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Prepared for Good Works

April 13, 2016 No Comment

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by Mathew Block

Faith transforms lives. The Scriptures tell us that those who believe in Jesus Christ begin to live differently. Those who have been given the Holy Spirit are empowered by Him to begin to live a new life, to strive to follow God and His will ever more closely. We begin to seek out good works to do. But this is not because we are coerced to do so—as if our salvation depended on such acts. Rather, we follow after Christ in gratitude for the salvation He has already won for us. We give God thanks by willingly living as He would have us live—as, indeed, He has freed us to live. The Lutheran Confessions put it this way: “Those whom the Son of God has freed do true good works freely or from a free and willing spirit” (SD IV.18).

In this, our spirits are encouraged by the Holy Spirit as He enlivens us through the Word of God and through the Sacraments. So it is that we eagerly, if imperfectly, seek to follow St. Paul’s admonition: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Indeed, as Christians our minds are transformed: St. Paul tells us elsewhere that we have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:12).

This isn’t just about our thoughts and words either; as our minds are transformed ever more into the mind of Christ, so too our actions begin to mirror His. We find ourselves motivated to love others as Christ has loved us.

cl3102-cover-web-smMore than once in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus, when He saw the physical and spiritual needs of the people around Him, was “moved with compassion.” And so He reaches out to them to heal, to feed, to teach, to forgive. As Christians, we are called to similarly care for the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbours—to reach out to them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, yes, but also with physical acts of mercy.

Lutherans rightly defend the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. That’s how we’re saved: by grace, not by works. But there is a danger that some people misunderstand this to mean that works are somehow not important. The opposite is true: we are saved by grace in order that we might be freed to do good works, not out of compulsion or fear, but rather out of love and a willing spirit. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” St. Paul writes. But he continues, “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).

We are saved by grace in order that we might be freed to do good works, not out of compulsion or fear, but rather out of love and a willing spirit.

God prepares His people for good works. He moves us to “love our neighbour as ourselves,” as the commandment teaches. And this love is a practical love: it includes feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned, as Jesus reminds us (Matthew 25:31-46). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ is moved to do all this and more.

Put simply, faith manifests itself in works. Because we are no longer under the condemnation of the Law, we are free to do willingly what the Law commands. We are motivated by love, not by fear.

Still, this sanctification of our lives by the Holy Spirit is a hard business. It requires pruning and it often hurts. Inevitably we stumble on the path towards holy living. In fact, as we come to know God’s Word more fully, we cannot help but see our own sins more clearly. The Law daily brings to our eyes our failure, leading us ever back to Christ and the forgiveness He has won for us at the cross. And indeed, it is here at the foot of the cross that the path to holy living finds both its beginning and end. For here we see both our sin and our Saviour. Christ takes upon Himself our guilt and gives us instead His righteousness. He takes our death and gives us His life.

As Christians, we struggle with this tension. We are sinners. And yet we have been given new life through Christ. We therefore strive in His strength to follow His perfect example, even though we ourselves are imperfect. As the Confessions say: “As soon as the Holy Spirit has begun His work of rebirth and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that on the basis of His power we can and should be cooperating with Him, though still in great weakness” (SD II.65).

Oh God, strengthen our feeble faith, that we may love You more deeply and follow Your ways ever more gladly.

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Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada.