Given, not Earned: H.C. Question 63

How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?

Matthew 5:12 – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Hebrews 11:6 – And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Luke 17:10 – So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

2 Timothy 4:7-8 – I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Introduction to James

James is one of the “General Epistles,” having no specified audience or church that it was written to.  These writings, like many of the other epistles, would have been copied by hand and distributed widely throughout the early church.

The author of this book is widely agreed upon to be James, the brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem for approximately 15 years.  He is mentioned multiple times in the book of Acts as holding this position and being a part of many of the councils and meetings that took place there.  An interesting fact about this is that, for several generations after the formation of the church, tradition has it that a relative of Jesus was appointed to be the head of the church in Jerusalem.

Different than much of the rest of the New Testament, James is a very practical book, focusing on the application of theology in everyday life.  For some, this makes James a favorite while for others, it can be confounding and theologically confusing.  There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.

There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.  James seems to have a “works first” approach, whereas Paul is all about grace; they often appear to be in conflict with one another.  However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives.

However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives in response to God’s love, not simply continuing on in our old patterns.  Our lives should reveal the faith that we attest to and James gives practical examples of how to do just that.

Hebrews 11 – Faith's Hall of Fame

Read Hebrews 11

The 11th chapter of Hebrews is sometimes known as the “faith hall of fame” and it is an important part of the point that the author is trying to make here as well.  Often Christians have an idea that the Old Testament is all about the Law and works while the new Testament is all about grace and faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth, though.

While the Old Testament does emphasize the Law, it isn’t a “works-righteous” (work to earn your salvation) model.  In fact, the Law’s emphasis is all about heart and life change, the stripping of an old identity of slavery and the building of a new identity as the people of God.  For this to happen, though, faith is required.

Actually, all of the great people that followed God did so out of faith and we can see this here.  Many of these folks lived out their faith long before the law was every given too.  The faith, life, and actions of all of these people, however, pale in comparison to the life of Jesus Christ.  Whatever faith they showed, Christ’s was greater.  Whatever hardships, suffering, perseverance, etc. they showed,  Christ’s was greater.  But not only that, Christ did so perfectly and selflessly for the sake of the whole world.

What is revealed here in chapter 11 is the reality that God has never been one who has demanded “works” or “service” from those He calls in order to earn His favor.  Quite the opposite is actually true.  Out of Love, God calls each of us to Himself, desiring a relationship with us, desiring to free us from sin.  Because there is no way for us to do this for ourselves, God sent Jesus to make that way, to remove the barrier of sin, and to wash us so that we could stand before God once again as His adopted Sons and daughters.

Galatians 3 – Old Testament Understanding

Read Galatians 3

God’s Grace is the same throughout Scripture

I have heard it said far too often that the Old Testament is all about the Law whereas the New Testament in all about grace.  The Old Testament encourages “works” whereas the New Testament promotes faith.  Painting in such broad brush strokes may reveal some general truths about things, but also may over-generalize the issue at hand.

As Paul is addressing the churches in Galatia, he is not doing so with a copious amount of books and commentaries on the life and teachings of Jesus. At this point, what we know as the New Testament was nothing more than a random assortment of letters and writings by some who were trying to make sense of everything that had happened as was happening in this new found faith.

Interestingly, though, Paul’s Old Testament understanding of who Jesus is and what He came to do is profound and deep.  It also directly challenges the broad generalizations that we tend to place Scriptures two testaments.

While it is true that the Law was given to prescribed how to live into the identity that God had given, the reality is that identity that we have from God has always been an act of grace.  Living into that identity has always been an act of faith, the so-called “works” a response to their identity.

Paul quotes and references more than a dozen Old Testament passages, all relating the message of the Gospel that has been given since the very beginning, culminating in the coming of Jesus.  God makes it possible for us to be reconciled to Him through the work of Jesus.  Faith, however, has always been a component of this; works were the result.

Where Israel got it wrong, and where we often do too, is that they thought that it was the works that make us who we are rather than the grace of God.

Romans 4 – Law and Grace

Read Romans 4

There is a rather prevalent notion in Christianity that the Old Testament was all about Law and that identity and salvation came through the Law.  This is contrasted by the New Testament and the coming of Christ who fulfilled the Law, giving us freedom from it.  What this implies, at least in part, is that there is an incongruence between the Old and New Testaments and that God’s first plan (or I guess His second plan) didn’t work and so He sent Jesus to clean up the mess.

While one of the main themes of the Old Testament is God’s Law, this incongruence between Old and New is a dangerous way to read Scripture implying that somehow God failed or at the least messed up with giving of the Law.  Again, this is simply not the case.

Paul addresses this here as he talks about the faith of Abraham, the father of the people of Israel.  Scripture tells us that Abraham was “justified by faith” long before the Law, or even circumcision for that matter, was given.  His point?  God’s grace and the faith response of His people have been the central theme of God’s redemptive work and His plan of salvation since the very beginning.

It isn’t about law and then grace; it has always been about grace.  From the very moment in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were hiding because of their sin and God called out to them “Where Are You,” His desire is that we would respond to that call.

Yes, God gives us the Law as a way of showing us how to best live in relationship with Him and with others.  None of that work, however, can save us.  Only through the grace of God can we be saved.

