I am wading in to waters that have already been stirred countless times over the ages by men and women far more knowledgeable than me, but permit me to share my thoughts (or just quietly ignore me…all two and a half of you). This is certainly not an exhaustive, or comprehensive, musing on the matter of faith and good works. Rather, it is just one morning’s worth of meditation on the subject.

A lot of energy seems to go into this debate, particularly among various groups that profess to be Christian. My casual observation is that Christians are split into two generic camps (with obviously a lot more distinctions as you look closer): the Good Works Christians and the Faith Alone Christians.

The Good Works group claims that faith means little if you don’t have good works, or you aren’t doing good deeds. The Faith Alone group asserts that your good works amount to nothing if you don’t have faith as the impetus for your good works.

On the surface neither group has it wrong, so to speak, but as philosophy gets put into practice both of these groups seem to miss out on what really matters: glorifying God.

The Good Works group looks with contempt at the navel-gazing Faith Alone folks because they aren’t doing as much as they are to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The Faith Alone group scoffs at the Good Works group because their theology is a convoluted mess of feel-good self-help manuals that miss the establishment of a proper attitude toward God. (The best part of all of this is, in America, we take it out on each other on the battlefield of politics.)

Maybe that’s all an over simplification, but that’s basically my observation.

Why not be both? Well, that sounds nice but then we start to argue over which should be first, which is more important, etc. Again, it strikes me all as moot unless you keep one thing in mind: glorify God!

If the purpose of your good works is to bring glory to God, amen. If the purpose of your faith is to give glory to God, amen.

Let me have Paul speak for a moment:

Titus 2:11-14 ESV

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 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.

In that passage he starts with people who have faith (the grace of God bringing salvation) and ends with people who are motivated to do good works. Not to mention all the good stuff in between.

In the next passage, he starts the same way, but takes care to exhort believers to live out their faith in a measurable way by doing good works.

Titus 3:4-8 ESV

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

So, have both. Do both. Or have one and do the other. Either way, faith and good works are not mutually exclusive and both are critical in order to call yourself a Christian. And keep in mind that we are Christ’s not because of our righteousness but because of God’s unsurpassable goodness and His unfathomable love for you.

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Jesus tells us that even a little faith in Him can move mountains:

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20 ESV)

This terrifying earthquake has moved an entire island:

The powerful earthquake that unleashed a devastating tsunami Friday appears to have moved the main island of Japan by 8 feet (2.4 meters) and shifted the Earth on its axis.

And Paul reiterates the power of faith in Jesus:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.(1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV)

If moving an island isn’t enough, how about moving the entire planet:

Reports from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy estimated the 8.9-magnitude quake shifted the planet on its axis by nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters).

I’m not suggesting that a group of faithful Christians caused this earthquake or that the people of Japan somehow deserved this terrible force of nature, but I do think it would be wise to tremble at the power of our God and praise Him for His mercy, especially the mercy found in His grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

News report from CNN

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Romans 3:1-4 (New International Version):

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?  Much in every way!  First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.  What if some did not have faith?  Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?  Not at all!  Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.”

via Romans 3 – Passage Lookup – New International Version – BibleGateway.com.

I suspect that many a sermon has been preached on this passage alone, not to mention the volumes that exist on the book of Romans as an entirety, but because I can, let me add my thoughts.

I’ve been reading through Romans in large part to coincide with the sermon “series” taking place at Grace Congregational United Church of Christ in Rutland, VT.  The UCC is notoriously liberal in its approach to theology so I won’t devote much time there except to point it out to anyone who may not know that Grace Church’s relationship with the UCC (specifically the Vermont Conference) is on solid ground (to my dismay).  Either way, I’m always looking for anything that will help make my bible study more purposeful and this fits the bill.

As I read the the third chapter this morning (that will be this week’s sermon topic) it was the first four verses that struck me.  I finished reading the chapter and came back and meditated on the first few verses.

The first verse is immediately preceded by these verses from the end of chapter 2:

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

I think I am fairly comfortable with the implications of this passage.  It is the heart, or inner man, that matters to God and what matters to God is all that should matter.

