For a while now I’ve been following Evangelium21, a network of German churches united by biblical inerrancy and reformed theology. I am continually encouraged that this kind of teaching even exists and seems to be spreading in Germany (oh the irony!). In a recent talk, one of the E21 pastors shared an interesting observation. Though intentional about preaching the gospel in every message, his listeners were overwhelmed by the heavy demands of good works. How can that be?
He was puzzled until he discovered the root issue. His church believed that the gospel was only for unbelievers—so that they may repent and believe. I can understand the confusion. After all, why do I need the gospel, the Good News about Jesus' life and death for sinners, if I am already a Christian? But the answer is simple: Because Christians are still weak sinners in need of grace. Yes, redeemed sinners, forgiven sinners, adopted sinners, but sinners nonetheless. If you tune out on the topic of mercy and grace, assuming it is for unbelievers, and only listen when the topic is works, you will feel the burden of works without grace. But for the Christian, works follow grace, always.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church is a good example. Read chapters 1-3: You won’t find a single command! But you find God’s work and grace. It’s all about him and what he has done for us! Then the transition to chapters 4-6: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. In other words, because of what I, Paul, just wrote (“therefore”), now here is how you ought to act, Christians in Ephesus. And by extension, Christians today. What follows are imperatives, practical things we ought to do.
In this letter we find that the unbeliever does not gain salvation by works; Ephesians 2:8-10 flip that on its head. And we find that the believer isn’t expected to sustain his own salvation by works: First God’s work, first grace, first truth; then we respond with good works. The idea is found all over the place. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians (itself a strong defense of salvation by faith alone): “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Or to the Philippians (right after he describes Jesus' incredible condescension): “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We are being perfected in the Spirit, not the flesh, and we work out our salvation (can’t work out what you don’t already have), realizing it is God himself who works in us. Mysterious. Powerful. Comforting. This is grace.
We do good works because of what God has done first. We do it out of thankfulness, as slaves to a new, gracious master. The gospel that ushered us into God’s presence is the same gospel that keeps us there in this life, is the same gospel that ensures we will be in God’s presence for all eternity. Do you believe this? If not, this gospel is for you! Please turn from your sins and to God for eternal life! Has he already saved you? This gospel is for you, too! Cling to it, because your life depends on it. No matter who you are, you need God’s Good News.