[Audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Most people are left struggling with a measure of guilt when they do something wrong, especially when their actions hurt someone else. The question is: How does one deal with this guilt? The answer our popular culture gives is either ignore it because it is not real or do some “good” deed in order to feel better about yourself. The answer you get from religions other than Christianity is try again to do your moral best and hope that it will be good enough to please God on Judgment Day. Both worldly wisdom and the world religions basically teach a self-help program of guilt, grind and grit. When confronted with guilt you must grind to overcome it by your best efforts and then grit your teeth in the hope that you did enough to satisfy your own conscience, and God.
The Bible, however, teaches a radically different approach to dealing with the universal problem of guilt. In fact, the central message of Scripture is that human guilt due to sin has been overcome in Jesus Christ. In Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 32 we confess that the proper response to our guilt is not grind and grit, but rather resting in God’s grace, which in turn produces deeds of gratitude in us. It is only once we have discovered God’s grace that we can work in such a way that pleases God, which is out of thankfulness that faith produces in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The relationship between God’s grace and our good deeds is what I would like to focus on in Lord’s Day 32 this morning. Here we confess that the Word of God teaches that Christ has not only redeemed us by his blood, but he is also renewing us by his Spirit: so that we might be thankful workers for God, for his praise and glory in this world.
Christ justifies us
Lord’s Day 32 signals the beginning of the third and final part of the Heidelberg Catechism, which deals with the subject of gratitude in the Christian life. This section on gratitude follows the first two parts that are concerned with our guilt due to sin and God’s saving grace through Christ. The first two parts of the Catechism are summarized and recapped for us in Question 86, which states the following: “We have been delivered from our misery by God’s grace alone through Christ and not because we have earned it.”
In the first part of the Catechism, we are taught about our misery as sinners. We come to know our misery through God’s moral law, which exposes the corruption and evil intentions of our hearts before God. The law shows us that we are insufficiently holy in and of ourselves to become right with God. In Rom. 3:20, Paul declares: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Now, God would have been perfectly righteous and just to leave all mankind to perish in their sins. And yet, we are told towards the end of Romans 3 that while God is just he is nevertheless also the justifier of sinners through the blood of his Son. While God is holy Judge he is also our gracious redeemer.
When the Bible speaks of God’s grace it is referring to his unmerited or unearned favour toward us despite our sinful rebellion against him. And this grace has been manifested to the world through the incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus.
The good news of the gospel is that we have been set free from the penalty for our sins by God’s grace alone through Jesus Christ alone. Therefore, our salvation is not because of any good deeds that we have done. Jesus has made us right before God on the basis of his good deeds and his death on the cross. Jesus bore God’s wrath for our bad deeds and in exchange gave us his good deeds so that we are forever pleasing in God’s sight. Paul writes in Romans 5:18-21: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
After setting forth the good news of our justification by God’s grace in Jesus, Question 86 of the Catechism then asks: “Why then must we still do good?” This is a question that is inevitable for anyone who has truly come to understand the radical nature of God’s unmerited love and favour toward sinners. What do I mean by this? Think about it. If it is true that God does not save us on the basis of anything good that we have done, but rather purely because of Jesus, then why bother with good deeds? This is the conclusion that at least some of the Christians in Rome had reached, which is why Paul follows his magnificent declaration of God’s justification by grace in Christ in Romans 5 with the rhetorical question in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” If we have been saved by God’s grace alone, then “Why”, as the Catechism puts it in Question 86: “must we still do good?”
Christ sanctifies us
One thing you will find throughout Scripture is that any discussion of good works is never disconnected from God’s grace. This is why the Answer to Heidelberg 86 is careful to reiterate what has already been stated in the premise of the Question. So the answer begins: “To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood.” By beginning the answer this way, the Catechism dispels any notion that our duty to do good as Christians can somehow add to or improve upon our right standing before God. For this would be to take away from the sufficiency of Christ’s blood and run completely against the grain of all of Scripture.
The certainty of the forgiveness of our sins does not depend on our doing good. But as we confess it is nevertheless still our duty to “do good.” Why? How can this be so?
The answer is because God does not only justify us in Jesus by his Spirit, but he also sanctifies us in Jesus by the same Spirit. We “do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself.” In other words, God’s grace in Christ not only takes away our sins, but also changes us to be more like Jesus. Consider what Paul writes in Romans 6:2-4: “How can we who died to sin still live in it! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The good news of the gospel is that the same Spirit that baptized us into union with Jesus is also transforming us into the image of Jesus. Do you see it? While the rest of the world attempts to produce good deeds from an evil and corrupt heart, we as Christians do good as those who are united to the supreme good, Jesus. Our new identity is no longer defined by sin but rather by new life in Christ through his indwelling Spirit.
It is this new life in the Spirit that is the basis for Paul’s call to upright living in Col. 3. After writing in verse 3, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God;” he then proceeds to exhort Christians to put to death that which is earthly in them: things like “sexual immortality, passion, covetousness, slander, malice and obscene talk.” For these things belong to our old lives and our former selves that were defined by our sinful natures. Then, in verse 10, Paul commands us to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” To put on the new self is to live out our new identity as those in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit. The life that flows from our new identity are good and holy deeds that imitate our Lord Jesus – which are the fruit of the Spirit: things like “compassion,” “humility,” “meekness” and “patience.”
Christ makes us thankful workers for God
Brothers, sisters and children, we do good as Christians not be good enough for God. But rather we do good because God has made us good and he is making us good by his Holy Spirit. Beloved, our salvation is all of God: both our justification and our sanctification.
What then is the purpose of this process of sanctification or renewal of our lives in holiness after the image of Jesus? The Catechism provides us with two answers.
First: “so that in our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us.” In other words, the effect of the Spirit indwelling us is to make us thankful workers for God. Unlike the rest of the world, we have been given an appreciation for God’s saving grace in Jesus. While non-Christians are busy trying to pacify their gnawing conscience by doing good, we do good out of gratitude for everything that God has done for us. The motivation for obedience in the Christian life is not the slavish fear of self-justification, but rather deep thankfulness to God for wiping away our guilt by his grace. As Paul exclaims in Col. 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
In addition to making us thankful workers for God, the second purpose of our sanctification by the Spirit is: “so that he [God] may be praised through us.” Here we find God’s ultimate end in justifying and sanctifying us, which is to bring glory to his name. At the end of the day, God has saved us and God is making us more like his Son in holiness to be trophies of his grace in this world. When we live lives of thankful obedience in response to God’s grace, God’s name is praised in the eyes of a watching world. When we do good in the name of Jesus, we vindicate God by showing that he has indeed triumphed over sin, death and hell.
Beloved, by God’s grace we have come to know and love Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. By Christ’s grace through his Spirit we have become united to God through faith and have been made thankful workers for God.
Thanks be to God that we are not like the rest of the world which is perishing in its sins. Thanks be to God that we are no longer on the treacherous treadmill of grinding and gritting our teeth in order to get rid our guilt. Let us give thanks to God that we are no longer idolaters, adulterers, thieves and drunkards who will not inherit the kingdom. Let us praise God that we have been delivered out of this world into the kingdom of heaven because Jesus has taken us from guilt to grace. Let us therefore now go forth and live lives of obedience in grateful response to this grace, for the praise of God’s name in this world. Amen.
Simon Jooste (RCSS morning service, April 14, 2013)