In chapter three, Paul asks, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?”  To which he quickly answers, “Much in every way!”  Now for my limited, human-perspective tastes, Paul is a little short on fleshing out what the advantages are, but regardless of what the advantage means among men, God is still God of both the Jew and the Gentile.

The next part is what strikes me the most profoundly:

First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.  What if some did not have faith?  Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?  Not at all!  Let God be true, and every man a liar.

What if some did not  have faith?  Does that question even need to be asked?  The Old Testament is rife with stories of how the Israelites turned their backs to God and the consequences they faced because of their disobedience.

Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?  Paul hits a home run here in my humble estimation.  Not at all! Wow!  God’s faithfulness is greater than our lack of faith.  A no brainer, but it still hammers home the amazing grace of God and His worthiness to be praised.  If you have a minute, stop and meditate on those few lines and I hope that you will be led by the Spirit to worship God as I have been moved.

With some degree of reluctance I move away from praising God to making it practical for Christians today (I say reluctantly because any manner of disagreement could enter in at this point and make my assertions seem almost political, but that is not what I intend).  As it applies to more contemporary goings on this is how the passage struck me.  A lot is made of the crusades and how bad they were.  Or how was it possible that men of God allowed slavery to be permitted in the founding of our country.  To me, these verses from Romans could, or should, serve as an answer to those accusations and doubts.  It isn’t the faith of men on which we should focus but rather the faithfulness of God.

Most “self-flagellation” over the misdeeds of our forbears in the faith that takes place in the mainline Christian churches (like the UCC) tend to be too human-centered and not God-centered.  In other words, we must make amends for the sins of the past before we can enjoy the fullness of God’s love (although I would argue that it isn’t really God’s love that people seek when they attempt to repent for sins long past, but rather Man’s love).  God’s grace is almost completely ignored in an effort to assuage our collective guilty conscience.  In fact, a case could be made that such “self-flagellation” is sinful in the eyes of God precisely because it fails to recognize the faithfulness of God and His saving grace through faith in Christ.

My fellow travelers in the mainline church need to come to terms with what happened in the history of our Christian church, for better or worse, and allow themselves to be covered by the blood of Christ.  That doesn’t mean to ignore past sins, but to keep in mind and celebrate that God’s faithfulness is greater still than the accumulation of all of mankind’s sins.  What is important is that God be true!

Normally, I will do my best to avoid “using” scripture to score a political point, but I must confess that I see the world through the lens of scripture and I feel that I would be denying my faith in Jesus Christ if always refrained from sharing my “religious” perspective.  I would be happy to discuss that perspective with anyone interested.  With that in mind, I would also be interested in discussing differing perspectives on this verse, or any other verse, as it relates to politics or life in general.  And lastly, before I get to the topic at hand, there has been a moderately successful movement in this country to marginalize all religious thought when it comes to the so-called “secular” political arena.  This is a tragedy on so many levels, but for now I intend to keep religion in the public discourse (for my faithful few readers) because it is as much a part of the life of this nation as our “secular” institutions (which are hardly devoid of religious overtones, but thats another post…).

So, Ephesians 4:28:

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

This really ought to concern the individual and not the corporate, but it certainly has implications for the corporate body of Christ as well.  It is perhaps important to note that Paul is speaking to believers in Christ, so arguably, this admonition would not apply to people who have not put their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  However, one of the common things I hear coming from professed Christians is that our government, as an extension of its citizens, has the obligation to be Christ-like.  Or put another way, helping the poor is something that the government should do because that’s what Christ instructed His followers to do. The government, no matter how much of, for, and by the people it is, is still not an individual capable of making a decision to have faith in Christ.  (Again, maybe that should be another post.)

If you consider members of our government to be believers in Christ as many of them profess, then this verse ought to shame them right out of office.  First, they are thieves of the worst kind.  They take peoples money without (willing) consent and they do it with the “blessing” of being from a government charged with the welfare of the very people from whom they are stealing.  No matter what the intention is with the money, taking it from others without consent is stealing.  Men and women of congress who profess to be followers of Christ ought to pull out all the stops to “steal no longer”.  Secondly, they should get back to work doing something useful.  This may be hard to imagine, but I suspect that there is some work in Congress that can be done that would be considered useful (I confess to not being able to think of anything at the  moment).  Congressmen and women should focus on that which is useful for our government to do.

