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September 25th, 2014
For the last several weeks we’ve been listening to the Apostle Paul’s defiant defense of the truth of the gospel. Central to his argument has been that one’s right-standing before God–one’s acceptance by God–rests exclusively on the obedience of Jesus, and therefore in no way upon our obedience however diligently or sincerely done. “By works of the law no one will be justified,” Paul says in 2:16.
Last Sunday we heard Paul take aim at the standard of obedience, the Law of God–not to deconstruct its worth but to show that, given both its high expectations and our low capacity for obedience, relying on our subscription to its demands is like taking a leaky boat out to sea; you’ll be sunk long before you find safe harbor.
So Paul’s done his level best, marshaling both the testimony of the Old Testament and the revelation of Jesus, to disassociate the pardon and welcome of God from one’s individual obedience to God. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” Paul says in 3:13,”for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Of good news there’s none better.
But two other scriptural notions would seem to confront this glorious promise that one’s salvation from sin, death, and Hell is conferred by faith in that promise alone. One comes from the words of Jesus–the other from Paul, himself.
Jesus will speak often of the reward of God to those obedient to His will.
At the close of His beatitudes, Jesus says in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
When the disciples ask about others doing great works in His name but who were not part of his retinue, Jesus explains, “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.”
In the wake of his warning about the danger wealth can have on one’s participation in the Kingdom, Jesus assures his disciples that a reward follows for sacrificial faithfulness, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
And what are perhaps Jesus’ starkest words concerning the connection between compassion and the blessings of the coming Kingdom, he says in Matthew 25:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Jesus could not be more explicit in His promise of conferring favor commensurate with one’s faithfulness. In his letter to the church at Galatia then, has Paul mistakenly severed a link between obedience and blessing which Jesus clearly established? Well, standby. The plot thickens a bit more and by no less than the Apostle’s own words.
In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul speaks unambiguously about what awaits a believer in Jesus at the Judgment.
We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Told you it was unambiguous. Those whose faith is in the atoning work of Jesus do not get to sit out the judgment of God. Nor are their works done on earth of no interest or significance to God. There will be a correspondence between one’s life in time and one’s life beyond it.
So have we caught Paul in doublespeak?
In a word, no. It is no contradiction to say that one cannot put forth any measure of obedience to justify themselves to God, and then at the same time say one who has been justified by the utter grace of God will naturally and necessarily produce obedient fruit as a consequence. That’s a long sentence so let me see if I can express it more succinctly. I can’t merit His love, but I can surely demonstrate my belief in His love for me as it was shown at the Cross. That demonstration may redound unto me in reward from Hm.
To put it by way of a human analogy. A marriage is a covenant, a promise of two to love and cherish, even when one is quite unlovable. Rewards of joy, peace, and satisfaction may surely come by way of cherishing the relationship. But the relationship is not established by the cherishing. It’s an imperfect analogy since human relationships are indeed formed by expressions of appreciation which one might liken to “obedience.” But the analogy still stands on the basis of the fact that all relationships come into being, no matter how much their formation was predicated on kindnesses, on the basis of choice. None are coerced to become friends–only by an act of will. What God does through Jesus is the supreme act of choice to enter into relationship with us since He wasn’t induced to establish such on the basis of anything in or by us; it was entirely of grace. But now in the context of relationship, all manner of provision, sacrifice, deference and love proceed from and to one another–and from that rewards follow, both now and later.
N.T. Wright is as controversial a modern day theologian as he is respected. He has long been near the center of a firestorm over whether Paul was arguing against a theology of works-righteousness or one of ethnic boundary-markers (like circumcision and dietary laws). Space, time, and to be honest, my own wits, don’t permit me to delve into that enduring theological conflagration. But when it comes to reconciling the purported contradiction in Paul’s logic about the weight of our works in the world, I think Wright lets the air out of the accusation clearly and succinctly.
The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation (emphasis mine)
In other words, the works we do–the works “prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10)–will not be the basis of His receiving me into His favor. But they will be the evidence that I had come into that favor, for they will have been motivated by thanks and reverence for His grace.
But those to whom rewards shall be given will have labored for them only insofar as they saw knowing God as their greatest reward. Jeremiah’s words are pivotal here:
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
Those who do as God does will have done so in response to having known Him; their efforts evidence their confidence in the love of God, not a lack of confidence in such or a clawing for such.
While Jesus speaks unequivocally of reward, His interest is mainly in the heart from which rewardable works come forth. And such a heart has its sights not mainly on the reward, but on Him who rewards: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35) That which was worthy of reward was (and shall be) done as though no reward was coming, His promise of such notwithstanding, since they’d already been the beneficiaries of blessing through Jesus’ pardoning grace.
