This morning as we continue to explore what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, we need to begin by getting a clear understanding of the meanings of two different ways of living.
The first way of living is religion. Our English word for religion comes to us from the French language and it has the idea of being tied to, or fastened to a deity for whom one has fear or dread, but not necessarily love.
In religion, people feel tied down or tethered by a god that expects them to follow orders like submissive slaves. When a person is part of a religion, all of life is a grim obligation. Their speech is full of phrases like, “I have to...” “I should...” “I must...” They may say similar things to others, as in, "You have to..." Or, "You should..." And, "You must..."
When a people follow a religion, they're never certain if they’re good enough to warrant the favor of their god.
And in religion, almost anything can be one’s god: a man, a woman, a family, a career, the approval of others, or some strange, fictionalized version of God. That’s religion.
But there’s another way of life. It’s the life of faith in Jesus Christ.
When you have faith in Christ, you know that when you repent and turn to Jesus Christ as the only place where hope and life can be found, God accepts you, as the old hymn puts it, “just as I am, without one plea, but that Christ’s blood was shed for me...”
You know that you are made right with God not by the things you do--”not by works, lest any one should boast,” as the New Testament book of Ephesians puts it--but only because of what Jesus Christ did for you when He died on a cross and rose from the dead and because you believe in only Him.
Faith means that you trust Christ with your life. You know that there is nothing you can do, nothing you could do, or nothing you ever will do to earn His approval.
But just as a drowning person, otherwise sure to be overcome by the wind and the waves, grabs hold of the outstretched hand of a rescuer, you and I are saved simply by taking the hand of our Savior Jesus by faith.
Religion is the natural impulse of human beings. Terrified of their god though the adherents of religions may be, religion fits with the original sin with which we are born. Original sin means that we’re born without any ability to trust in God or anything else.
When people believe in a religion, they don’t trust in God. They trust in themselves. They trust in their ability to be good enough to squeak into heaven.
And when they get into scrapes, they try to make deals with God. They try to negotiate with God as though He were a retailer in a marketplace: “If you’ll do this for me, God, I’ll do that for you.”
Faith knows that there’s nothing we could give God, no good work that we could perform, that God needs or that could cleanse our souls sufficiently of sin to make us worthy of God’s help, or love, or favor, or of being declared innocent, justified, right with God.
As God’s Word puts it, “by grace [we] have been saved, and this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast...”
Faith is the supernatural gift God grants to those who let the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ love them.
Religion thinks that we can be self-sufficient.
Faith in Christ knows better than that.
Faith knows too that being right with God, with ourselves, and with others depends only on Christ and on what Christ has done for us.
Now this is radical stuff. It’s not the way the world thinks. It’s surely not the way the Roman Catholic Church in 16th-century Europe, where the Lutheran movement began, thought.
The official church theologians of that time accused Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and the other evangelical reformers of doing away with good works.
People still accuse Lutherans of this. “You Lutherans think that as long as you believe in Jesus, you don’t have to live like a Christian,” they say.
No doubt there are Lutherans who are great hypocrites, sinners who forget that God loves the sinner while hating our sin; who forget that the Ten Commandments are still in force; who forget that repentance, turning away from and renouncing our sin, is part of faith in Christ.
But we believe God’s Word when it tells us that we sinners are saved not by our works, but by what Christ has done for us and by our faith in Christ.
Our good works flow from our faith in Christ, sometimes without our even realizing it and never to be noticed or to gain brownie points with God.
We believe in good works; we just don’t believe they say anything about us. Instead, they say everything about the God Who saved us.
We know, in the words of Ephesians 2:10 that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Every truly good work, every deed performed by a believer in Jesus that lets others see the glory and goodness of God, comes not from us, but from Christ, Who created that good work and empowered us to do it centuries before we were even born.
You all know that I like to thank people. I like to let people know I appreciate them. But I got a lesson in Lutheran Christianity 101 from a woman of one of the congregations I served before coming to Saint Matthew. She had undertaken some ministry in our church and I said, “Thank you.” She looked at me with a smile telling me that while she loved me, she was about to school me in God’s truth. “Pastor Mark,” she told me, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for my Lord.”
Good works spring from gratitude for grace undeserved. They are done with no thought of self, but only of the One Who sets us free from sin and death.
Turn please to John 15:5. These are words Jesus spoke to His disciples in the upper room just before He was arrested, tried, and killed on the cross. Here, Jesus speaks of the importance of abiding in Him, staying connected to Him. But don’t be confused. Connection to Jesus isn’t the same thing as religion’s restricted tethering. To abide in Jesus is to enjoy a connection that brings us life and the freedom to be who God made us to be. Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me, you can do nothing.”
To “bear much fruit” means to do the works of God--to love God, to love neighbor, to tell others about Christ, to engage in acts of service and mercy. And Jesus says that we cannot do these things--these good works--unless He is working in us, living in us, powering us. The only ones who can do the works of Jesus are the ones in whom Jesus has taken up residence. Without Jesus at the center of our lives, we can do nothing. No matter how the world may applaud what nice people we are, our works will mean nothing. But when Christ lives in us, when we know that we have been saved by Him, God will do good, loving works through us that the world may not notice, but that heaven cheers.
This is what Article VI of The Augsburg Confession, one of the foundational expressions of the Lutheran understanding of Biblical Christianity, affirms. It says, in part:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit...It is necessary to do good works commanded by God..., because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty...” [Luke 17:10]Good works are central to anyone with faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike all the religions of the world, faith in Christ views good works as expressions of our thanks to God for the new life we have through Christ.
When people mired in religion do good deeds, the deeds are dirtied by their motives. It’s as if they’re saying, “Look at me. Look at how I serve God. Look at what a good person I am. Look at how much I sacrifice for others.”
When we first think to express our thankfulness to Christ by doing good deeds in His Name, it may require us to think about them and we may always think about them to some extent. After all, Christ may forgive our original sin, but it won’t die until we have died and risen again in the image of Christ. But, the person who wants to do the deeds Christ is a little like the person who sets out to learn to shoot a basketball, or pitch a baseball, or dance a step, or play an instrument. After a time, the shooting, pitching, dancing, or playing becomes part of who the person is. And here's the thing: The closer Christians grow to Christ, the more their good deeds are done without thought of self or even of the deed.
As you and I draw closer to the cleansing, enlightening flame of Jesus, the more our lives are set on fire by His love, the more the way we live is changed.
The apostle John says this in 1 John 4:9-10: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love...”
The greatest deed ever done for you happened when Jesus gave His life for you.
You can never repay Him for that gift. But you can thank Him.
Ask God to help you love others the way He loves you and He will give you a lifetime of good deeds He designed for you alone to do.
Live a life of good works not because religion says you must, but because faith in Christ says you can.
You’re allowed to do them.
You’re empowered to live a life of faith active in love.
Christ has set you free to truly live.
So, live! Amen