If members Congress kept their hands off of the citizens’ money then we would be able to realize the potential of the last part of Paul’s statement.  Only in the hands of individuals is “something to share” going to get where it most needed and in the right manner.  An individual should not be compelled under a legal obligation to give to those in need.  Rather, an individual ought to give as he is compelled by compassion, mercy, and love for his neighbor in need.

You could argue that Christians should do this anyway regardless of whether Congress takes their money or not and regardless of how much they take.  Yes they should, but I believe there are studies that demonstrate that those individuals are giving to those in need beyond what the goverment takes from them under the auspices of meeting those same needs.  I know that my family and I have been the recipients of many blessings that have come from the hands of individuals who are compassionate and willing to help us meet our needs.  I have looked at government options for meeting our needs and for the most part, I have decided against using those options for many reasons (another post idea?) not the least of which is that givers receive as much of the blessing as the receivers and denying people the opportunity to be blessed through giving is selfish and not honoring to God.

So, to sum it up: tell the members of Congress to stop stealing your money and do something useful.  This could take many forms, the most appealing of which would be just to vote them all out of office at the earliest possible convenience.

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. (Titus 3:3-8)

At one time we too were foolish…

Umm…I’m not sure I’ve stopped being foolish. Despite placing my faith in Jesus Christ and knowing with certainty that my life is secured for eternity by His obedience I can’t help but feel like I am still a fool. Every decision that we make will either bring glory to God or not. And even now, I seem to make far too many decisions that fall well short of bringing glory to God. I lose patience with my children, I grumble at work, or I engage in humor that is not edifying. The list could go on, but you get the point. Even some decisions that have no great significance on the surface prove to be foolish just because I made them without care. It is certainly glorious that Jesus did bring glory to God in everything He did because my “balance sheet” would probably not look good.

…disobedient…

Most days it is my intention to be obedient to God in everything: thought, word, and deed. Most days I fail in at least one of those aspects. Disobedience is not the life to which I was called, but it is the life into which I was born. It is a daily struggle to submit my will to His grand purposes, but praise God that I am washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. His sacrifice is my sanctification and He is worthy of praise.

…deceived…

Who hasn’t been deceived by all the world has to offer? Who isn’t still being bombarded with messages that the world can offer you everything you need and desire? I have come to realize that my faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit has removed scales from eyes and unstopped my ears so that I might see and hear more clearly the deceptions of the world in which I live. Even now, however, the scales that were at one time removed seem like a cancer that threatens to creep back over my eyes from remission to cloud my vision regarding what is pure and holy. My hearing sometimes feels muffled because of the buildup of polluted talk and the din of worldly pursuits. Daily devotions help to keep my sight free of obstructions and my hearing sharp, but again I thank and praise God as the one who delivers me and reveals those things which are pure.

…enslaved…

Is there a more powerful metaphor for what it means to be living with sin and without the promise of redemption? Our 21st century sensibilities treat slavery as something that is abhorrent, and that is good. Because of our centuries long campaign against the evils of human slavery however, we seem to ignore its more subtle implications in our personal lives. God designed us to be free and yet we willingly (or unwittingly) subject ourselves to countless fashions, fads, and lifestyles that have the effect of enslaving us to our passions or other people (albeit without the actual label of slavery). Your “need” to have the latest technology may be motivated by good intentions, but it can quickly enslave you if that need outpaces your means. I confess, it is hard to know where honest pleasure ends and enslavement to pleasure begins. Praise God for His mercy and grace.

We lived in malice and envy.

