We might picture God’s love as a waterfall. It comes rushing down upon us. Think about what Christ has done for you already: he created this place, became man, lived a difficult life, suffered many injustices at the hands of men, was tortured and crucified, died a horrific death, was buried, rose, ascended to the right hand of the Father to rule all things for you, and is preparing a place for you in that heaven. It’s quite remarkable. I don’t know why we ever worry! Christ has too much invested in us not to finish the job (keep us in the true faith and take us to heaven). This is the waterfall of God’s love that rushes upon us every time we receive his absolution, hear gospel preaching, and partake of his body and blood. Not to mention all the daily gifts he has given us.
I suppose we could try to return the favor, but that is like taking a bucket of water from this waterfall and throwing it up heavenward. It’s not going to get there. Try this at home, and you will see the water will just fall back on top of you. Such is God’s love. Think about this in terms of worship. Worship, at its core, is trust in God. The praise of worship is proclaiming what he has done for us in sincere thanksgiving. But who benefits from worship? God? It’s not like there is a celestial bank account in which the church’s offerings are deposited. Those offerings (an act of worship) are used for the benefit of the church and the world. Who benefits? We do. It’s like throwing water upward. It comes right back down upon us.
God throws our worship and deeds back down upon us as gifts. Who benefits from prayer? We do. We are reminded of the great things God has done for us as we repeat these words and actions to him. We also learn trust, much like a mother puts words of trust and love into the mouths of her babies. “Say, ‘I love you, Mama,’” she teaches her child, solidifying the relationship of trust and love. Who benefits from hymns and songs of praise? We do, and so do the people who hear these songs. Praise is also proclamation.
The same is true for all of our work. Does God really need your work? Gustaf Wingren wrote a memorable line about this very question: “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does” (Luther on Vocation, 10). God is not a narcissist collecting all the praises of his people and their good deeds to boost his ego. Nor do good parents look at the actions of their children as an avenue for their own prestige. Good parents want their children to flourish because they love their children. They also want their children to be good citizens and to love their neighbors. So it is with God.
We talk a lot about giving glory to God. It’s a wonderful biblical concept, but it is shorthand. “We work for the glory of God” is shorthand for “We love the world without any thought of pleasing God, and this is to his glory.” Soli Deo gloria is a Latin phrase that means “To God alone be the glory.” At first glance, it seems that this means that humans should do everything so that God is honored. That’s true, but don’t miss the nuance. First, theologically we give glory to God because he gets the credit. We don’t save ourselves; God saved us. Any doctrine that seems to give credit to humanity is put through this test: Who gets the credit (the glory)? If the answer is us, something is amiss. Second, not only is the glory of God in his divine majesty; it is in his love, specifically at the cross (John 12:23–26). A god who demands his people’s praises and deeds only for the sake of his ego is not a glorious god but a tyrant. This is not the God of Christianity. God’s glory shone the brightest when he died for humanity (1). We work for his glory when we are so free from pleasing him that we get lost in loving our neighbors. Working for the glory of God is shorthand for loving your neighbor.
I think this is what Paul is after in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans with this curious passage: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom 12:1). First, there is an oxymoron in this passage, “living sacrifices.” A sacrifice, by definition, is dead. We can use the word sacrifice in a broad sense, but for Jewish Christians living in Rome (and Gentiles too), the idea of sacrifice would have immediately brought death to mind. Paul highlights this by adding the adjective “living” to the deadly noun “sacrifices.” When the Christian lives for someone else in vocation, he dies to himself. It truly is a sacrifice.
The other curious matter is the idea of worship. The Greek word used for worship in this passage is where we get our English word liturgy. The term has to do with service and can be rightly translated as “religious worship.” What is curious is that Paul uses it to describe the whole of the Christian life and not just acts of worship. Remember that worship is, first of all, trust. Christians trust that God has saved them from their sins and made them new. The old person is a sinner and always will be. The new creation is righteous and cannot be anything but righteous. This sinner-saint is sent to do work in the world. When the Christian is brought to repentance, the old dies and the new rises. The selfish sinner also dies when the saint works acts of love, a fruit of repentance. This is to the glory of God. This is worship.