“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” -Acts 17:24-25
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” -Ephesians 2:10
I don’t know if you’re like me or not, but ideas can kick around in my head in a big jumble for awhile and then, all of a sudden, something random makes all of the pieces come together. That happened to me today. I finally got around to watching The Last Jedi. I was caught up in the stirring story of the faltering band of rebels, on the verge of extinction, fighting valiantly for the good against overwhelming odds. My heart soared with the dramatic music when the warriors went into battle ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause that meant more to them than their own existence. I was moved by their passion and devotion.
Immediately after the movie ended, I was perusing Facebook and ran across a video that was simply headlined, “103 Year Old Gospel Singer Sings ‘How Great Thou Art.’” The nameless 103 year old “Gospel Singer” turned out to be none other than George Beverly Shea, the featured soloist of the Billy Graham Crusades beginning in 1944. Because of that opportunity with Graham, it is estimated that Shea sang live before more people than anyone else in history. He is best known for his rendition of the song “How Great Thou Art,” which he introduced and popularized in this country through the Billy Graham Crusades. I was saddened to see that he was now reduced to an unidentified gospel singer whose claim to fame was his advanced age and the fact that he could still carry a random tune.
Both the movie and the Facebook video caused me to reflect on the two scriptures with which I began this article, and then to think about stories in the Bible of the people who served God.
I grew up in a very legalistic church that taught me that God was paying special attention to the works of those who claimed to be Christians, to determine whether their actions bore out those claims. If there were enough good works, they would be approved by God, if not, they would be lost. This hotbed of insecurity actually provided the perfect soil for the good news of grace to take root and flourish in my heart, so I am grateful for it now, in that sense. However, a residual effect of that warped theology is a lingering and disproportionate suspicion and fear of anything that even hints at a requirement or expectation of works.
From the time I first heard and understood the good news, I have found my comfort in the belief that all of my sins and failures, past, present and future, were laid upon Christ at the cross and that, in exchange, all of his perfect righteousness was credited to me. I need to know that, when Jesus said, “It is Finished,” he meant that, as far as God is concerned, there is nothing more required of me for salvation. I need to hear that truth over and over, every single day, to calm those lingering fears.
To me, the important words there are “for salvation”. My salvation is secure, because of Christ alone and what he did for me. Not one more thing is required of me. Unlike what I was taught, my salvation will not be stripped away from me because I do not subsequently measure up in some way. There is no more threat of condemnation hanging over my head that might fall on me and disqualify me for eternity. Christ bore it all. That assurance alone gives me peace.
What I am finally beginning to be able to do now, because of that assurance, is tell the difference between my not needing to do anything to earn God’s approval and being given, by God, no-risk opportunities to love my neighbor. I say “no risk”, because when I mess up, there is no risk that God will be angry with me and cut me off. These opportunities are the works referred to in Ephesians 2:10 that God prepared in advance for me to do, so that both my neighbor and I will be blessed. They are as much a part of my riches in Christ as is my justification, and in no way detract from it.
Acts 17:24-25 reassures me that God does not need these works from me, because he is the one who gives them to me for my benefit and not the other way around. These are not things I must do for him, but things I get to do with him. They are not about me grabbing glory from God, but are God’s way of glorifying himself. These opportunities will teach me, mold me, give me a greater understanding of who God is and who I am in relation to him and, at the same time, help others.
Blessedly, there is no demand for perfection on my part. There is not one record in scripture of any person that God used, aside from his own Son, who didn’t mess up while serving him, yet they still got to have a part in what God was doing. In every instance, they gained a deeper understanding of God and themselves while benefitting others.
Noah built an ark and made it all the way through the flood, but then got drunk and disgraced himself. Yet God’s purpose for the earth was still fulfilled and Noah got to experience God’s faithfulness and provision in a way that no other human ever has.
Moses thought himself to be a hero and killed a man, then ran and hid for many years. When God finally called him to rescue Israel from Egypt, he was so lacking in confidence that, despite God’s assurances of the sufficiency of his provision, Moses insisted that God send his brother, Aaron, with him to speak to Pharaoh. Near the end of his life, Moses let his temper get the best of him and disobeyed God’s direct orders. Yet, God still used him to accomplish his purpose for Israel and, in the process, Moses was privileged to experience God in a way that no one had since Adam in the Garden of Eden.
David slept with the wife of a faithful friend, got her pregnant and then had his friend killed to cover it up. His family was completely dysfunctional, his adult children were a mess, but God used David to bless Israel like no other king before or since and David was given the opportunity to look down through the ages and pen songs about the coming Messiah. These songs would then become the very words of Christ.
Peter was an over-eager hot-head who was always getting in trouble, even to the point of denying Christ. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, even after God specifically told him that Gentiles were now equal before God with the Jews, he was more concerned about what the legalists would think about him than what God had said and he refused to be seen with the Gentiles in public when they were around. Yet, he was used mightily to establish the early church and it was his honor to die a martyr’s death for his precious savior, after having had the incredible experience of living and working side by side with God in the flesh, daily, for three and a half years.
My point is, any chances that I am given by God to love as I have been loved are neither given to me for my own glory, nor as some kind of requirement by which I will be judged and found wanting. They are gifts that God intends to use for my good and by which I am privileged to bless others. The works God has prepared for me may involve my loving my family well, sacrificing my life for Christ who means more to me than my existence, or singing “How Great Thou Art” around the world. God knows what is most beneficial for me and for you, and for those he wants to bless through us.
When our life on earth is through, our names will most likely be forgotten here. We deserve and earn no merit of our own by doing what God gives us to do. God alone is the one to whom all glory belongs for his free gift of all things to us, in Christ.