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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Fix your eyes on Christ and not on your deeds
Text:LD 24 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 3:1,2

Psalm 86:1,2

Psalm 116:7-10

Hymn 1

Psalm 91:1,2,5

Readings: Luke 17:1-10, Galatians 3:1-14, Belgic Confession article 24

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 24

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Jesus Christ,

A few years ago I was listening to a Christian radio program from the United States called the White Horse Inn.  On that program, Rod Rosenbladt described a study that had been done among Lutherans.  They were asked whether they thought they were going to heaven and on what basis.  The vast majority were fairly certain that they were heaven-bound, but they also believed it was because they were good people who did good things.  People said things like, “I served in the church, doing this and doing that.  I was involved with the choir, with this or that outreach program.  I made big donations to the church building project.”  On paper, most Lutherans believe in the biblical doctrine of justification.  They believe that we are declared right with God because of what Christ has done.  The Lutherans have confessions and this doctrine is in their confessions too.  But yet practically speaking, this study showed that many believed that what we do somehow contributes to our salvation. 

But let’s not pick on the Lutherans.  Some time ago, I had a couple of people come to our door.  They weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses and they weren’t Mormons.  They were Christians and they were doing a program called Evangelism Explosion.  You can always tell someone is using Evangelism Explosion because the conversation usually begins with the same question:  “If you were to die tonight and if God were to ask you why he should let you into heaven, what would your answer be?”  How would you answer that question:  “If you were to die tonight and if God were to ask you why he should let you into heaven, what would your answer be?”  Would your answer be based on what you’ve done?  Do we really believe in justification through Christ alone by faith alone? 

That’s the challenge put to us this afternoon by the biblical teachings found in Lord’s Day 24.  This Lord’s Day explores the connection between what we do and our justification, our being declared right in God’s sight.  As we considered Lord’s Day 23 last week, we saw that the verdict is made because of what Christ has done for us.  But does that mean that what we do is totally irrelevant?  Can’t we contribute anything to our justification?  Our Catechism faithfully follows the line of Scripture, teaching us, as Hebrews 3:1 says, to fix our “thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.”  So, I preach to you God’s Word with the theme:

Fix your eyes on Christ and not on your deeds

We’ll learn how God:

  1. Rejects all deeds
  2. Accepts some deeds
  3. Expects good deeds

There are five slogans often associated with the Reformation and they all contain the Latin word “solus” or “alone”:  sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), solo Christo (by Christ alone) and soli Deo gloria (to God alone the glory).  The word “solus” or “alone” is crucially important.  You see, the Roman Catholic Church taught that we are saved by Christ, but not Christ alone.  The Roman Catholic Church taught that we are saved by God’s grace, but not grace alone.  They taught that we are saved by faith, but not by faith alone.  It was and is always a case of plus:  Christ plus the merits of the saints, grace plus man’s effort, faith plus works. 

This is an old error and you can find it addressed in the Bible as well.  There were those in the days of the apostle Paul who taught that yes, you need Christ for salvation.  But you also need to observe the law, you also need your good works.  The people who taught this were called Judaizers and the book of Galatians spends a lot of time addressing this “Jesus plus works” error.  This is what the apostle Paul is addressing in chapter 3.

He gives Abraham as a test case.  How was Abraham declared right before God?  Paul says that it was by faith in God’s promises, those promises which would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  It is those who have faith that are blessed with Abraham.

But then what about what we do?  Well, Paul says in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”  And then he adds that Christ is the one who redeems us from this curse so we can receive the same blessing as Abraham. 

Loved ones, it’s clear from this passage and others that when it comes to our justification, God rejects all our deeds, all our works.  If we wanted to contribute something we had done, whatever it is would have to be absolutely perfect and absolutely stainless.  But, as it is, we have no such deeds.  As the Catechism says, even the best things we do in this life “are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”  We have nothing of substance to contribute to our justification, nothing that can stand up before God’s holiness and righteousness.  Actually, we do have one thing to contribute, but it’s not a positive contribution.  The only thing we have to contribute is the sin that made it all necessary. 

Now someone might say, “But doesn’t James contradict Paul on this point?”  After all, James considers Abraham too, but he seems to reach a completely different conclusion.  He says in James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  Paul and James do not contradict each other, because they are addressing two different errors.  Paul is addressing the Judaizer’s error of “Jesus plus.”  James is addressing those who say they’re Christians but then live like the world.  When James says that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone, that simply means that faith evidences itself with obedience to God’s Word.  The world looks and sees a person whose walk matches their talk.  James is not writing about how a sinner can be declared righteous by a holy God.  But that is what Paul is writing about and when Paul writes about that it’s clear that our deeds play no part.  We are declared right with God through Christ alone, by faith alone, apart from works.     

