doing the best imperfect we can

Let your work be manifest to your servants
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

Psalm 90:16-17

I’d like to know one single thing that humans ever did perfectly. That probably depends on what you mean by perfect, and what measure is put forward to determine that. For example, humankind has flown into space, even landed on the moon. The technology to engineer and perform such feats had to take a measure of perfection. Maybe there’s some margin of error in the mix, but if it’s outside of the parameters set, disaster could be the result, or hopefully instead a scrubbed launch or whatever.

When it comes to ethics, we humans usually if not always have something of mixed motives. Maybe not all the impurities are actually sinful, like for example we may feel clumsy among others, and fear being looked down on, or something to that effect. I think we can have the right heart in doing something, out of love, and I’m a bit suspicious that any sin, latent or otherwise has to be in the mix with that.

Regardless of how we parse that, I am encouraged by the thought to just keep doing the best imperfect that I can, and together with others to do the best imperfect we can. Yes, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’ll find out down the road a way that we could have done something better. But I don’t think we humans are called to make sure we do everything perfectly. What does that mean, anyhow? How can we really know? And most importantly, is there anything that is perfect in this existence in some sort of final, permanent sense? I don’t think so.

So we happily press on, just trying to use the best judgment and make the best decisions possible with the limited resources and time we have here. But believing in all of that, that God is able to take our inevitably imperfect thoughts and acts done in love into the perfection of God’s working, both for the present and for the time to come.

where does our security lie?

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:25-33

In the United States we have on our paper money the words, “In God We Trust.” It raises an interesting question: Do we really trust in God, or in money itself? It’s not like money is evil in itself. It’s the love of money which is called a root of all kinds of evil. Our lives and well-being are not dependent on our material wealth, but on God. Do we really believe that?

It’s not easy to write about things which hit so close to home. Words can be so deceptive, an actual substitute for substance in actually doing and becoming what is being talked about. Of course it’s a matter of the heart, of worship, and that always plays out in what we do and don’t do.

No matter how much one is worth or not worth money-wise, our trust should always be in God. This will never be like a slam dunk, in other words it won’t be like we’ve arrived in this life. But as far as we know, and what we should forever and always be striving for is nothing more nor less than total and complete trust in God.

Which means we’ll want to be obedient and will take the steps to do so, giving to those in need and seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first and foremost in our thoughts and actions.

We’ll never really be secure unless our security comes from God which is where our only true security lies.

the “rest” of faith

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed are entering that rest, just as God has said,

“As in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’ ”

though his works were finished since the foundation of the world. For somewhere it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God, for those who enter God’s rest also rest from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Hebrews 4:1-13

Yesterday I talked about how faith that is alive is active. Today, I want to speak to the importance of what is called the “rest” of faith.

A faith that is alive and well can only be a faith that at the same time, rests. Only when we’re resting from our own works will God give us the work God has for us to do (cf.: Ephesians 2:8-10).

The “rest” here refers to believing in God and God’s word to us from scripture, and specifically concerning the good news of Christ for us and for the world. While it is more than that, it is personal. We have to believe and accept this for ourselves.

There will always be off and on temptations to resist this “rest” just as there was with the Israelites of old. They saw this and that, getting their eyes off of God and God’s promises to them. And then they felt that they had to take matters into their own hands. Not good. God corrected them, but not without great consequence.

But when we do rest in faith, then God enables us to do what we could never do ourselves. The “rest” has to be absolute. Never dependent on us, but only on God. We must make sure though that we’re entirely given over to finding this rest, to get out of our own ceaseless resistance to that. If we make a sustained effort, God will indeed help us. We’ll then find our way into all that God has for us. But never apart from that rest. In and through Jesus.

a passive faith is not enough

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and by works faith was brought to completion. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:21-24; NRSVUE

I would like to emphasize to the utmost degree that a passive faith is not enough. It might be a good start, but if there’s no finish, there’s no faith at all, or that’s what James seems to be saying. The story of Abraham here which he cites is about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac on the altar. At least Abraham acted in faith in doing that, although his act would have been better if he would have interceded before God beforehand so that he would not have actually come right up to the point of doing it. They could have had a ram before this was even made known to Isaac. (see J. Richard Middleton).

