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If it’s by grace, why do we work? Part 4

If it’s by grace, why do we work?

The subtle work of reforming

Tim H. Gumm

“What must I do to be saved?” 

That’s the question the jailor of Philippi, who was about to take his own life, asked (Acts 16:30). Because God “has . . . set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), the jailor understood that there is an afterlife; his conscience, roused by the near-death experience, told him he wasn’t ready for it. So he asked the question.

All humankind, if not with the lips then in the secret heart, has asked the same question. Praise God that he has not kept the answer a mystery.

DO THIS AND LIVE?

An expert in the law put the question to Jesus like this: “ ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ [Jesus] replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He answered: ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” ’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live’ ” (Luke 10:25-28).

Here is the answer for searching souls hungry for heaven: Obey God’s law. And to avoid any confusion over the necessary degree of obedience, the Lord expounded through his inspired writer: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). Perfect obedience to all of God’s commands: that’s the answer. “Do this and you will live.”

While it is good news to know the answer, the answer is not good news. It only takes a moment of honest self-reflection in the mirror of God’s law to realize that we can’t even come close to meeting his demands. Falling far short of perfection, our lives are an endless record of rebellion and sin. What is more, our nature is so corrupt that we’re incapable of change. All pride and self-confidence is destroyed as the law declares and convinces us that we simply cannot do a thing to earn salvation.

After a lifetime of falling short, one might hope simply to go out of existence. God’s law, however, demands that the lawbreaker be punished in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Not annihilation, and certainly not life in heaven, but an unending, torturous death in hell. Far from saving us, the law damns us. It creates a despair that leads the lost sinner to beg, “Please, God, have mercy.”

GOD HAS HAD MERCY

That jailor pleaded, “What must I do to be saved?” and there came a different answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31). Why? Because in his boundless and undeserved love for desperate and condemned sinners, God sent his Son in human flesh to be our substitute under his law. That impossible law with its impossible demands no longer hangs over us because our divine Stand-in kept that law perfectly in our place. His perfect record of obedience has become our perfect record. And the condemnation of the law on our sorry lives does not hang over us either. Christ took our offenses and guilt on himself and then died the death of the damned in our place. The demands of the law and the punishment due the lawbreaker have been fully satisfied for us in Christ.

What the law says is true: There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. But the sweet message of the gospel is also true: There is nothing we have to do, for Christ our Savior has done it all. Is it unreasonable that this be done for sinners? Of course it is, but it is truth nonetheless. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). Blessed, glorious truth!

STILL NOT BY WORKS

It’s hard to imagine, then, that any Christian who already has salvation would still try to earn salvation. Wouldn’t that nullify the gift? And yet, it happens.

You see, even though Jesus has given us complete rest from the law, there is something in each of us that urges us to roll up our sleeves and get to work so God can reward us. It’s the natural religion found in every heart and mind. Sadly it loathes God’s grace; discards it as too easy; and, deeply offended, rejects the absolute need for that grace. Contrary to Scripture, it maintains that something can still be done—in fact, must be done—to win God’s favor.

When this faulty religion makes its way into Christian communities, the one who has already set us free from the law is presented, ironically, not so much as Savior, but as a teacher who has more laws for us. His gospel message of “Done!” is subtly replaced by the old, worn-out “Do!” The assurance of salvation is sought not so much in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ but in the life of the good Christian who obeys the rules. “If you really are saved,” it says, “then you’ll look saved. If you really are a Christian, you’ll reform and change and follow these guidelines and meet this standard for the Christian life.”

That teaching not only destroys the gospel’s sweet proclamation that there is nothing we have to do; it also destroys the law’s proclamation that there is nothing we can do. To maintain that the Christian life somehow completes God grace or makes it more certain undermines the very idea and teaching of grace. In addition, it requires God’s people to ask the question that grace already has made null and void: “What must I do to be saved?”

To those who insist on working but will forever come up short, St. Paul wrote: “Through [Jesus] we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2). Christians aren’t struggling and striving for a state of grace. They’re not in a long and uncertain process of achieving it. They stand in grace—forgiven, at peace with God, saved eternally through Christ alone—even in those moments when their words and actions may not be perfect.

Yet in this amazing grace of God is a power for the Christian that cannot be found in any law. It’s the power behind the overwhelming desire to live for God, to please him with holy words and loving actions, to freely serve and joyfully work for him, to look for one more way and then another to somehow glorify him by our existence. Grace moves us not because we’re being coerced by the law or because we want to earn something from God, but because we’ve been freed from the law and saved by his grace alone.

And now, to live for him . . . in that grace—there’s no better way to live.

Tim Gumm is pastor at Peace, Loves Park, Illinois.

This is the final article in a four-part series on law and gospel.

 

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Author: Tim H. Gumm
Volume 101, Number 9
Issue: September 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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If it’s by grace, why do we work? Part: 3

If it’s by grace, why do we work?

The subtle work of feeling 

Tim H. Gumm

The delivery room nurses are a bit unsettled, and the grown man senses it. But he is powerless. Emotions take over. An unfamiliar sense of pride and gladness abruptly and unexpectedly takes hold as he cradles his newborn flesh and blood in his strong arms. He surrenders to those powerful feelings. The tears of joy cannot be controlled. Although he perceives the discomfort of others in the room, this first-time father later confesses, “I wept as much as my baby boy,” but he confesses without shame.

