Category Archives: Righteousness

I Want Good Works

I was talking to a friend today, one who does not yet know Jesus, and is searching. He said he likes to do good. When he does, he feels the positive energy, the rightness, and he can see how that energy pushes him in good ways. His activity in life is toward increasing this positive feedback loop. He might even call this salvation.

This approach is headed in the wrong direction. Christianity is aimed directly at our failure at this feedback loop. We don’t slowly respond to positive energy. We fail. We don’t do what’s right, we have to trust in Christ. There’s no merit in our work because we constantly fail at doing good. Our best deeds are tainted. So we are forced to trust in another, in the imputation of a perfect righteousness and the grant of a right and title to the heavenly inheritance entirely separate from our good deeds (full disclosure: I paraphrased the latter part of this sentence from John Owen). Yes, I am talking about the work of Jesus, which was very meritorious. For me and for you, if we trust him.

Your works do not save you. Contrary to some evangelical thinking, they don’t get you into heaven. They don’t even provide sure assurance. You can fake works, like you can lie with your mouth. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of Matthew 7, where people say they’ve done mighty works in Jesus name, and he says he never knew them?

But this aversion to meritorious work leads some to question whether we should want good works at all. Perhaps this is sometimes a result of the inherent dangers of slipping back into comparison and merit; after all, we do long for ourselves to be lifted up, for our good side to be seen, and for our own selves (or, if you are a parent, for our children or grandchildren) to be viewed as accomplished and successful.

So is there no place to long for good works?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, yes, YES!

You do realize, believer, that you are now a child of God. And that you have the Holy Spirit. And Jesus intercedes for you all the time. And so you are used, by God, for his purposes and in his body. That doesn’t just mean to avoid sinful stuff (which you should, it is bad for you). It also means that you bear fruit. You do good works. Really good, because it is Christ in you doing it. The Bible points to responses to the gospel, a working out of what has become your identity. Loving one another. Laying down your life for one another. Lifting each other up. Talking with people about Jesus.

Our assurance is in Jesus’ promises. But seeing our response to the gospel worked out in our own lives is encouraging and helpful. Our fruit, our good works, are simply a response to Jesus’ work. I think we are encouraged to respond and to rejoice in good, non-meritorious works. Think Ephesians 2:10 or Titus 3:14.

Let me bring up an oft-mentioned Gospel-response (good work!) in the Pauline epistles: unity. You bear the fruit of unity. That means that even though your neighbor in the pew doesn’t have it all together, doesn’t act in ways that you like and smells faintly of garlic (or worse), you consider yourself one in Christ with them. Even when you don’t doctrinally totally agree, and even though they sing off-key and raise their hands, you see your essential connection to them. You are in one body, one family in Jesus. That heart attitude is a direct response to the gospel. It will lead to actions that you wouldn’t take otherwise. You might actually talk to them and have them into your home and pray for them. Welcome to good works, friend.

So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to respond to the gospel with love. Don’t be afraid to get excited about what Jesus has done for you – and what it means for the daily living that you do. There is no merit to your work, Jesus is everything. But that doesn’t mean you do nothing. That means you get to respond. Not with a checklist, but with a heart that is alive. And a spirit that is willing.

Consider this encouragement. Yep, that’s right. Encouragement, in the gospel, to love and good deeds.

Just remember: your identity is sure, no matter what. If work sounds too meritorious to your ear, use fruit instead. But realize you’re talking about stuff you do. Which comes out of who you are. In response to the gospel. Because of all Jesus has done for you. And have a blast. Love someone today. You get to!

A Secret for Life

Blessed to share at a school chapel for little kids today. Lets me see just how difficult it is for me, an aging adult, to boil down the truths of the Bible to be accurate and yet capture the main point, the real emphasis, of our text.

What do our little ones need to know, as they begin to grow in understanding and experience? Here’s the secret I shared today: nobody’s good. Nobody’s good (Jesus excepted).

All of us to varying degrees and for various motives try to be good. We often tell our kids to be good. But then we do bad things. Sometimes our bad is inside – just bad thoughts. But even bad thoughts taint good deeds.

We try to hold up standards of other people like they are good, to be attained to. So we have Abraham, Moses, David. We look to Peter or Paul. Of course, each and every one of those saints just mentioned were well-documented sinners. Big sins, even… murder, lying, abandoning Jesus. So the very best people in the Bible were not good, not in all their actions. Not in themselves.

