Zealous for Good Works

You won’t be able to tell right away, but this is a followup to yesterday’s post about Ephesians and what we should be doing as churches.

The title of this post comes from Titus 2:13-14 where we are told that Jesus died to obtain for himself a special people that are zealous for good works. The purpose of this post is to discuss a reason for an emphasis on good works that many of us do not consider.

A friend of mine wrote a book called Desperation, which deals with overcoming sin, in particular pornography. At the heart of the book, as you can tell from the title, is the issue of desperation.

Many of us are not desperate. We want to overcome sin the way the average person wants to buy a Rolls Royce. It would be great, but the actual doing of it seems so impossible we’re not even going to try.

In most cases, if we read apostolic (from the apostles) or divine (from Jesus) commands, we immediately turn to thoughts of mercy and grace.

That would be right if we didn’t apply it wrong.

Grammar Nazi excursus: I left the -ly off “wrong” because I liked the contrast with “right.”

Here’s how we usually apply it.

We hear, “Jesus commanded such and such.”

We feel guilty. We wonder how we’re going to achieve obedience. Then we remember mercy. We comfort ourselves with the thought that when we sin we have an advocate with the Father, King Jesus the righteous (1 Jn. 2:1).

So far, so good.

Grace is the power of God to overcome sin (Rom. 6:14). We think, and we even say, “By the grace of God I will (eventually) not do this anymore.”

Here is where the problem comes in.

The problem is that what we mean is: “It’s all up to God. Nothing I can do. God will forgive me over and over again, and hopefully, not likely, but hopefully, the grace of God will deliver me from disobedience to that command of Jesus … eventually, I’m sure. Just give me a decade or so, and I’m pretty confident things will be better.”

You can deny you think like that, and I will hope that you are telling yourself the truth. Reality is that most of us, and I’m being honest including myself, are naturally prone to thinking that way every time we are convicted; every time.

We are not desperate. Why should we be? We’re forgiven by the blood of Jesus. If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, his blood will cleanse us from every sin (1 Jn. 1:7).

Among the many problems with this attitude is Paul’s warning that God will not be mocked by ongoing sowing to the growth of the flesh (Gal. 6:7-9). A more direct warning is from John, who tells us not to be deceived about the fact that only those who practice righteousness have the righteousness of Jesus imputed to them (1 Jn. 3:7).

We might be able to find some exegetical or hermeneutical tools to weasel our way out of that warning (thus proving that we fear man rather than God) except that John adds, “Those who go on sinning are of the devil.”

Wow. John is extreme! I’d imagine some of us think he is so extreme that his statements in 1 John ought to be taken with a grain of flavorless salt.

We’re not desperate.

The apostles go out of their way to make us desperate. They do this because the incredible grace of God that delivers us from sin and empowers us for service is for desperate people. They do this because it is to those who walk in the light that God does not impute sin (1 Jn. 1:7).

It takes effort, usually born of desperation, to stay in the blazing light of God.

We’re so used to life in the shadows that we don’t realize that most of us have tasted of the light and run from it.

That last statement is based on 32 years of experience as a Christian. The statements before that are based on Scripture. Since I’ve already explained my premise, I am going to finish with a boring list of Scriptures that only the desperate will want to read.

  • The foundation of God stands firm, having this seal: The Lord knows those who are his, and let those who name the name of the King depart from iniquity. (2 Tim. 2:19)
  • … who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:14)
  • This is a faithful saying, and I want you to affirm these things constantly, that those who believe in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable for people. (Tit. 3:8)
  • Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see God. (Heb. 12:14)
  • (Paraphrased for brevity): Add to your faith virtue, wisdom, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and love. If you don’t do this, you’ll be blinded and forget you were purged from your old sins. If you do these things, however, you will never stumble, you will ensure your calling and election, and you will be given a glorious entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom. (2 Pet. 1:5-11)
  • The works of the flesh are … (list of sins here) …; those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
  • But don’t let fornication, uncleanness, or greed be named among you even once. And walk in love as the King has loved us … For you know that no sexually immoral, unclean, or greedy man has any inheritance in the kingdom of God or the King. (Eph. 5:3-5)
  • Let us not grow weary in doing good for in due season we will reap [eternal life] if we do not lose heart. (Gal. 6:9)
  • Cramped is the way, and narrow is the gate that leads to life, and there are few that find it. (Matt. 7:14)
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)
  • If the righteous are saved with difficulty, where will the ungodly and sinner appear? (1 Pet. 4:18)
  • For to this end the King both died and rose, and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the living and the dead. (Rom. 14:9)
  • He died for everyone so that those who live should live no longer for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again. (2 Cor. 5:14)
  • So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if we live according to the flesh, we will die. But if, by the Spirit, we put to death the deeds of the body, then we will live. (Rom. 8:12-13)
  • Those who are the King’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:24)

It is true that we should find that in our own effort we are incapable of pleasing God (Jn. 15:5). Heartbroken, we should cry out, “O, wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

When we’re there, when we’re desperate, then we will seek, and then we will find there is an answer to our powerlessness: “Thanks be to God, through King Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:25). There, in our desperation, we will learn that what the Law could not do, God did, and the righteous requirement of the Law will be fulfilled in us when we walk according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4; Gal. 5:16).

