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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:The place of our good works in our relationship with God
Text:LD 24 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Good Works

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Readings:  Luke 17:1-10, Luke 18:9-14, Ephesians 2:1-10

Text:  Lord’s Day 24

Songs:  Psalm 148

            Hymn 1A

            Psalm 86:1-2

            Hymn 47:10

            Psalm 116:7 (after offertory)

            Psalm 91:1,5

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

Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,


Today we come to Lord’s Day 24 and we’re confronted with a challenge to the doctrine of justification.  This is both an ancient and a contemporary challenge.  Essentially it boils down to our pride.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow contribute something, even if it was just something small, wouldn’t it be great if we contribute something to our justification?  Then we could feel like we’re worth something, that we can play our part and do something to help things along.  We want to matter!  What motivates that kind of a desire other than pride? 


It’s this prideful desire to contribute something to our salvation that Lord’s Day 24 deals with.  So I preach God’s Word, confessed by the church and summarized in the Catechism with this theme:


The place of our good works in our relationship with God.


We’ll explore:


  1. The ineptness of good works for justification
  2. The reward of good works as a gift of grace
  3. The root of good works in Christ


The Catechism begins with a why question.  Why can’t our good works figure into our justification?  And even if they can’t form the entire basis of our justification, can’t they contribute just a little bit?  The background to this question of the Catechism is the Roman Catholic teaching on justification.  Around the time the Catechism was written in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent declared, “If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ; or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified, let him be anathema [accursed or condemned].”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise states, “…faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ.”  What unites the believer to Christ, according to Rome, is faith plus good works.  According to the Roman Catholic Church, our good works are indeed a part of our righteousness before God. 


The authors of the Catechism didn’t see that teaching in Holy Scripture.  Instead, when they read the Bible they saw that it said that any thing that will get passed off as righteousness before God has to be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with God’s law.  Paul said it in Galatians 3:10-11,  “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.  Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”  Perfection is the only way that anything we do can be accepted by God so that he will declare us righteous and then adopt us for his children and heirs. 


And the fact is, that when we are dead in sin, we are unable to meet that standard.  “Even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”  Even when we’re believers, the good we do comes stained with sin.  How much more isn’t that the case for someone who is still in unbelief, who doesn’t yet have a right relationship with God?  Here you can think of that powerful passage in Isaiah 64 that speaks of the “righteous” acts of God’s people as filthy rags.   


Some of the last words to come from the mouth of Martin Luther were, “We are beggars.  That is true.”  Indeed, all of us, left to ourselves, are poor beggars.  We have nothing to give to God.  We only have one thing to contribute to our salvation and that’s our sin.  Apart from that, there is nothing.  Certainly no good works! 


The Lord Jesus taught these same truths in the parable we read from Luke 18.  He saw people around him who sincerely believed they were right with God.  They were, Scripture says, “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”  Driven by pride, they were deceiving themselves into thinking that they were in a healthy, friendly relationship with God. 


He told the parable about two men.  One was a Pharisee – a religious leader who people looked up to.  The other was a tax collector – looked down on as a rotten scoundrel and collaborator with the Romans.  Both men went up to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee found the best place where he could occupy center stage.  And what he did say?  He prayed about or even to himself!  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector over here.  I fast twice a week and give ten percent of all I get.”  He said this good and loud so that everybody could hear him.


But then there was this tax collector, scum of the earth extraordinaire.  He found a little corner in the temple where there were few people around.  He didn’t even dare to pray with his eyes looking up, the way people often did in those days.  Instead, he beat his chest and cried.  He knew he was a sinner and he pleaded for God’s mercy.  This man knew that there was something really wrong with his life.  He knew that God could make it right and he could be brought into a good relationship with him. 


Then listen to those powerful words of Christ at the end of the story:  “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  You see, we will never get right with God in the footsteps of the Pharisee.  Our good works, whatever they might be, will never contribute one iota to our righteousness before God.  We have to be like that tax collector.  We have to look closely at ourselves and see our own sin and need.  We need God’s mercy just like he did! 


If we cling to Christ, trusting and resting in him alone, God will have mercy on us.  Good works are inept, they’re unsuitable for our justification.  But the righteousness of Christ is eminently suitable, in fact, it is the only way.  Realizing this causes us to humble ourselves before God again and again.  Our good works are not worthy.  We are not worthy.  Those who humble themselves in this way will find their exaltation in the age to come.