It is amazing that we continue to hope in ourselves. We shouldn’t. Our hope can’t be in ourselves. Our hope can’t be in our goodness. The Bible even famously says that our best deeds are like filthy rags before God.

One of the most comforting ways to think about this to me is to look at the armor of Ephesians 6. Paul there writes that we are going to need to fend off the arrows of the adversary, of Satan. What are those arrows? I don’t think it is out of line to consider that Satan is the accuser. His arrows are arrows of accusation. “You aren’t good enough. You don’t deserve to be in heaven. You are a failure, give up.”

What protects us from those arrows?

First, try putting on the clothing of your good works. Filthy rags, right? Even if they aren’t as filthy as the next person’s, rags are no protection from arrows of accusation. Even our best works have threads of ill motive, have pieces of imperfection. It is in this sense that a little leaven flavors the whole lump.

What we need is armor. Armor from the accusations of the accuser, from the deceptions of the deceiver. Hmm. Good thing that’s what we get!

Paul says in Ephesians 6:11-17 to ‘take up the armor of God.’ That would be God’s armor (not mine). Pick it up, put it on, believe it, this is your help, this is your defense, this is your protection.

What is our protection?

  • The belt of truth, which is the reality that we are sinners and yet Jesus in love came and died for me.
  • The breastplate of righteousness, Jesus’ righteousness. I’m protected not by my goodness but by the goodness of Jesus Christ, given to me. Huge armor right over my heart.
  • The shoes of the readiness of the gospel of peace. Jumpy joy that the good news is that we are at peace with God. Accuse away, devil. We are at peace with God, right with God, even when we aren’t good. By believing in Jesus.
  • The shield of faith. Yes, arrows hit up against our trust that what Jesus has done is true. This is our hope.
  • The helmet of salvation. Jesus has done it. He has saved us. This guards my head. I don’t save myself. I trust in the one who is the savior.
  • The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The spirit comforts me with the growing knowledge of what Jesus Christ has done. Jesus is the Word, and he proclaims that we have a relationship with God based not on us, but on him.

Do you see? In come the accusatory, deceptive darts of the devil. If we’re trying for protection in our works, we’re toast. If we rest in the protective armor of what Jesus has done, we stand.

This is what being a Christian is: that you hope in somebody just giving goodness to you. Not just someone, actually. Jesus. This is what God promises us. It is a covenant: a big, solemn, serious promise. He promises that he will forgive us of all our sins, every one we have ever done in the past, or do now, or will do in the future. He says he will remember them no more. And then he gives us, in Christ, beautiful clean washed clothes of his goodness.

So hold on to the secret: there’s no one good. Except for Jesus. That’s really good news, because his goodness will protect us as we trust in him.

Relevant Non-Sequitur

I have enjoyed poking around a bit with a non-sequitur recently. That’s a latin term that literally means ‘does not follow.’

So you could be talking about elephants and ask how big their wings are. Or when speaking of how fast a car can go, ask which color makes for a faster car.

Uhh… that just doesn’t follow.

So here’s mine. Consider Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Great imagery. Housebuilding. Rain and storms and blowing and beating and houses that stand and fall.

But the question is, who works harder? Who do you think works harder in building their house?

If you’re not on the lookout for my non-sequitur, you might slip and say… the one who builds on the rock. I mean, he’s building on the foundation, he’s the Christian, he is building something that will last. That other guy, he’s building a shoddy piece of work that won’t even last a single storm.

And if you say that… you missed the point of Jesus’ teaching.

Because the point has nothing to do with effort. Nothing at all. There is no comparison between the two builders in that regard at all. There’s no reference to sweat, labor, effort. One might work much harder… or they both might work the same. That has absolutely nothing to do, in this teaching, with the point.

The point — and the only thing that matters — is… who you are building on. You can put forth extreme effort and not be on Jesus, and the house falls, or put forth little effort, and have the same result. There just isn’t a distinction made.

Your effort in your salvation is like speed and car color, or elephants and wings. It is a non-sequitur. Salvation is Jesus’ effort, and Jesus as the foundation. Faith’s object, not your strength.

May we guard our hearts such that we trust in Christ alone… even as we build.

Rainy Day Quote II

Here’s the second quote, for thinking on in a rainy day.

It is popular in our practical, ‘fix-me’ society to hammer at only one aspect of sanctification — generally called ‘progressive.’ However it is not clear that the categories of sanctification are cut and dried… or that sanctification should primarily be thought of differently than the rest of salvation (i.e., monergistically). Though best-sellers emphasize a ‘get to work’ ethic of ‘personal holiness,’ it is good to reflect that our righteousness is given to us, and true holiness for the believer is not in our always-imperfect efforts but in the actual work of the Spirit, the one whose name includes ‘holy,’ or, as Rev. Scaer notes, ‘Spiritus sanctus.’