This teaching from Scripture is meant to lead us again outside of ourselves, to stop looking at what we do, and to look to Christ alone, to rest and trust in him alone.  That cuts two ways.  Let me explain how. 

There are those who may be trusting in their own good works, thinking that they are saved because they’re doing their part.  They think that Jesus Christ got us started and now it’s up to us to stay in God’s grace by what we do and by doing that we make our contribution to our salvation.  They think that they can do it for the most part – they slip up a little here and there, but mostly it’s all on the right track.  Salvation is a cooperative effort between God and us.  Scripture says, “No!  Even our best deeds are like filthy rags.  What we do can contribute nothing to our salvation, absolutely zero.  If you’re relying on what you do for anything, you are still under the curse of the law.  Look to Christ alone, look to Christ alone all the time.”

But then there can also be those who think they cannot be saved because they have failed in doing their part.  They also think that Jesus may get people started, but it’s still up to us to do our part, to make our contribution.  And they come to realize that they can’t do it.  So, they give up – “I’m not good enough to be a Christian.”  To them, Scripture says, “You’re right, you’re not good enough.  That’s the point!  No one is good enough.  If you were good enough, you wouldn’t need Jesus Christ.  All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  No one can contribute anything to salvation.  Jesus Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners – people like you.  So, look to Christ alone, look to Christ alone all the time.”

So, when it comes to our justification, to our right standing before God, works count for nothing, absolutely nothing.  God rejects all deeds and he only considers what Christ has done for us.  Those who rest and trust in Christ will be declared right with God, not because of their faith, but because of the perfect merits of Jesus Christ alone.  As we confess in the Belgic Confession, if we were to rely on what we do in any way, we would be always left in doubt, “tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented.”  What are we to do instead?  Rely entirely on what our Saviour has done in his life and death.  We must trust in his merits, not ours.  In other words, believe the gospel.

That’s what the great church father Augustine did.  Augustine wrote in one place, “All my hope, all my assurance and confidence, is placed in his precious blood, which was shed for us and for our salvation.  In him my poor heart breathes.  And as I have confidence entirely in him, I desire to come to you, O Father, not having my own righteousness, but that of your Son Jesus Christ.”  And in another place he wrote, “All my hope is in the death of my Lord, his death is my merit, my refuge, my salvation, my life and my resurrection; my merit is the mercy of the Lord...”  To be saved, we must have the same confidence and the same faith.  Fix your eyes on Christ and not on your deeds, have all your expectation and hope in him alone.

Okay, someone says, all that is true, but then what do you do with the fact that God promises to reward certain deeds in this life and the next?  For instance, 2 John 8 says, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.”  And there are several other passages that say the same thing.  How do we explain that?  That’s what question and answer 63 is addressing. 

Our Catechism acknowledges that Scripture teaches that good works are rewarded by God in this life and the next.  But does that mean they’re something we’ve earned, something that contributes to our salvation or if not our salvation, maybe our well-being?  Do we have some part to play, after all?

First of all, when we get to Lord’s Day 32 we’ll be reminded that anything good we do is Christ’s work in us.  But for now, we have to consider what Scripture says in passages like Luke 17:1-10.  In verses 7-10, he speaks to his disciples.  He says let’s say that one of you had a servant.  Now the key thing to recognize here is that a servant or slave did not have a right to be paid for his service.  A slave was bought and he might be expected to work for nothing, though in practice slave owners often did pay their slaves as a form of incentive, to motivate them to work harder.  But the slave didn’t have any rights and his master didn’t owe him anything, especially anything for his labour.

So that slave is out in the field.  Would the master invite his slave to sit down and eat with him?  Or wouldn’t he instead go and tell him to prepare a meal?  And when the slave does what he’s supposed to do, he doesn’t get thanked.  And so our Lord Jesus says, when you have done everything you were supposed to do, just say, “We are unworthy servants.  We only did our duty.” 