However, in the age to come (and in this age), God promises to reward the works which we do as believers which are consistent with his Word and done to his praise and glory.  That Biblical truth drives the second question of our Lord’s Day this afternoon:  doesn’t that mean that there is some way in which our good works do earn us something with God, even if that doesn’t mean justification?     


This is where we need to consider the teaching of our Lord Jesus in Luke 17.  In verses 7-10, he speaks to his disciples.  He says, let’s say that one of you had a slave.  Now the key thing to recognize here is that a slave did not have a right to be paid for his service.  A slave or a servant (as the NIV translates that word) 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 fix supper?  And when the slave does what he’s supposed to do, he doesn’t get thanked.  And so the 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.  Because the amazing thing 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.  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. 


And that brings us to consider finally the root of our good works.  Remember here we’re now speaking about those who are believers.  Those who are grafted into Christ, as the Catechism puts it.  The question there is whether or not this teaching makes people careless and wicked.  This was an objection raised by the Roman Catholics.  If good works don’t earn us anything with God, then why would we do them?  What would motivate us?  Note the narcissistic bent to that sort of question, as if we would only do something good if we could get something out of it.


The answer is connected inextricably to Christ, just as believers are connected to Christ and united to him through their faith.  According to the Catechism, the Bible teaches us that good works are inevitable for those who are truly grafted into Christ.  “Grafted” is just another way of speaking about union with Christ, being joined to his body.  Just like a branch properly grafted onto an apple tree is going to inevitably bear apples, so also people who are properly grafted into Christ are going to bear fruit as well – fruits of thankfulness for the salvation they have in Christ. 


But don’t take the Catechism’s word for it – look at what the Bible says.  In our reading from Ephesians 2, in verses 8-10, we’re reminded that faith is a gift of God.  We’re reminded that our salvation is not by works – this prevents anybody from getting prideful and boasting.  And then verse 10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  In other words, we are entirely the result of God’s handiwork.  He created us in Christ Jesus.   That means that our new identity is tied up in our union with Christ, being grafted into Christ by true faith.  And what was the purpose or the result of all that?  Good works!  Good works flow out of our union with Christ.


The Lord Jesus made the same point in John 15:5 when he said, “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.”  Did you hear those last words?  “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Just as inevitably as a healthy normal apple tree bears apples, so the body of Jesus Christ will also bear the fruits of thankfulness.  It can’t help but do that! 


Good works, then, are the fruit, and not the root our righteousness with God.  They are fruit, and not the root, of our relationship with God.  Satan would love to have us turn that around.  And something in us – could it be our pride? – wants to do that as well.  But following what the Scriptures teach, we must resist that temptation.  Through God’s help, we hold to the gospel of grace – for it alone is truly good news.


As we get to the end of the sermon, you’re probably waiting for the exhortation to go out now and do good works and show that you’re grafted into Christ.  But if you are grafted into Christ, do you really need to be told that?  In one sense, no.  Grafted into Christ by faith, you’ll love his Word and you’ll want to dig into it for yourself and as you do so, you’ll come across the commands and imperatives in the gospels, epistles and elsewhere and they will shape your walk of life.  Many of those commands are framed in the context of our thankfulness and you’ll hopefully recognize that.  But preachers also have a responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God.  That certainly means announcing the good news of what Christ has done for us and apart from us.  But because the Word of God tells us to go out and do good works, that Word must be preached too.  It must be explained fully and carefully applied wherever possible.  But when that is done, understand very clearly that it is not the root of our righteousness.  The Word (written and preached) exhorts you to be who are in Christ, to show your love and thankfulness for your God by living a Christian life – not because you’re going to pay God back by doing that (who could do that?), but because it’s what you were created to do. 


Let’s pray:


Heavenly Father,


We thank you for the all-sufficient righteousness of Christ our Saviour.  Without it we would be lost.  We also thank you for your grace and kindness in rewarding our good works, even though they merit and earn nothing before you.  We are truly unworthy servants who simply do our duty – we praise your mercy and compassion.  Father, we pray that our union with Christ would continue to bear fruits of thankfulness – fruits that bring glory and honour to your name.  Help us with your Spirit and Word to be who we are in him.  We pray in Jesus Christ the Righteous, AMEN.        

* 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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