There we will also learn there is a reason that we are told to speak the truth in love to one another (Eph. 4:13-16), exhort one another every day (Heb. 3:13), and consider how to provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). There is a reason that the Scriptures are said to be useful for “teaching, correction, rebuke, and instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). We need each other’s help, as well as the Holy Spirit’s help, to become “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

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8 Responses to Zealous for Good Works

  1. paulfpavao says:

    While it is true that God loves us unconditionally, it does a person no good at all unless you meet some conditions. God wants the best for all of us. He wants everyone to come to repentance. For that, he’s willing to give his only Son, and he’s willing to delay the consummation. However, if you don’t repent, that unconditional love won’t do you a bit of good.

    • Evan says:

      I would venture to say that many congregations are jaded and have become immunized to such a message given that they have heard of God’s unconditional love preached on several occasions; however not with the conditions attached as you point out. Hence the need to attach a question mark instead a period in order to challenge them to question such a long-standing belief based on what the scriptures actually say rather than what they assume. Seems that false teaching is rampant today.

  2. Evan says:

    In relation to your post Paul, I’ve been thinking about the “unconditional” love of God. I’ve lost count of so many sermons/teachings on the unconditional love of God over the years citing verses such as Jn 10:27-29 and Rom 8:1 taken out of context. As such those pastors and teachers have minimized the warnings of the NT writers. On one hand while it is true that God loves us, it does not do away with our corresponding obligation to follow him. If we have his commandments and keep them, then and only then, are we assured of God’s love [Jn 14:21]. If I ever get the opportunity to preach a sermon it will be entitled: “The Unconditional Love of God.” But instead of a period, it will be punctuated by a question mark.

  3. Jon says:

    Paul

    Thanks – I have been told time and time again by those closest to me (including the ones I am totally transparent with) that I am too hard on myself. However, the standard is what is laid out in scripture. I can say that some sins that used to characterize me many years ago have nearly all but completely disappeared . Others stubbornly cling, however.

    I keep meaning to email you about that Witness Lee stuff and some very practical Church related questions (though I have been very busy and it takes me a long time to type anything of substance). Hopefully I’ll get on it in the next wee.

  4. paulfpavao says:

    Jon, what do the people around you think? Do they look at you and think, “Well, he’s on his way to hell; constant sinner, that guy”? I know that if someone in driving distance of me said the things you say, I would make it my business to know the opinion and intervention of others, or take up intervention myself. I have a friend who regularly fell into fits of foul mood so bad he could barely mumble hello to someone who greeted him. In that state, he would look at no one, and he hovered on the verge of an explosion of anger. He not only was a friend of mine, but he worked for me.

    There were a couple steps to helping him. First, we rescued him from a couple relatives who felt obligated to “help” him when he was in such a mood. They successfully moved him from depression to fury every time they intervened. Fortunately, these were actually good people, so they backed off at our request.

    After that, we spent a long time encouraging him and helping his conscience not tear him up inside. It took a few years, but the progress was steady. It’s always nice when the main remedy is praise and encouragement. His relationship with the relatives I mentioned got better as he got better, and today you might never know he ever had such a problem. In fact, he’s an active counselor with Teen Challenge.

    When we met this guy, he was living in a halfway house, on disability, and constantly medicated. It turned out all he needed was love and huge amounts of patience.

    You’re in the UK. I don’t have any idea what it is that makes you feel you’re failing and that all the comments about good works seem condemning to you. I do know that often those who are miserable have a standard for themselves that no one on earth would approve of, and they are victims of their own conscience. Otherwise, if ongoing sin is real, and not contrived by an evil conscience, it seems like you ought to find help … people who can tell you how you’re doing, rather than relying on your own assessment.

  5. Jon says:

    I can totally see the logic in all of this.

    However, two problems.

    1. I am aware of the whole fact that we should not be doing it in our own strength but working in the Spirit. However, whenever this is mentioned it is usually in one of two unhelpful ways. Either a) an afterthought added to a moral exhortation – “So you need to go and do all of this stuff – of course it’s not you but the Spirit and we can’t do it without the Spirit (but really it is you and certainly will feel like your own unaided efforts).” Or b) a strange mystical state we must somehow attain of Christ living through us, the obtaining of which is rather elusive. Just the other day I was reading Watchman Nee on such an ‘exchanged life’ ( http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/nee/life_wins/chap03.htm ). However, he seemed very vague in how one comes about this exchanged life.

    2. I have been ‘desperate’ for the best part of 7 years but yet have not encountered this power you speak of (I don’t think). Who knows maybe I’m not desperate enough. Either way, I sometimes wonder if God has actually made salvation so hard an complicated just because he really doesn’t want to save many people (indeed I’m sure some calvinists would agree).

  6. Tara says:

    Being a bit of a grammar Nazi myself, your comment spurred me to search the Internet since your usage of “wrong” simply sounds better. Here’s what I found:

    ‘One cause is that the form of the two suggests that the first is an adjective and the second an adverb, with wrong only to be used to modify nouns (“this is the wrong colour”) and wrongly to modify verbs (“several men were wrongly detained”). But wrong can also be an adverb. There’s nothing in the least new about this — the Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the thirteenth century onwards.

    The quick and easy rule is that wrongly appears before the verb being modified (“the earlier case was wrongly decided”) and wrong after the verb (“he answered the question wrong”).’

    So it appears your usage is completely acceptable (and probably even preferred). 🙂

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