By Paul Koch –
I have had for the last few years a growing fascination with work. I don’t mean the idea of working through tough situations or working to understand a difficult concept; I mean actually doing work with your hands. Part of my fascination is because my vocation doesn’t deal in such things, there is no finished product at the end of the day. I suppose you could say a sermon or a Bible Study could be the product of work, but to judge its quality is something that is difficult to do. It is far more difficult than say replacing a radiator in your car or installing a new dishwasher. I have a friend named Jake who runs and operates a metal fabrication business. One of the things that I enjoy about his work is that beyond the beauty and craftsmanship there is an immediate test of its quality. The work of his hands is proven when the motorcycle frame he has built is heading down the road at excessive speed.
There is something truly good and even restorative to our souls in the quality work. Whether it is a specific trade such as a carpenter, plumber, mechanic or farmer, or weekend warriors who do small projects around the home, to do work and be able to stand back when it is done and see what your hands have accomplished is truly a blessing. When the product of our work is outside of ourselves, we are in many ways expressing more fully what it means to be created in the image of God. For our God is a creator God. He creates out of nothing, He forms and fashions, and He does quality work. When we do work, we mimic our God. We employ what He has given us to do, what He has first done. We work.
But then, when it comes to the pinnacle of our concerns as fallen sinners, when we get to the central question of our lives and afterlife, when we ask, “How shall we be saved?” why then work is taken out of the equation. Work is a good and God pleasing activity. Work is even a form of worship to our Creator. Work is a joy and pleasure when it is done well and when we can stand back and be filled with a sense of pride. But when it comes to our salvation, our work is stripped away. Our work accomplishes nothing. For when it comes to our salvation it is only Christ that matters. It is only his great work that saves; it is only his deeds that achieve anything before our Father in heaven. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing it is the gift of God, not a result of works.”
Now this is more than a little problematic. As a pastor, this removal of work from the means of salvation puts me in a bind. After all how are we going to raise money? How are we going to get volunteers? How are we going to fill our members with pride and a sense of accomplishment if we cannot manipulate the church to work for their salvation? It would be easier for all of us if I could simply say, “Look you want to be sure of your salvation? Well, why don’t you give to support the new playground and picnic shelter project? If you give to support this work, why, you can be sure you are being faithful in your walk.” It would be simpler to be able to measure our salvation by how many hours we volunteer, how often we stay late to help out, or even how well we care for one another.
And not only would this be good for the building of the church in this place, this would be of great service to the building of the kingdom across the country. I mean if our work was to secure our salvation, then you could bet we would strive hard to be upright and faithful citizens. We could use work or lack thereof to keep some sort of control over the wayward saints that always seem to bring disgrace to the fellowship of believers. But no – when it comes to salvation, our works amount to nothing before God.
Now people may well say, “Sure works do not save, but if we don’t impress them upon the people of God with as much severity as we can muster then it will all fall into chaos and anarchy. Works are needed to keep good order, to make things flow along, and perpetuate our ideals. And so we come to the writing of St. James. James gives all of us some hope when it comes to our works. He adds some value back to the things we accomplish. He says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” After all, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” And so we say aha, there it is, faith without works is dead. So let me give you a list of works that you can do in order to fortify your faith. Believe me, I’ve got a list. I know what we need to see done around this place. I know that a true work is one that is sacrificial and freely done, so why don’t we start with opening those checkbooks a little more freely and proving to this world just how faithful you really are!
But not so fast. If we back up and read the beginning of James chapter 2, we might see this in a different light. James begins by addressing the sin of partiality. You know, where we treat the well-dressed important public figure better than we do the hurting and broken beggar in the fellowship. He makes a crucial point, saying, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” In other words, if you are working to maintain your faith and you fail at just one point of the law, perhaps the sin of partiality, then you are guilty of breaking the whole law of God. So, James isn’t arguing that somehow your deeds overcome this sin but rather you have been saved outside of your deeds.
What he is highlighting for us is the order of things. The works that we do, when we do them as God pleasing works, are done as a result of the faith we’ve been given. A good tree produces good fruit, faith produces works. Faith, then, is not just words we say. Faith is not simply a decision of the mind. Faith is being born again. Faith is a dying and rising. Faith is being declared to be the very children of God. As such children we will not only do work and find joy in it, but so will our Father in heaven.
All this means something incredible about our works. They are not for us. They do not save us, they cannot save us, and so they are for someone else. Our works are not for our God either. He isn’t in heaven hoping you might get your act together and fulfill His need. He’s God and He’s doing just fine without you. No, your works are for one another. Your works are done in service to your neighbor. So James exhorts Christians to good works so that we might continue to hand on what we have been given. Since the calling of Abraham himself, all God’s children are blessed to be a blessing to others.
Many years ago, I met a man named Raymond Whitt. Mr. Whitt arrived at our church in Georgia with his head hung low and a slow shuffle to his step. He passed in and out of Sunday services without sticking around long enough to really find out much about him. Then one day he showed up at my office to talk. He had always kept the church at arm’s length. He had lived his whole life without really finding much need for the faith. His wife (whom he loved with great passion) was the one who went to church. But when he lost her, he was lost himself. His whole body seemed to ache, and this once proud man was afraid to lift up his head in church. He had heard much from TV Evangelists and little country churches near his home about how he must do this or that if he was to secure a right relationship with his God. There in my study he started to cry.
As we talked he began to open up about his life, about his sins, about so much anger and hurt that he had carried around for so long. When he stepped back to look at the work of his hands, he was not filled with pride but worry and even fear. How could God love him? Mr. Whitt knew that these works were not enough to atone for what he had done. And so we spoke about our Lord and we spoke about the gifts of Christ, and slowly we began to strip away every work he had done. None of them mattered before God’s love and mercy.
Mr. Whitt repented and was baptized. He held tightly to the Word of the cross, the Word outside of himself, that you have heard as well. It is the Word that speaks clear and sure declaring this day that you are forgiven all of your sins in the works of Christ alone. And until the day that Raymond Whitt died, he was an incredible part of our fellowship. With his generosity he supported so much that we did, with his smile he encouraged our social endeavors, and with his words he spoke of a love that was not just for him, but for every broken and empty-handed sinner just like him.
Like Raymond, your faith is at work as well. It is a busy and fervent thing, this faith. So let us find joy in our work again. We are free from working for our salvation and instead freed to work for the benefit of others. All glory to God.