Forget it if you think that simply believing something you read or hear read from the Bible or about Christ is enough. It’s not. It might seem life giving, life changing at first, but unless you act on it, it won’t be. Hopefully if we’re failing to act on it, seeds are planted in our hearts to bear fruit later, but the fruit will be actions corresponding to what has been heard. And we must keep doing that. It’s not enough to read and appreciate it. And this is a good place to start:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30; NRSVUE

Christ’s invitation is wonderful to hear and dwell on. But that’s not enough! We must accept it. And we must keep coming back to him again and again. As we do, that faith will be met.

What’s true here is true everywhere. Faith without a response that results in works and life change is no faith at all. Whether or not we have faith is the question or not. Yes, Christ is the answer, but we must follow. God is present to help us. In and through Jesus.

confirm your faith by following through with action

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.

James 2:22

James is referring to Abraham’s faith confirmed as it were in his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. That is an impossible one to wrap one’s head around. Key is to understand that this kind of faith does not depend on our own understanding. God helps our understanding, so it’s not like understanding is left behind. But again, it’s not our own understanding, not from our own reasoning.

When we have clarity, and a sense of what we need to do by faith, then we need to follow through in that, even if “a thousand screaming monkeys” might be yelling at us otherwise. In doing so, in the words of James, our faith is not passive, but active along with our works, indeed brought to completion by the works. Our faith might be good insofar as it goes, but may not be complete until we follow through with the action which corresponds to it.

As followers of Christ, we certainly want to live by faith. And that faith involves our entire lives, and every part of them. God will help us to have the understanding needed at each point and juncture of our lives. In and through Jesus.

faith must work to work

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26

We can say we have faith in God, in God’s promises, and that’s all well and good. But it won’t make the needed difference unless we act on it. The difference certainly refers to others. In James’s words here, helping the sister or brother in need, or with reference to Rahab, for one’s own family as well as for Rahab herself. What I’m especially referring to here is one’s own salvation. When we experience that salvation, or in the words in this passage, justification, we naturally want to see everyone else experience the same. But when we’re struggling with a lack in being settled into that in our spirits, ourselves, then we can’t see our way to really have that same longing for others.

What is absolutely essential in a sense is being willing to burn all bridges down behind us, so that there’s no turning back, but that our faith is expressed in action. If we say we believe something, then we have to act on that, or in the words of James, our faith is barren, even dead.

Abraham is the stark case in point here. He was asked to sacrifice his son no less, Isaac, on an altar he would have to prepare himself as a whole burnt offering to God. Certainly a mind boggling, simply unfathomable thing to ask of someone, at least in our world. In Abraham’s world, from what I’ve read, it may not have been as shocking. We read elsewhere that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if need be to fulfill God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed Isaac, Abraham would become the father of many nations, heir of the world, and that all nations would be blessed through him (Hebrews 11:19; Romans 4:13, 17; Galatians 3:8). Just the same, it couldn’t have been easy.

But as we see in Genesis 22, there’s no hesitation to fulfill what God commanded. Maybe there was something in Abraham’s mind, like, “Let’s get this over with.” We don’t know what precisely was in his mind, except as mentioned above, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. But Abraham went all the way with no hesitation, hard as that had to have been. And raising the knife was stopped by the angel of the Lord before plunging the knife into his beloved son, the son who was to be heir, and through whom God’s blessing was to be extended to all.

James is telling us that we’re to have this same kind of faith. We either do it, and that includes the hard thing which maybe at the time makes no sense to us. But we do so in obedience to God, resting on God’s promise of blessing and good. In and through Jesus.

returning to our first love

Write this to Ephesus, to the Angel of the church. The One with Seven Stars in his right-fist grip, striding through the golden seven-lights’ circle, speaks:

“I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out.