Now we have to take this passage in the context of the entire Bible, and especially the gospels in the New Testament.  When we do that, the amazing thing we see is that the master did in fact invite his slaves to eat with him!  He still does.  And even more amazing, he brought the slaves into his Father’s house!  He still does that too.  In all those things (and many more) they were not being given wages for their service.  Their status was slaves.  So it is with us.  It’s the reason why the apostle Paul calls himself several times in his epistles a slave of Christ Jesus or a slave of God.  Like Paul, we were created to serve God and glorify him forever.  When we become Christians, God doesn’t owe us anything for the service we render to him with our lives.  He created us to do that anyway.  And we don’t have a right to demand payment.  The fact that he does give us blessings and rewards, all of that is entirely out of his grace.  It’s unearned.  He doesn’t owe us any of it.  Think of what it says in Romans 11:35, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”  The answer:  NOBODY!  The only wages that the Bible knows about are the wages of sin.  The rest is all grace. 

We could also illustrate this with the example of children in a family.  Just like slaves in the New Testament couldn’t expect a wage or reward for doing their duty, so also children shouldn’t expect a reward for doing what is their duty as children.  If they receive a reward, if their parents promise them something in return, that’s great.  But they ought not to have a sense of entitlement, as if they deserve it.  So also we are children of God through Jesus Christ.  We are called to live as his children and he does promise to reward us when we do, but this reward is not a wage, it’s not something we have earned.  Rather, as the Belgic Confession says, it is by God’s grace that he crowns his gifts.  He accepts and rewards some deeds, those done out of true faith, not as the basis for our justification or salvation, but out of his grace as a gift.    

Then there’s one more objection to deal with.  It’s found in both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Confession addresses those who would say that “this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life.”  Our Catechism puts it this way, “Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked?” 

But that question misses the joy, love and thankfulness that naturally exist with those who are grafted into Christ, who have union with him through faith and the Holy Spirit.  Think about it this way:  what happens when you fall in love with someone?  Your love makes you devoted to the other person and eager to please them.  Let’s say you’ve been going out with someone, putting on your best behaviour and then one day the question gets popped, “Will you marry me?”  When the answer is “Yes,” do you then think, “Well, now I’m in, I can do whatever I want!”  Maybe some people think that, but normally that’s not the case.  Because you love the other person and because you find joy in your beloved, you anticipate whatever pleases and delights them.  There’s no coercion or sense of obligation, but yet you’re driven to live for that person in some sense, driven by love and joy. 

With our life before God, it’s the same way.  By true faith, we are grafted into Christ.    Jesus says in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  Now think about the image for a moment.  It’s natural for fruit trees to bear fruit.  That’s what you expect a fruit tree to do.  In fact, if you have a normal, mature, healthy tree, it’s impossible for it not to bear fruit.  Christ is that normal, mature, healthy tree and we are grafted into that tree by faith – so, it’s only natural that we would bear fruit.  As we fix our eyes on Christ, our union with him bears the fruit of thankfulness. 

Think about it also from this angle:  Jesus Christ has a perfect love for his Father.  He obeyed his Father in his life on earth.  Now God can expect those who are united to Christ to also love him and to obey him.  No, they won’t do so perfectly in this life.  They still have the remnants of the old nature with which they’ll continue to struggle.  But there will be fruits of thankfulness and love.  It’s impossible for there not to be. 

And it’s important for us to remember that these are fruits.  We use that word “fruits” because this has nothing to do with the root or the basis of our salvation.  When we are filled with love for God, when we have joy in him and want to express our thankfulness through obedience to him, that’s the fruit of what he has done for us and in us. 

So, we let God’s Word guide the expression of our thankfulness, love and joy.  When our Father shows us how to live, how to think, speak, and act, we eagerly desire to obey, so that we can please him.  Not because we’re trying to measure up or earn our standing before him, but because he is our Father and we love him.  It’s the natural outcome of our faith.

Let’s go back to that question from the beginning:  what if you were to die tonight and God were to ask you why he should allow you into heaven?  What would your answer be?  Your answer has to be Christ and Christ alone.  Because of Christ’s obedience and because of Christ’s suffering and death.  There is no other right answer.  As for our good works, they play no role at all in the root of our salvation.  They are, however, evidence or fruit of our faith and God does promise to graciously crown these gifts that he works in us and through us.  Loved ones, to sum it up:  salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  And the life we now live in loving thankfulness, we live to the glory of God alone.  AMEN.


Gracious Father,

We praise your grace in Jesus Christ.  Thank you for his absolutely perfect righteousness, all his perfect merits.  Please help us with your Word and Spirit so that we would never rely on our deeds, but always fix our eyes on him.  Father, we also thank you for your gracious promise to crown your gifts and to reward our good works.  We acknowledge that this is also undeserved from first to last.  And Father, we also pray for your Spirit to work in us so that being grafted into Christ we would continue to bring forth fruits of thankfulness.  Lead us in ever greater measures of faith, love and joy in you, so that your glory would be magnified through us your children. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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