Thinking about Work

 

Today I found myself thinking about works. What really constitutes works? At what point does our responding to God become works? Ephesians 2:8-10 makes some strong statements about works.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 KJV)

The first use of the word works is in verse 9. It is there to tell us that we are not saved by works. I know people who are busy trying to balance a cosmic scale, scrambling furiously to do good works, hoping their good works will outweigh their bad works in the final judgement. This passage makes it clear that trying to balance the scales is working the wrong plan. Our positive actions do not weigh against our negative actions so the plan is doomed.

We are saved by grace, rather than by positive works. God has offered us a gift of salvation. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty we owed for our own sins, and has offered this salvation to us if we are willing to receive it, by faith, as a gift.

But here is where theologians muddy the water. Many define receiving a gift as work. Furthermore, they would say, since humanity without Christ is described as dead in the previous context of Ephesians 2, dead men cannot do anything to bring themselves back to life. Therefore they believe God gives the gift to whomever He chooses and without any involvement by the receiver.

Let me step through some of the reasons why I agree with so much of this logic and yet arrive at different conclusions. First let me address the argument, dead men cannot bring themselves back to life. I would say amen. They cannot, and they do not. Jesus brings us back to life when we are declared forgiven, and not only forgiven, but also righteous in God’s sight. God does the work of redemption inside of the believer, we do not do it ourselves.

Being spiritually dead is a Biblical word picture. It is like being physically alive, but spiritually useless. The lost person is useless to God because of their sinful condition. It is not that they are incapable of doing anything, they spend every day doing something, but these things are of no importance, eternally speaking.

Jesus is offering to replace this useless, perpetual death with a very useful, eternal life. It is His gift offered to us, and like all gifts, one doesn’t have it, until they receive it. A gift we refuse or ignore, we do not get. As mentioned above, many people argue, if we actively cooperate in receiving the gift, such would constitute a work.

I disagree. If a man is to be given a wonderful gift, one they could never acquire on their own, he is not given credit for some brilliant accomplishment upon receiving the gift. All praise for the accomplishment goes to the giver. God gets all the praise for our redemption. Our willingness to receive what He sacrificed so dearly to provide is also to His credit. The receiver neither deserves nor gets any glory. The work of the accomplishment is not in accepting it as a gift, but in the sacrifice that secured it and the grace in desiring to give it.

Thinking, making mental choices, is not work. Following through on the choice might be work, but in this case it is Jesus who followed through, humanity is simply the recipients of the offer. Those who are willing to receive the gift are the redeemed, but not by any merit or work of their own, but by the activity, grace and glory of Christ.

I believe this moment of decision on our part is necessary for many reasons.

Without it there is no relationship in our relationship with Christ, we are only puppets doing whatever God chose for us to do. At least, up to the moment where He gives us Salvation.

Without this moment of decision humanity is essentially given enough free will to do wrong, but not to do right, meaning God is holding them accountable for actions they had no ability to avoid.

Without this freedom to choose, humanities love or God is never freely given and love is only possible when it is freely given.

Without this choice to receive on our part, 1 Timothy 2:4 as well as every other verses referring to God’s desire to reach the whole world, don’t make sense.

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Doctrine of Commitment

Commitment is a sleeper. It’s a central part of our lives, and should also be a central part of our theology. Yet I call it a sleeper because it is seldom considered with the full depth it deserves.

Commitment is the central component of love. Many people will argue in favor of the emotional components of love, but emotions waver and it’s our commitment that carries us through those times.

Commitment is the heart of our salvation, first and foremost, God’s commitment to us. Chesed, is a Hebrew word expressing God’s love for us based on His commitment. Xaris, is a Greek word for grace expressing God’s commitment to us despite the fact we could never earn it or deserve it. (Studying individual words for commitment could go much, much further.)

We make a commitment back to God in the moment of salvation. We make a commitment to God to turn our lives around both in terms of repenting, turning away from sin, and discipleship, following the ways of Christ.