“But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall!

“Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle.

“You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too.

“Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.”

Revelation 2:1-7; MSG

To really get a good overall picture, and just how we might fit into the scheme, or what God might be saying to us, we surely need to read each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The first letter here as rendered by Eugene Peterson, or in any translation, for that matter, is striking and noteworthy. This church is as zealous as it gets, but their zeal while at least largely based on head knowledge, has left its/her first love, or the love this church had at first. And thus we might say it was bereft of heart knowledge, or a knowledge driven by love. Love for Christ, and the love which follows from that.

It’s a burden to try to apply these letters to us as individuals, and it’s important to see that they’re actually written to churches. But individuals make up churches, so we all have to ask how they might apply to us, what we might be contributing to the situation. Notice that the blessing at the end is applied to individuals who overcome. I would like to think that I fit, or would prefer to be part of a church like Philadelphia, having little strength, but faithful, and simply being told to hold on to what they have until Christ returns. But we need to prayerfully read and consider all these letters.

How do we fall from the first love we had? And Jesus makes no bones about it, they either have to repent as a church, or he’ll put their light out, so that they’ll be a church in name, only. No church was more active, but that’s doesn’t mean they were okay. Far from it, though Jesus does give them the nod of approval for their hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, which he too hated.

I’m not sure. I think it can become more about what we’re doing than anything else. Maybe we need to stop in our tracks, shut our mouths, quit doing what we’re doing, maybe something like a silent retreat. Then maybe we’ll be able to hear what the Lord is saying to us. It’s a work of the Spirit, quite beyond us. It’s not like sitting in a schoolroom where we might possibly figure it out with the help of the teacher. No.

I will offer this from my own life and experience. I think the more we realize life is all about love, that God is love, and that Christ’s love for us is as great, deep and true as love can get, then that can help us. But it’s so easy to substitute doing, doing and more doing for the real thing. Let’s find that love, enter into it, live it out with each other, and out into the world. And keep doing that. Then what we do will matter. And Jesus’s life and love will continue among us as a light for us and for the world. In and through Jesus.

justified (declared righteous) by faith in this life; justified by works in the judgment to come

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

Romans 2:9-11

The NIV heading for Romans 2:1-16, “God’s Righteous Judgment” is a good summary of what this section is getting at in terms of the judgment to come. It’s future, after this life. God will, so to speak look back on our lives and judge us, judge all human beings according to our works. See the rest of Scripture to verify this.

This is called a justification of works, and you can see that clearly in the overall passage (click the link above). In the final judgment we’re judged by what we do and fail to do, by our works, essentially it seems, our lives. In this life we’re not justified by works, but by faith. Romans 3:21-5:11 unmistakably and clearly lays that out.

So we’re in the clear not at all by our works, by by faith in Christ, and God’s finished work in him. At the same time, just as James points out we are saved by a faith that works. You can see that in Paul’s writings too. So works do matter in this life, an indication of whether or not we have justifying faith. But we must beware of getting the cart before the horse. The only way we can do the good works is through faith.

But now to the passage quoted above. After knowing the context, it’s good to dwell on parts. It’s actually a shame not to consider the whole. Again, you can click the link above, and better yet start right from the beginning of the book. But the trouble and distress mentioned here is in terms of final judgment. As well as the glory, honor and peace. What we do now along with our experience will be carried over into the next life. If we choose to live apart from God now, we’ll be apart from God and all the goodness that comes from God then. If we choose to live under God’s judgment in the curse now, we’ll experience that later. But if accept God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ and his death and resurrection, we will receive forgiveness of sins and new life. And we’ll begin to live new lives filled with good works, thoughtful, repentant lives, making our wrongs right along the way.

Where we’re headed now is where we’ll end up being when it’s all said and done. If we’re headed in a direction contrary to God, then we need to stop in our tracks, and head the opposite way in and through Jesus.

