Sunday, September 5, 2010

God at Work

Texts: Romans 3:1- 4:8; John 6:24-29

WHEN I WAS A KID, I COULD NEVER see the point of the Labor Day holiday. The day was about labor, right? So why did people get the day off?

Of course, I learned in time that Labor Day doesn't celebrate labor, it celebrates laborers. Especially workers who often were taken for granted for long centuries of human history. It was established in 1894 to highlight the achievements of men and women who worked in the mills, the factories, and the mines of America.

And America's workers have a lot to be proud of. Historically, we have the most productive labor force in the world. It stands to reason that labor should have a day to boast in what they've done for America and the world.

But it's not just America's workers who want to take pride in their accomplishments on the job. Everywhere in the world laborers want to feel that their efforts count for something. We have a basic human need to stand on our own feet and know we've got things under control for ourselves and our families. As it says in Ecclesiastes 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God . . . "

That's how it is in this world. We can say that's how things should be in this world; "under the sun," as Solomon puts it.

But human labor and human capability has a limit. There's one job only one Worker can do, and that's the job of reconciling lost and sinful humanity to the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. That one Worker is God Himself, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We humans can do a lot in this world to keep body and soul together and find fulfilment doing it. God gives us the time and talents and strength to make our living, and we have to put our backs into it ourselves if we want to get along. But only God Himself by Himself can accomplish the work of salvation and sanctification that brings us into His kingdom of everlasting life. Only He can overcome the sin and wickedness that separates every human creature from Himself.

But as we know, human history has been one long process of mankind disagreeing with that principle. We think that when it comes to our salvation, God helps them who help themselves.

From the dawn of time, every tribe and nation in this world from has been aware that there is a High God to Whom they owe worship and right moral behaviour. Every person ever born has it written on his or her heart that certain things are right and certain things are wrong; that there's a good way and a bad way to treat God and our neighbor. It teaches that God has the right to expect good behavior from us. This is called natural law, or conscience. It's not the possession of any particular faith or religion; it's what God has put within us because we are human beings made in His image.

Then there's also a distinctive people, the Jews, and the Lord God revealed to them His spoken and written Law. They didn't have to guess at what they had to do to please God and live; they had it down in detail.

But Jew or pagan alike, humankind has always distorted the law of God and watered it down into something they could manage. They felt that they could do enough to please God, and God would reward them for their hard work with prosperity in this life and maybe even eternal blessedness in the world to come.

Was the Creator of heaven and earth impressed? Did He look down on humanity and say, "Oh, my, you're doing your best, you should be so proud of yourselves! You've worked so hard, I'm going to give you a Labor Day parade!"

No. Rather, in Romans 3:19, the Apostle Paul, speaking by the Holy Spirit, says "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God." The pagan peoples stand guilty because they've perverted and departed from the natural law written on the heart. The Jews are convicted because they have disobeyed the Law revealed through Moses. What's just as bad or worse, when they were supposedly trying to work to please God, everyone to whom Paul writes has been trying to earn their own righteousness by observing the law according to their own version of it. But the Scripture says that no one can stand righteous in the sight of God by doing that, no matter how hard they work.

But what about us, citizens of the United States and the western world? We live after the cross of Christ. Even if we don't actually belong to a church, our ethics and morals are pretty much based on the law of love that Jesus preached, right? If we just follow Jesus as our good example, and do the things He would do, won't that will be okay with God?

All the time we hear people say, "I work hard to do what's right. God will let me into heaven because of that." People say, "God knows I'm doing my best. He knows my heart, that'll be enough."

But even for us today, that is not enough. "Doing our best" and "making a good effort" is still us trying to justify ourselves by works of the law. We've lowered the standard for what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but even so, we're still laboring to earn God's favor, so we can boast that we deserved it.

The Scripture, however, is clear. We are all defendants in God's courtroom, and every mouth is silenced before Him. The whole world is accountable before God, including ourselves. No one will be declared righteous by works of the law; rather, the law-- the revealed law and the natural law-- the law full and forceful from the hand of Almighty God-- shows us what great sinners we are. Jesus Himself proclaimed that the fountain of wickedness is us is the very heart that we think will earn us our ticket into heaven. And once the law makes us truly conscious of sin, we won't be boasting that God will accept us because He knows our hearts. We'll want to run and hide from His righteous anger.

What can we do? Our condition is nothing to have a parade about! Not unless it's a parade to the gallows.

