Septuagesima Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 31, 2010| St. Matthew 20, 15-16
Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen. St. Matthew 20, 15-16
When the Lutheran reformers taught the biblical teaching that our good works don’t help us get to heaven they were accused of forbidding good works. They were not forbidding good works. God commands good works. He says that if we love him we will do what he tells us to do. God doesn’t tell us to do bad things. He tells us to do good things. The life of a Christian is a life of doing good works.
But the good works we do we do for God and our neighbor. We don’t rely on our good works to benefit ourselves. Here is what we confess about good works in the Augsburg Confession:
Our churches also teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits and that it is necessary to do the good works commanded by God. We must do so because it is God’s will and not because we rely on such works to merit justification before God, for forgiveness of sins and justification are apprehended by faith, as Christ himself also testifies, “When you have done all these things, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants’” (Luke 17:10). The same is also taught by the Fathers of the ancient church, for Ambrose says, “It is ordained of God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved, not through works but through faith alone, and he shall receive forgiveness of sins by grace.” (AC VII)
The Bible teaches that a sinner is forgiven of all his sins, rescued from well-deserved death and eternal damnation, and guaranteed eternal life in heaven not because of any good works he has done, is doing, or will do, but solely because of God’s mercy for Christ’s sake who has won salvation for us by his holy life and innocent suffering and death. This we confess.
If you are relying on your good works to get into God’s good favor you will find yourself incapable of doing anything good. Good works are works done in faith. Faith is not simply the acknowledgement of God’s existence. Faith is not just believing in the goodness and grace of God. Faith trusts in Jesus the Savior. It is trust that God is gracious to us for Christ’s sake. Faith is receiving by God’s grace all of the gifts of his grace: adoption into God’s family, the forgiveness of all our sins, peace with God, fellowship with God and one another, freedom from guilt and judgment, and finally, everlasting life.
God does not give these gifts on account of our merit. We don’t ever deserve them. We cannot work for them. If we were to work for them we would be denying that God gives them to us freely by his grace. That would be a denial of the faith. Without faith we can do no good works. Good works are an expression of the true faith. True faith trusts that God receives us, forgives us, calls us his children, and brings us to heaven, not because we deserve it but because he is gracious to us for Jesus’ sake.
The parable about the workers in the vineyard depicts two mutually exclusive views of good works. They represent two different religions. There is the view of those who worked hard all day long under the heat of the sun. They complained about the landowner’s generosity. They had worked for twelve long hours. He paid them the same amount as he paid those who worked for only one hour. They thought that was unfair. Their belief concerning good works is the majority opinion among religious folks everywhere. They believe that we accumulate good works for our own benefit. The more good works we do the better treatment we ought to receive. Those who have done much deserve to receive much. Those who have done little deserve to receive little.
The second point of view is that of the landowner. This is the point of view of the Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It is that God has the right to be gracious to all. No man can stand in judgment of God’s grace. None of us deserves God’s goodness. Indeed, we deserve to be shut out of God’s love and care. But God is gracious to us. Grace is God’s attitude toward us in Christ. It is always a love we don’t deserve. It is an invitation to come in when we were shut out.
Those who believe that good works earn payment from God labor under the works that they do. It is hard labor. Since they are not sheltered by the grace they so despise, they must work out in the hot sun. They look at what they do and they measure it against what others do. They think they look pretty good by comparison. And so they complain against God should he presume to treat others as well as he treats them.
But how can a so called good work be good when it is done for selfish reasons? The very essence of God’s goodness is his love and grace. If we despise those to whom God is gracious we certainly do not love them. And if we don’t have love what do we have? What good is whatever good we do if it isn’t done for the benefit of anyone but ourselves? And so the good works of those who are working their way to heaven are in fact hard labor. There is no joy in that.
Jesus offers a different kind of a work. He says:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. St. Matthew 11, 28-30
It is light work. It is light because the one doing the work has been set at rest. His work doesn’t seem long and burdensome because the burden of his sin – that burdens all his labor – has been removed. He is living under the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for him. He is not uncertain as to his status before God. He knows where he stands. His labor is no longer labor because his soul is resting in Christ. There is a world of difference between the work done by a son or daughter and the work done by a slave.
