By Scott Keith –
Lately, I have been considering the implication of what it means to be called to be a Christian. Is it simply that Jesus has, through his life, death, and resurrection, set me free from sin, death, and the power of the Devil, and that is it? Is there nothing more? What I mean by asking those questions is that I think we underestimate our preoccupation with our need to do something. You and I need to feel active; we need to feel as though we have contributed in some fashion to the way God feels about us and treats us.
I am bent toward the Law, and so are you. Our habit, in this world, is to work for our good. “You don’t get something for nothing.” “There is no free lunch.” Paul even joins in the chorus as we read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Everything in me cries out that I must, that you must, that we all must work, work, work for our good.
And yet, I hear, nay, I demand to hear, every Sunday that I am saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, and that to God alone goes all of the glory. I demand to hear it because I need convincing time and time again that it is true. I need a virtual constant reassurance that I am free. Free from sin. Free from death. Free from the attacks of the Devil. Finally, free from my bendedness toward a Law, which will never save me and always seems to convict me.
Even when my demands of full Gospel proclamation are met, I still walk away knowing that I will return to my old ways and even wanting to “do more.” For a time, this question consumed the great Lutheran Reformer and partner of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon. As the Lutheran Reformation was hitting its full stride in the 1530s, he asked himself time and again: What is the place of good works and are they necessary for salvation?
Mostly, Melanchthon finds himself struggling with the same question I asked previously. Is there nothing more? His conclusion is that the believer is free from the requirements of the Law and the necessary perfection it demands. Christ has become a perfect, vicarious sacrifice for sinners and has, through his death on the cross, atoned or paid the price for their sin. They that believe on Him and what He has done to save them will have life forever with Him. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
Melanchthon ends up saying that good works are necessary for the Christian. When properly understood, I think that I would say the same thing. The point is that, as the Augsburg Confession confesses: “Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will…” Good works are the fruits of faith which flow from the power of the Gospel’s effect on our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit bringing saving faith, salvation, and sanctification.
So what do these good works accomplish, and what are they? First, they do not achieve merit, salvation, or favor with God. Favor with God is only won by the work of Christ alone. Like my Dr. Father Jim Nestingen is so fond of saying, “If Christ saves, nothing else does!” To fully answer what these works accomplish, we must first answer what they are. First, it is evident from the Scriptures that God does not need our good works; in fact, He saves us despite them. Second, it is clear that our neighbor does need them.
As Melanchthon wrestled with this question, he ended up defining good works as 1) the preaching of the Gospel to a lost world and 2) serving our neighbor through our various vocations or callings. It is the Gospel that defines us as Christians, and thus its proclamation to a lost world is the primary way the world recognizes us as those who are saved. Second, and perhaps more basically, living our lives as God has called us to (Ephesians 2:10) as brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, students and workers, neighbors and citizens, serving one another, is service to God.
The Lutheran Theologian Gerhard Forde explained it this way:
“One is to serve God in one’s occupation, in one’s concrete daily life and its duties in the world. When I tell students that this first of all means that they should pay attention to being better students, they are often a little disappointed. They had more romantic things in mind… It does not occur to them that their first ethical duty is to be good students! Whatever call there might be for more extreme action, it must be remembered that Luther’s idea is that first and foremost one serves God by taking care of his creation.” (Gerhard Forde, A More Radical Gospel)
We too often have more romantic notions in mind which is why we keep asking, “what more can I do?” No more! You are free! You are free to be you! You are free to live your life! You are free to be what God has already declared you are! You are free to serve your neighbor! You are His child on account of Christ! Your works accomplish nothing when it comes to your salvation and everything when it comes to your relationship with your fellow man. And here is the reality: you will fail! You will not serve, you will not fulfill, and you will not proclaim. Yet, you are still free! You are still saved! You are still God’s child! Your status before God is not summed up by your success but by Christ’s. In success and failure, you are still free to be what God has declared you to be! “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) There really is nothing more but freedom, life, and salvation on account of Christ!