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Description: Our Good Works aren’t Enough
Our Good Works Aren’t Enough
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
Will you take a Bible please and turn to Ephesians 2:9? It is a continuation really, you can see
grammatically also, of the previous verse. “Not because of works lest any man should boast,” is a
continuation of verse 8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own
doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.” And that’s
because the whole issue at the beginning of creation was made out by us to be a question of works.
If you remember the verse in Genesis goes, because when you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and
evil, you will be like God knowing the difference between go and evil. And I think it’s Barth [Karl
Barth, 1886 – 1968, Swiss theologian] who says the reason we parted from God was not works but
autonomy. In other words we wanted to know the difference between good and evil so that ‘we’ could
do what we believed was good, and we could avoid what was evil, on our own. Autonomy: “nomos” is
law in Greek, and “autos” is self, self law. Autonomy is existing on your own with nobody else to
tell you what to do.
And that was the real issue. The issue wasn’t doing good and avoiding evil. That’s not why we
parted from God. We parted from God, because we wanted to be able to what we thought was good when
we wanted to do good, and what we thought was evil when we wanted to do evil. But we wanted to do
it ourselves. And so it’s really, in a way, the same thing, as we face today. When you’re driving
along in the car, and you’re thinking of all kinds of things, and suddenly you realize, “I’m
thinking as if there is no God! I’m just… I haven’t given him a thought! I haven’t given him a
And it’s the same when we come to make certain decisions, we certainly find ourselves, “Where will
we go for a holiday?” And we just think, “Oh well, I’d like to go to Italy; oh I’d like to go to
France.” Now what would God want me to do? And for a moment we think of that. And then, of
course, we kind of switch off, and ditch the whole idea, because we think, “Well he probably doesn’t
have any particular wishes for us anyway, in this, and so I can kind of do what I feel like doing.”
That’s autonomy! And that’s the whole problem. That’s the whole problem.
The problem is not avoiding evil and doing good. The problem is that we avoid evil and we do good,
or we do evil and we avoid good, independent of God. Not thinking of him for a moment; not living
as if we’re part of him, but living as if we’re on our own. And that’s why the society is filled
with that attitude. That’s why we want to bulldoze each other out of that lane into the next lane.
That’s why people of eventually steal, that’s probably — well undoubtedly that’s why people murder,
because they do not project themselves out of themselves into the other person for a moment.
And so our whole life is actually a continuation of that autonomy. It’s living as if we’re on our
own, as if we’re not part of God, as if we have nothing to do with God. And that’s what we
continually slip back into. And so, of course, that’s part of why God here says very plainly, “That
salvation is, of course, not of works.” Of course we keep switching it into works. And so our
heads are full of that idea, that, “Well we ought to please God,” and, “How can we please God?” And
even in what we do with the gospel, we make an issue of that. We turn it into a kind of game.
That’s what I was trying to describe last Sunday. We turn it into a kind of game. We say, “Okay,
we didn’t do the good works that we should have done, so we deserve death. But Jesus has died for
us, so we don’t deserve death anymore, so we’re free.” And we turn it. And not only us, but it
seems almost the whole ecclesiastical world, has turned it into a kind of forensic issue.
In fact that’s the term we use to describe the substitutionary theory of atonement. We say it’s
forensic. “Forensic” is legal, law. Alright, God demanded our death because of our bad works, but
Jesus pays that death for us so we don’t have to die. Now in a very real way Jesus did die for us,
but not in that kind of forensic, legal arrangement. That was not the problem that God has with us.
That is not the difficulty. His difficulty is not that we’re all doing bad works when we should be
doing good works. His difficulty is, we’re doing both bad and good works or avoiding either good
works or bad works on our own, forgetful of him, apart from him. We’re not living as part of him.
But we, of course, have turned into a, “Oh no, it’s good and evil, and that’s why the law…” Well
the law — God gave us the law to keep us back from chaos. He didn’t give us the law so that we
could obey the good works. He gave us the law to keep us from destroying each other, so that he
could get through to us the true situation: that we were actually part of him.
But we of course turned the whole thing into a forensic arrangement. That’s why men like Wesley
say, “Faith is not just a speculative, rational thing, a cold lifeless assent, a train of ideas in
the head,” because he realized and saw very clearly we’ve turned it into that; we’ve turned it into
a speculative rational thing. Okay, we didn’t obey the law; we deserve death; Jesus died for us;
okay we’re free now; good. And it’s a speculative rational thing.
Or with many of us it’s a cold lifeless assent to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he
gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” I give my
assent to that, cold lifeless assent. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way I live my life.
I then turn around to the old game of doing good and avoiding evil. I turn around to the works of
the law again. And it’s a cold lifeless assent. Or I think Wesley was near it when he said, “A
train of ideas in the head.” It’s just a train of ideas in the head. Oh yes, I have a rough idea
that something went wrong between me and God, and somehow or other Jesus has put it right. I don’t
understand how he’s put it right; I don’t know what his death really has to do with what I did
wrong, but somehow that’s the way it is, and now I carry on.
