by Chris Ritter

I hope you were inspired last week to tell your story. Having a ready testimony is one of the key ways to let our light shine. But it is certainly not the only way. In fact, Jesus seems to have had something very specific in mind when he told his followers to be salt and light in the world. Let’s go back to our main text for this Radiate Series:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-16 (Emphasis Added)

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his followers are salt and light. As salt, we season and transform everything we touch. As light we are to be on a lampstand… bringing glory to God. We are made to make a difference.

In this same sermon, Jesus warns again practicing our piety to be seen by others. We are not to pray for the notice of others but secretly and for God alone. When we give, we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. When we fast, we are not to look sad or complain.

But here Jesus says people will not be able to help from noticing our good works and these will bring glory to God.

Are Good Works Bad?

What is your reaction to the phrase, “good works”?

I attended a funeral one time where the officiant opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to share a memory or tribute to the deceased. My friend Pastor Tom Wright was also in the congregation that day.  Tom is no shrinking violet. I have never seen him pass up an opportunity to speak.  And he always does an excellent job with it.  On that day, Tom’s comment was that the deceased really believed in good works.  His life was really motivated by helping others and his participation in church was really motivated toward good works. He showed up to work projects at the church.  He volunteered at Christian camps.  He painted at the church, etc.  He used the phrase “good works” four or five times.  Every time he said that phrase, I noticed a gentleman wiggle uncomfortably in his seat.  He grimaced a little more every time Pastor Tom said “good works.” 

That funeral was the first and only time I ever witnessed a theological rebuttal to a eulogy.  It was like the Democratic response after the State of the Union Address.  When Pastor Tom sat down that gentleman, this Baptist deacon (I believe), could restrain himself no longer.  He took the floor and pointed out that we are not saved by good works but by faith in Christ alone… and he quoted scripture to support his point. In Pastor Tom’s defense, he didn’t say the deceased was saved by his good works, only that he really beleived in doing them. Isn’t it funny that Christians can get bent out of shape by someone doing good deeds? It is an odd person that watches a boy scout help an old lady across the street only to grumble, “That won’t save you.”

What’s going on here? It is the Protestant in us. You that were raised Catholic maybe don’t have this hangup where good works make you feel bad. But others of us have sat under countless sermons about how we cannot be saved by our good deeds.  This comes from the teachings of the Apostle Paul… like in Galatians 2:16:

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Galatians 2:16

When Paul was talking about the Works of Law, he was specifically talking about being circumcised and fulfilling the ceremonial Old Testament laws.  He wasn’t saying anything about serving at a Christian camps or painting at the church. 

Sometimes people want to pit the Gospel preached by Paul against the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus.  If you look at Matthew 25, Jesus talks about the final judgement. The King will return in full glory with all the angelic hosts at his side. The people of all nations will be gathered before him and he will divide them to his left and right, as a shepherd might divide the sheep from the goats. Those on his left, the goats presumably, go away into everlasting destruction. They are accused of neglecting the very things the righteous are commended for:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34-40

We Protestants might be a little more comfortable if Jesus said, “You on my right prayed a prayer and asked me into your heart.” Or, “You blessed ones confessed me to be your Savior and Lord.” But that is not what he said. Jesus said, “You fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited those sick and in prison.”

A German theology professor once told me this story:

Once upon time of a Lutheran Pastor died after a long lifetime of ministry, and was most surprised to find himself standing surrounded by sulfur and fire and cries of agony.  He staggered around for a while near the Lake of Fire and ran across a man whom he recognized as his own father, himself a noted Lutheran pastor.  “Papa, you are here, too?  How could this happen?”

His father said, “That is nothing… look over there.” The man walks over a little further and there is Martin Luther himself among the brimstone.

He said, “Father Martin, how could this have happened?”

Luther shrugged and said in his heavy German accent, “I was wrong.  It was works.”

So does Christianity consist in faith or good works? John Wesley is very helpful here. The Christian life is not faith OR works. It is faith AND works. Or, more specifically, genuine transforming faith leads to good works. The righteous in Matthew 25 who fed and clothed the needy did so out of hearts transformed by God’s love. That transformation is a work of unmerited grace. A faith that does not change the way you live is not much of a faith at all. This is the point of the Epistle of Brother James: Faith without works is dead.

Full Salvation Includes Good Works

We sometimes err in speaking of salvation as merely the moment when we are made right with God. Salvation certainly includes that moment of justification. But salvation is really a large, expansive term that takes in everything the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do in order to restore the image of God in us.

