ByCraig van Echten
August 29, 2018
Bible readings: Luke 17:1-10, James 2:14-26
Brothers and Sisters,
A few weeks ago we came back to that precious truth that lies at the centre of what we believe. We came back to the article by which we stand or fall. We looked at justification by faith alone.
It is such a precious truth because outside of Christ we are not right with God. Our sins deserve His wrath and condemnation. But, in His grace, God has provided the righteousness we need. He does this is the person of His Son. Jesus Christ lives a perfect life and dies a sacrificial death.
And how do we grasp that righteousness for ourselves? That righteousness becomes our ours through faith alone. There is nothing else to do! The moment we believe in Christ Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, all that He has done becomes ours. Through faith, His white robes becomes ours.
And so one of songs we sings goes like this: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Your cross I cling; naked, come to You for dress, helpless look to You for grace; stained by sin, to You I cry: wash me Saviour or I die.’ We sing that because the imputed/credited righteousness of Christ is our only hope in life and in death.
But then, what about good deeds? Where do they fit in?
As you know the Heidelberg Catechism was framed in a sixteenth century context. And many believers found it hard to accept their new freedom in Christ. Even some of the Pastors struggled. Martin Luther spoke of the what he described as the “old clinging dirt” of wanting to contribute something. And many present day Christians have the same struggles. So, this was, and still is an important question. Where do good deeds fit in?
So, this is what we are looking at this evening. And, we are going to see: Our works have no earning capacity, but in Christ will naturally flow. Good works are like grey hair, it will happen. Boys and girls, good deeds are like a grazen knee, it will happen.
The first thing we have to see is that: my good is not good enough. Although the catechism is 500y old, it still hits the nail on the head. Human nature hasn’t changed has it? Did you notice how Q62 is still relevant to today? It rightly diagnoses the human predicament. Namely, despite our best works, there’s a chasm between us and God.
There’s a picture that’s often used in evangelism. On one side of the picture there is a big cliff face. And on the other side of the picture there is another big cliff face. And there’s a huge gap or chasm in the middle. It represents the chasm that sin creates between us and God. Have you seen that picture? Boys and girls, can you get across from one cliff to another? No! you would need to be superman or wonder woman to get across.
But, do you know what we do in our sinful natures? We try to bring that chasm between us and God together. We do it by either bringing God down. Or exalting ourselves. Or both!
But God won’t be brought down. God is righteous and just. He is perfect in all His ways. He is holy, holy, holy. So, a human being could only be right with God if they were perfect. Or if as Galatians says, if they “abide by all the things written in the book of the law.” Does such a person exist? No.
What is the sad reality? It is that we are imperfect and stained by sin. Consider for a moment the Bible’s assessment of humanity after the fall:
a. We are horribly ungrateful. This is one of the things that characterizes the last days in 2Tim. 3. God is the sustainer and provider of all things. He gives the air we breath, the food we eat, and the houses we live in. And yet, most people don’t even both to thank Him. Instead, they have the gumption to suggest God doesn’t exist.
b. We disgustingly selfish. The Ten Commandments couldn’t be any clearer. “You shall have no other gods before me.” God demands our worship. He is to be our highest priority. Our chief delight. And the centre of our lives. And yet, the reality is that on most days, God is not first. His law is not prioritized. Instead, we make it about ‘me.’
c. Our hearts are evil. Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Too often people are let off the hook because they have a so called good heart. The Bible’s assessment is that the bad we do is the fruit of a bad heart.
d. We fail to do the right thing. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Not only do we commit sin when we disobey. We also sin when we fail to do what we could have done. As well as sins of commission there are also sins of omission. We could have encouraged someone, but we didn’t. We could have used our time to serve in the church, but we didn’t. We could have done a job around the home for mum and dad, but we didn’t.
I don’t have to say anymore do I? You and I are much worse than we think. The chasm is ginormous. In theology we believe in total depravity meaning sin affects our whole being. And it also affects all the works we do.
So it should be quite apparent, our good is not good enough. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Filthy rags is all we’ve got. As he catechism sums it up ‘Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin.’
Can you see again, that’s why justification by faith is so beautiful? We are not good enough. But, we look to the one who is! By faith we grasp a righteousness that is perfect, unadulterated, faultless. And he provides the bridge between us and God.
The second thing we see is that: Our rewards are graciously given. In the sixteenth century there was a lot of debate about merit. That’s what the Roman Catholic system was based on. So question 63 deals with another objection that arose.
