Monday, September 10, 2012
The terrible lie that neither sin nor virtue counts at all...
It is easy to look around in the halls of justice and to conclude that guilt and innocence no longer count – only how you can manipulate the law to work for you. It is also easy to conclude from the way goodness is portrayed in our modern culture that virtue no longer counts. Then, when we get into Church on Sunday morning, we figure that neither our sins nor our virtues count before God. It is as if we have traded talk of sin and righteousness for sincerity and the belief that matters of the heart count more than thoughts, words or deeds. Sadly, the simplistic side of the Gospel has come to mean we are forgiven of sin to go right back out there and return to our sinful ways. Since we believed you are saved by faith and not by works, it is tempting to conclude that neither sinful behavior nor virtue matters all that much. God saves you from one and the other does not really count at all.
Both conclusions are false. Bad behavior counts. Sin counts. Sin is not some minor little irritation or flaw, it defiles us and disfigures us until our lives bear no resemblance at all to the life we were created to lead. Sin wells up from within us out of hearts so soiled and stained by sin that they don't even notice it anymore. Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness – did anything get missed in that list? They count. They curse us with death. They steal God from us until we are left with hate, fear, and bitterness and they steal away our relationships with one another.
Sin cannot be avoided or overlooked. It must be dealt with head on. As St. Paul says, we keep working sin and earning the good wages of death until we are rich with its lies, guilt, and death. Sin counts. Sin kills. Because of sin we are spiraling out of control toward a destiny of harm much worse than this life can inflict upon us. We are headed toward eternal death in which the only thing left to us is suffering, the only thing known by us is pain, and the only future is this suffering and death, temporal and eternal.
Yes, bad behavior and sin counts. But so does good behavior and virtue!. Holiness is not theory. Holiness is practical. Now, holiness will not win you salvation nor will it turn God's heart around to your point of view. But this is not necessary; it has already been done through the death and resurrection of Christ. Your works do not supplement what Christ has done. It is because of what Christ has done, you are capable of any good pleasing to God. Because you are in Christ God is pleased to consider your righteousness through the lens of Christ. You were created for goodness, for good works and it is for this Christ has redeemed you. Faith does not involve a choice between the external or the internal. Faith lays claim to the transformational power of Christ to make us what He has declared us to be – righteous and holy.
You were created for good works. God has in Christ restored you to this holy calling and purpose. This is why James insists that faith without works is dead. Faith is never without good works. What we were incapable of because of sin, is now our calling because of Christ. Good behavior and virtue still counts and Christian life is meant to be the fruitful domain of holy and pure thoughts, of good and honest conversation, and of actions that show forth the love of Him who saved you.
We wear not a righteousness of our own manufacture but the righteousness of Christ. We do not do the good works that honor us but the works of Christ that honor Him. It is a simplistic faith that reduces Christianity to the idea that "I was bad, God forgave me and now I am off the hook." We are not born again of water and the word to live lives isolated from Christ and His power. We were born again in baptism to live in Christ the new life which He has bestowed on us. This is not some burden on us against our wills but the fruit of wills created anew in Christ Jesus to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom that has no end.
It is an equally pernicious lie to think that salvation simply means God has given me a second chance to be good on my own. What terrible bondage it is to receive forgiveness in Christ only to go right back to living on your own and trying to keep the commandments and become the good person you know you should be. This lie has given birth to the idea of constant conversions, of constant revivals, of constant born again experiences that flourish only for a moment and fail because we just did not try hard enough.
Our sins count against us and must meet the redeeming power of Christ's blood to set us free. Our good works count only because Christ lives in us and He is the one producing those works by the power of His righteousness and Spirit within us. God is not merely concerned with the external of our lives nor is God satisfied to own merely our spirits. He has redeemed us body, soul, and spirit, to live in Christ the new life that Christ has given us, right now and right here but also in eternity. He has equipped us for the good deeds the Spirit works and this is our baptismal gift and vocation.
From the heart made new come lives that display Christ's mercy to the world. What God desires us to show the world is not what others can also accomplish if they try hard enough. No, what God seeks from us is to display before the world the righteousness with which we were clothed in baptism. We are to show forth the new person born of baptism’s womb – forgiven, living in a state of grace, and showing forth in our lives the good works of Him who has called us from darkness into His marvelous light.
It is a terrible lie and the worst of all prisons to think that our good works can buy the heart of God. It is also a waste since Christ has paid our debt for sin fully and completely. But it is also a destructive lie and bondage to think that good works matter nothing at all. In our world of choices between two things, James and Jesus bring them together. Sin is not merely external but wells up from within the heart. Christ has created new hearts in us by baptism so that the grace that we claim by faith may manifest itself in thoughts, words, and deeds that honor the Lord and befit our identity as the children of God. Amen.
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