A Sermon on Good Works by Rev. Paul T. McCain
Opening Comment by Chris Rosebrough: In light of my current discussions with people across the internet regarding the role of good works in the Christian life, I am posting this sermon from a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who gets it right. I hope you get as much from this sermon as I have.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We are God’s Workmanship
The Scriptures nowhere teach that the reason people go to heaven, or the reason God loves people is because of what they do for God. There are many ways to twist and distort verses that talk about good works to make it seem that way, but it is false and misleading dream that by our good works we gain heaven! It is also false and misleading to believe that it is because of something in us, or about us, or because of us, that God chooses to make us His own.
We are God’s workmanship. That means that we are the clay, and God is the potter, as the Scriptures say. It means that we are a new creation in Christ, as St. Paul says elsewhere.
Sometimes you can remodel a house and fix a room, or install new cabinet fronts to old kitchen cabinets, and it looks great! But that’s not what God does. God is not a remodeler. God is a rebuilder, from the ground up!
He created us and gave us our body, souls, eyes, ears, reason and all our senses, and He still preserves them. He does that for everyone, both Christians and non-Christians. He does this purely out of His goodness and mercy as the Heavenly Father, there is nothing worthy or of any merit in us that causes us to do this.
From the moment we are born, we are involved in a life-long struggle with sin. It clings to the bodies God has given to us, because we are born of flesh, sinful human flesh. There was only one person in the history of the world who was not born into sin, and that was our Lord Jesus Christ. He was born supernaturally, of a virgin, by the direct action of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin Mary. All others born of flesh naturally share in the same judgment pronounced on all human flesh. The Bible says very plainly: "The soul that sins shall die, and, We are by nature children of wrath, we are, the Bible says, as we are born into this world actually enemies of God!"
Nothing is hidden from God’s sight. He knows all things. He knows about all the excuses you and I make to justify ourselves before others, or in our own eyes. He knows about each and every time we have ever violated and trampled His holy law. He knows everything about you and me. He knows those things we would want nobody else ever to know, the thoughts, the things we have done. He knows your sinful condition better even than you do, or I do. We gaze into the mirror of God’s perfect law, that perfect, holy reality, and we can do nothing but beg for mercy and say with that man in the temple Jesus spoke about, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” With David we cry out, “I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord” and “Create in me a new heart O God.” And God hears our cries for mercy.
So, God is our creator, yes, but what is more, he is our redeemer and the one who makes us holy. How? In Christ.
We are God’s workmanship. . . He is the master builder. Right in the midst of our old sinful flesh, our stinking rotten sinful humanity, comes the Lord of Life, Jesus Christ, true God of God and light of light. Into this fallen world, he sets up His shop. He pitches the tent of His humanity among us and through that human flesh that He assumed as perfect God, he lived perfectly, fulfilling everything thing that we could not, living in our place, actively obeying the Heavenly Father, doing all things well. Then He presented Himself for torture and beating, whipping and punishment, on the cross, by which He paid the price for the entire world’s sins. By that death which atoned for all sins, which made things right with God, He has won for us the righteousness which God gives to us as a gift. He imputes, He gives, He bestows, God clothes us with Christ’s own holiness, won by His blood, the blood that cleanses us from all sins. And how precisely does that blood shed then come to us now? Through Word and Baptism and Supper. To each of us God comes in great power and showers on us the gift of forgiveness, and where there is forgiveness there is also life and salvation.
We are God’s workmanship! We always will be. We always are. Throughout our life we are struggling against the old sinful nature. We never reach a point where we can say, “There, we are done. We are finished. We have arrived.” No, the good news of the Gospel is good news from the moment of birth to the moment of our death, because each and every moment of our lives is lived entirely as a result of God’s ongoing workmanship within us, by grace, through faith, for the sake of Christ alone, delivered and made ours through the sure and certain external word of the Gospel and the Gospel sacraments. Therefore . . .Paul continues . . .
Created in Christ Jesus for good works
In Holy Baptism, we are created in Christ Jesus, what a joyful and wonderful truth! We are created in the holy, perfect, innocent Son of God, the one whose sufferings and death won for us eternal salvation and a life right here and now that is lived through Him and for Him . . .a life of good works. A key concept here is the truth St. Paul wrote about in another place in the Bible, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation!” We are created in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus. That’s what Christian life is all about. Our pastors told us earlier in this sermon series that it is not about you, it is all about Jesus. That is so important for us to hear. We are created IN Christ Jesus. In Him, in His holy wounds we find perfect peace and healing. We are created in him . . .for good works. When you think about it, that’s kind of a no brainer, isn’t it? What else would we be created for? But there is so much confusion on this point, even among Christians, perhaps especially among Christians.
Some people think that Christianity is a perfect philosophy that will help us figure out all of life’s mysteries. Not so! There will be a lot of things we can never understand. Other people think that Christianity is a moral code for living. Not quite. Of course the values and morals of Christianity are right, good, perfect and noble. But non-Christians can live very moral lives. I’m sure we could find among non-Christians many people who from all outward appearances live very good and noble lives, perhaps even better than you and me, so Christianity is not about morality, first and foremost.
So, we have to be very careful when talking about good works that we not leave ourselves or anyone else with the impression that only Christians can be “good” and “decent” people in the eyes of world.