This is from David Scaer, a Lutheran pastor (in Sanctification: By Grace Alone):

At times, the New Testament uses the words sanctify and sanctification of God’s entire activity of God in bringing about man’s salvation. More specifically it refers to the work of the Holy Spirit to bring people to salvation, to keep them in the true faith and finally to raise them from the dead and give them eternal life (Small Catechism). All these works are also performed by the Father and the Son. Since God is not morally neutral and does not choose to be holy, but He is holy, all His works necessarily share in His holiness. The connection between the Holy Spirit and sanctification is seen in the Latin for the Third Person of the Trinity, Spiritus Sanctus. The Spirit who is holy in Himself makes believers holy, sanctifies them, by working faith in Christ in them and He becomes the source of all their good works.

Sanctification means that the Spirit permeates everything the Christian thinks, says and does. The Christian’s personal holiness is as much a monergistic activity of the Holy Spirit as is his justification and conversion. The Spirit who alone creates faith is no less active after conversion than He was before.

Rainy Day Quote I

‘Rainy day’ may sound sad… but rain is wonderful… as are these two quotes. The first is from J.C. Ryle. One of my favorites of his is The Christian Leaders of the Last Century. This excerpt is from volume 2, pp. 304-305. It’s worth reading through, and is the tale of an interaction that opened the eyes of one of Ryle’s important English preachers (James Hervey of Weston Favell) to the reality of righteousness in Christ alone:

The unsatisfactory character of Hervey’s theology at the beginning of his ministry is well illustrated by the following anecdote.

In one of the Northhamptonshire parishes where he preached before 1741, there lived a ploughman who usually attended the ministry of Dr. Doddridge, and was well-informed in the doctrines of grace. Hervey being ordered by his physicians, for the benefit of his health, to follow the plough, in order to smell the fresh earth, frequently accompanied this ploughman when he was working.

Knowing that he was a serious man, he said to him one morning, “What do you think is the hardest thing in religion?”

The ploughman replied; “Sir, I am a poor man, and you are a minister; I beg leave to return the question.”

Then said Mr. Hervey: “I think the hardest thing is to deny sinful self’; grounding his opinion on our Lord’s admonition, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself.”

“I argued,” said Mr. Hervey, “upon the import and extent of the duty, showing that merely to forbear sinful actions is little, and that we must deny admittance and entertainment to evil imaginations and quench irregular desires. In this way I shot my random bolt.”

The ploughman quietly replied: “Sir, there is another instance of self-denial to which the injunction of Christ equally extends, which is the hardest thing in religion, and that is to deny righteous self.

“You know I do not come to hear you preach, but go every Sunday with my family to hear Dr. Doddridge at Northampton. We rise early in the morning, and have prayer before we set out, in which I find pleasure. Walking there and back I find pleasure. Under the sermon I find pleasure. When at the Lord’s table I find pleasure. We return, read a portion of Scripture, and go to prayer in the evening, and I find pleasure. But yet, to this moment, I find it the hardest thing to deny righteous self, I mean to renounce my own strength and righteousness, and not to lean on that for holiness or rely on this for justification.”

In repeating this story to a friend, Mr. Hervey observed, “I then hated the righteousness of Christ. I looked at the man with astonishment and disdain, and though him an old fool, and wondered at what I fancied the motley mixture of piety and oddity in his notions.

 “I have since seen clearly who was the fool; not the wise old ploughman, but the proud James Hervey. I now discern sense, solidity, and truth in his observations.”

A Trap to Avoid

Romans 2:14-15
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

Amazing thought, here.

Paul is in the middle of presenting the reality of judgment for everyone. Whether or not you have ‘the law’ – the special revelation of God and his ways given at Mt. Sinai – you and everyone you know is slated to be judged according to what you do.

What you do reveals what is in your heart. That’s true of everyone. And thus everyone will be condemned. Just like the Gentiles, here – everyone has conflicting thoughts, some of which accuse and some excuse. But the accusing ones win… because even a slight deviation from what is true means that you’re rotten… and will experience wrath.

There’s an escape. Not in Romans 2, but in Romans 3. The escape means you die; your righteousness gone; you out from under this system entirely… and righteousness given in the person and work of Jesus Christ… salvation is by faith in him. He’s our only hope.

