other. Deeds which “earn” tend to create competition and striving against one another, one-upsmanship. They create the “ratrace” and pyramid-building of fallen civilization.

Deeds which create good relationships, by definition, do good for each other, and thus inspire thanksgiving, appreciation, and cooperation.


Flesh & Spirit

Paul writes: “Brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” “Mortify” means to “make dead”, put to death, not humiliate, as we use the word. The old self dies, the new self lives.

He goes on, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” “...we are bold to say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven...”

In our conversion and baptism, we are adopted by God into His family, that is, we are accounted and treated as children of God. Being His children, God wants to raise us up into the fullness of adult spiritual maturity so that we can indeed do those kinds of deeds which reflect being the sons and daughters of God. Doing good deeds becomes normal and natural, habitual, no longer the often hard work which has to fight against the temptations of “the flesh”.

The temptations of the flesh may seem to be caused by the flesh, but not so. They are caused by our distance from God, our lack of knowing His law, and our lack of the power of the Holy Spirit to undergird our being, enabling us to be obedient.


Paul says that “the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” God tells us: You are My child! This is the “guarantee” to which Paul refers at least three times:

2Cor. 1:22 He has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. A guarantee is a promise of something in the future.

2Cor. 5:5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

Eph 1:14 In Him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

The Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit, that is, the Spirit of God is in some discernible sense speaking to us, informing us, loving us. We have a living experience of the presence of God which tells us that the promised Kingdom is already on its way.

That is what Jesus meant when He told the disciples that “The Kingdom of God is among you.” We do not have to wait. The first signs of the Kingdom are already here – if we are open and obedient to God. Just as we are obedient to God, building from our side of the relationship, so also God is, and has been already, working from His side of the relationship to encourage us and draw us on ever closer to Him and to one another. That first real glimpse of the power of God in our lives gives us courage and determination to move forward into the future.

Do we initiate this relationship? Not at all. We would not have the foggiest notion of how to go about it, and even if we did, we would not be able. You cannot have a relationship with someone unless that someone is participating. God has to participate by first beginning it, revealing Himself. Then we can respond in His direction.

It is all grace, freely given, not owed by Him to us. We fallen creatures are invited into the relationship by a Creator – full of grace and truth, who searches out the lost sheep.

But God, the great-Pragmatist-in-the-Sky, knows how to bring about His purposes. He knows how to reach out to a fallen people, and how to draw them toward Himself. If they are willing.

He first finds someone who will work with Him, obey His word – an Abraham. Then He establishes a law to give moral shape and order to a morally chaotic world. The law, as Paul notes, is a precursor to the coming of the Lawgiver Himself.

The law does not offer grace, only the lawgiver can do that. Grace is a personal gift, a gift of oneself, not givable by a legal system. Grace can come only in relationship-building. It had to wait until God Himself could present Himself to us. Old Testament religion was not graceless, but it could not complete the process until the fullness of time, ripe for the Incarnation, the coming of the Son.

God knows how to bring about His purposes. He knows how to get from where He and His people are to where they need to be. God is a pragmatist. He puts the effective means to work toward His chosen goal.

We hear sometimes concerning pragmatism, that “The end does not justify the means...” The “end”, of course, is the goal, and the “means” are how you arrive at that goal. If that is the case, what else other than the ends could possibly justify the means? How would you choose the means to your goal other than by looking at the goal, looking at the potential means, and choosing which means in fact got you most efficiently there to the goal?

The word ‘justify’ means ‘to give a good reason for...’ The good reason for those particular means would be.... that the means in fact get you to the goal.

It is objected that some means are not good, they are immoral or destructive. But that is asserted because it is not realized that goals not only justify some means, they also prohibit the use of other means. That is, they prohibit the use of any means which subvert the very goal itself. If the goal of God is a loving community, then any means which subverts that loving community would then be automatically prohibited. That, then, rules out any means which is itself immoral or destructive of a loving and righteous community.