The key to understanding good works is the first part of the phrase, “Created in Christ Jesus” – that is where we begin, continue and end this discussion. In Christ, for you see, our lives of Christian holiness, or sanctification, as we traditionally call is, is still . . .all about Jesus. But, oh, how we want it to be about us, don’t we? I want to say, “Come on God, I’m a fairly decent person. I can do great things for you!” But then reality comes crashing in again as God reminds me of all the times I have failed and continue to fail. That is why we rejoice to hear that the life of good works to which we are called is a life that is in Christ Jesus. For only in Christ is a work truly good.
Let me say that again. Only in Christ Jesus is a work truly good! It may appear good to people around us, and from a human perspective, it may actually be good. But, what makes a work good in the view of God? Only that work that is done by one who is in Christ Jesus. Do you remember what the prophet Isaiah had to say about all those things we think we do that are righteous? He says that in comparison to the holiness of God, even the very best things we think we can do, under our own power, by our own choice, are still nothing but filthy rags! Wow, that’s discouraging, or is it?
In Christ, I am a new creation, but I am always in Christ. When he grabbed me and claimed me and made me His own in Holy Baptism, he washed me clean of my sin. He said, “Paul, from this day forward you are crucified with Christ. You are no longer living, but Christ lives in you and the life you now are living in the flesh, you are living by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself up for you.” And you say the same thing!
Therefore any works I do which are good, are works done in Christ. So you see, it still is all about Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The life of sanctification is really all about life IN CHRIST. Now just about life, not about what I think is right, or what feels right, or what seems right and good and proper, but life IN CHRIST.
So, we come to the third point of Paul’s statement, and the last and final explanation of what we mean by “Be what you have become in Christ.”
Which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them
We understand that we have been created in Christ for good works, in fact, that is a given, a reality of life in Christ. In Christ we are good, therefore, works done in him are good. Ok, so far so good. But what works? How do we know what to do? Do we just let our conscience be our guide? Well, yes, but also no. We can't go very long if we rely simply on our feelings or opinions or hunches. Thanks be to God, we do not have to do that.
God has prepared works for us beforehand, that we should walk in them. What works? When was this done? How do we know which works to walk in?
God has provided the answers in His Word. We are to walk in those things pleasing to God. And what are those? They are best summarized in the Ten Commandments. Life in Christ is about honoring God above all else, cherishing and using His name rightly, honoring the Word of God and worshipping Him only, obeying parents and others in authority, not hurting or harming our neighbor in any way, keeping pure and undefiled the marriage bed, loving and honoring our spouse and honoring God’s gift of sexuality within marriage, not stealing nor doing anything to harm our neighbor’s property or livelihood, not coveting anything that belongs to our neighbor.
Do we sit around trying to dream up great things for God? Well, no. Rather, we set our hands to what is before us. Some people have a really unfortunate view of the Christian life. They think that there are “church” things that are really holy and special and good, and then there are just regular old, day-in and day-out things that aren’t really special and don’t really count for much. Well, maybe not in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God, the humble Christian man or woman who goes about his or her duty in life, serving and loving the neighbor is doing more good works than all the monks in all the monasteries in the world can ever do.
I’m really concerned about this. Let me explain. When I was serving a parish in Iowa I preached a sermon about living out our lives for Christ in the place in life we find ourselves, in our various callings, or vocations, in the station in life we are put. I told the congregation that a mother or father who changes a baby’s diapers, a child who obeys his or her parents, a man who goes out every morning at 4:30 and and again in the evening at 5:00 to milk the cows is performing a wonderful, glorious work for God, because these things are done in Christ, as one who is in Christ by grace. I had people in tears afterwards telling me that they had never heard such things. They had been led to believe that only if they were on church property doing "church" things were those really good works. It is a new monasticism friends, this attitude that "doing things for God" happens when they are "church things" -- at church, and so forth.
We are so tempted to believe that it is only the “best” and the “brightest” and the “glitziest” works that really count. Oh, if only I could be a pastor, then I could really serve God. Well, not in anyway to diminish the office of the holy ministry, but how tragic that perspective is! We are called to do the works God has set before us, had prepared beforehand for us to do, and those works are clearly outlined in His Word, in the Ten Commandments and anywhere else the Scriptures give us direction and encouragement.
We do good works because we are created to do good works because we are created in Christ. Life in Christ means a life lived to his honor and to his glory, doing those things He wants us to do, not because by doing them we are earning our way into his good graces, or earning brownie points, or building up frequent flyer miles for heaven, no, rather, it is our duty to serve and praise, thank and obey Him. How do we praise and thank our God for the wonderful salvation and new life He gives? We serve and obey Him, according to His Word, in those works prepared for us beforehand, those works which we do because we have been created in Christ as God’s workmanship.
Are Christians to be concerned about doing good works? Yes, they are. Why? Because this is who they have become in Christ. As St. Paul says in Galatians 2, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me."
Dear child of God, baptized and cleansed, you are His workmanship. By grace, you have been saved, as a gift from God, this is not anything you have done. There is no room, or reason, for boasting. When we were dead in our trespassess and sins, God made us alive together with Christ. We were buried with Christ, by baptism, into death, and as Christ was raised, so we also were raised to a new life, raised with Christ. Therefore, we are God's workmanship. We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Enjoy the walk!
To Him be all glory, forever and ever, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns to all eternity, One God, forever and ever. Amen.