In the end, the heart of the matter is the heart’s motive. The heart that both grasps the graciousness of favor and also the expectation of reward-seeking asks not, “what must I do to receive His reward,” but rather, “what does His worth deserve from me?” We will see ourselves as servants unworthy of all we’ve received, having only done the duty befitting a king. (Lk 17:10). We will take no umbrage at those who may have come late to the labor but who receive the same promise (Matthew 20:1-16).
You may already be one of the five million people who’ve seen this exuberant dude (and that’s putting it mildly) from Austin. He is full of the vim and vigor you expect to find young athletes–full also of those cliches for which sports figures in particular are infamous. But for the sheer remarkableness of his attitude we’ll give him a pass. Just try not to smile (and sometimes cringe) as you watch.
I post his amiable face and endearing attitude because at least his words and onscreen demeanor suggest an inner fortitude. One that neither failure would degrade nor success would swell with hubris. What happens on the field seems less important to him than what’s true off it–which ironically helps to inspire and refine his gridiron work. The scoreboard means less than the faithfulness to the task. It may be all a show–a TV camera-induced stimulant. But I doubt it. I think this kid has a poise beyond his years that will serve him through them. And the poise derives from something other than the score.
We’re in Galatians 3:15-25 this week, the second part of Paul’s profile of the Law. Unless the Galatians saw the Law properly, their appeal to it as the basis for their right-standing with God would lead only to ruin. Paul is desperate for them to see and believe that, so that they’ll let their sense of acceptance derive entirely from the promise of God received by faith alone.
Our argument from the text will be something like this: without faith in the Promise you’ll only be a menace. If your sense of acceptance does not rest on the one Christ bought for you, the one you’ll try to establish 1) will never compare to what could be yours (cf. Jonah 2:8 NIV), and 2) sets you up to find (and suffer) what you’d fought so hard to shake off.
It’s still warm, but you can feel the heat’s stranglehold loosening. So while you’re at least locating your windbreakers buried deep in our wardrobes in hopes of soon needing them, why don’t you come over to the Lafferty’s (6968 Capella Park Ave, Dallas) and sit a spell, and snack a little. Maybe even on the front porch. See if the leaves change a little.
This Sunday, September 28th, 6-8pm, bring a finger food and a friend.
It may be premature temperature-wise, but a poem for the season is in order, by Mary Oliver (HT: outwalking.net)
A Poem For Autumn, I Think
Last DaysThings are
changing; things are starting to
spin, snap, fly off into
the blue sleeve of the long
afternoon. Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
into substance and hue. As everything,
forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
I too love oblivion why not it is full
of second chances. Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves. Now!
booms the muscle of the wind.
(Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1)
In his letter for Autumn, Ken Myers, the head of Mars Hill Audio, had this to say about the necessity of a thoughtful faith:
If ever there is a time when mindless Christianity is likely to produce menacing consequences, it is when the surrounding culture is embracing new conventions of thought, new institutional arrangements, new formative practices in the shape of everyday life. Discernment is always an important part of Christian discipleship, but it is especially necessary under conditions of radical cultural change . . . . Not only does our mental flabbiness ill-equip us to understand the consequences of our faith and the confusions of our age, but the separation of faith and reason that fuels anti-intellectualism is itself an expression of the modern separation of will from reason that is at the heart of our cultural disorder. Christians often assume that one of the mistakes of modern thought is that it has too high a view of reason. But modernity actually elevates the centrality of the will so as to encourage an understanding of reason that is too puny. . . . In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis observes that “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality.” The solution to that problem was “knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.” Knowledge about the order of reality was available, and (with help) one could train one’s dispositions to be more in tune with cosmic harmonies.
You can read the whole letter here.
As you’ve heard us promote recently, two women’s groups are forming next month that will study Elizabeth George’s Loving God with All Your Mind. Ken Myers’ somewhat portentous words make clear how our day calls for action fueled by rigorous thought–and, I’d bet he’d agree, persevering prayer.
Registration for the groups (morning 10-12a, evening 7-9p) wraps up next week. Groups begin October 7th. Sign up on an info card in the foyer of the church, or email Karla Pollock.
Finally, as you pray, pray for these:
- for the rescue of kidnapped journalists and aid workers in Syria
- for the wisdom of our government in its responses to terror and strife
- for the containment of Ebola and healing for those stricken by it
- for Dave and Gloria Farah
- for our new women’s Community Groups forming next month
- for the Gasslers now in Cameroon, Jane in Thailand, Rachel in Bangkok