Thursday, May 13, 2010

Love as the source for works.

Works in the Christian life is a topic most are familiar with. I want to look at one important misconception of works. Often it is taught that salvation is by grace, through faith, plus works. Yet the Bible says if we seek grace by works, it is no longer grace. Also consider Romans 9:31-32

31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.

Israel pursued the righteousness of God by trying to keep commandments, yet they missed the grace of God. In fact, grace became a stumbling stone that caused them to fall. In Galatians, the Church attempted to please God by keeping the ordinance of circumcision, thinking their works would please God, yet they were told, “You have fallen from grace.” The problem was that they shifted their focus from faith in Christ, to needing to do something extra by their own efforts.

It is true that God does not save us so we can live contrary to his will, but we also must realize that those who belong to Christ will be judged by their works. Not judged for their salvation, but for their reward. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:11-15

11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
13 each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is.
14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Even those without works will be saved, but there is no reward. This is why the Bible warns us not to fall into the trap of Esau, who sold his inheritance for a bowl of stew. Esau had a birthright and would have inherited a lifetime of benefits, but he despised his inheritance and chose to give it up for a moment of gratification. We make the same decision in our daily Christian walk. We can sell our inheritance for a moment of gratification in this life, or we can sacrifice the cravings of our flesh and reach for the promise.

Works do not justify man. Works cannot justify man. God has declared that he will not allow any flesh to glory in his presence. Anything you do for God is wood, hay, and straw. Jesus said that the flesh cannot produce the things of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, that which is born of Spirit is spirit. That means, by human effort, we can never please God. The same principle that applies to the world trying to merit salvation also applies to the Christian trying to merit rewards.

Fruitless works are what we do for God; precious works are what God produces in us. Look at the words of Jesus in John 15:4-5

4 "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.
5 "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

7 "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.
8 "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.

Jesus explained that one day men will stand before him and declare all the good works they have done in his name, yet he will declare their works to be lawlessness. How can we do good in the name of Jesus and have it be a lawless act? The reason is that man cannot bear fruit of himself. The Spirit bears fruit and this will only happen if we are abiding in Christ and his words are abiding in us. Even our asking is for the purpose of glorifying God and bearing fruit to him. If you treasure his word in you, so you abide in Christ, fruit is a product of a healthy relationship with him. Also consider this foundational passage in Ephesians 2:8-10

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Works are not something we do for God; it is the work of God that we walk in once we understand faith. The problem is that many Christians are putting works ahead of faith instead of the other way around. Works cannot produce faith. Faith is a gift of God. Works cannot merit grace, for then grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6). Your works can never merit anything of God, for then we would have something to boast of. Our efforts would have earned favor, and then we could glory in God’s presence, and 1 Corinthians 1:29 says that God will not allow this. In the passage above, we see the same thing explained. Works cannot merit grace, because it is a gift. We can never boast about the Lord’s blessings or favor in our lives, for his grace is always a gift.

Only after we have received unmerited grace do we see works mentioned. Even then, it is not our work. We are God’s workmanship, created for good works that God prepared before hand that we should walk in them. Does it say, “Find something to do for God?” Does the Bible say, “Get busy for God?” No, works have been prepared by God beforehand, and all we must do is walk in them through our abiding fellowship in Christ.

Another example of this is found in Hebrews 4. The Bible explains how Israel could not enter the rest God prepared for them because of their unbelief, and then scripture says something interesting about works. Look at Hebrews 4:

3 For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: "So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest,' " although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

This is the same principle found in Ephesians above. The works of God were finished before the world was founded. We are not doing anything for God that he has not already established within his own foreknowledge and plan. I have several children. Each of them delighted in doing things for their daddy. Their assistance was never needed, in fact, their help was a hindrance. When a three year old helps their father, they think they are doing something big. For them it is a mighty effort and a big task. They would falter in their efforts and then say, “I helped daddy.”

They could not see that I was guiding them in the work, preventing them from doing irreparable harm, and patching up their futile efforts. One of my young daughters helped me replant strawberries early this spring. She put forth her best effort, but left the roots showing, dug the holes too shallow, and watered too little. As we worked, I deepened the holes, covered the roots, and made sure it was watered. Unbeknownst to her, I continued to sustain the plants long after she finished her work. The other day we were looking at the blooming strawberry plants, some with twenty or more budding strawberries. They are producing much fruit. She looked at one of the productive plants and said, “That’s one that I planted!”

She saw the fruit of her labors, knew she helped her father, but has no idea that if I left her work to her efforts, the plant would be struggling or even dead. So why do I let a three and four year old child work with me in the garden? I can be more productive without them. The work would be fast, efficient, and productive. I bring my children into my work because I love them. I want to have fellowship with my kids, and their role in the work serves no other purpose than for them to know the joy of enjoying the experience with me. They look at the garden, eat the fruit of the work, and are satisfied with both the relationship of working with Dad, and knowing that they were part of the work.