Again I ask myself, do I still harbor malice and envy? While both malice and envy may creep into my thought life, they can’t remain there long because I am reborn in Christ and the Holy Spirit serves to convict me of these grievances. What was it like to live in malice without the redemption of Christ’s love? Well, Paul writes that we were “being hated and hating one another.” Malice consumes. If God did not intervene on your behalf working “behind the scenes”, then malice could easily overtake all of your good intentions and replace them with thoughts of pure evil. Likewise even the smallest bit of envy had the power to grow into a forest of weeds that would choke all things noble and pure from you. Our selfish nature reigned supreme and any good that we may have done to advance our interests would ultimately be overshadowed by the accompanying pain and suffering of malice and envy. It is enough that I have placed my faith in Jesus Christ, but it is essential for me to live out my love for Jesus by putting away malice and envy.

Enter God’s kindness, love, and mercy.

I’ve already alluded to this phrase, but we should never come away from scripture without pausing to reflect how great our God is. How glorious is it to be redeemed by God so that our lives can be made pure and holy? All the facets of my sinful nature are washed by “rebirth and renewal” and I have become an “heir with the hope of eternal life.” The list of sinful deeds and thoughts at the beginning of these verses is what we would inherit if not reborn in Christ. It is not a tribute to me that I am renewed in Christ, but rather more significantly it is a tribute to the Almighty God who has saved my soul from such a destiny. Do I live a life that demonstrates God’s greatness? That is my goal, but I confess to falling short on a regular basis. But thank God I do not have the task of saving souls because too many would be lost by my ineptness at living out God’s promises. I pray that God will direct my paths so that I might be used by Him for His purposes. I have only to follow by devoting myself to what is good. God’s word is good and trustworthy. God is good.

Below is a link to a blog written by an 82 year old woman named Helen.

http://margaretandhelen.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/now-it-is-your-turn/

Click and decide for yourself, but I am appalled at their “candor”.  If my grandparents were alive and reading their posts, they would be shocked even if they agreed with the writer on the issue(s).  I am trying to admire them for their willingness to do something new and share their thoughts with people and they likely because of their age they have had a significant impact on bloggers (at least those using WordPress), but their lack of decorum for people of their age is frankly deplorable.

Paul writes to Titus,

…teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.  (Titus 2:3)

And the adoring comments are too much.  Bloggers are practically worshipping these ladies because their age combined with their view point is like a vindication of the way that the liberal bloggers think about current events.  If two older ladies are saying it, it must be right!

I was going to post something like this on their website, but I decided against it.  Partly because I didn’t want to give the satisfaction of being able to say something like, “If you don’t like it, don’t read it.”  Partly because I didn’t think that quoting scripture on their blog would be very useful.  And partly because I didn’t want to validate the “feelings” of the liberal bloggers swooning over Helen’s writing by giving them more reason to heap praises on her for “articulat(ing) my thoughts exactly on so many things, and I love the bluntness and perspective.”

Sigh.

MW

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10, NIV)

I’m hard pressed to begin my thoughts on these verses. Anywhere the bible mentions slaves it seems like there is a likely possibility of major misunderstandings. Some people will try and dismiss the bible because they think that it tacitly condones slavery by not outright condemning its practice. Others will go to the other extreme and find a means of justify slavery because of its appearance in both the Old and New Testaments. And still others may seem almost dismissive of slavery by too easily equating slavery, in New Testament terms, with employee, in contemporary jargon. I imagine there is a way of talking about slavery the way God intended and that there are many people who talk about it in a genuine and thoughtful manner. If you don’t listen carefully and speak carefully, then you can miss what people are trying to say when they discern what the bible is saying. I’m not an expert on the historical implications of slavery during the years of Paul’s missions, but I will try and speak sensitively about the subject that is so easy to ignite a fire.

Let’s not forget that Paul is writing to Titus, a disciple of Christ, and he is telling Titus to instruct the believers in his care in a way that honors and glorifies Christ. It is important to remember that when Paul talks about slavery here, he is not establishing some sort of “Christian Policy” on slaves and slavery. He is addressing the one thing that no one can take from us (not even, dare I say, God): free will.

The freedom in question here is our freedom to choose our attitude and, consequently, our actions. God created us each with the capacity to determine our will. If He hadn’t, we wouldn’t be made in the image of God. If He hadn’t, our worship would be compulsory and devoid of devotion. As much as God wants us to love Him, forcing us to love Him would be against the very nature and character of God.