 

learning to rest in a restless world

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:9-11

I have wondered, and still do, over all the passages in the Old Testament which mandate Sabbath keeping for God’s people Israel, and really come across as harsh, at least to me, and probably to most of us. There were no ands, ifs, or buts about it. You did keep the Sabbath, period. Or you were at least regarded as an outcast. Of course then it meant resting one day in seven, confining work to the other six days.

In the New Testament in Jesus, Sabbath keeping seems to have taken on a different meaning. It’s really not about a day, but more about one’s attitude in life coming from one’s faith in Jesus. That’s not to say that it’s not good to rest one day in seven. And in Christian circles, various churches and denominations, there used to be pretty strict standards and rules for Sunday, what you could and could not do. That seems now at least mostly a bygone era.

Sabbath rest in the New Testament, and we do well to say, in the new covenant, is about something else entirely, rather mystical in its source, but down to earth in its outworking. It’s about learning to rest in Jesus in what amounts to a restless world. And it’s not a matter of just a nice thing to do. Sabbath keeping in that way ends up being a matter of life and death. Note the passage above, as well as what we noted about Sabbath keeping in the Bible. It is not a recommendation, or suggestion. It is a command, and it really ends up being part and parcel of the faith.

Yes, I know, it can simply mean I put my trust alone in Jesus for my salvation. That I’m not trusting in my works or in myself to get that done. And that is at the heart of this. But it includes our attitude toward all of life, including our work. The work by which we’re not saved is the kind of work we’re to avoid altogether. It is not work which is accepted by God. Only God’s works are accepted by him. So that we need to enter into that work, so that our works are actually a part of his. You read glimmers of this even in the Old Testament. It was a reality back then. How much more so now in Christ?

We could misread the above passage to suggest that regularly we need to rest from our works, like one day in seven. But that’s not what it’s saying. It seems more like suggesting that we leave our own works behind entirely. That they’re not part of the equation. So that it’s not the old Ted who is present with all the good things he used to do of the old creation. But instead it’s the new Ted, with the good works God gives which are part of the new creation in Jesus.

The world won’t accept this, and it won’t be easy for most any of us to accept. We’re to be restless, working hard, trying to outdo others, or at least keep up a certain pace needed, and indeed often required to achieve worldly success. And one might get comfortable in that mode and even seem to be at rest. That attitude can carry over right into the church, and into Christian service and work.

Instead we need the new way in Jesus. Which is of Jesus, certainly like him. So that we become more and more the person we’re meant to be in him. That people might sense him in us, even as they come to know the new self that is emerging. Through the sabbath rest given to us by God in and through Jesus.

Martin Luther’s greatest contribution remembered on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

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. 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

Martin Luther may have been the greatest of the Protestant Reformers. A book I would highly recommend is Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, in which something of the complexity of that time is presented with a full, succinct look at the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Menno Simons, the last one not really wanting to reform the church, but start over according to the New Testament teaching- but by and by realizing, that you can’t just start from scratch, but must take into account the early centuries of the church when they wrestled through teachings on the Trinity and who Jesus is in his humanity and Deity.

Martin Luther and John Calvin may have been the most gifted of the Reformers, certainly not without their flaws, but it’s a mistake to simply brush them off. They are important church fathers contributing to the church’s understanding and edification in the faith.

Martin Luther himself, and what he accomplished is nothing short of amazing. Of course he would say, and it’s so true that it was not him, but the grace of God in and at work in him. Maybe his greatest contribution was to uncover and unshackle the gospel from the church’s traditions which had all but buried it. And this is not at all to say that all tradition is bad. Every church necessarily so, I think, and in reality has tradition. The question might be whether it’s good, or not, not whether a church should have tradition.

Martin Luther’s insistence from scripture that we are saved by grace alone through Christ alone is at the heart of understanding how the gospel, the good news in Jesus becomes good news for the one who hears or reads of it. God’s grace is a gift, one neither deserved, nor earned, which we receive by simple faith apart from works. Because of Christ’s work for us on the cross in his death, as well as his resurrection and what followed. It is a powerful, living salvation for sure, all in and through Jesus.