Do we, as mortal men and women, think we can do anything for God that he cannot do for himself? He created the world, stars, universe and all that is within it. God created life and sustains all things by the word of his power(Hebrews 1:3). And he accomplished this without our help. Yet, he calls us into the work, knowing that we will dig too shallow, goof things up, and leave messes for our heavenly father to clean up. Why does God do it? It is for one thing, and one thing only. Love – agape.

God calls us to walk in his works, which he prepared before hand and has already finished, so that we can share in his fellowship and enjoy the fruit produced through his hand. It is the work of God that he desires to share with us because he loves us. We see the fruit he is producing, and he gives us the benefits that in truth we don’t deserve. Like my children sitting at the table and saying, “I helped grow this,” God invites us to the table of his fellowship and allows us to enjoy the fruit of a life in Christ. The fruit of our life is a gift of love, not a merit from our labor.

Paul said it best when he said that he was called to preach the gospel. “If I do this willingly, I have a reward. But if unwillingly, I still have the dispensation of the gospel given to me.” In other words, obedience is necessary in order to remain in fellowship with God, but the reward is not for the labor, but our heart of willingness. We are willing because we act out of love for our God. The work is already finished. We are just called to walk in it. If we pout and grumble, we have no reward. If we refuse to work, God will chastise us. If we are never chastised, the Bible warns that we may not be children of God at all. But if we serve willingly, because we are making God our first love and walking in fellowship with him, he rewards us. Look at Hebrews 11:6

6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

The reward is not in the labor, but in a heart that believes the Lord and seeks him diligently. It is a child who says to her father, “I want to go with you,” and is then willing to be led, and does so by taking joy in the fellowship with her father. My three year old has no fear of fouling up the work, because her focus is on the fellowship. Those who are fearful of the work have missed the point. They are focused on their abilities rather than God’s completed work. It is completed within his plan, but we are walking in it as we journey to that final day of completion, which God has already foreordained.

Also, those who serve God out of fear are missing the joy of fellowship. If I am only serving out of fear, I am not working out of love. Like Paul, who said (to paraphrase), “I have a reward if I do this willingly, but if unwilling, I am only fulfilling my required duties,” I am missing the reward. The reward is in the joy of fellowship. God has called me to enter the fellowship of love within himself, and I am missing the greatest gift if I am only looking at labor as an escape from fear and not looking at the joy of walking in God’s will. It is not my salvation that is at stake, it is the joy of fellowship I am striving to obtain. Look at 1 John 4:17-19

17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
19 We love Him because He first loved us.

Any who serve God out of fear, has not been perfected by love. So works must begin with a heart of love. Working to appease is worthless and has no merit. Working to appease is a failure to realize that our labors are not to accomplish God’s will, but to join him in his labors, and experience the unmerited reward of his fruitful work. God wants to give us what we don’t deserve, and produce fruit that our labors cannot accomplish. It is all rooted in the love of God. The fruit will be produced, with or without your help. The finished work was built into creation and will be accomplished. The labor is God’s love, offered to you, so you can share in the rewards of what God is producing. It is unmerited, undeserved, pure love. It is God’s gift to you, not your gift to him. God calls you to walk in the works he established before the world began so you can share in the fruit that will be produced by his hand.

Eddie Snipes
To read more on this topic, go to and read the five part topic, The Love of God that Overcomes Condemnation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Edge of Innocence

Growing up in the south during the late 60s, I was raised on the edge of innocence. The simple joys I learned from my grandparents would become a strong foundation for dealing with life as it unfolded around me. The years ahead would bring the sexual revolution, an unprecedented number of divorces, and crime rates that would alter the open society that America once held dear. Brass locks that decorated my grandparent’s doors served no real function. I never once heard a knock at the door. All of their friends just waltzed in as if they were part of the family—and indeed, they were.

In most modern day neighborhoods, strangers live next door, but in the era of my grandparents, it was hard to find anyone you did not know. I can remember fidgeting impatiently when a five-minute trip to buy fishing bait turned into a thirty-minute conversation with someone my grandfather had not seen in a whole month. He never made it out of any business without a lengthy conversation.

As a young boy, my greatest cares were getting out of school without homework and hoping it wouldn’t rain when I wanted to fish. I heard my mother talking to Grandma about my uncle being sent to Vietnam, but in my mind, that was a military base somewhere near Marietta, Georgia, where they visited him as he prepared for his deployment.

My grandfather was known to everyone as “Pappy." He loved to tell corny jokes. They were the kind of jokes that made you want to roll your eyes. He took great pleasure in drawing that reaction from people, and he would tell the same jokes at every opportunity. If someone laughed, he enjoyed a good laugh with them. If they didn’t laugh, he enjoyed a good laugh at their pained expression.