And Wesley said it’s not. Faith is not just a speculative rational thing. It’s not a cold lifeless
assent, a train of ideas in the head, but a disposition of the heart, a disposition of the heart, a
disposition of our heart whereby we feel God’s heart; whereby we feel what the Father felt; whereby
we feel what our Father feels for us now. It’s a disposition of heart. It’s why Barth [Karl Barth,
1886 – 1968, Swiss theologian] says, “The only way we can live our lives…” — and we think of it,
as I said last Sunday, as some kind of understatement. But that’s why Barth said, “The only thing
we can do is live our lives out gratitude to God.” Our whole life can only be gratitude to God for
the fact that he foresaw all that we would do and be. He foresaw that we would live apart from him;
that we’d want to live apart from him; and he himself above everything else wanted us to be free to
love him. And he determined, “I will let them! I will let them live apart from me!”
“But of course if they’re absolutely apart from me; there’s no way in which I can save them. So I
will make them part of myself; I will make them part of my own beloved Son, so that I will not lose
them, so that they cannot be lost. And I will bear inside myself for as many centuries as it takes,
for as many eons as must pass, I will bear the pain and the agony of all that they will do apart
from me, so that they can see; they can see that they are to love me not just because I am the most
powerful being in the universe, but because the other way is unbearable; it is intolerable; it
brings murder and hatred and cruelty and greed and destruction. So that they will have a free
choice, I will bear this in my own Son.”
Now that’s the disposition of heart that God has. And that is, of course, what God wants from us.
He wants us to see, “Look, you don’t have to do anything; you don’t have to do anything. I’m here;
I have you in my arms; I want you just to love me. I want you just to see that I have you within
myself, and you’re part of my Son; you’re part of us. I want you to live like that; I want you to
have that attitude to me. I don’t want you to go playing all kinds of games with me, trying to do
this good work and that good work. I want you simply to love me, and to see what I have done, and
what I have borne for you, and to see that I have not set up some kind of game for you to play; I
have not set up for you some kind of hurdles that you have to jump over. I love you. I have made
you part of my Son. We’re holding on to you, whatever you do. I want you to love me.”
So it’s “not of works, lest any man should boast,” because of course that was the original problem.
The word for ‘boast’ is actually an intransitive verb and it actually has a sense of the passive in
it. So it’s not ‘boast’ so much as ‘glorify yourself’. So it’s, “Salvation is not of works lest
anyone should glorify himself,” because, of course, that was our problem away at the beginning.
That’s what we did; we looked around, we said, “This is a beautiful world, I could really do
something with this. And every time I do something with it, well, it’s with my own great hands I’ve
cut down this mighty tree.” No thought of, “Did I make the tree?” but, “I’ve cut it down, and now
I’m making something of it. I’m making planks of it, and I’m making a house.”
And we began to glorify ourselves with the things that we were doing… with whose strength? The
strength of Jesus. With whose blood? The blood of Jesus pulsing through our body. With whose
heartbeat? The heartbeat of Jesus. But we said, “We’re doing it. And we’re doing it with this
great tree this, beautiful tree. We’ve cut it down.” Big deal! And we began to glorify ourselves
and build ourselves up.
And so that’s one of the reasons why God, of course, has made it, “not of works.” But you know the
danger that we face continually ourselves: That we will hang on to that forensic game that we play,
that game with good works and bad works. And so it’s so easy to fall into, “Well we’re here in this
chapel; we’re not like them. We’re not like them; I mean we may not be perfect, but at least we’re
not like that wild society out there.” And it’s subtle how that creeps in to your mind. And of
course it doesn’t bring you freedom actually; it brings you slavery. That’s the strange thing about
any boasting of what you do.
I don’t know if you’ve found it in your own self, but I am ashamed at times. I’m sure it must be
obvious to all of you; I’m sure it’s obvious to everyone else: but the times that you say something
to show how good you are at something. And suddenly you’re boasting about something that you’ve
done. And the funny thing is it doesn’t bring you greater freedom. You then have kind of an
obligation to keep doing it right after that. So it actually brings a burden to you.
It’s the same with taking credit for things. I don’t know if you’ve found that. But if you take
credit for something, even on reflecting upon it later in the day or at the end of the day when
you’re in bed, if you take credit for a thing, it actually doesn’t free you, because you’re burdened
with doing the same thing the next day the right way, and the next day, because you’re taking the
credit to yourself.
