In the Bible, the word ‘love’ means more than just a warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Love is active. God loved us and did something about it. If we say we love God, we should be doing something about it. Our love for God includes obey.
This handy foldable helps us to think through why we do what we do. Print out the sheet [click here] and fold in in half with words on the outside. Then you can fold the top and bottom sections forwards or backwards on the lines and create different sentences to discuss. ‘God loves us and so we love and obey’? Or ‘We love and obey and so God loves us’? What about ‘God loves us because God loves us’?
John Wesley – great man, yes? I certainly can’t fault his enthusiasm, and his bro wrote some cracking hymns but (at this point I turn my back to the camera to protect my identity) … whispering … I’m not sure I’d have liked him that much. Is that a dreadful admission?
I’ve recently been reading a biography of the Anglican priest who founded Methodism and, while I am impressed with how much effort he put into being holy and acceptable to God, he wasn’t exactly a bundle of fun, even resolving not to laugh at one point. After his heart was ‘strangely-warmed’, Wesley freely admitted that he had been trying to earn God’s favour by his stern way of life.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with putting effort into one’s faith. Many of us in the west, Protestants particularly (which means me), take it a bit easy on the ‘be holy for I am holy’ front. (1 Pet 1:16, Lev 20:26 etc). But why?
Why should we be holy and why (largely) don’t we bother?
I think the answer to first question is we should do it because we can’t, and the answer to the second is we don’t do it because we can.
Hang on – ‘we should do it because we can’t and we don’t do it because we can.’ Isn’t that the wrong way around? Shouldn’t we try to do something that we can do?
That would be logical, and it would be fine if what we were doing was the important thing here. But it’s not. John Wesley, with his striving to be holy, had a lot to learn from Abraham in our passage today. What does it say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” And that’s it. Full stop. It’s not “… and it was credited to him as righteousness because Abraham did all the things that God wanted.” It’s just believe. Full stop.
Sounds simple, but it’s really hard. Really, really hard. Not the believing – the full stop. It’s the full stop that is so hard. That’s what Wesley found. He was trying to be righteous so that he would be acceptable to God. He was trying to add things before the full stop – fasting, praying, hard work for the church, Bible study, preaching, self-examination, repentance – all good and worthy, but completely useless is they’re being done so that. Useless in front of the full stop.
What’s so hard is to accept that the full stop is the end of the deal. There is nothing, nothing, that I can do to make God love me one iota more. There is nothing, nothing¸ that I can do to advance me one nanometre closer to heaven. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Full stop.
That’s not to say I believe in cheap grace. It’s not ‘say you love God and the then just keep living however you want’. The thief on the cross was admitted to paradise without changing his lifestyle, but for those of us with more time, we are expected to demonstrate the fruit of our faith. We can’t add anything before the full stop. But we are expected to add things after. And so, rather than so that.
Covenants, like Abraham’s with God, and the New Covenant of which we are a part (Jer 31) have requirements. Not conditions to enter the covenant – Paul is at pains here to explain that “it was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise” – but expectations on those already within the covenant. Works are not a way to enter God’s favour, but are an expected response to the fact that, bizarrely, inexplicably, we have God’s favour
Be holy: We should do it because we can’t. We should do it as a loving response to the God who made us holy when we could not do it for ourselves. God declared us holy, and so we should live like that. After the full stop. Abraham discovered this and so (eventually) did Wesley at the famous meeting at Aldersgate Street. He accepted the full stop. Be holy? By our own effort we can’t. Never could, never will be able.
So we should do it because we can’t, yet we don’t do it because we can.
Many of us have had the ‘faith not works’ mantra drummed into our very souls, so that anything even remotely resembling works is viewed with suspicion. We are so keen to not add anything before the full stop that we fail to add things after. For fear of falling back onto earning our place in the covenant, we lean too far the other way and topple into a relationship with no responsibilities.
We can end up in the situation where we (subconsciously) feel we should be good enough for God because we do this and this and this, yet we don’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to be holy … because, well, we’re British for a start (at least, I am) and we’re Protestant (at least, I am), and we don’t go in for all that visible devotion and wot-not. Faith not works, don’t’cha know?
But faith without works is dead.
So as a British protestant, I am going in for all that visible devotion and stuff. Over Lent I am committing to saying a daily office (compline). Works? Yup. After the full stop.
I think Wesley would have approved.
What works demonstrate your faith?
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 New International Version
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
New International Version (NIV)
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