Q. How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next.
If someone asked you such a question, how would you respond? It’s a legitimate question. Are you aware that the Bible repeatedly speaks about rewards in heaven?
a. When you suffer for Christ you are promised a great reward. Matthew 5:11 says, “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.” (Rom. 8:17)
b. When you do your good works before God you will be rewarded. Matthew 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” People don’t have to know what you do for the church. For God knows. And God rewards.
c. Our reward will be in accordance with our works. Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done.” (Rom. 2:6-11; 2Cor. 5:10; Rev. 11:17; 22:12)
d. When you have been faithful in your Christian living, you will be rewarded. Revelation 2:7 “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Col. 3:23; 2Tim. 4:7)
Have you notice these verses before?
If you’ve ever been to a footy game you’ll know some seats are better than others. Isn’t this the picture we are getting here? Namely, there will be different capacities of enjoyment in heaven.
Now can you understand the question that the catechism is dealing with? Q. How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next? That’s a good question. But there’s also a good answer. A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
Our filthy rags earn nothing. It’s all by grace. Put it this way: Let’s say our future reward is worth 10 million dollars. How much would our good works amount to? Not even ten cents! Who would even pay ten cents for filthy rags! In fact, according to the parable in Luke 17, it’s even our duty simply to serve God. So, can you see it? Even these extra rewards are graciously given.
The great theologian Augustine put it this way, ‘God crowns His own gifts.’ So while God promises rewards to those who do good works, no works earn any merit. God simply crowns His own gifts. He crowns the grace that He’s already poured into your life.
By the way what will it be like if there are different capacities in heaven? Will you feel ripped off? Will you be envious of someone else who has a spot closer to the throne? So and so over there is playing video games, and all I get to do is make puzzles. No, in Christ all of us will experience perfect joy. And since there is no pride, and no envy, the fact others have a great or lesser capacity won’t be an issue. We will all rejoice in being transformed into the likeness of our Saviour.
So now to sum up so far. Like a clean break in a relationship, a clean break has been made with good deeds as merit. Now, positively, what is their place?
Finally, we the impossible possibility. The impossible possibility. You see, what do people often say when you share with them the gospel of grace? What do they say when you tell them that don’t have to do anything for their justification? What do people say when Pastor Peter Kossen says, from the book of Galatians, ‘you can do what you want?’
They tend to respond in line with Q64. ‘But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?’ As Romans 6:1 says, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound?”
The answer is of course no. Because that’s not how grace works. Such questions represent a works righteousness approach.
Yes, we are justified by faith. But, the faith that justifies is living and active. This is where we need to be clear about the nature of true faith. True faith is often said to have three elements. A) One element to faith is that we understand certain truths. So faith has content. One needs to believe in the Jesus of Christianity as opposed to the Jesus of Islam or Mormonism. B) Another element to faith is assent. One needs to agree that these truths are true.
That’s the first two elements. But, these two elements are no sufficient are they? It’s not enough just to know and agree with certain truths. James 2: 19 says, “Even the demons believe and shudder.” So what else need to be present in true faith? C) Trust. It is also a matter of the will. One also need to trust what they believe. Remember Charles Blondin and the wheelbarrow over the Niagara falls. True faith means you get in the wheelbarrow. With respect to Christ, true faith means abiding in Christ, taking up His yoke, taking up our cross, and following Him. So true faith is living and active.
This is the point of James 2:14-26. James asks the question in verse 14 “What good is it my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” He is basically, ‘Can you be saved by a dead faith?’ ‘Can you separate faith and works’ He goes on to answer with a resounding no! Abraham case in point. The faith that justified Abraham caused him to lift the knife into the air.
So, to put it differently, it is an impossible possibility that someone would be justified and not desire to live for Christ.
Christ comes to live in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In doing so He transforms our hearts desires. He points us to the truth of Christ and to the will of Christ. He grants us the power of Christ. The image of the vine and branches reminds us that the life of Christ flows through us once we come to faith.
So, what does this impossible possibility mean?
a. Those who aren’t living for Christ need to take stock. Those who live a lifestyle of ignoring God’s Word and cherishing sin are not likely to understand grace. As Jesus said, “each tree is known by its fruit.” No fruit = no root. Any claims to faith or love for God are empty. For it’s impossible for those who know grace, to not be changed. John 14:15 “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
b. What about those of us who are trying to live for Christ? I suspect most of us here this evening fall into the category of showing some fruit. We are probably not satisfied with our fruit bearing, but we are bearing some fruit.
How does this passage apply? It’s a reminder to keep walking through the gospel, and it will happen. Know your sin, see your need for Christ, and gratitude will overflow. (which by the way is the structure of the catechism – Guilt, grace, gratitude or Sin, salvation, service) Since our ability to produce fruit depends on our proximity to Christ. We need to stay close to Christ. And when the coals are close to the fire, they produce the most heat.
Hear the words of Christ “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”