The law of God is itself the statement of the goal to which He is leading us – a community of mutual love between Himself and His creatures. The law itself, then, prohibits the use of any means contrary to itself and its final intent.

So God chooses those means which do in fact lead to and support, not subvert, the community which He wants to build with us.


God works

Jesus was challenged about the work which He and His disciples did on the Sabbath, to which Jesus replied that His Father was still working, and He, Jesus, was working. (John 5:17)

We are born into a world which is substantially insane – out of touch with fundamental reality. We are unable to clearly sense the works or the presence of God all around us, let alone His will. Or if we do, it will be in a confused and broken way. And whatever of His will we can discern, we will not be able to fulfill it except, perhaps, in a very halting and stumbling way. We will not be able to plunge to the depths of His will for us, nor reach the heights because we will only partially understand His word, and, if at all, only partially sense His presence and love – that is, His grace. As I said last Sunday, we have a hard time seeing God shine through His creation as Jesus shone through at the Transfiguration.

We will most likely have a distorted, unfriendly, and ungraceful impression of His attitude toward us. We will fear God in the wrong sense of fear. We will be scared to death to come close to Him for fear of His judgement and condemnation against us. We might expect Him to despise, perhaps hate, us, not love us.

So we will inevitably seek another savior, another protector in the world to save us and secure our situation in the midst of chaos . But those, being false gods, will betray us into the very things from which they promised to save us.

That is the insanity of the fallen world. Apart from the intervening love of God in Jesus Christ, there is no way out. No Exit. The work of God is to provide the exit.


We work 

What do our works for God look like in real life? in real time? In our own time and situation?

What work would you like to be able to perform, either for someone else or for yourself? In what way would you like to be able to obey the commandments that you struggle with now? What victory would you like to experience in your spiritual walk?

The Hebrews at Mount Sinai showed their inner brokenness, weakness, and rebellion by their exaggerated fear of the Lord. They could not stand even to see the shining on the face of Moses. They had little or no concept of God as their Father who loved them.

But we modern Christians have many of those same fears – because we have been raised in a culture, for many of whom God is a foreigner, even an enemy. We live in an increasingly anti-Christ culture. Not only doubters, but those openly hostile to God are expressing their views. Christians and Jews are routinely persecuted in growing numbers of places, including in the West.

Is not God calling each of us to some participation in the spiritual war confronting us? It may be actively on the front lines, or it may be in a helping and supportive way, but for all of us, we should be spending regular time in prayer, each and every day, for the health of the Church, for the health of St. Luke’s, for the strength and sturdiness of each one of us as we go about our business for the Lord. We need to be, like Jesus, immersed in good works.

We are relieved of the burden of having, by our good works, to justify ourselves to the world or to our family or to our friends. We are freed just to do them. Only God can justify us, only God can tell us that we have a right to exist, and give us the ability to stand up and be real people in the face of the world’s confusion. God is more than willing. He has come, on His own, without our asking, in the person of Jesus to do it, and has invited each of us to participate in His works to bring the Good News to those around us.

Zechariah gives us that wonderful line, “Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” That is not to say that we are not to exercise our might or power, such as we might have, but rather that only in the law and grace of God can such efforts lead to the building of the Kingdom, the creation of those Godly relationships which will draw the world itself to God...., or which will perhaps enrage them to further self-destruction and confusion.

Psalm 119 tells us, “Make me to go in the paths of Thy commandments; for therein is my desire.... I will speak of Thy testimonies also, even before kings, and will not be ashamed.” It sounds like Acts 1.  I will speak Your truth before powerful persons, and my knees will not knock, my voice will not quaver. We will have power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us to witness in Orange County, California.

Let’s begin with our family, friends, and neighbors. Maybe God will lead us to kings and potentates. But that is His business. Let us be doing the works of God daily and with great rejoicing in the guarantee which God has placed within our hearts – the presence of His Holy Spirit.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 08/14/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012