Last week we looked at a second burden we bear instead of fruit: apathy. We saw that apathy is a result of doubt about God and his goodness and that it’s nourished by our own fears of having to care, of having to “do” something about all the pain we see in the world while we ourselves feel utterly powerless to change anything. But we realised that these cares aren’t something we’re meant to carry alone – Jesus bears the load for us.
Today we’re discussing our last burden for this mini-series: works. And it’s a tough one. Like we saw last week, the world is in pain. We’re God’s hands and feet; his foot soldiers. If there was ever a time to be living out our faith by being much needed salt and light, this is it. But at the same time, I think we’ve never been more in danger from a works mentality than we are at the moment. Think about the following questions and answer them “Yes” or “no”:
- “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) James said it, I believe it, that settles it!
- I often worry that I’m taking grace “cheap” by not doing enough for God or for others.
- Jesus detested “lukewarm believers” (Revelation 3:16).
- I judge a person or church’s faith by how visible they are in a community or congregation.
- I feel “burned out”, faith-wise, and wish I could take a break.
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, “works” may be a burden you’re bearing.
What does this burden look like?
Did you notice, most of the above questions aren’t technically “wrong”? James did say faith without works is dead; we do tend to take grace cheap by using it as an excuse (or at least, I do); Jesus did speak out against lukewarm churches; how self-centred a person or a church is can be a good indication of their faith. That’s why I ask the last question last: because while these things aren’t wrong, doing them for the wrong reasons certainly is, and it inevitably leaves us feeling burned out.
I’m working through Exodus and I’ve reached the exciting bit where all the laws are listed. One thing you can’t accuse the Israelites of is not covering the particulars! Small details and possible deviations are all accounted for. The formula is very straightforward: if x and y happens (and if z was involved), do a and b. But if c occurred, b isn’t necessary. And so on. The pattern repeats: law equalled works, and works equalled faith and right standing with God.
We read something like this and think how mighty lucky we are! We’re no longer under the law. And then we burn with guilt when we miss a Sunday service or don’t volunteer for something in our church or community! While we may no longer have to pay restitution for our ox with its goring ways (Exodus 21:28), we “pay” our spiritual way in all sorts of interesting ways, heeding the many “unwritten” laws that pop up in religious settings, whether at our homes or in our churches. Certain actions – being “busy for God” – pays off our “debts” within those systems, while inaction ticks away like interest on a huge loan, to be deducted off our salvation come your pastor’s wrath or eternity, whichever happens first! You see, “works” as a burden is rooted in pride and nourished by sturdy doses of self-righteousness.
Inevitably when we mix our salvation in with our Christian duty, things get muddled pretty fast. That’s because the two aren’t meant to be mixed. They’re distinct from each other. Salvation is a gift; it’s grace doing a fireman’s lift on our lives. Christian works as James defined it is and can be a result of that salvation. But works don’t earn salvation; that defies the point of grace.
This is a lesson Jesus’ apostles learned in Acts 11:1-18 (v 1-9 below):
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Here we have a head-on collision between law (and works) and grace. Peter visited with Gentiles – a no-no for Jews, something prohibited by the law, and “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” (v 2-3). The apostles back in Jerusalem were worried about appearances. This was a critical time in their movement; persecution had already started. To their mind, and despite everything they had seen and Jesus had taught, the law and works still played a defining role in faith.
While the Gentile believers received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and then the baptism of water with Peter’s visit, I think what the Jews back in Jerusalem received upon Peter’s return and explanation was far greater: the knowledge that salvation no longer had a basis in works. How could it? Cornelius, while a generous and devout man, had no law-based security to fall back on. He was a Gentile and by extent an outsider. He was, in terms of Peter’s vision, “profane.” In the eyes of the law not even his alms could save him! So we see it was necessary for these Gentiles to be saved by faith so the Jews could begin to be fully saved from the law and law mentality.
In this scenario, we modern-day believers have become the Jews of old. Our “laws” look different – they even look good and sensible – but the effect is the same: they separate us from God rather than bringing us closer to him, because they convince us that God is distant in the first place! But works do not earn us more grace or approval from God. He’s always at one hundred percent faithful. It’s only in realising this that we can live out our own faith and bear fruit for him.