You see, it is a blessing to be able to feel, to be fashioned by the Creator not as a block of wood, but as an emotional being. What a great gift from God to be formed in such a way that we are touched and affected by external events and circumstances and then experience—internally—joy or sorrow, calm or uneasiness.

The gospel of God’s grace has the power to do such a thing like nothing else in all creation. To be told by the Almighty that back in eternity he independently chose us to be his for eternity creates a sense of security that cannot be destroyed. To hear the truth that the impossible has happened—sins forgiven, guilt erased, righteousness bestowed, status changed, God reconciled, heaven opened and salvation procured, and all as a free, unearned and undeserved gift through Christ alone—produces a peace that passes understanding and that removes all hopelessness and fear. And to be assured that nothing in this life or the next “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39) generates a core of calm that remains intact in spite of daily struggles. That’s the effect of saving grace on human emotions—so powerful and so moving that it stirs hearts to break forth in exuberant song: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46,47).

WHEN WE DON’T FEEL IT

But what about those days when we don’t break forth in song because, in our hearts and souls, we’re not really feeling it: joy in God our Savior? What about those moments of spiritual numbness when we’re not really sensing the thrill of being rescued and redeemed? What about those times when we don’t feel very close to Jesus and we don’t feel much like the children of God and, to be honest, we’re not all that bothered that we don’t?

Well, Satan is filled with glee on those days. Not only does he delight in seeing God’s people struggle, but “the father of lies” (John 8:44) delights in having a further opportunity to instill doubt in the hearts of Christians, to contaminate the gospel of salvation, and to rob God of his greatest glory of all: his all-encompassing and saving grace. “You don’t feel it?” Satan whispers inquisitively. “Then how can you be sure of it?”

Tragically, the devil has slithered into the realm of the Christian church with his subtle attack on grace and has found receptive ears. You may be familiar with Christian ministries insisting that, without the proper type of religious feeling, without a stirring in and warming of the soul, without experiencing God’s grace emotionally, one really cannot be certain that he or she is truly the object of that grace. Moreover, some will contend that the required spiritual stirrings must and will manifest themselves somehow—perhaps through speaking in tongues or miraculous healings. With or without these external signs, souls are directed to look to the inside—to look for personal sensations and emotions as the final and finishing piece, the seal and guarantee of salvation. Only when the feelings are present, they claim, can there be certainty about God’s grace.

It naturally follows, then, that worship services in many churches are designed with a specific goal: to stimulate human emotions. It is not difficult to do. Carefully chosen music, drama and dynamic speaking, lighting, and ambiance can easily create a “mood” that leaves people feeling good and confident about life, about God, and about his grace.

GRACE IS INDEPENDENT OF OUR FEELINGS

Yet we see serious problems when human emotions become the litmus test for God’s grace. The first is that emotions are not reliable. “Trust your feelings” and “Follow your heart” have become mantras in our day. But simply because a person feels something is true does not make it true. Ask the divorced teenagers who married on impulse because they mistook infatuation for love. Ask the apostle Paul who persecuted the church because he felt certain he was doing God a favor.

The greater problem is that Satan has succeeded in contaminating the sweet news of salvation by God’s grace alone. If saving grace must be supplemented and completed by spiritual feelings, then it is no longer grace; then a subtle work, our feeling, is required. Although in the grand scheme this work is small, Satan succeeds with this lie because it caters to the inborn desire and need of every person to play at least some role in and to contribute some work to salvation.

The results of this false teaching are predictable. To those who are rather stoic by nature or who have been rendered numb by the battles of life, the inability to feel saved can only cause doubt. Am I really forgiven and will I really be in heaven? To those who are more emotional by nature, the result may cause them to base their hope on those religious feelings—rather than entirely on God’s grace in Christ. Then when those feelings take a nose dive doubt and uncertainty also appear.

Our Lord would never have us look to our emotions and the stirring in our hearts as the final seal of his grace. He, in fact, warns us through his prophet: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Instead, God tenderly calls us back, again and again, to the rock-solid revelation of his unchanging grace found on the pages of the Bible. There he assures us that before we felt anything good toward him at all, Christ died for us. There he swears that we are forgiven even if our own hearts should condemn us. There he promises the gift of an eternal heaven even if that promise does not move us to ecstasy. And this good news of God’s amazing grace is entirely independent of what we feel. It’s true because God says so.

While emotions do not produce or add a thing to the assurance of God’s grace, we do feel emotions. The assurance of God’s grace in Christ will often produce internal emotions: peace, joy, calm, and a sense of security. We will also feel consolation in every loss, confidence in every challenge and struggle, and a sure and certain hope that will not disappoint.

“It is by grace you have been saved, . . . it is the gift of God—not by works” (Ephesians 2:8,9), because there is no other way.

Suddenly our hearts too grow strangely warm.

Tim Gumm is pastor at Peace, Loves Park, Illinois. 

This is the third article in a four-part series on law and gospel.

 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Tim H. Gumm
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

Print Friendly, PDF & Email