Read an Excerpt
The Power of Joy
"Mom on Strike." The words appeared on a sign planted in the front yard of a home near us. A young mother tired of the whining, back talk, and lack of cooperation from her family declared herself "On Strike!" She put the sign declaring her resistance in her front yard and moved out of the house ... into a tree house in the backyard. From there she vowed not to come down until things had changed.
A local television station got wind of the story and interviewed the family. While the young mother's comments interested me, what I really wanted to hear was her husband's explanation. Garnering the sympathy of husbands everywhere, he shrugged toward the television camera and said, "I have the kids doing their chores again. And I've told them to cool it with the sarcasm. We are trying to make amends and do whatever we can to get her to come down." His comments, though tinged with some humor, revealed an assumption that is the cause of much spiritual painthe assumption that our words and actions can atone for our wrongs.
On a human level, the husband's remarks make perfect sense. When we have had a problem with people, have failed to meet their expectations, or have caused them pain, we typically resolve to make amends. Wayward children, spouses, employees, students, and politicians all vow to make atonement for their sins with the hope that their actions will compensate for their wrongdoing.
This perfectly reasonable human response gets us into trouble, however,when we try to approach God in the same way to compensate for our wrong. When we know we have failed or frustrated him, we long to make amends. We search the Scriptures for some spiritual discipline or sacrifice that will make us right with God because we do not want him to be "on strike." We long for God to come down from whatever "tree house" he occupies and reenter our lives with his transforming power and compassionate blessing. But how can we make God "come down," when his standards are so high?
WHAT DOES GOD REQUIRE?
To get a view of how high God's standards are, we have only to glance at Jesus' reiteration of them at the beginning of Luke 17. First, Jesus tells his disciples that they must cause no sin (see vv. 1-3a). Their actions must be so blameless that not only do they not personally transgress God's law, but also they avoid causing naive and innocent children to stumble spiritually. Next, Jesus says the disciples must confront others' sin (see v. 3b). For the sake of steering others from the spiritual harm of their own actions and to defend the testimony of the church, the disciples must risk personal discomfort and damage by rebuking others who sin. Finally, Jesus says that the disciples must be willing to forgive any sin (see vv. 3c-4). Even if someone sins against them seven times in a day and comes back to repent, Jesus says that his disciples must forgive the offender. These really are high standards.
The disciples immediately recognize that the standards Jesus has outlined are beyond human reach. In response they plead, "Increase our faith" (v. 5). The disciples recognize that the Savior must grant them spiritual capacities beyond their own making in order to meet his standards. Their request for an increase of faith is a sanctified way of saying, "You are going to have to help us out here, Lord, if these really are your expectations."
Jesus responds to the disciples by indicating that they are correct in assuming that the supernatural power required to serve him is a matter of faith. He says, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you" (v. 6). Yes, the power of God does come down as a result of faith. But in what should we place our faith? Should we trust that God will bless us when we get good enough? Are we to believe that, when we achieve a mental state absent of doubt, he will overlook our failures and do what we want? Neither of these solutions, both of which depend on us reaching deep into ourselves for an extra measure of holiness, is the answer. The parable and account that follow tell us that what will move God to act in our behalf is not the excellence of our actions or of our thoughts, but rather total reliance on mercy that we do not deserve and cannot earn.
WHAT WILL MOVE GOD?
What will move God to express his power in behalf of his people? Jesus explains by annulling common misconceptions that still exist today. He tells the parable of an ungrateful landowner to teach us that God does not open his heart and extend his power to his people simply because they have done their duty:
7"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, `Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8Would he not rather say, `Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"
God Is Not Moved by the Deeds We Do
This parable troubles us. The character Jesus uses to represent the divine perspective seems so unsympathetic. Not only does the master not invite the hardworking servant to his table, Jesus also says the master owes the servant no thanks. In fact Jesus says that, from the way this fictional master treated his servant, we should learn that even when we have done all we were told to do, we should still say, "'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'" (v. 10).
