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- Isaiah 58:3–9a
- Psalm 112:1–9
- 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
- Matthew 5:13–20
Some contend that it is possible to be ‘good without God’. We may find this appealing. Surely if we loose the bonds of oppression, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked — if we fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease — then God will notice our goodness and be pleased with us, no? No. We are told in Scripture that our good deeds — our good works — are as "polluted garment[s]" (ESV) or "filthy rags" (KJV), and, yet, neither of these translations is sufficient.
What is a filthy rag or a polluted garment? If you have done any work on an automobile, you may think of the combination of oil and dirt that pollutes everything it touches. Those who have raised children may think of rags used to clean up messes. (If you are thinking of dirty diapers, you have come closer.) If you are thinking of a kitchen towel, you are likely a bit off the mark. Some commentators have argued that what is in view here are the ‘garments’ — the strips of cloth — used to wrap the wounds of lepers, but the better interpretation is menstrual rags. Now, we all have the same mental image. Our good works are — our best is — as dirty, blood-soaked menstrual rags before God. Are you still feeling that maybe you want to come before God with your works in hand?
So, let us dispense with the nonsense that you can be ‘good without God’. The best person ever to live (other than Christ, of course) was a sinner through and through, and all his works were nothing. If you were to feed every hungry mouth, shelter every one of the over half a million homeless in the US, and preach the Gospel to millions, you would still appear before God in soiled, filthy rags. The original sin that has diseased our nature has wrought infinite separation between man and God; [i]t damns and brings eternal death". You cannot fear, love, and trust God as you should. Everything done without faith is sin, and the wages of sin is death.
But we know that that is not the whole story. Adam sinned and in Adam all men stand condemned, but that is contrary to God’s plan and will. You are not meant to sit in dirty rags, in the fear and hopelessness brought by a guilty conscience. You were — and are — meant to be a son or a daughter of the Kingdom, an adopted son of the Kingdom and an heir in Christ. And that is the crux of it.
Nothing you could do or could have done would bridge the divide between you and your Creator. The good news is that there is nothing you need to do. ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο Θεος τον κοσμον — for God so loved the world. Christ has done the work you could not do; He has perfectly fulfilled the Law. The wages of sin is death, but death could not hold Him for He had no sin; death has no claim to Him and now death has no claim to you. Washed in the blood of the Lamb — washed with water and the Word — you no longer wear dirty, blood-stained rags; rather, you now stand before the Father cloaked in a robe of purest white and declared righteous by grace through faith for the sake of Christ crucified.
ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο Θεος τον κοσμον. What did God love? τον κοσμον — the world. And what did He do? "He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Christ came to die for you, for your parents, for your siblings, for your children, for your friends, for me, but, more than that: τον κοσμον — He came to die for all. Christ’s Atonement was necessary and sufficient — all sufficient. Justification is universal, for Christ’s work was once for all. You are justified by grace through faith — made a true child of God and heir in the cleansing waters of Baptism.
"Child of God, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ. He, because I could not pay it, gave my full redemption price." No longer do we live in fear and uncertainty, for He has promised that He will lose none from His hand. You are "a child of Paradise." Come what may — we fear no bad news — we run the race to win, but in the security that we have already won, because He confronted sin, death, and the devil at Calvary, and conquered them with His blood and our certainty rests on an empty tomb and in a second resurrection.
In the forgiving flood of Baptism, which sprinkled us with Jesus’ blood, we were raised from death to life — the first resurrection — and we are now the salt and the light of the Earth. In a world of ignorance, darkness, decay, rot, and death, we have been given new life and a foretaste of what will come when we depart this life. What now of our good works?
In faith and Christ’s blood, our good works are now pleasing to God. Our works do not — cannot — save us, for Christ alone is the way to the Father — He alone is truth and life. Nevertheless, we know that God has prepared good works in which for us to walk. Good works are neither price nor guarantee; rather, they are our great privilege. God in His superabundant grace, mercy, and love sent His Son to purchase us — and we were indeed bought with a price. Now, we, like Paul, need know only Christ and Him crucified, for it is not human wisdom, knowledge, or eloquence that wins souls for the Kingdom — you did not come to believe because of human efforts (yours or another’s). The Gospel is foolishness to the perishing, a stumbling block to human wisdom, but for those who believe it is the very power of God. And how do we come to believe? ‘Faith comes through hearing’, ‘given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’, ‘Baptism now saves you’. Word and Sacrament.
Man does not seek out God. For who has ascended into Heaven to bring Christ down? Rather, God seeks out fallen men and gives them the free gift of faith. It is all of grace. Let us then rejoice, for we know the end — Christ has won — and we know our place in it — we are children of Paradise. For God so loved the world, for God so loved us, for God so loved you.
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love Him.