Whereas when you live everyday as if you didn’t even live it, as if you don’t exist, that day is a
joyful light thing. And the next day is a wonderful new day with a fresh slate that you can be free
to do what you know you should do. But credit in a way, taking credit to things actually burdens
you with more and more weights all the time. But it is easy. I mean you must admit it is easy to
slip into. Well we’re not doing works and then we’re not climbing the Scala Sancta [Holy Stairs, a
set of 28 white marble steps in Rome which according to the Catholic tradition are the steps leading
up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate where Jesus stepped.]. Or we’re not beating our bodies, or
we’re not even doing the rosary if we were doing it not devotionally but in order to pray for
something. But we are reading the Bible; at least we read the Bible, and we pray every day. So we
are deserving of some attention from God, because we do read the Bible and we do pray.
But it’s easy isn’t it? It’s easy to slip into that. It’s not that the praying is wrong. It’s not
that the Bible reading is wrong, but it’s that we subtly slip into that ‘works’ business; and we
make it ‘works’. We feel in some way easier in our conscience. In some way we feel a little
better, or we have little more right to enjoy ourselves today, because we have done our Bible study;
we have done our prayer. And it’s not so much that we feel God’s heart and the joy of God’s heart
and the love of God’s heart, as that we feel some satisfaction that we have checked off the right
works so far that day.
And so even our apparent joy of salvation is not really a joy and delight in what God alone has
done, and what he did even before we were born, but what ‘we’ did this morning. Of course there is
immense liberty and freedom when you realize, “Do you mean to say that God actually knew that I
would tend to live as if he wasn’t here? Do you actually mean that he knew that, and that he loves
me still, and not only that but he has kept me inside his Son, and that the life that I have now, is
the life that he is giving me at this moment, through his Son? Yes!
Now there’s great, immense relief in that. Just unutterable relief! When you realize, “Do you mean
that he knows what my attitude is at this moment, and he still loves me?” Yes, yes. So different
from the partial reassurance we get when we say, “Well, well at least we’re missionaries; I mean, at
least we are missionaries. I mean we are making some sacrifice. I mean we could be out there
making all the money we want, but at least we’re missionaries. I mean we’re committed here in
Christian Corps [Christian Corps International, the ministry organization parallel with Fish
Enterprises, the businesses operating internationally.] to running the websites; we’re committed
here to running the radio; we’re doing some — at least we’re on the good side. We’re with the good
guys. We’re not with the bad guys.” And what’s vital for us to see is, not just is that silly and
wrong. But it’s slavery! It is slavery! It is less than the salvation that God has for us.
It is no wonder we don’t have joy if that’s all we have. Because that’s the old game playing; it’s
the old chess game; it’s the old, “Oh I have three pawns. Okay I have two of them struck out today,
but I have still one left. I must carry it on tomorrow. And now I have three more. So now, okay I
have two of them by good works here, and by good works here… And it’s endless; it’s an endless
addition and subtraction game: the good work game and the bad works.
And it doesn’t bring a satisfaction, a joy, a lightness of heart. It brings actually an added
heaviness, because tomorrow we have to carry on with the game. And we never, never get through to
what Wesley said, “The disposition of the heart.” We never get through to the joy, the sheer joy
that the “prodigal son” had, when he saw his dad with the robe in his hands, and welcoming him in,
and having a party. We never get to that joy and delight. We’re always just kind of trying to prove
to ourselves that we are justified in being forgiven and that God has not such a bad deal here.
Instead of course, the Father is saying, “Look, I know what kind of a deal I have. I know what I’ve
got in you. And I’m telling you that I’ve made you part of my blessed Son, and I have never let you
out of my arms, and I have my arms around you now. So come on; open your heart, and be glad that I
am your Father and that you’re my child.”
It’s just an utterly different salvation, and that’s part, it seems to me, of what God is saying
here. “Not of works, lest any man or any person should glorify themselves, but so that you all may
— not even glorify me –but you may see me as I am. That’s all I’m asking. I want you to see me
as I am; see me that I am a Father who has a steadfast love of you that will never change. So relax
and let’s enjoy what we have together.”
Let us pray.
Blessed Father, we can believe it, because even the sunlight has that. It’s so free! We could
never pay anybody to shine down all this heat and light upon us. But you have done freely to all of
us, the just and the unjust. And we look at the little pictures that we have on our bedroom walls,
and even though they’re dear to us and beautiful, they’re a poor imitation of the pictures in this
garden. And then dear Father, we see the imitation material that we’ve paid so much for in our
teeth, and we think of the care with which it was put in. And we still know that it’s nothing like
as good as the teeth themselves, all given to us freely in the right positions, with the right
So Father, we see that we are surrounded on every side with things that we have not paid for and
could never pay for, things that are freely given to us by someone who must care about us. And oh
Lord, we would look up into your face and see that it is you, our dear Father, who has seen all our
misdoings, and all our mistakes, and errors, all our sins, all our rebellion. You’ve seen it all
from before the foundation of the world, and yet you still, “Out of the great love with which you
have loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and
raised us up with him and made us sit with you in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Father we
thank you that it is not through our works, but it is through your grace, and your loving heart. We
thank you for it.
And now the grace of our Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be
with each one of us now and evermore, Amen.
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