When we do our duty
Perhaps these harsh-seeming words will make more sense when we transfer the parable to a more modern setting. For instance, we could imagine taking our family to a restaurant to be served by a waitress who had been working hard all day. Even if we were to acknowledge that she was doing a good job and had a right to be weary, we would still be surprised if, along with the meal that we had ordered, the waitress were to bring an extra plate and chair to our table. We would be further amazed if she then sat down to dine with us. Her doing all that we had asked her to do would not be reason enough for her to think she had earned a place at our table. We would reason, "She was simply doing her job, her duty, and that does not suddenly give her the right to join our family."
This modern comparison is actually not quite as striking as the point that Jesus is making in the context of his culture. At that time, being invited to a nobleman's table was a high honortantamount to being a part of the master's own household. A more accurate modern analogy to Jesus' parable would be a realtor who, after helping us purchase a home, tried to move in. Imagine our consternation if, after our movers had left, suddenly another moving van pulled into the driveway. If our realtor were in the second van, we would ask, "What are you doing?" Were her response, "Well, I helped you buy this home, so now I'm moving in," we would not hesitate to say, "Now, wait a minute! You were just doing your duty, and that does not earn you the right to our house!" Jesus is saying something very similar. Dutiful obedience alone does not give us a right to the household of heaven.
Though these modern analogies may help us make more sense of his words, Jesus does not intend to give any less offense to his listeners in his parable. We should remember that Jesus is not speaking to Pharisees but to his own disciples. No doubt they were sputtering in frustration at his words and whispering, "But, Lord, we left our homes, abandoned our livelihoods, and have sacrificed acceptance in our religious communities to follow you. Surely you do not mean that God owes us nothing for having done our duty!" Still, Jesus' words turn even his disciples from ever considering their obedience, however great its measure or duration, as qualifying them for heaven's household or making them worthy of divine acceptance. The same message applies to us. Our efforts before God will never earn us entry into his kingdom, or obligate him to love us.
When we trophy our good works
However much we may wantor feel the needto trophy our good works before God in order to merit his acceptance, our accomplishments remain insufficient to obligate him to care for us as members of his family I considered how foreign such ideas are to our natural thought when I visited a friend who had various large game trophies from Africa displayed around his home. A zebra skin hung on the wall, antelope hides covered chairs, and the foot of a great elephant had been turned into an enormous sitting stool.
Other guests and I asked my friend to tell the background of the trophies. He began to explain where each animal was taken, but then, even as my friend was speaking, it became obvious that he also was sensing the hidden questions on his guests' minds. We were thinking, "Aren't these endangered species? Though these are impressive large game trophies, did you really shoot Bambi?" Sensing our questions (which he had probably answered for many previous guests), my friend began to offer qualifications for each of his trophies. He said, "These animals were shot before they were rare, before there were restrictions on such hunting. And I personally didn't shoot them. My father-in-law did." In effect, my friend had to apologize for his trophies.
Jesus' parable forces us to do the same. Though we may want to display the trophies of our good works, obedience, and spiritual accomplishment, we must recognize that there is not sufficient goodness in anything we do to require God to move in our behalf. When we display our trophies of good deeds, God does not disregard the good in them. But if we try to force our way into his heart by such deeds, he must respond, "Do not forget that what I actually require is that you cause no sin, confront others' sin, and forgive any sin. And, even if you had met these standards perfectly (though you have not), you would have only done your basic duty and I owe you no special blessing for that."
Initially, the discovery of our need to apologize for our "spiritual trophies" is not pleasant. We want to gain honor from God by comparing our goodness to the shortcomings of others. Thinking we have accomplished more good, instinctively we consider ourselves more deserving of divine love. Thus, when we find that our good works do not leverage God and that we cannot trophy our good works before him, we become frustrated.
When we put our works on the scales
The realization that our good works will not move God to love us runs counter to our natural reasoning. Most people justify their qualification for heaven in terms of balancing scales. They readily admit, "Nobody's perfect," but they believe that God will receive them because their good works outweigh their bad. What such people fail to face is the biblical assessment that even our best works end up on the wrong side of the scale in terms of qualifying us for acceptance by God.
