Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
Wait a second. If I can be forgiven simply by believing in Jesus, then...I can do anything I want! Get out of jail free card. In fact, the more I sin, the more I can get forgiven. Best. Religion. Ever. To celebrate, let's tweet some nasty stuff about that awkward girl in study hall, then tonight go steal some liquor from the store and get drunk, and then tomorrow see if we can start a fight at lunch. Because, forgiven!
Not so fast. That's not exactly how it works. Yes, we are forgiven for the sake of Christ; yes we are justified, or declared to be right before God, by faith in Him. This is done without respect to works, and all sins are covered by Christ's all-atoning sacrifice on the cross and the blood that He shed. But it's not the end of the story. In fact, it's just the beginning for the Christian.
Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God's will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, "So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'" (Luke 17:10). The Fathers teach the same thing. Ambrose says, "It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving forgiveness of sins, without works, through faith alone." (Augsburg Confession, article VI).
Faith is followed by fruit. And not just any fruit, but those that are commanded by God and are done according to His will. These works are informed by the Ten Commandments. But just because a work agrees with God's command doesn't necessarily make it a good work. Even the heathen can perform outward, civil works of the Law to some degree. There is something that sets apart a good work of this new obedience from every other work.
Take, for example, the first sons of the first parents—Cain and Abel. Both brought sacrifices to God; both performed the outward act. But Cain's offering was rejected while Abel's was accepted (see Genesis 4). Why? The epistle to the Hebrews says, "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts" (Hebrews 11:4). The quality of the work does not determine its goodness, but the faith of the one who offers it.
To theological Cains, this looks like we don't teach good works at all. But that's not the case. Therefore, the adversaries falsely charge that our theologians do not teach good works. They not only require good works, but they also show how they can be done. The result convicts the hypocrites, who by their own powers try to fulfill the Law. For they cannot do the things they attempt (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, article V.15-16). We not only teach good works and require them, but we also show how they can be done.
That's why the teaching on new obedience concludes not with the Law, but with the Gospel. The promise of forgiveness and that promise alone is what creates faith. In faith, that is, in Christ, we are right with God. The same Spirit who creates faith through the Gospel also stirs up love in us on account of those forgiven sins; and love fulfills the Law. And works done in faith, no matter how small and humble according to outward measures, are truly good and pleasing works before God.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created: September 22nd, 2016