Attitudes toward sin and good works

Growing up in WELS churches, I have been told many times that we are saved by Christ alone and not by our own works. I have also been taught that we should live lives of thanksgiving and love to God in everything that we do. I have heard about spiritual apathy, not truly being sorry for our sins, receiving Communion unworthily, and not truly desiring forgiveness. These teachings have caused me much stress and confusion because they seem to be opposite things. How can I balance serving God in all I do with not being self-righteous? Ephesians 2:8-9 comfortingly shows us that our salvation is not at all in our hands. However, Matthew 7:21 states that only the one who does the will of God the Father will go to heaven. How do I balance not being work righteous with not becoming sinful with spiritual apathy? Also, I have heard that we need to confess our sins and repent to be saved. Is this true? Isn’t confessing sins and repenting a work? Many times in my life I have tried to confess my sins, but I just don’t feel truly sorry. What happens then? Why don’t I feel sorry? Do we need to repent after every time we notice that we have sinned, or should we just have faith that the sin is forgiven? How often do we need to repent? Thank you so much for all your time spent on this. I have been struggling with this problem for a very long time, and it is driving me crazy. I will appreciate any help that you can give me.

You have been taught well that God alone is responsible for your salvation and that your grateful response, moved by the Holy Spirit, is a life lived to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 5:15). I will try to respond to your questions as you listed them.

When you wonder about serving God and not being self-righteous, you are illustrating what Christians are like. Our new self desires to use life God’s way (Ephesians 4:24), while our old self—our sinful nature—seeks to use life selfishly and sinfully. As the apostle Paul demonstrated (Romans 7:15-25), there is reason for a constant struggle in a Christian’s life between humbly serving God and being self-righteous—in the context of your question.

When it comes to not being work-righteous or spiritually apathetic, the key is the motivation behind what we do in life. As Christians, we try to keep God’s law. Our motive is not to earn anything from God. Salvation is a gift. Our motive is to thank and praise God for his gift of salvation. We strive to carry out Galatians 6:10 (“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”), but the motive is gratitude not work righteousness.

Confession and absolution are very important. 1 John 1:8-10 contrasts confession and impenitence. Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 teach that impenitence bars people from the kingdom of God.

Confessing sins is a work, yes, but it is God’s work in us. God uses his holy law to lead us to confess our sins (Psalm 19:2; Romans 3:19-20; James 2:10).

Confessing our sins is an ongoing activity for Christians. Think of what Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.” Recall the very first of Luther’s 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Your concern about motivation for godly living, sin and confession is good. I would encourage you to focus more on Jesus, your Savior. Take the focus off yourself, wondering if your actions are pleasing to God or your confession of sins is genuine and sufficient. Look to Jesus. He has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). He deals gently with us (Matthew 12:20) and seeks to deepen our faith and trust in him through the gospel.

I hope this has given you some help. Do follow up with your pastor as needed. God bless you.