For such reasons we can identify well with sixteenth-century German Reformer Martin Luther's feeling that, sweet songs to the contrary, God's determination to love us through our faith in his grace alone is initially "an exceedingly bitter thing." Luther wrote,
[I]t will be exceedingly difficult to get into another habit of thinking in which we clearly separate faith and [works of] love.... [E]ven though we are now in faith ... the heart is always ready to boast of itself before God and say: After all, I have preached so long and lived so well and done so much, surely he will take this into account.... But it cannot be done. With men you may boast.... But when you come before God, leave all that boasting at home and remember to appeal from justice to grace.
[But] let anybody try this and he will see and experience how exceedingly hard and bitter it is for a man, who all his life has been mired in his work righteousness, to pull himself out of it and with all his heart rise up through faith in this one Mediator. I myself have been preaching and cultivating it [the message of grace] ... for almost twenty years and still I feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God that I may contribute something, so that he will have to give me his grace in exchange for my holiness. And still I cannot get it into my head that I should surrender myself completely to sheer grace; yet [I know that] this is what I should and must do.
The message that our gracious God loves us fully despite our sin necessarily implies that he does not account our good works as the reason that he must show us his affection. This truth provides comfort to those whose failures afflict their consciences, but it also robs all of us of any cause for pride in self and of all personal resources for brokering God's gifts into personal rewards. Long-term Christian workers may find these truths particularly distasteful. It is easy to feel, even if we would theologically dispute the claim, that God owes us his favor for faithful service.
An old tale speaks of a man who died and faced the angel Gabriel at heaven's gates. Said the angel to the man, "Here's how this works. You need a hundred points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things that you have done, and I will give you a certain number of points for each of them. The more good there is in the work that you cite, the more points you will get for it. When you get to a hundred points, you get in."
"Okay," the man said, "I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her, even in my heart."
"That's wonderful," said Gabriel, "that's worth three points."
"Three points?" said the man incredulously. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my money and service."
"Terrific!" said Gabriel, "that's certainly worth a point."
"One point?" said the man with his eyes beginning to show a bit of panic. "Well, how about this: I opened a shelter for the homeless in my city, and fed needy people by the hundreds during the holidays."
"Fantastic, that's good for two more points," said the angel.
"TWO POINTS!!" cried the man in desperation. "At this rate the only way that I will get into heaven is by the grace of God."
"Come on in," said Gabriel.
Because of "the great disproportion" between our best works and God's true holiness, we are unable to trade our righteousness for God's favor. Our bargaining chips of good works have no currency with God. God will bless according to his purposes good works done in obedience to him, but we cannot bind him to our definition or preferred degree of his blessing. God's blessings, for instance, may come in the form of difficulties that bring us closer to understanding his heart by allowing us to share in Christ's sufferings (Phil. 3:10).
If the reason we obey God is to bribe him with our goodness, we need to be reminded that God will be no one's debtor (Job 41:11; Rom. 11:35). We cannot bank on having a great academic career because we vow to study hard. We cannot secure an absence of family difficulties because our dinner devotions are consistent. We cannot guarantee financial success in our business because we operate with integrity. Our attempts to barter for God's kindness with our goodness, great efforts, and long-standing resolutions will not move him.
As we discover that the works we thought would justify us before God cannot do so, we ultimately realize that the old gospel song "Rock of Ages" really got it right:
Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy taw's demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
Many of us regularly sing these words with the thought of our initial salvation in mind. We rejoice that God made us right with him (or "justified" us, as the theologians say) apart from any goodness in us. But health and vigor will be added to our spiritual service as we understand that this song applies to us at every stage of our Christian lives. To grasp fully the grace that daily restores our confidence in his love, we must keep our hands empty of any claim that God must bless us on the basis of our goodness. For if he loves us because of what is in our hands, then the days will come when we will believe that his affection has diminished because our works are small, or that his care has vanished because our deeds are wrong.
When we seek his blessing by our merit
Despite the teaching of Scripture, I am at times no less troubled than Christ's disciples were with God's determination to resist human efforts to purchase his love. I want to believe that God must be good to the organizations I serve, to the family I love, and to the career in which I strive because I have tried to be good. Such reasoning abandons me, however, when I honestly compare my righteousness to Christ's standards and ask, "Have I really caused no sin, confronted others' sin, and forgiven any sin?"