But here’s the trap to avoid. Many of us read the chapters out of order. We see Romans 2:14-15, and think ‘Oh, Paul’s thinking of the Christian,’ when he’s actually simply pointing out the system under which every person will receive judgment.

The tragedy of falling into this trap is that you put the Christian into Romans 2, where he doesn’t belong. The Christian isn’t accused or excused by their conflicting thoughts; the Christian isn’t validated by “doing by nature what the law requires.” The Christian is dead – again, dead – to the law.

To read the Christian back into Romans 2 is to devalue the incredible, mind-blowing, miraculous, system-breaking Way that is opened in Jesus… and put it back on ourselves.

I’ve been saved from myself. My only hope is to trust in Jesus. The law of Christ does guide us… but from the reality of union with our Savior. May we flee “self-righteousness unto salvation.” We aren’t aided by Christ to be self-righteous. We are totally dependent on his.

Walking on Water

I’ve been marveling this week over the presentation of truth in Scripture. Over the different ways that the Bible teaches and instructs and pushes us toward reality – toward the truth of the Gospel.

An example is Peter’s walking on water, laid out for us in Matthew 14. Here’s the text:

Matthew 14:28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Look at this with Gospel eyes.

First, Peter wants to walk on water; he asks Jesus to command him to. And Jesus does.

Isn’t that amazing, just on its own? I’d apply that to us in our desire to do the supernatural. Not walk on water, exactly… but to bear fruit. Fruit is supernatural, isn’t it? Love, joy, peace, patience… they can’t really be produced by our flesh, they take the supernatural Spirit… that’s why it is called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22ff).

So we have this new heart that desires supernatural fruit and Jesus says… yes.

So, Peter walks on water.

Wow! Wow! He actually does the supernatural. Not him, obviously, he has no power to do this on his own. But, obeying Jesus… it happens. Wow!

I know… too many exclamations, right? But that’s really fantastic, that Jesus really does enable the supernatural. He really does produce things in us that we cannot do on our own. You really can display the supernatural fruit of the Spirit… because Jesus produces it in you. Like Peter, the production of the supernatural isn’t an innate ability we’re given (he doesn’t go around walking on water without Jesus)… it is a connection to a Savior.

Then, Peter sees his circumstances… the wind… and fearing… starts to sink.

Supernatural to Sinking... why?
Supernatural to Sinking... why?

We too. We take our eyes of Jesus, and put them on our circumstances. We’re victims, responders, self-promoters, reactors, those who stand for ourselves and not for Christ. If it were really up to us… even with the command of Christ… we’d sink. We fear man. We fear for ourselves, that we’ll be taken care of. And we sin. Because sin is not perfectly following all that Jesus commands… and we don’t.

Circumstances do start to sink us. And our circumstances include our continued personal pride and failings… taking us away from the supernatural (fruit-bearing) and into the mundane (sin-sinking).

Then, Peter cries out for help… and Jesus immediately takes hold of him.

Wondrous, isn’t it? Peter’s 3 words – “Lord, save me!” Not pretty or eloquent but true. Peter already following Jesus… now crying out for rescue just to do what the Lord has commanded him. He’d fail without Jesus. He has already started to… and his response is to turn to Jesus! O that this might be us when we fail!

And Jesus immediately grabbing him. He’s right there. The Son of God wouldn’t let Peter drown. Sink a bit? As a lesson? Sure. But go under? No way.

Finally, driving it home, Jesus says “O one of little faith, why did you doubt?” And they worship Jesus.

See, the whole lesson has been about faith. Faith, trust in Jesus, is the heart of the gospel for us. Faith leads us to want to bear fruit, to make effort for Jesus. But faith is the very ground we stand on… even when we’re walking on water. And faith is the means by which the supernatural – including bearing the fruit of the Spirit – happens. Faith in Jesus Christ. In His sure rescue. In His secure favor. In His ability, not ours.

Hope that as you live your life today, that you are doing the supernatural – bearing fruit. That you realize this is Christ’s power alone working through you, even as you follow his commands… and that when you start to sink… when failure comes… that you cry out to him… and that you continue to grow in your trust, moment by moment, that he’s absolutely everything.

Perfection: Isn’t It Required?

We’ve been in 1 Samuel as a church. This week we saw that perfection was indeed required.

The mission was given, and Saul didn’t do it all. He didn’t kill the king, Agag. And so ch. 15 ended with old, feeble Samuel hacking away and completing the mission, doing what Saul didn’t. And Saul was rejected as king.