Few things were more thrilling than Pappy saying to me, “Come on. I’m gonna learn you how to fish.” Sometimes those lessons were painful. One time I hooked a large fish and he rushed over to give me step-by-step instructions. “Hold your rod up,” he kept ordering. I was standing on a large flat rock that the fish had rushed under for refuge. I reached out with my rod to keep the line from rubbing against the jagged surface. “Hold your rod up, hold your rod up.”

I tried to explain that I had to keep the line away from the sharp rock. Unfazed, he continued to issue the same order, “Hold your rod up!” Pappy had a stubborn streak and I don’t think I ever heard him change his mind, even when facing a mountain of contradicting evidence. On this occasion, I grew irritated and decided to follow his orders even though I knew it would break my line. I held my rod up, and my line sliced across the rock as the fish sought for a path of escape. The rod sprang up as an empty line floated lazily in the breeze. Pappy said that it wouldn’t have snapped if I had followed his instructions.

As far as I can remember, that is the only time I let his orders get the best of me. Everyone loved Pappy, but no one could work with him—no one except me. Whether it was fishing or working, Pappy felt the need to instruct whomever he was working with. Because of the great love he always expressed for me, I learned how to say, “Okay” when he barked instructions, even when it was something already being done. I soon found that I enjoyed working with him, in spite of this quirk.

Each school year, I longed for summer vacation when I could go spend a week or two with my grandparents. Pappy showed me every good fishing spot on the Yellow River that flowed near his house in Porterdale, Georgia. It was a delight to come back with a mess of fish. Pappy would say, “You can’t go inside until we get these fish cleaned.”

One day, we were just finishing up with this chore and I had been watching a catfish head with his mouth wide open. For reasons unknown, I decided to put my finger in the mouth of that fish. When I touched its tongue, the jaws clamped down hard on my finger and its strength caught me off guard. I screamed as the vice-like mouth crushed my finger. Pappy walked over with two screwdrivers and pried the jaws apart, freeing my finger.

With a sly look, Pappy asked, “What did you go and do that fer? What did you think was going to happen?” I shrugged, but I wanted to tell him that I thought fish heads wouldn’t have the strength to fight back.

My grandfather fished all year long and stored all our catches in a large chest freezer. In the early fall, he would have a big fish fry that was more of a celebration of life than a meal. My Uncle Henry would hook up his propane fryer and it seemed like the entire town of Porterdale would come out. We would all sit under the large pecan trees at my uncle’s house and enjoy hot fish in the cool shade.

Uncle Henry was a big man who loved to show off his strength. After the feeding frenzy subsided, he would go to his barn and bring out his relics of brawn. He had two large semicircle magnets that clamped tightly together. He would pass them around and challenge all the men to try pulling them apart. Every man there would strain, twist, and pull against the magnets until someone would utter the words Henry longed to hear, “I don’t think those things can come apart.”

That was always Uncle Henry’s cue. He would take the magnets and say, “Watch this.” Each of his large hands would wrap around one of the magnets and then this big man would try his best to keep his face from showing any strain as he pulled the magnets apart. He would smile and hold up the separated halves for all to see, and then put them back together with a loud snap. He would hand the magnets over to a challenger for another vain effort, amplifying the magnitude of his feat.

The men’s conversation centered on church life, their hunting dogs, and where the fish were jumping. The women folk took turns cranking the hand-turned ice cream maker while they talked about men, their kids, and where they found the best bargains. We tried to avoid this area, but when the ladies tired of cranking, they would fetch the kids to help with this task. I’m not sure which was worse, the pain in my arm as I cranked the handle, or the disappointment of missing the conversations among the men. The joy of finding a ten-dollar sweater for three dollars was not my idea of exciting talk.

Rarely did one of these gatherings end without Pappy getting out his guitar to play hymns. The families would reunite into a large circle as we ate homemade banana ice cream and sang about the “Sweet Bye and Bye.” While the strumming of the guitar followed the tune of the old hymns, Pappy sang in a key that never quite matched. As everyone joined in for this country cantata, voices rang out like clanking keys, but everyone smiled in harmony, unaware of their voices clashing in the air.

As my grandparent’s generation receded into the past, my generation emerged to witness many changes in our American culture. When I was a child, there was no fear of walking down the street at night and violent acts shocked the nation. But as Atlanta became a city with one of the nation’s highest crime rates, doors became locked in the daytime, and children played under the watchful eyes of parents.

I am thankful I was born on the edge of innocence, and see it as my duty to carry part of it into the next generation. In childhood, I had one foot in the generation of innocence, and in adulthood, the other foot in the receding morality of a post-Christian culture. With gratitude, I remember this era my generation almost missed.

That era in American history may have been forgotten by our modern culture, but I remember and cherish those days. Days when simple pleasures gave me a sweet taste of life. The work was hard, luxuries were few, but people and communities were close. I’m grateful that I lived during a time when I could glimpse the innocence of life my grandparents enjoyed. It continues to live in my heart, and I seek to teach my children how they can carry their part of America’s innocence into the next generation.

- Eddie Snipes - 2010