It is getting close for Lutherans (and other Christians too) to remember Reformation Day, and inevitably there will some conversation regarding the relationship between faith and good works.
“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16-20)
We cannot make ourselves good trees by producing good fruit. Jesus makes us good trees that bear good fruit.
THE FRUITLESS PATH
We consistently want to justify ourselves by our actions – how good we are, how religious we are, how generous we are, how much better our fruits are than others’ pathetic attempts. We seek to glorify ourselves before God, appealing to our own goodness or virtue for acceptance. We conclude that if we have a loving and forgiving God, our efforts will be worthy. We see Jesus on the cross as either a tragic mistake or as an example of how to grow better than we do. We see God’s law as the path to righteousness so we can bear good fruit, and Jesus is the encourager we need to do it. We inevitably wither and die. We fail to produce good fruit or even though we grow some, we should be growing more. We might try harder, or blame others for our failures, but in either case, the reality is we are not very good trees.
THE PATH TO FRUITFULNESS
The reality is no matter what we do we wither and fail to bring forth the fruit demanded of us. Our only hope is to admit it. Faith is the confidence to believe that God has accomplished all things on our behalf. The cross is the central revelation of how much God will do for us. Jesus is the gardener who grafts us into his good tree – his cross. On that cross not only does Jesus die with our sins and unfaithfulness, but even our quest to find our own righteousness dies there too. Only once we have suffered the wrath of the law, judgment, the hardships of life, the brokenness of our own bodies, the withering that needs pruning can we realize we can never ever do enough or produce enough fruit to save ourselves. The promise is that Jesus has done everything on the cross, and in that promise the assurance comes to serve others without looking over our shoulders to see who might notice. Jesus grafts us into his very body and begins to grow in us. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Martin Luther said this about faith and good works:
Thus a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done, and does everything gladly and willingly, not that he may gather merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure him to please God in doing these things. He simply serves God with no thought of reward, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or is in a state of doubt, worries and starts looking about for ways and means to do enough and to influence God with his many good works. He runs off…hither and thither; he prays… this prayer and that prayer; he fasts on this day and that day; he makes confession here and makes confession there; he questions this man and that man and he finds no peace. He does all this with great effort and with a doubting and unwilling heart, so that the Scriptures rightly call such works in Hebrew ‘aven amal’ that is labor and sorrow (Psalm 90:10). And then they are not good works and are in vain. Many people have gone quite crazy with them and their anxiety has brought into them all kinds of misery…
The great thing in life is to have a sure confidence in God, when, at least as far as we can see or understand shows himself in wrath, and to expect better at his hands than we know now. Here God is hidden, as the bride says in Song of Solomon 2:9, ‘Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in through the windows.’ That means he stands hidden among the sufferings which would separate us from him like a wall, indeed, like a wall of a fortress. And yet he looks upon me and does not forsake me. He stands there and is ready to help in grace, and through the window of dim faith he permits himself to be seen…
To believe at such times that God is gracious and well-disposed toward us is the greatest work that may ever happen to and in a person, but of this the work-righteousness and the doers of good works no nothing at all.
(Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works (1520).” Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society I. vol. 44. ed. James Atkinson. [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966], pp. 27, 28, 29.)
FRUIT BASKETS BUT NOT BASKET CASES
Throughout the New Testament Jesus, Paul, James and John all discuss the importance of believing and trusting in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ while sharing that gift with others in word and deed. Faith is lived in trust of God and also in action to others. A valid critique of Protestant practice over the years has been the idea that, “If God does everything, I don’t have to do anything. Therefore I can go about my business as if it didn’t matter.” This is the other side of Luther’s critique that if we spend all our time concerned with doing enough good to get God to notice we will miss the gift that is given. The overachievement and sloth go together.
Faith matters – Salvation is a gift, not a reward. We trust what God has done for us out of what John Calvin labeled, “total depravity” – our corruption and sinfulness is so overwhelming we have no hope at all, other than to receive what God has done for us. (Which is a pretty contradictory message to our age when – “But I’m a good person” seems our common understanding as we try to justify ourselves.)
Service matters – We are saved for a reason: not to sit idle, but to serve in the world as Christ’s representatives, as “sent ones” (Apostles) through all the different ways we connect with others – as neighbors, family members, co-workers, classmates, and so on. We also serve in intentional and coordinated ways to help people in need and try to make a difference. We do it not because we are awesome but because Jesus is at work in us, and we trust that the Spirit is guiding us.
When we turn our actions into requirements instead of as opportunities to help we miss the point. We can become basket cases if all we do is look over our shoulders waiting for God to judge or approve us based on our spiritual track records, credentials and accomplishments (we all miss the mark). But the amazing thing about grace – is that none of that matters. What matters is the huge fruit basket of salvation God gives to you, free of charge for Jesus’ sake, and all Jesus asks as you thank him for it is that you take advantage of the opportunity to share. Take a look through the window. Jesus is waiting to hand you a full basket of delicious fruit. Take hold, and dig in!
Peace, Pastor Geoff
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10)