Right use of good works in local economy

print

East Ridge resident Larry Setliffe, a former homeless man who graduated from the Bible study program at Union Gospel Mission (two buildings in background) has grown in grace as a result of Christian works of charity and friendship.

One tenet of local economy is private capital and private action. This notion is surly, demanding and unreasonable, given the degree to which big government and big tax-sucking lobbies busy themselves telling local people how to live, how to plan and what good works really are (namely, public).If we trust the theories of regional “planners” who are our betters, private action is a hostile proposal, a shot fired across the bow of their great five-year plan (no, sorry their great 40-year plan) for Chattanooga and surrounding areas. Private charity is the exception, not the norm.

I have been thinking lately about a conflict among Christian people in Chattanooga over private action and what the scriptures refer to as good works. The good works God requires of every human being are those which that soul pays from his time and treasure, and which operate in the moral grid of God’s explicit commands to His people. Good works are not, as one of my dear relations in the Catholic church sees it, writing letters to Congress demanding more funding for the U.S. food stamp program. Of the myriad virtues extolled in scripture, lobbying the federal congress is not one of them.

Among well-meaning believers in Chattanooga is a conflict that touches on the end of these works. By “end,” I mean whether obedience and good works are part of our justification or our sanctification. Does God accept us on the basis of our good private charity? Or does He save us by grace through faith alone, as the reformed church rediscovered in the 16th century.

Martin Luther is said to have pointed out the difficulty a Christian has in maintaining balance on a steed. If I lose hold, I tumble into the ditch of legalism — the idea of good works’ bringing salvation. If I wobble and toss off the other side of the horse, I end up in the ditch of antinomianism [anti + law]. This idea holds that God’s law is irrelevant because Christianity is now in an age of grace, and all law is a matter of the flesh.

The question of good works arises in our explorations of local economy in this important way: If the purpose of my good works is to buy salvation, I remain under God’s judgment, and the future is bleak. If I am a legalist, the future holds temporal destruction (illegitimacy, decapitalization, depopulation, anarchy, tyranny and arbitrary and capricious acts in church and state against me and against God). It holds eternal destruction as I have fallen into soul-damning error.

FIRST OF ALL, WHAT are good works? One way to conceive of them is to look up the 10 commandments. Take the eighth commandment, for example, on the right to property as against the stealing of it. Under the duty to not steal are numerous obligations, according to the Westminster Assembly’s larger catechism:

➤ Justice in contracts and commerce. Psalm 15:4 says the Lord honors a man “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”
➤ Restitution of goods unlawfully detained from their right owner
➤ Giving and lending freely, particularly to fellow believers
➤ Moderation of affections concerning worldly goods
➤ Frugality “So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost” (John 6:12)
➤ “ *** Endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.” By this I am told that in my business dealings I have to seek to prosper colleagues and partners NO LESS THAN myself.

“Thou shalt not steal” amplifies outward into all sorts of circumstances. Its positive obligations are matched by prohibitions of numerous sins that fall under the scope of this provision in Christ’s ordinances through Moses (Exodus 20).

Good works in the area of property rights are living out God’s holy character. The temptation we face is to think we are applying them somehow to our salvation. Hence we have ministers such as the famous Jimmy Swaggart, who speaks slightingly sometimes of God’s law in favor of “the cross and Him crucified.” He decries people who care about obedience as lost souls who have mistaken God’s first things.

THE 10 COMMANDMENTS define God’s character, and are the moral law for mankind. They light the path of every man, and every nation. As summaries of God’s moral code, they encapsulate every possible duty, and every possible prohibition about which a godly man wishes to be aware. It is in terms of God’s law that God judges men and nations. His judgments and blessings are always in terms of His character, as revealed in His commands to mankind, His sense of equity and justice. If nations are judged and fall, it is on the basis of a set of revealed sanctions. If nations prosper and are blessed, it is in terms of providence and God’s character as revealed in His law and word, according to the scriptures. Obedience, then, is a work. Does obedience bring salvation?

GOD’S LAW TOUCHES on a man’s justification in a limited way.

Made aware of God’s law, a man is convicted of his sin, and is brought to the place of repentance. The law shows man he is a sinner, wholly lacking any merit within himself by which to please God. If God intends to deliver a man into His kingdom and bring him eternal grace, that man’s entry into the family of God is always because the convicting power of God’s law has had a salutary, salvific effect. God’s will is not to be thwarted, and by the power of the Holy Spirit the law kills the old man and gives birth to the new soul. Sorry for having offended God, the sinner is transformed. He finds new life in Jesus Christ.

Desiring to please his new master, the man (who still sins, but is not slave to sin) turns to the Scripture as his instruction book, his manual for living. He lives life in terms of God’s commands. The law affects his secret thoughts, his desires, it reminds him to forgive others, to overlook sins against him, to be generous with his time, to keep his promises (to wife and in business contracts).

James’ letter is all about the end and purpose of good works. He calls them requisite in any faithful man. The Christian minister teaching through that book or Paul’s letter to the Galatians sees no contradictions and no conflict between good works/obedience and salvation by grace through faith alone. Each doctrine has its place, its proper end.

The Judaizers in Galatia erred by insisting new Christians in Israel had to be circumcised to be true sons of God in Jesus Christ. The law of God must be rightly used. To use it unto salvation is to be a legalist. The law is good, thanks be to God for it. The law is too perfect and too wonderful in its demands for life and society, Paul says. No one can keep it, even if one tries really hard.

Paul’s letter delves into the misuse of the law by those who contend that some part of law keeping is essential to salvation itself, to justification. Paul argues that the law and obedience have an essential part — essential elsewhere. It is in sanctification that the law has a place for the convert. Sanctification is inseparable but distinct part of a Christian’s life. It is his walk in holiness, a process and progress in being more Christlike in his inner and his public life, in family and as a consumer, in the ballotbox and with the cartridge box, in his check writing and his letter writing. The laws of God apply to the living out of a life pleasing to God.

The right use of ordinances such as the Lord’s Supper, tithing, prayer, Lord’s Day worship apply not to justification, which is a fait accompli from the will of the Creator. Such right use of God’s law applies to the living out of the Christian life.

I EXPLORE THIS QUESTION because I believe it honors the way God explains things in Galatians and because it touches on local economy. If Christianity is to continue its good influence in Chattanooga and surrounding areas, its churches might well consider raising the doctrinal level slightly to distinguish between justification and sanctification.

We don’t want to be legalists, because that makes our good deeds of no use to God or the kingdom.

We don’t want to be licentious, lawless rebels who deny God’s jurisdiction in the affairs of this world.

No one in either of these categories will be of much use to making Christianity more useful to man and more glorifying to God.