Summary: Good Works as a response to a relationship for God

Ministerial transition can be difficult and emotional things. There was an elderly woman who was weeping as she said goodbye to the man who had been pastor of her church for several years.

"My dear lady," consoled the departing pastor, "don’t get so upset. Surely the Search Committee will find a much better pastor to replace me here." Sobbing, the woman said, "That’s what they told us the last time."

For the next four weeks we will be talking about various paradoxes. What is a paradox? In this case we are referring to statements that appear to entail a contradiction, but are true. Next week we will talk about finding freedom in obedience. On Palm Sunday our topic will be a Humble King and on Easter it will be Dying to Live. Today, we are talking about Good Works of Faith.

Why are Good Works of Faith a Paradox?

It goes back to Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. The Catholic Church of Luther’s day place a heavy emphasis on Christians doing acts of penance and works of charity in order to earn their salvation.

Luther, while doing a study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, came to the conclusion that the church had overemphasized good works and paid too little attention to faith.

One of Luther’s most moving explanations of this idea is found in his to Preface to Romans which appeared in Luther’s German Bible of 1522. In addition to the influence that this has had on the Lutheran church, it had a profound influence on the founding of the Methodist church a little more than 200 years later. That is because John Wesley credits his own religious awakening to his reading of Luther’s preface. Here is just a portion of what it says.

Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. ``Faith is not enough,’’ they say, ``You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.’’ They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, ``I believe.’’ That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn’t come from this `faith,’ either.

Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.

Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. ["An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans," Luther’s German Bible of 1522, translated by Robert E. Smith from Dr. Martin Luther’s Vermischte Deutsche Schriften, Johann K. Irmischer, ed. (Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), 63:124-125].

So what does this passage from Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus have to say about faith and works?

I am sure that you have seen those “before and after” TV commercials. You know the type that I mean. They show you an overweight lady in a bikini (I don’t know why these ladies are in bikinis in the first place, but that is a different question). They show you an overweight lady in a bikini, they show you that same lady 47 pounds lighter and actually looking good in a bikini, and then they tell you about some miracle weight loss pill. Weight loss supplements seem to be the biggest users of this technique, but you see it other places. You see it in ads for gym equipment. You see it in ads for baldness remedies and hair styling systems.

You may be surprised to learn that Paul the Apostle invented this advertising technique. We just read it. In this passage he talks about what it was like before experiencing Jesus, after experiencing Christ, and what life as a Christian should mean.

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