Sunday, February 16, 2014
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Lutherans are often accused of not being very good at promoting good works, of getting people to lead a more Christian life. I don’t usually harp on all the things you should and shouldn’t be doing but on the fact that we’re saved by God’s grace alone and that good works do not make us right with God. To some that sounds like saying we can live however we please. But, of course, we’re not saying that good works aren’t necessary; they are. God’s Law is still in force. The Ten Commandments are still commanded. They’re not the Ten Suggestions. God has told us to do them, and so we should. In fact, we must.
However, this also must be pointed out: If you do good things in order to gain some eternal reward out of it, is that truly a good work? Or if you do something good out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be punished, is that truly a good work? In both cases the good deed is tainted, isn’t it? It may be good humanly speaking, but it’s not in God’s sight. For with Him it’s not just the outward act but what’s going on in the heart that counts. Love and trust in Him is what He seeks. If heaven is the reward we get for living a good life, we’re hopelessly lost; because then living a good life would end up being a self-serving thing, which in fact is the opposite of doing good before God.
Let me illustrate it this way: Valentine’s day was just celebrated. If a husband gets his wife a card and flowers or some other gift only because he feels like he has to or else he’ll be in the dog house, is that really love for his wife? Or if he does something romantic because what he truly wants is to score some points that he can cash in on, is that really love for his wife? What he does might be good outwardly speaking, but what makes it real love is when it’s done without thought to rewards or consequences, but with a desire for the good and the happiness of the spouse and their marital communion.
So what God has done is this: He has enabled you to do truly good works by taking the eternal threats and reward entirely out of the mix. The reward is already yours before you even start working. It’s been purchased by Christ for you; it’s a done deal, whether you entered the vineyard at dawn or at the 11th hour. Your reward, your eternal life in Christ is not in doubt. The denarius is yours through faith, simply by trusting Him. So now what? Now you are truly free to do the work God has given you to do from the heart, out of love for Him and love for your neighbor, without any thought of what’s in it for you. All the tainted motives you might have are taken away in Christ. Fear of what might happen to you, self-serving goals no longer have a role to play since Jesus has already given Himself to you with every blessing. You are set at liberty to do good, not because you have to in order to win God’s favor, but precisely because you already have God’s favor in Christ, and because your neighbor needs you. In a sense you are free to do as you please. For what pleases the heart of faith is not to go back to living in the same old shallow, empty, self-serving ways, but to live in Christ, loving and trusting in God and serving others. That’s why it is written that without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God. Only in Jesus are you truly free to do good.
When we forget that, that’s when we’ll start to grumble and complain, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, like the laborers in the vineyard who worked all day. You only grumble and complain like that when you think God owes you, that you deserve better based on what you’ve done. “I’ve worked harder than that other guy; I’ve done more for the church. So I deserve better than him.” “It’s not fair that God is letting me go through this hardship. I’ve lived a good life and been a good person.” You can only talk and think that way when you believe it’s your works that run the show with God. And when your works run the show, then it’s all about you, not Jesus.
The laborers in the vineyard wanted the landowner to be fair. But in fact He was more than fair. A denarius is a good and proper wage for a full day’s work. That’s exactly what they received. The landowner wasn’t being miserly; he didn’t stiff them. It’s just that the landowner was extremely generous to the others. He treated even the ones hired at the 11th hour as if they had worked all day. You might say that it was by grace that they received their denarius. The landowner wasn’t unfair but good and gracious. Besides, he had the right to do whatever he wished with His own things.
Beware of applying standards of fairness to God, as if the clay can tell the potter how to do his job. Beware, because generally the fairness argument is just a mask for promoting our own interests. That’s why we love to grouse about the rich and income inequality. “They don’t deserve it, and we deserve more for all our hard work; it’s not fair.” But whether or not that's the case, that's not how God wants to deal with us, on the basis of what we deserve, as if we had a contractual arrangement with Him, a business deal, a pre-nuptial agreement. Rather, He wants our relationship to be one of real love, freely given, no strings attached. As soon as it’s about what we think God owes us, then we’re not seeking to love Him but to use Him.
We should beware of wanting God to be fair with us, anyway, as I’ve often told you before. For then we’d be in grave danger. If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.” Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works. “Go your way,” the landowner said. Have it your way. Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God. You might think that hell would mostly be about regret. But regret quickly shifts to anger and blame, especially toward God. The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair. This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.
Repent, then, of dealing with God as if He were against you, as if He needed to be negotiated with and badgered into loving you. Turn away from your anger with Him. Trust that He is good, that He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. He is blessedly unfair with you, pouring out on you the fullness of His generosity in Christ. He does love you. He will provide you with all that you need. After all, if the Father has given you His own Son, will He not also graciously give you all that is good and necessary and right for you? Remember that the laborers who were hired later in the day went to work without being told what they would be paid, just trusting in the goodness of the landowner, that He would give them "whatever is right." So you also, even though you can’t see what the future holds, even if life doesn’t seem to be fair–trust in the goodness of your heavenly Father; stake your life on His grace in Jesus. Know that He will give far more than you could ever dream of.
Just like the landowner dealt with those hired at the 11th hour, so the Lord treats you as if you did all the required work, from the beginning to the ending of the day. For what you failed to do, the Lord Jesus has accomplished perfectly on your behalf in His perfect life and death and resurrection. He Himself is the true Laborer in the vineyard who brings you the generous reward at the end of the day. He began His work even before dawn on Good Friday, being condemned by the Jewish authorities. He was questioned by Pontius Pilate, flogged, and then crucified at the 3rd hour. Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour, noon, until the ninth hour, as a sign of the judgment He bore in your place. Our Lord cried out “It is finished!” and died as the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sin. See how He did all the work for you! He who is the Rock was struck, and water and blood flowed forth from His side for your cleansing and your forgiveness. He was buried at the eleventh hour just before sundown to sanctify your grave and make it a place of rest from which you will awaken and rise in glory on the Last Day.
“The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.” And so we look not for fair wages but mercy and grace from God. We know that it is only by the Lord’s goodness that we are even in the vineyard, no matter how long we’ve been there. We consider it a privilege to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard, which is Christ’s church. We are not jealous of the newcomer or of the one converted in his dying days, but we rejoice that the same mercy that saved us has also saved another. Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life. As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).” And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).”
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us. Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ, which He Himself has won for us. Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, more than even a dedicated Olympic athlete, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood. Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