A Christian can rightly say: (1) I have been saved, (2) I am being saved, and (3) I will be saved. The perceived conflict between Jesus and Paul does not exist. Paul constantly called the believers to love and good deeds as a natural outworking of the transforming work that Jesus had done in their hearts. He puts the relationship between faith and works together so beautifully and suscinctly in Ephesians 2:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10

Did you see it? We are not saved by good works. We are saved for good works. And a salvation that does not lead to Good Works is only, at best, in its beginning stages. Grace transforms our heart as we are justified by faith. It continues to transform our lives into the likeness of Jesus. Sometimes people think of grace only as pardon. But it is also POWER… Power to live a new life. That life is defined by good deeds flowing from a heart set ablaze with God’s love.

Good works are none other than Christlike actions and motivation. Acts 10:38 says that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” The life of Jesus was characterized by humble service. In talking about the prevailing definition of greatness in the culture of his day, Jesus said:

26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:26-28

Jesus came to serve. That amazing Christ hymn in Philippians 2 delves into the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus chose to set aside his rights to divine majesty and took on the form of a servant. He served us even unto death.

Show and Tell

We radiate, let our light shine, when we tell what Christ has done for us. But we show what Christ has done in us when we serve. We sometimes begin by learning to serve those within the household of faith. There are some 58 “one another” passages in the New Testament that define how we are to love, serve, and care for one another. This type of service comes with a blessed promise:

“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

Hebrews 6:10

Together, however, we, the church, form a community of servants who make a collective impact on the community and world around us.

Here in 2020 all pastors and church leaders are scrambling to understand how the church is doing. I hear reports that some 20% of U.S. churches may not ever reopen following COVID-19. Many of these congregations lost their way many years ago. But all churches, I think, are now striving to assess their own health. The old metrics of membership, attendance, and budgets are all askew.

One pertinent question we might all do well to ask ourselves is, “What would be different if we were not here?”

If First Methodist in Geneseo was not here in 2020:

  • 5,500 meals would not have been served through the Summer Lunchbox Program.
  • 100 meals a week would not be going out to food insecure children through Backpack Blessings.
  • Porch Angels would not have served those who are homebound.
  • Countless food items would not have been distributed through the Blessing Box.
  • Matthew 25 help would not have been issued.
  • Hundreds of pairs of new shoes would not have been collected for kids in Romania and this part of Illinois.
  • A hundred needy students in Guinea, Africa would not be able to attend school through the H.O.P.E. Scholarship Program.
  • Beds for Kids would not be here to provide new beds and bedding for any needy child in our community.

Families have been restored this year. People have come to faith in Jesus Christ for the first time. Those who are grieving have been comforted. Donna, a member of our church, shared another story recently about how our online ministries are reach people well beyond the traditional reach of our services. I don’t know that I would ever want to repeat 2020, but I can say with confidence that our ministry footprint has never been wider.

Good Intentions

I have never met a Christian that didn’t say they want to let their light shine. We sing it loud and proud, ““This little light of mine,  I’m gonna let it shine.” But not every Christian has a plan for this. Last week we mentioned that all Christians say they want to be a positive witness. The highly effective Christians have rehearsed their testimony and free with telling others what Jesus has done for them.

The same principle works for serving. We need a plan.

I am the king of good intentions. I have a huge pile of them. Just ask Brent Boxell, our Executive Director. He works daily with me that often needs me to do certain tasks so that his projects can be successful. This week the example was a letter he needed me to write so he could send it out under my signature. As always, I gave Brent a quick “yes.”

But Brent has worked with me enough to know that “yes” simply means that I will cast that project onto my large pile of good intentions… right there next to completing a detailed study of the minor prophets and running a marathon. Brent is wise enough to also give me a deadline. This transforms a good intention into a calendar item.

Committing to a deadline transforms a good intention into a good work.

The most effective Christians I know translate good intentions into scheduled events in thier lives. Evidence for the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord” should show up in all aspects of our lives… our bank accounts, our words, and also our schedules.

When you sign up for a ministry, there are other brothers and sisters who are counting on you to be there. It holds you accountable. It saves you from being victim to your own good intentions.

A phrase we need to stop asking ourselves is, “Do I feel like it?” Weak people are led around by their feelings. Strong people are led by their convictions. Sign up. Decide to do it… and show up. That is the secret to a life of service.

Something I have noticed among mature believers is that church stops being a place they primarily come to receive. It starts to become a place where they give. In doing so, they find the real blessing of Christian fellowship. It is not what we receive, but what we are allowed to give as we serve others in Jesus’ name.