As it relates to where we find ourselves walking in this world, we can’t always choose where we end up in life, but what we can do, no matter what the circumstance, is choose how we respond to the circumstance. Paul doesn’t address this in this passage of Titus, but he does address the way masters should behave toward their slaves (Ephesians 6:9) and there too he addresses the attitude and actions of the believer, not the institution of slavery. What is most important is how we live out our faith in Christ, not where we are when we live out the faith.

Be subject. Paul commands Titus to teach slaves to be subject in everything. Similar to other prominent themes about submission, Paul addresses submission in the hearts of slaves, people whose lives are (sadly) not their own. Our hearts are to yield to Christ as He yielded His to the Father. In practice that means that we subject ourselves to our earthly masters as well as our heavenly master. This is problematic because our earthly masters are not perfect like our heavenly master and submission to someone who is not perfect can be downright impossible to do at times. But the act of submission to our earthly masters is not for their sake and not even for our own sake. It is for God’s sake. Our job is to glorify Him in everything that we do and our submission to our earthly masters is one manifestation of that praise. (Paul could have probably stopped here in his discourse to Titus. When someone says everything, don’t they mean, “Everything”? However, he has to spell it out in details to make sure that we understand completely what it means to “be subject in everything”. I guess that comes with the territory when dealing with depraved souls.)

Please them. Well, that makes sense. Please your master, please God. Part of that “everything” Paul mentioned at the beginning, but expanded moderately to include going an extra step. God expects us to “live right”. It certainly pleases Him when we do, but what must please Him even more is when we take time, with gladness and cheerfulness in our hearts, to praise, honor, and glorify Him either through prayer, worship, or any means that seems noble and true.

Don’t talk back. Again, here is a simple yet practical way to live out being subject in everything and thereby glorifying God. Restraining our tongues is one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate our faith. It isn’t easy to hold your tongue when you have something to say, but watching our speech carefully is important to living a life that glorifies our Father in heaven. Evil thoughts may be generated from the heart, but we have an opportunity to stop them at the tips of our tongues and if we practice the self-control Paul talked about earlier, then we can stop evil thoughts from promulgating and festering in other people’s hearts. And we give ourselves time to examine our hearts and purge those thoughts (to the best our ability and with the help of the Holy Spirit, see Psalm 51, verse 10).

Don’t steal. It’s amazing to me that this would need to be mentioned, but it is and it ought not to be dismissed. One way to look at this is to remind the believer that everything we have belongs to God. If we act as though something belongs to us apart from the ownership of God, then it is as though we are stealing from God. And it isn’t that He couldn’t take it back from us, but rather that it speaks to the condition of our relationship with Him. If we are willing to call something ours without recognizing the ownership of God, then we are spiting God’s blessing in our lives.

Be trustworthy. This seems to flow out of the admonition not to steal. But a master is truly blessed to have someone he can trust, and the same is true in our relationship with God. How much can God trust me? The more I show God that I can be trusted, the more God will entrust to me. I was not born deserving of God’s trust, despite the plans He may have had for me. As stated earlier, He can’t contradict His nature (because it’s perfect) and can’t make me be trustworthy. I have to earn that trust and I will need the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Showing trustworthiness to your earthly master is, again, a means of glorifying you Father in heaven.

Make the teaching of God our Savior attractive. I should have started with this exhortation because I believe that it gives purpose for why we believers, either as free men or slaves, are to be subject to our masters in everything. It glorifies God. Sure, there may be earthly benefits as well, but the bottom line is that our God is worthy of all glory and by training ourselves to be subject in everything we are bringing glory to the God that saved us from unrighteousness and sin and prepares a place for us in heaven for all eternity. Critics of Christianity often point to the behavior of men and women who have talked the talk but at some point failed to walk to walk as an example of why following Christ is foolish. Paul addresses this many times and many ways, but it may be as clear as anywhere when he sums up this segment of his letter to Titus with the phrase, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

MW