God is Concerned with Good works

Christians who love the word are a grace alone people. We affirm that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We do not believe that our good works in any way contribute to our being saved. We do not believe that religious ceremonies or religious artifacts contribute to our salvation. Our standing before God as redeemed is entirely of God’s grace through faith.

We are saved through faith alone. But, saving faith does not remain alone. As James pointed out so clearly, faith without works is dead. Saving faith will be accompanied by a changed life, a life of good works. And we see a very similar reminder in the letter of Paul to Titus.

Titus 2:11-14 – 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

A student of Paul will know that he is very clear about the fact that we are saved through faith apart from works. Yet, as we see here, the salvation of our souls has an aim and a result that includes our change. In verse 11, we see that we have grace. In verse 12, we see that the grace of God trains us to renounce evil passions and to live different, new, godly lives. In verse 13, we await the return of Christ with anticipation. And then, in verse 14, we again see gospel followed by life change.

Look at the purposes of Jesus in verse 14: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” He gave himself to redeem us. That is salvation by grace alone through faith alone. He gave himself to redeem us and purify for himself a people zealous for good works. That is the result of a new, righteous, lawful, God-honoring body of believers. Christ did not save us to make us rebels against the good. Christ did not save us so that we will throw off the word and ways of God. Christ saved us apart from any works on our behalf. But Christ changes us so that we will long to put away evil and become a pure people for the Lord’s glory.

So, Christian, do not think that God is unconcerned with your purity or obedience. Yes, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. But your faith must not remain alone. A goal of God’s in your salvation is that you become a person who honors him through your obedience and a new purity that stands out as different in a darkened world.

God Avenges

What are some names God uses for himself? What are some labels he gives himself? We all know names like Father, Lord, King, Provider, Etc. We like those names. We do little studies of them and even put them on pieces of artwork. But in 1 Thessalonians 4, there is a title for the Lord that we must not miss: Avenger.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, the apostle Paul speaks to the church about the issue of sanctification. Paul wants the church to grow in concert with the will of the Lord. And in the teaching, Paul addresses a needful area of sanctification, that of sexual immorality.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 – 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Here Paul is quite clear that our response to sexual sin is a significant sign of sanctification. Thus, when people wonder why the church seems so obsessed with the issue of sexual immorality, or at least it used to be a few decades ago, we can understand that this is an important issue to the Lord. God inspired holy writ to call us to sexual sanctification and purity.

Paul wants his followers to grasp that following the Lord’s commands regarding our sexuality is important. The Lord is clear that sexual transgressions violate and do harm to others. These include acts of violence and threat as well as acts of lust and passion.

In the middle of this discussion, one supremely unwelcome in our culture, Paul declares that the Lord is “an avenger in all these things.” This is the label we must not lose for God. God is not merely annoyed by our sexual misuse or abuse of one another. God does not merely cluck his tongue and shake his finger in admonition. No, the Scripture tells us that God will avenge wrongs done to others in sexual sin.

How do we feel about this title for God? It will depend a bit who you are and what you have been through. To the one who has been wronged sexually, there must be some level of comfort. God does not look at the wrong done to you and idly accept it. Instead, the Lord will do justice. Whether justice is ever done in this life, the Lord, in eternity, will do proper justice and reap proper vengeance. God is not uncaring. God will not allow one of his creatures to do such harm to another without a proper and just response.

Victims of the sexual sin of others—abuse, manipulation, coercion, etc.—therefore, can know that the Lord is aware and active. God is not about to allow the crimes committed against them to be ignored in eternity. Whether it be a person who hurts another or a person who produces the filth that brings about devastating temptation, God will see to it that sin is addressed.

There are many who are victims of sexual sin. If you have been abused, know that the sin committed against you is not your fault and will not go unnoticed by the Lord. What another person did to you in an act of evil is not a stain against you before the Lord. You are not made unclean because of an act you could not control.