People question God’s grace because they despise God. They deny his right to be God. God doesn’t need our permission to be gracious to sinners. He doesn’t consult with us to see if we approve of him treating all sinners alike. His mercy is far deeper than anyone’s appreciation of it. He calls on us to say “Amen” to his grace and leave it at that. He doesn’t permit us to question it.
Indeed, he questions anyone who does! “Is your eye evil because I am good?” If the essence of all goodness is love, then God’s love for undeserving sinners must be good. God is good. He is not being bad when he is good to those who don’t deserve his goodness. None of us deserves God’s goodness. When God chooses to treat all Christians alike, without regard to how long they have been Christians or how much they have done or how hard they have worked, God chooses to be gracious. The only proper response to God’s grace on the part of his people is to approve of it and praise him for it.
Grace belongs to God. It comes from who he is. God is love. It comes from what he does. He sent his Son into this world to fulfill the law for us and to suffer and die for our sins on the cross. God is gracious because of who he is. God is gracious because of what he does.
God has the right to treat us all equally. But even after receiving God’s grace without deserving it, we presume to stand in judgment of God for offering it to others. We make this presumption whenever we claim a status in the Church that makes us better than others in the Church.
Now I’m talking about folks in the Church, not outside of the Church. Those outside of the Church are those who have not received mercy. They do not know Christ. The mercy God shows to sinners he shows in Christ. When someone has received Christ and Christ’s mercy he is thereby made a member of the Church. Christ and his Church cannot be separated. Christ won’t permit this to happen.
Those in the Church are all those and only those who have received the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for Christ’s sake. They believe the Christian gospel. They are justified, that is, they are reckoned by God to be righteous, on account of Jesus’ obedience and suffering. Their faith doesn’t create the goodness it receives. It receives it. And that goodness is the riches of heaven purchased here on earth by the Son of God come down from heaven to earth to be our Savior.
These are the favored. They are the privileged. They are royal priests before God. They are a holy nation. They have status far above any status than anyone in the world can give them. They work for God and God regards their work with pure pleasure. Everything they do is good because whatever is wrong with it is covered by Christ’s blood. Every error of judgment is dismissed. Every sin of commission and omission is blotted out. Nothing remains but the pure works of pure love that flow out of faith.
When you know how precious your works are to God then the doing of them is no chore. It is the joy of your life. If you are a boy or girl living at home with Mom and Dad and they tell you to do some chore that seems to you unimportant and unnecessary, think of how God sees that chore. When you do it without complaining you offer up to God a gift that he treasures. Think of that! Your work is treasured by the almighty God who holds the whole world in his hand. The work may look like nothing. God doesn’t judge by what the eyes can see. He sees something precious. You are a Christian. God treasures the work of his children.
Those that despise God’s grace labor without reward. The eye that resents God’s goodness to the undeserving is the eye that resents God. Those who insist that God should put them into a status higher than other Christians don’t know what they are asking. They are asking that God deal with us other than by his grace. That’s a fearful request. For where would that leave us sinners?
When we feel the pride of our heart leading us to judge Christians who are weaker than we, more ignorant than we, and lacking in our spiritual maturity, we should stop and ask ourselves whether or not God agrees with our judgment.
There are not worthy and unworthy Christians. All of us are unworthy and all of us have received true worthiness in Christ. There are not spiritual and carnal Christians. All of us have the Holy Spirit and all of us must crucify the flesh with its desires every day. There is only one kind of Christian. The one who has received God’s mercy and lives by it alone. He puts himself last. God puts him first. He lays claim to nothing but his need and God chooses him as his own dear child. And God will permit no one to question his goodness in being good to us undeserving sinners. He has purchased eternal life for us all by his bitter suffering and blood. He has forgiveness of sins and eternal life to give. He has the right to do what he wants with what belongs to him. And what he wants to do is to give these treasures to us. Amen