Ok boys and girls, it is time for our lesson on how to listen and respond when Servants of the Word start preaching about good works. I want you to listen to some, but, walk away from others. If they go soft on good works you need to walk. What do I mean by soft, Virginia*? Going soft on good works means watering them down so that that any moralistic do-gooder can perform and parade them from pure self-interest. Soft good works are the relaxed kind that Jesus railed against in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:19-22). They are the kind of works that sometimes shove godly virtue in your face because it’s written on their face. Soft good works also include calculated works where the right hand knows exactly what the left hand is doing (see Matthew 6:1-4). The most distinguishing characteristic of soft good works is that they are doable—by anyone. If this is how good works are preached and taught, it’s time shake the dust off your feet—and walk. Encouragement and soft good works just feed the sinful flesh and rob believers of the power and freedom of the Gospel. Good and God-pleasing works are always normed by the Law of God, but they need to be preached and taught at full-strength. This means that whatever outward actions they may demand, they will always include what is demanded in and from your heart. You need to listen to preachers who exhort and admonish all your good outward doing to flow from faith in Christ and love of God and neighbor. Preachers of true godly works will not shy away from reminding you that if your nice outward righteous doing does not flow from such faith and love of God (and your neighbor), they are just what Isaiah compared to filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
What’s that, Virginia? You say you would not feel very uplifted by such preaching? Good! You’re not supposed to be.
Proper preaching of good works is never for our encouragement. Rather, it is intended do two things at the same time: inform you about what God-pleasing works really are; and then, where it is that they are lacking in your life. If it does not do the former, it cannot do the latter. The preaching of soft good works does neither. Proper preaching and teaching good works with appropriate admonitions are not designed to reveal your virtue or make you feel good about yourself. They are intended to expose your poverty—what you should do, but don’t. This is a good thing for your spiritual health and, oddly enough, such preaching actually has an important role in doing good works.
How? Just be patient Virginia, I’ll get there.
Because good preaching of works commands the spirit with the letter of the Law, it always exposes our weak faith and nails us for our impoverished, often self-centered works. While this may make us squirm, it is a good thing. The Spirit of the Lord uses this to expose false works and indict our poverty to make us hungry for the Gospel—to make us hungry for the all-sufficient works and righteousness of Christ. So, is proper preaching and admonishing of good works a setup for the Gospel? Yes!
And Virginia, when the Gospel gives you the all-sufficient perfect works of Christ and sets you free from their legal necessity, something magical happens.
Gerhard Forde called it the hilarity of the Gospel. When you realize there is nothing you have to do, the impact of the Gospel produces both the desire and freedom to do them, and do them from the heart. God is sneaky. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:4). Works of faith without Legal compulsion from a free spirit was His plan for you all along (see John 15:1-5 and Galatians 2:10)! Luther understood that this is what St. Augustine meant when he said: Love God and do as you please.
However, if the preacher does not teach and urge works that demand the spirit of the law in the heart, works are being offered up that are soft and it’s time to walk. Encouragement to be about soft good works may motivate you to ratchet up more or better outward moral living—perhaps to satisfy a guilt trip—but it will not produce any hunger for the works and righteousness of Christ. It will not take you to the Gospel—the power of God unto salvation, and the power of God that alone produces the fruit of faith.
What’s that Virginia? Will the right preaching of good works show you your own good works? No. The chief purpose of the Law is to reveal your sin (Romans 3:20). It also reveals what good works are, but it does not reveal yours.
Your good works are God’s secrets. He accomplishes this work in the hidden recesses of the believer’s heart and mind, where fear, love and trust in God are nurtured. ... We must also trust that works are empowered and produced by the same Gospel that pardons and gives eternal life (Christian Life: Cross or Glory?, p. 145)
The bottom line is that your good works are to be believed simply because Christ promises they are there (again, see John 5:1-5, Galatians 2:10). But listen up all you boys and girls. Christ will reveal them to you as a prelude to His Awards Banquet on Judgment Day (see Matthew 25:31-40). For now, however, size up properly how good works are being preached by Servants of the Word. And then, either listen up... or walk.
*Virginia was a regular attendee of Robert Farrar Capon’s class on the parables of Jesus. Since his death, she has sometimes attended my classes.