Mark 11 – Moving Mountains

Read Mark 11

Jesus speaks very pointedly about faith in this passage.  There is true power in faith to change things; no doubt is left here that faith is incredibly important.  However, this passage has been used many times in ways that have been painful and damaging for our brothers and sisters in Christ and it is important that we take this passage in context with the rest of Scripture as well.

I’ve heard Christians say that, when a person’s relative failed to get better, or when treatment for a disease didn’t work, that it was “obviously because someone didn’t believe enough.”  What an awful thing to say to someone!  We leave them questioning both Go and their faith.

So what does Jesus mean here?  Could we actually move a mountain if we had pure faith and no doubt?  Probably!  Jesus did say that.  However, I wonder if that is really the point here.

The purpose of faith is not so that we can gain power to do mighty things like  throwing mountains around, the deepening of our faith aligns our hearts with the heart of God.  As we grow deeper in relationship with Him, our hearts begin to reflect the heart of God, our desires begin to reflect the desires of God.  What we begin to see and experience, then, is God’s love for all people, His desire to show His grace, redemption, and reconciliation to the whole world.

Sure, mighty acts like throwing mountains around will get people’s attention, but what about the humble acts of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick?  God has a special place in His heart for the marginalized, and as our faith deepens, our hearts will begin to reflect God’s heart for them as well, and moving mountains won’t really seem that important.

Day 326: Romans 1-3; Introduction to Romans

Today we being the transition into the largest section of the New Testament, and one of the last sections as well.  These are known as the ‘epistles.’  they are composed almost completely of letters that were written by Paul, Peter, & John.  A few of them are are written by others or have somewhat disputed authors (in that there is not agreement on who exactly wrote the book), but all are really exposition on faith in Christ Jesus, drawing from the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures and of Jesus and how both of these are now interact to form and shape the faith of the Church as it grows and develops.  We will see the authors address many issues from salvation by grace alone to the formation of church government and the qualifications for its leaders.

The book of Romans itself is the largest of the Epistles and arguably the most well known.  Paul, the author, lays out the whole argument of faith in God from the very beginning, taking us through what has become known as “Romans’ Road,” or the journey of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  He is writing to an audience in Rome, a place that He hasn’t yet been able to visit, trying to build up the church there and empower them in their faith as they face persecution and rejection.  As we can see from our reading today, it is clear that there are both Jews and Gentiles present in the audience that this would have been read in.

As we begin our reading of the book of Romans, we see Paul expressing his desire to come and visit the Roman church.  Clearly this book was written before the events that we read yesterday when Paul was actually in Rome.  It is also important to note here that Paul feels himself called to be an Apostle.  I like how he writes “set apart for the Gospel of God,” which is really true if we remember back to Paul’s encounter with Jesus in Acts 9.  God really had chosen him to be the instrument He used to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles, something that we see laid out pretty clearly here.  More over, Paul’s words: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” are quite interesting if you contrast them with his old life.  What a turn around he has experienced!

From here, Paul goes on to lay out the journey of faith and, in so many words, explains the process of going from condemnation and judgment under the law to righteousness through faith by the grace of God alone.  Basically, Paul begins with the story of Israel, talking about how God revealed Himself to them and they didn’t listen.  Yet he doesn’t say with Israel and points out that God has been revealed to everyone throughout the entire world through the very creation that He created.  In theological terms, this is called “General Revelation.”  The glory of God, the very existence of God is revealed simply by looking at the greatness of creation all around us.  Indeed this is a response to so many of the psalmists who wrote things like “all of creation declares your glory.”  Paul makes the point as well that because of this general revelation of God to all people, no one has an excuse not to turn to God.  In other words, because of all that God has given us on this earth, we cannot use the excuse “I never heard of God” or “I never saw God.”

Paul goes on to say then that God is both righteous and justified in His judgment of humanity.  For some were given over to the desires of their flesh, the sin of this world in worshiping idols and practicing all manner of unrighteousness.  Whether these folks knew God or not, they were sinful to the core.  An argument could be made here that the the people Paul is referring to at the end of Romans 1 were not the elect, but were those who never turned to God.  Whether or not this is the case really is besides the point though as Paul goes on in Chapter 2 to show that even those who follow God and judge those people will be judged themselves because they too sin by doing these things.  He then clarifies by saying that God will judge all who sin whether they knew the Law of God or not.

Interestingly, Paul takes a bit of a turn here, pointing out the necessity and purpose of the Law.  He also goes into a talk about identity, building upon the argument he has made about the equality of God’s judgment for all.  Paul points out that identity is not a matter of physical happening, or anything else for that matter, that makes a Jew and Jew and a Gentile a Gentile.  It is (hear the shema echos here) a matter of the HEART!  “Inward circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”  So, is there any advantage to being any particular race?  Paul says, “By No Means!”  The Jews were recipients of the Law of God, and God revealed Himself in a special way to them, but that didn’t make them any more faithful or save them in any special way… they are judged just the same.  In fact, in some ways they have even less excuse because with God’s Law brings a greater knowledge of sin.  But as for sin, there is no difference.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

So what then?  Are we to remain in sin?  Are we hopeless?  Paul ends, and so will we, with one of the greatest statements of faith and salvation through grace that is written:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.  Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.