At the same time, when we are honest, we know that there are also many of us who are guilty of sexual sin. Many among us have done things we now deeply regret. Many among us have exposed our eyes to things we should never have seen. Many among us have surrendered to the violations of the standards of God that are so prevalent in our world. Many, most, perhaps all of us are guilty. We are victims and we are sinners too. Being a victim does not make us sinners. But, being sinners makes us sin.

Thus, for us, the idea of God as the avenger in all these things is frightening. We cannot stand against the Lord in this role. We are worthy of his judgment. Where do we find hope?

OF course the answer is the cross. There the Son of God put himself in the role of victim, harmed by others and brutally humiliated. At the same time, the Son of God, in becoming the victim, also took upon himself the avenging justice of God for our sin. Jesus, in his sacrificial death, bore the judgment of God for sins that you and I have committed, the sins for which we bear so much shame and guilt.

Christian, learn from this. God takes sexual sin seriously. This is no small thing. What you watch matters. What you do with others matters. What you do with your body matters. How you allow yourself to think matters. Verse 8 tells us that to disregard this is to disregard the Lord himself. So, let us strive together to battle against sexual sin. If you are struggling, talk to a pastor or to a trusted, mature believer. We will understand. We will do all we can to help.

If you are a victim, find hope in the fact that God cares. The Lord will be an avenger in all these things. God will not let what was done to you simply slip past as if it does not matter. It does matter. God will not be silent. All human sin will be punished.

And know, dear friends, that God does not look down upon you for what was done to you. The Lord has never made it his practice to punish the innocent while letting the guilty go. God will, in the end, do perfect justice. The evils of another do not make you dirty before God. The Lord can work with you, in Christ, to restore you.

And what if you are the guilty? Run to Jesus. There is no excuse for sinning before the Lord. There is no excuse for sinning against another. And many of us have been guilty in one form or another. Perhaps you have hurt someone. Perhaps you have simply behaved against the standards of God. No matter what your sin, you must run to Jesus, confess your sin, and cry out to him for mercy. Apart from the sacrifice of Jesus, you have no hope. God is an avenger in all these things, and he will not overlook sin. All sin will be punished. Either you will face God’s wrath yourself, or you will get under the grace of Jesus and know that your sin was punished in Christ.

Grace Toward Good Works

How good works and the grace of God are related ought not be confusing to Christians. This teaching runs all through the New Testament, but many fail to grasp it. Simply put, we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone apart from any good works on our part. Our doing good has absolutely nothing to do with our salvation. However, once we are saved, good works follow.

What are the errors? Some would suggest that Christianity is so much about grace that good works are not at all important. Once you are saved, be whatever you want to be. After all, you are under grace. Such would be a horribly ungodly way to think. Genuine Christianity includes a genuine submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And if you find a person uncommitted to following Jesus, obeying his words, living in accord with his commands, be skeptical of their claim to faith.

On the other hand, there are others who get the cart before the horse and assume that our good works have something to do with our salvation. The assumption is that we in some way must contribute something, even if it is only a small thing, to our salvation. This is truly what the word legalism means. Paul was battling against that concept in Titus 1. There he preached against those who claimed that the people of Crete needed to submit to Jewish religious regulations to be allowed to be considered Christians.

These two errors regarding faith and good works have been common throughout the history of the church. If you have a Roman Catholic background or if you grew up in a rulesy culture, you may be tempted by the legalistic idea that you have to be good first to be saved or that your participation in certain religious ceremonies or practices somehow contributes something to your salvation. But if this is not your background, you may be more influenced by a perversion of the concept of grace that leads you to believe that Christianity makes no claim on your life and behavior.

In my circles, I think the problem of perverting grace toward license to sin is more the problem. More people that I have known want to claim Christ because of a religious experience even if their lives do not reflect being changed by the Lord. Again, I will emphasize that none of us are saved by being good. But the Scripture is clear that a change of behavior is an outcome of salvation.