“Put yourself in Saul’s shoes.” Easy for me to take that thought and go completely sideways with it.

Something along these lines: “Doesn’t God require more of you than you are doing? Shouldn’t you be better than you are? God doesn’t want your fellowship, he wants your obedient action. Put yourself in Saul’s shoes – are you really, really, really paying attention to Yahweh your God? How are you doing with the 10 commandments? How are you doing with the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t you know that God doesn’t just desire perfection – he demands it! Take a good look at Agag, hacked to pieces, blood spattered on the ground.”

And I’m tempted to take another sideways step as I look at my life. Because I don’t see perfection in my behavior. Not even close. So here’s guilt. Or here’s blameshifting. And certainly renewed effort. Ending in continued failure, if I’m honest. But I need to be better. So honesty goes out the window. And I act as perfect as possible. Because if true holiness isn’t visible in my behavior, then putting on a show will have to do.

Dangerous misinterpretation, to put ourselves in Saul’s shoes. Why?

Because Saul was the first king of Israel. The first king of God’s people. Who he points to is the King. What he was to live up to was the office of the King. That’s the King of Israel. The King of Kings. We know him as Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, you see, was utterly perfect.
Jesus Christ was perfectly obedient.
Jesus Christ so perfectly followed the Father’s will that he said that every single thing he did was from the Father. That God spoke perfectly through him, by who he was, what he did. That level of perfection to the mission.

There’s one and only one way for me to get that kind of perfection.
It is not through some sort of Holy Spirit anointing toward enabled behavior. Saul had an anointing. It is not by making myself the center, the hero, even with powerful help.

Perfection’s required… how can we get it?
It is through identification with the one who did perfection.
It is through union with the one who obeyed to the final dot, the final iota.

This union, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, is embodied in the new birth, is spoken of in the new covenant. The blood and body of the King, for us. His righteousness, ours. God looks at us… and sees the perfect obedience of this King… forever.

Instead of us being the hero… we have to be taken out… that we might live only through and in Jesus.
Thus Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

And this brings us back to Saul.
Because what God desired was a humble heart, a broken heart, a heart that followed God’s ways. Following God’s ways means realizing that perfection would be God’s, that perfection would come from God. That’s the sin that God rejects Saul for… not his imperfection, but his arrogance, his presumption, his lack of humble dependence (see 15:23).

Humility of heart, the kind that forsakes self and trusts in Christ, will lead to great usefulness, fruit that truly exalts the one who is doing the work (our God), and a life of wondrous joy.

So perfection really is required. The perfection of Jesus Christ, our King. Thankfully, He’s entirely perfect. And our work is to keep our eyes on him and our faith in him… and not on ourselves.

He’s the hero. Now and forever. May we humbly trust our Lord and Savior… our perfect King.

Rainy Day Quote

Windy, cold, and rainy today. Great day to sip hot tea or cocoa… and think about the incredible truth of our righteousness in Christ captured so well by Horatius Bonar, a prominent minister in 1800’s Scotland (quoted from The Everlasting Righteousness):

At the cross this “righteousness” was found; human, yet divine: provided for man and presented to him by God for relief of conscience and justification of life. On the one word, “It is finished,” as on a heavenly resting place, weary souls sat down and were refreshed.

The voice from the tree did not summon them to do, but to be satisfied with what was done. Millions of bruised consciences there found healing and peace.

Belief in that finished work brought the sinner into favor with God, and it did not leave him in uncertainty as to this. The justifying work of Calvary was God’s way, not only of bringing pardon, but of securing certainty.

It was the only perfect thing which had ever been presented to God in man’s behalf; and so extraordinary was this perfection that it might be used by man in his transactions with God as if it were his own.

May we praise our Savior forever for what He has done!

A Sunrise for Today

There’s a sunrise at the end of Luke chapter 1.

A sun rising on those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

His name is Jesus.
He comes because of the tender mercy of our God.
He gives knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sin.

And he does not only bring forgiveness of sins past, thereby giving you a chance to be better. He makes something true that wasn’t true before – he makes us holy and righteous.

Here’s what Zechariah says:

“that we… might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:74-75).

That’s the truth of Jesus Christ.

When the fullness of time came (oh, all the years spent in darkness!), God sent forth his son (oh, blessed sunrise!), born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5).

Praise God for the righteousness and holiness given us in Christ, that we are redeemed, adopted, and serve our God without fear all our days.

Merry Christmas!