Saturday, October 2, 2010

When we stand before Him

I heard something the other day that really didn't sit well with me. It's a sentiment I've heard expressed on other occasions. In this recent situation, a person was talking about tithing. She was encouraging Christians to tithe or to offer a proper amount of money to God. In an attempt to be encouraging she made reference to the last day when we will stand before the Lord. She basically said that when we stand before the Lord we don't want to be ashamed of ourselves because we didn't give enough. When I heard this my stomach kind of turned. By this line of reasoning she was implying that instead of having something to be ashamed of when we meet our Lord (not having given enough money), we should strive to have something to be proud of (in this case having given enough money). If we have something to be proud of when we meet our Lord that means we have something to boast of. I think if a person can make a statement like this they have either forgotten, misunderstood or never really believed the gospel. I think this kind of thinking also stems from a popular misconception where people are seen as not really being as bad off as the Bible says we are without Christ. Instead of being spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). Instead of believing what David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote about mankind, "there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They all have turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one(Psalm 14:1-3)." Instead of the total depravity of man which is revealed in Scripture, mankind is viewed as being injured or weakened. In an injured or weakened state we could contribute something, we could do something in obtaining salvation which we could boast of. But Paul clearly condemns all boasting about human ability or merit in light of the gospel. Paul writes, "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 (Romans 3:27-28)." Paul also writes, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)."

But this woman was not speaking specifically of gaining salvation. She was speaking of a work done by a Christian who has already received salvation in Christ. It could be argued that this case is different from salvation where it is obvious that boasting is excluded. But boasting about our works before the Lord, even if we have been born again and are new creations in Christ, seems also to be excluded. Paul, speaking of his apostleship and his works wrote to the Corinthians, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1st Cor. 15:10)." So Paul gives the credit for his good works to the grace of God.

As I was thinking about this issue, two parts of Scripture came to mind. One from the 18th chapter of Luke's gospel and the other from the 119th Psalm. In both places a man speaks of his works or his obedience to God. In one place, in Luke, a man is condemned and in another place, the Psalm, we see worship acceptable to God. To be honest it was difficult at first for me to compare these two portions of Scripture and determine exactly how they differed. In Luke 18, in a parable of Christ, we find a pharisee who prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." The pharisee goes on to list his good deeds and also to compare himself to a tax collector who is also seen praying. This tax collector, "would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'" Jesus teaches that it was the tax collector who went away justified, not the pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The introduction to the parable reveals the sin of the pharisee, for we are told that Christ told this parable, "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt (18:9)." In Psalm 119 verse 56 we find the Psalmist praying, "This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts." I think the difference between these two men, both of whom appear to be doing something similar, that is, thanking God for their obedience or good works, is the attitude of their hearts and their motivation for thanking God for their good works. The pharisee sought to be glorified. He wanted to be compared with those who on the surface appeared more sinful than he. The Psalmist, I think, has the same attitude as Paul which was expressed in 1st Corinthians where Paul implies that it was not him who should get credit for his good works but the grace of God that was with him. Paul and the Psalmist who wrote, "this blessing has fallen to me," direct all of the glory and the credit to God and away from themselves while when the self-righteous pharisee prays, he seeks to glorify himself. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches something similar about what the result of the good works of His followers should be. Jesus taught, "... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16b)." If God is getting the glory for the good works of the followers of Christ the implication is that God is ultimately responsible for those good works.

When we stand before the Lord it will not be for us to be proud of any amount of money or time we gave or any amount of good works we ever did. On the contrary we will only be able to thank the Lord for any good work we ever did because the only way any truly good work ever occurred was by His grace, purchased for us when He shed His blood on the cross and died for us. If we ever truly worship God, if we ever serve Him or desire Him or preach His gospel it is not for us to be proud of our actions. Instead we can only thank Him that He has given us the grace to do such a thing.

In Scripture there is talk of rewards and crowns which those in Christ might receive. Calvin, commenting on 1 Thessalonians 2:19 writes, "We must, however, infer from this, that Christ's ministers will, on the last day, according as they have individually promoted his kingdom, be partakers of glory and triumph." I know the redeemed can also look forward to on the last day hearing the words from our Lord, "well done, good and faithful servant." But when the redeemed stand before Him I think the last thought in our minds will be about whether or not we are proud or ashamed. When we stand before Him we will not be thinking about ourselves. Instead we will only want to cry out, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" We'll cry, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! (Rev. 5:12-13)." As the hymn says, we'll see, "those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified." If we ever give any thought to our sins or our good works we'll know that those wounds were for our transgressions and we'll also know that it was those wounds which purchased any victory we ever had. The same hymn also says, "No angel in the sky can fully bear the sight, but downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright."


Jacob M. Aho said...

If one examines the Reformation, behind all the theology you will see Luther fighting the Scholastic mindset. The scholastic mindset goes something like this "Look at all my good works -- God has an obligation to grant me some credit". That's the main reason Luther fought the Catholic Church so vigorously.

Matt, this question of good works has to do ultimately with the condition of the heart. Is the heart HARD? is the heart open and tender to the direction of the scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 10:31 "Whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, you must do all for the glory of God"

Matt Perkins said...

Amen Jacob. I've seen that argument about the condition of the heart coming out in the Melanchthon I've been reading. But I think an even deeper question is why is the heart in one condition or another? A heart open to God must have been made that way by God's grace and not by some work on our part. I think that must be the conclusion if we take Paul's writings seriously.