Living the Christian life also includes making commitments.

Christians commit themselves to a church family, in order to find a place to grow and opportunities to serve. This commitment to the local church is the subject of a great deal of spiritual warfare. People are easily driven away because they fail to see the church experience as an expression of their commitment to God, and instead get distracted by their relationships with one another. These believers always become spiritually stunted and useless to God’s kingdom work.

The fact that Satan chooses to focus his attack on our commitment to the local church is evidence of how important this commitment is.

So commitment is a sleeper. It is both the heart of our relationship with God, the focus point of satanic attack in our walk with God, and the point where the most failures occur in Christian growth.

Total Depravity

Descriptions of classical Calvinism generally begin with a statement on total depravity. This doctrine means a lost man is incapable of reaching out to God, because of the manner in which sin has corrupted the human form. In this corruption, this fall, we are remade to not desire the things of God. We are free to choose what we want, but apart from God’s intervention we will not want God.

Today I want to make a few notes about this construct and how people use Scripture to support this idea. I notice that with any doctrinal idea, the person who believes it, sees it in Biblical passages others would not. For total depravity, I have heard many verses cited, which made me scratch my head.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable —who can understand it? Saying the heart is deceitful, or that humanity is sinful, is not logically the same as saying we are incapable of choosing God, or desiring God. It is logically uncomfortable to think God created a world where we are capable of choosing anything else, but not that which we were created for, that which we need the most.

Romans 3:10-12 As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. This passage is part of a longer one speaking of the nature of sin. This discussion of the nature of sin is in a longer passage describing why we need Jesus. In this context, it doesn’t appear to me to be a statement of absolutes but of general tendencies. Yes it does use all-inclusive language, but like Jesus speaking of chopping of a hand, it is used for emphasis. If it were literal lost people would not be able to do any good. But we all see lost people do good things. In my opinion this includes the ultimate good of reaching out to Jesus for salvation.

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins (Note, this is a part of longer passage you should read carefully if wrestling with this issue.) This passage is affirming we were spiritually dead prior to coming to know Christ. It is step beyond though to say that spiritually dead means unable to choose life. Spiritual death is used comparatively to physical death, but like any illustration, we can choose to include details unintended in the original text.

1 Corinthians 2:14 But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. This verse is describing what the process of rejecting God looks like inside the person. The term unbeliever here probably means more than one who rejects God, but one who rejects all things spiritual.

There is a habit of people arguing theological points to flood their opponents with Scripture, moving so quickly that each one cannot be evaluated as it goes by. While all of these passages will appear to read in support of total depravity to one who is already convinced of it, I have a hard time seeing it in any verse.

In my view, humanity is incapable of reaching out to a God they do not know. The intervention they need in order to make them capable of choosing God therefore, is a faithful witness speaking of the Christ who took on flesh to reach out to them. Those who hear of Him, have sufficient new information to make them capable of choosing or rejecting God’s Savior. Romans 10:14 But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?

Female Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow Head Female

This is a female, yellow-headed blackbird. They are seen considerably less often than male birds because their habits are almost opposite. The male will sit on top of the cattails and call out. They puff themselves up to show off their colors. And will vigorously defend their territory against intruders.

But the female will stay hidden down lower in the vegetation. They are pretty much only seen when dashing out to grab some slime or floating plant from the surface of the water. This is taken back inside the reeds where she will build it into a nest, built around several strong shafts, and suspended above the water.

The male makes sure everyone sees him while doing basically nothing, but the female prefers seclusion and carries on the tasks of nest building. Given the two different personalities, which are you and which should you be. For the blackbirds both are necessary. The male creates the nesting territory, the female builds the nest, raising and hiding the young. Within humanity the role of defending a territory from others is not needed, but the quiet, industrious, and humble work of the female fits what both men and women need to be in the kingdom of God.

When I use the word humble, I am referring to the way the female blackbird makes its entire life about others. She does not puff herself up. She does not seek to be the center of attention. Instead of spending her energy on herself, everything she does is for others.