Titus 2:11-15 — 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. — 15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

Notice, in that paragraph, that Paul is quite clear that we are saved by grace. But a purpose of the grace of God includes our purification. We are to renounce ungodly and worldly passions. This means that we cannot be driven by our bodies and our desires as is the world around us. Just because a thing feels natural to you, just because the world around you says that a behavior is OK does not make it OK. We renounce behaviors that society around us embraces and even applauds. Jesus is about purifying a people for himself, his very own possession, for his glory. And that purification includes our being changed from living for self and living like the world to our living under the commands and standards of the Lord.

So, let me say it once again for the folks in the back. To be saved, you contribute nothing. You do not change yourself or participate in any religious ritual to be granted the grace of God. God does the saving. It is by his grace alone. And the thing we do is believe—by grace we are saved through faith. Even our faith, we must biblically recognize, is a gift given to us by God. But for certain, no person has ever been saved because of a thing he or she did. We are only saved when we fall on the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, and this is the guard against the other error, when you are saved, you change. God works in you and with you and through you to change you. If you can live like the world around you while claiming Christ, there is a problem. If you are not submitting to God’s commands for Christians, there is a problem. If you can do what God calls sin without remorse and without repentance, you may well never have been saved by grace through genuine faith. God saves us by his grace, but his grace leads to our sanctification, our renouncing of sinful ways to live to his glory.

Misreading our Pain

The story of Balaam is one of those accounts that we have a hard time learning from simply because of the strange miracle that occurs. WE find ourselves fascinated by the events, and we focus on the supernatural rather than considering the principles.

As I was reading through this text, I found myself considering, not the talking donkey, but the circumstances of Balaam, his anger, and the Lord’s providence. And I believe that such a consideration would be good for any of us.

If you do not recall the story, a pagan king sent for Balaam to ask him to pronounce a curse over the people of Israel. As Balaam travels toward his meeting with the king of Moab, the Lord sets an angel in the pathway. Balaam’s donkey, enabled by God to see the angel, moves off the path to avoid the angel two separate times. During one of those detours, Balaam’s foot gets squished up against a wall. Finally, the donkey sees the angel in a narrow place, and refuses to carry Balaam any further forward, refusing to walk him to his death.

So, as is familiar, Balaam begins to beat his donkey for its supposed disobedience. And God allows the donkey to speak to Balaam. That Got Balaam’s attention, and then the Lord allowed Balaam to see the angel in the path threatening his very life.

Numbers 22:31-35 – 31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” 35 And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.

OK, we could get really excited debating the merits of talking donkeys. But how foolish is that. If you are willing to accept the presence of an angel, if you are willing to accept the existence of God—a God who once spoke to Moses through a bush—you should have no problem accepting that the Lord could speak through a donkey to a stubborn man. But the method of God’s speaking here is not the main point. The fact that God will be in control, the fact that God will not allow Balaam to accomplish a task outside of God’s parameters, the fact that God will sovereignly protect his people from Balaam’s curse, that is what is at stake here.

But I also think there is a lesson for you and me living our Christian lives today. Three times in this account, Balaam experienced painful inconvenience. He was frustrated. He was angry. He did not understand. It made him want to lash out. But the moment Balaam was allowed to see what was really happening, he fell on his face and confessed sin.

I wonder how often you and I experience painful inconvenience. We get mad. We get depressed. We want to lash out. But we also seldom get to see what the Lord is doing behind the scenes. In Balaam’s case, God was protecting his people, and in a way protecting Balaam, from Balaam’s folly. What God was doing was good. What God was doing was loving and kind. And just because Balaam was not in a position to see that does not change the perfection of God.

What pain and struggles are you facing? Do you actually think that you know all that the Lord is doing through your pain? From what is God protecting you ? Toward what is God shaping you? Be careful wanting to get out a stick and beat on something that the Lord may be using to save your life or strengthen your soul.

Balaam misread his pain. He did not understand, and he lost his cool over it. You and I often do not understand what the Lord is doing behind the scenes either. May we trust the Lord enough to believe that he is using all things for our good, even our frustrations. May we remember that the goal of our lives is our being conformed into the image of Christ. But may we also remember that sometimes a little heat and a little pain is often needed for that form to take shape.