When I face the reality of the inadequacy of my works to merit God's favor, then I recognize that I must depend on his goodness and not on mine. At times this dependence is scary because it lifts control from me, but there is no other choice when I recognize the true character of my good works. According to Scripture even my best works are only "filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). There is too much of human imperfection and mixed motives in my best deeds to have them obligate God to do as I wish. Capturing the essence and implications of our limitations, John Calvin wrote,
To man we may assign only this: that he pollutes and contaminates by his impurity those very things which are good. For nothing proceeds from a man, however perfect he be, that is not defiled by some spot. Let the Lord then call to judgment the best of human works: he will indeed recognize in them his own righteousness by man's dishonor and shame.
Such words should not cause us to think that God never desires or blesses our goodness. Walking in God's ways is itself a blessing (Ps. 1; Matt. 5:3-10). For example, being faithful to one's spouse brings integrity to a marriage that is a blessing. Speaking honestly can enhance one's reputation and help secure faltering relationships. Honoring one's parents typically develops good character and protects from harm. Still, no degree of human goodness will lock God into a path of blessing according to our choosing, as though we had become his master through our merit.
God promises to bless obedience by using it for his purposes. The blessings that result, however, should be seen less as credit for our goodness and more as evidence of his faithfulness to his purposes. Ordinarily those purposes involve God's displaying before the world the kindness that he showers upon those who trust in him rather than in their own works. Family unity, personal wall-being, financial stability, and community regard are examples of the blessings that regularly flow from honoring God's standards. However, God does not limit his blessings to earthly dimensions (Matt. 5:11-12).
God's ultimate purpose is to make us more and more like Jesus in faith and character (Rom. 8:28-29). Our ultimate need to trust in things eternal and not earthly is served as we experience undeserved earthly blessing. But this need is also refined in the difficulties we face that lead us (and those who observe our faith) to greater dependence on, and satisfaction in, God alone (Ps. 73:26; 2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:7). In such trials God still truly blesses our faithfulness to him, but these blessings can as well involve the mercy of removing us from the grasp of this world's pleasures as rewarding us with worldly delights (Heb. 12:11; James 1:2-4).
Whether God chooses the ordinary path of rewarding our goodness with observable blessing, or the extraordinary path of blessing our obedience with trials that will strengthen our character and stretch our faith, his love is never lacking (Heb. 12:6-11). Were it not for his mercy, which receives our best works with a divine delight that they would not warrant on their own, such imperfect works would justly receive the treatment of "filthy rags."
Divine blessing flows from God's mercy rather than from our merit. Thus, we cannot guarantee that his care will flow according to our plans simply because we conform in some degree to biblical standards. Our works do not obligate God to care for us in the way that we think is best. We cannot put God on a leash through our goodness, nor obligate him to our wishes by our deeds. God blesses according to the wisdom of his eternal mercy rather than in proportion to our works of earned merit.
God Is Moved by the Desperation We Own
But if our works in themselves will not move God to care for us, what will? The Bible answers, in the account that immediately follows, the troubling truths of the parable of the unthankful master:
11Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" 14When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed. 15One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked himand he was a Samaritan. 17Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."
A group of lepers begin to call out to Jesus "in a loud voice" (vv. 11-13). They raised their voices as a consequence of the custom of that day that required a leper to keep his distance from all others. Such a person had to go outside the walls of the city. He could no longer know the warmth of his own family's touch. He could not even enter a place of worship to seek comfort for his soul and to petition God for help.
Lepers had to leave home, livelihood, and religious community. And, lest anyone get close enough to contract their contagion, they had to call out, "Unclean, unclean!" The phrase communicated not only the condition of their physical health but the presumption of that culture that some spiritual impurity had caused the awful illness. In this desperate condition ten lepers loudly cry out, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" (v. 13).
And what does Jesus do when these desperate people plead with him for mercy? He does show them mercy. Jesus shows pity to those who have nothing to claim but desperation. He is moved by a desperate cry for help. What is the message to us? Our God is not moved by the deeds that we trophy, but by the desperation that we acknowledge as our own.
Excerpted from HOLINESS BY GRACE by Bryan Chapell. Copyright © 2001 by Bryan Chapell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.