This behavior is not only beneficial to humanity, it is Christ-like. Perhaps it is the greatest development of character a Christian should strive for as they mature. In Philippians 2:3 (HCSB) “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.

The Resurrection

I believe the resurrection is the central event of Christianity.

I believe the resurrection is God’s proof, demonstrating His plan of salvation for humanity works.

I believe the resurrection is the example of what we will be like in eternity, not necessarily like the resurrected Jesus in every way, because He is also divine, but nevertheless we will a resurrected body similar to his.

I believe the resurrection is a verifiable via historical evidence. Therefore it is worthwhile for an honest seeker to study the resurrection, and the difference it made in the lives of those who encountered it.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

This is a yellow-headed blackbird. There doesn’t seem to be any need to discuss how it came up with its name. This is the biggest blackbird. It appears most sporadically, meaning there are few places they don’t show up in at some point, but there is also only a few places where you can be sure they will return year after year. The marsh where I took these pictures was full of at least twenty males dividing up the area into nesting territories.

One of the behaviors of these birds is they will drive red-winged blackbirds in order to claim a nest area. The squabbles when they first arrive are a comical affair made up of more posing and bravado than of crossing talons and beaks. The winner in these battles is generally the one who stands their ground with the most courage.

I believe courage is a spiritual value. We should carefully store courage up in our hearts. We should encourage it and nurture it in our children and those we mentor. Courage is important because it is a necessary ingredient in everything we do. From a child’s first steps to a young soldier’s command to join the battle to an old man facing a cancer diagnosis; courage is necessary.

It is a spiritual value because courage is necessary to do things for God’s sake. It takes courage to walk away from sin. It takes courage to learn and grow in the Christian life. It takes courage to become whatever it is God wants us to become. In addition to believing courage is a spiritual value, I believe most people are not reaching their full potential in Christ because they have not practiced the high level of courage it takes to achieve God’s best.

This is a pattern of Scripture. Remember the children of Israel refused courage and wandered in the wilderness for forty unnecessary years. Then when they did take the promised land they used some courage, but stopped short when they grew weary of the battle. Then they had to live with the consequences of compromise for the remainder of the time they were carried off into captivity. That captivity was one of the consequences suffered for their lack of courage.

In Joshua 1:7 (HCSB) we see the principle of courage being taught to Joshua as he prepared to become a leader. “Above all, be strong and very courageous to carefully observe the whole instruction My servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right or the left, so that you will have success wherever you go.”

Theology of Imperfection

I believe humans are imperfect, because of sin, and incapable of perfection on earth. More importantly we should continue to strive for perfection as a due diligence of our repentance. Confession is necessary because we have not fully overcome our bent toward sinning. However, Christ on our behalf, has fully overcome our sin, but we must never use this as an excuse for taking our sin lightly.

Human beings sin. I have met people who deny the fact, but this claim can only be made in a very egocentric view of life. A look at how our actions affects others will demonstrate we have all done things we know harm others, therefore we have sinned.

I also believe we are not currently capable of eliminating all sin. We do not understand the full implications of our actions, nor do we fully suppress the effects of temptation on our lives. These two facts together will lead us to return to sin, even with severe efforts on our side to avoid doing wrong.

Believers can deal with these crisis of behavior by confessing their faults to God and allowing Him to forgive their sins and cleanse them from it. This reality of sin in the believer and the relief from it is described in 1 John 1:8-9.

How the church and believers react to these realities seems to be changing in recent years. Some Christian music, a few books and quite a bit of preaching have adopted the idea even our sin glorifies God. It is all a part of God’s plan so, go with it. Enjoy and embrace life, including living out the sin nature God has for you. I hope you reject this concept. Paul dealt with it in Romans 6:1 and threw out the possibility.

If we are seeking God’s best in our lives we should continue on the path of repentance. We should fight and resist sin every step of the way. Not because we will reach perfection, but because sin is an affront to God. It robs us of potential and robs Him of glory.