The answer is, we can do nothing. God, the great Worker of salvation, does it all. As Romans 3:21 says, "But now--" Now, that we have been declared guilty and worthy of condemnation-- "Now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known." The law and the prophets all testified that this righteousness was coming. It came to us through Jesus Christ our Lord; He brought us perfect redemption through His sinless life, His atoning death, and His glorious resurrection. God Himself has worked to give us access to His own righteousness through faith in Jesus, and not even that faith was a work of ours. As it says in Ephesians 2, "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast."

Our salvation is God's great labor from start to finish. Only He could have done it. The righteousness and justice of God demanded that sin be paid for. We couldn't pay it. No matter what we did, we could never be good enough to ward off the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins. But it was also the loving will of God that He would justify His elect. What was God to do?

What only God could do. God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, came into the world as a perfect Human Being and died as a sacrifice of atonement to God. His blood covers all our sins. That way, God's holy justice is satisfied and He is able to say to those whom He calls to faith in Christ, "You are perfect and righteous in My sight."

This is what God did for you when He brought you to faith in Christ by the voice of His Holy Spirit. This is what He may be doing for you even now as the power of His word works in your life, convicting you of your sin and convincing you to trust in Christ alone for your salvation. This is God at work! This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, may His name be praised forever!

But you may have noticed something about yourself; I'm sure I've noticed it about me. It's that even after God has called us to faith in Jesus Christ, there's still that old sin nature hanging around in us. And it whispers, "You really did part of the work in your own salvation. God must've saved you because of something good you did or were!"

And isn't that what unbelievers think we Christians believe about ourselves? That we think we deserved to be saved because we're actually holier or better than other people? Heaven help us, sometimes we give them good excuse to think that. Let me ask you this, what is your attitude towards flagrant sinners? What do you think about homosexuals and drunkards and bitter-tongued gossips and adulterers? What's your attitude towards corporate CEOs or government officials who apparently are cheating the public? Does that immediately drive you to pray for their salvation? Or . . . ?

Let's admit it. The temptation is to say, "Thank God I'm not like that! Those people should try harder to do what's right! God should punish them and give them what they deserve!"

I hope you resist that temptation. I hope you flee it with every fiber of your being. It's true, people like that don't deserve God's mercy. Neither did you or I. Romans teaches that none of us has the right to boast of being holier-than-thou. We are not, not, not justified by our works of righteousness, or by anything we earned or deserved. No, we were saved by Christ's work of righteousness imputed to us by the one God of all.

We don't used this word "imputed" or "imputation" every day, but it describes what God does for us. Think of somebody who's horribly in debt. And a kind and rich person comes along and credits the entire amount of the debt to the debtor's account and totally pays it off. That money is reckoned as his and he gets the good of it. What he can't do is boast that it's his own money or that somehow he deserved it.

That's what God did for Abraham and what He does for us. Abraham simply believed that God had accepted him and he believed God's promises of blessing to him. Ultimately, Abraham's faith looked forward to the Messiah Jesus who was his many-times-great grandson. In the same way, it's not up to us to earn our righteousness, but simply to accept the righteous sacrifice of Christ in our behalf.

The Galileans who saw Jesus feed the 5,000 chased Him back to Capernaum because they wanted more of the physical bread He'd given. Jesus says, No, that's not the bread you should be working for, but the food that endures to eternal life that He, the Son of Man, would give them. These people were like us. They wanted everlasting happiness with God and they wanted to know what they had to do to get it. We'll work for it, Master, we really will! That's what we say, too. "What must we do to do the works God requires?" And Jesus answers, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

This isn't "your work" that you have to do. It's the work of God that He does within you! God is the one worker of our salvation, He is responsible for it all. He saved us and He can save the most flagrant of sinners, regardless of who or what they may be.

And it's His work, not ours, that keeps us in His grace. Maybe you've picked up the idea that you were saved by Christ's death on the cross, but now it's up to you to make sure you stay saved. Brothers and sisters! It's all a gift! It's all God's workmanship! We can't brag about our salvation and we can't brag about how He's making us holy! Right now He's working in you by His Holy Spirit, forgiving your sins, making you more like Christ, drawing you to love your fellow-Christians and also all the poor dying sinners who need the Savior just like we do! It's all God at work!

So now, take a holiday from your own works, because God has put in all the labor for you. As you do His will, know that it's His Spirit working in you. With all God's justified and grace-imputed people, sing with King David that

"Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him."

Blessed of the Father, rest in the work He does for you. And if anyone wants to boast, let him boast joyfully in the Lord.

To whom be all honor and glory, wisdom and strength, now and forever. Amen.

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