My class on Lutheran Distinctions finished in February. It was the best class in this seminary track so far, in part for the professor’s enthusiasm; in part, I had a lot of questions. One question was how faith and good works play together. How do you encourage one without taking anything from the other? Example: How do you encourage a specific, Christ-like way of life yet never have people wondering if God completely loves them (because he does)?
A better way of saying it might be: How do we live in imitation of Christ, because Christ knows how to fully live (he is the fully human one) yet not put our faith or trust in how we pull that off?
Some say, “Ah, Christ did what he did because he was also divine.” Our professor (Dr. Biermann) said, “Not so quick, boys. Jesus calls us into a new way of life that he teaches, and he himself lives. Let’s look at that.” Biermann wrote a book on this topic called The Case for Character. There he said, “[A call or invitation] of the Christian is to live all of life in conformity to Christ.” (Kindle loc 241)
So how do we practice this? Our old Lutheran document, the Augsburg Confession has some helpful words. Article 6 reads: “Likewise, it is also taught that this faith is bound to yield good fruits and that it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God.
“Faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. Thereupon good works, which are the fruit of repentance, should follow.”
We were shocked to hear such a command to do “good works.” Biermann walked us through helpful language of “two kinds of righteousness.” He said, “The goal is to become fully human. This is what God is doing for us, desiring for us. Salvation is to be fully alive now and forever, and to be fully alive, fully human, is to be in right relationship with everyone and everything around us.”
One relationship is with God. To make this right, God poured out his life for us on a cross through Jesus, declaring us once-for-all loved and forgiven, embraced to God’s self through the power of resurrection. The sheer message of this grace kindles faith in our hearts and with this gift of faith we hold tight to what God says. This relationship is made right through pure grace.
Another vital relationship is between ourselves and other people, even creation as a whole. This is where good works come in and why they are necessary. God desires good works in our lives not because he’s watching to see if we measure up, but because he wants us to live in right relationship to others according to his will and design. As Luther said (I paraphrase): God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does. It’s God’s love that propels this! And this, my friends, is why the law is at once a curb (restraining lawlessness) and mirror (showing our sin) and also a guide (showing a good way of living).
When we hear language like this, we often think two things. One, we agree. Yes, God’s designs are good. We see life and vitality in Jesus’ teachings and desire to walk in his likeness. Though, two, we struggle to sustain a pure way of life. We often desire the bad, the opposite of God’s desires (and shoot, sometimes even the opposite of our desires!). We are stuck and ailing sinners.
In a moment like this we must remind one another of God’s love. Our struggle will not separate us from God’s love. He loves us no less because of our failures. Yet we also must remind one another of God’s direction or “law.” God never ceases for our hearts to be changed, that we might walk in a way that is full of life — this is done by grace for our own good, and especially for the good of our neighbor and becomes a way of life lived by God’s direction.
This is how great God’s love is! He refuses to stand back but even sends his Spirit within us, a gift we receive when we are baptized. God himself works new life within us, just as Ezekiel records:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV).
May we walk with God by grace, knowing his love and forgiveness given to us for Christ’s sake. May we walk in newness of life, propelled by the Spirit of God to grow in the imitation of Christ, which is abundant life in motion. Amen.