It occurs to me that I’ve devoted a lot of attention in this blog to the issue of faith and works, and yes, here’s another post on that same subject.
In many ways, it’s so basic to Christianity that you almost can’t get it wrong as a Christian. I mean, since the Reformation we all know and understand that you don’t have to perform penance in order to get forgiven by God. (Charitably understood, penance is more about making restitution, but it so easily turns to the works mentality that I don’t personally think it’s a good idea). Since Paul’s letters, we have known and understood that we don’t have to sacrifice sheep and cattle, or get circumcised, or keep the ins and outs of the Jewish ritual and dietary laws in order to be in God’s Kingdom.
We understand that it’s by faith, not works. Don’t we?
But the works mentality isn’t always that obvious.
You’re maxed out in your giving, struggling to meet your own obligations, and along comes another urgent need. Who doesn’t feel guilty about saying “no, I can’t”?
Or you’re trying to help a neighbour, but the help they need is taking an exhausting toll on you and your family. Do you help them regardless of what it does to you and your own family, or is it ok to say no sometimes?
Or you’ve planned a special anniversary date with your spouse, but then your boss asks you to work late because whatever it is is urgent and we’re running behind. You recognise that it’s an important thing, but so’s your marriage. Which do you do?
Will God be pleased with you if you neglect an opportunity to give, or to help? Doesn’t the Scripture say that if you see your brother or sister in need and do nothing, it’s sin?
(But doesn’t the Scripture also say that you should take care of your own family? It’s so confusing…)
I’m back here again because I was in Hebrews chapter 4 the other day in my personal Bible readings.
The chapter is part of an ongoing argument for the sufficiency of Christ, and is directly concerned with the issue of Israel’s example from the wanderings in the wilderness, and specifically the command not to harden your heart but to respond to God’s voice with faith.
On the surface of it, the passage doesn’t seem to be the most straightforward way to make this argument. It has all of this convoluted reasoning going back and forth between two or three different Scriptures, and appears to jump tracks quite a bit in order to make its point.
The book of Hebrews was written very much for a Jewish audience, though, and this is the way you advanced an argument in that time and culture. Everything was grounded in Scripture.
The writer (and there’s been a lot of speculation over who that was, whether Paul or Apollos or Priscilla or someone else) starts from the Psalm in which David writes “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart”. David connects the hardening of the heart with the rebellion and grumbling against God that took place at Massah and Meribah, the bitter waters of Strife and Trouble. The people rebelled and grumbled because they had hardened their hearts to God’s voice. By extension, this was the cause of all of the troubles in the wilderness, all the grumbling and complaining and rebelling. So God said that that generation “would never enter His rest”. He shut them out of the Land of the Promise for a generation. This is understood.
But then the writer of Hebrews brings in the idea of God resting on the seventh day.
I can see the connection. “They shall never enter My rest” – ok, where are we told about God’s rest? But it’s not one I would necessarily have made. On the surface of it, “enter My rest” looks like code for “go into the Promised Land” rather than “share in the Sabbath-day rest of God Himself”. But we are Christians. We believe that David was inspired by God to write the Psalms, and that the writer of Hebrews was inspired by God to interpret David’s writings. So it’s evidently a good connection.
What are the implications of this connection?
The writer of Hebrews traces some of them out. Israel as a whole was denied entry into God’s rest because their rebellion and grumbling showed their unbelief. They all heard God’s voice. As the writer puts it, they all heard the Gospel, just as we have. But because they did not combine that hearing with faith, because they did not trust that God is good and would do what He said, because they had unbelieving hearts, they grumbled and rebelled and did not enter that rest.
Entry into that rest, as symbolised by entry into the Promised Land, was never on the basis of circumcision (as many at the time of the Apostles werwe trying to claim). They were all circumcised, but only Joshua and Caleb out of all that generation entered the rest of God, because they had hearts of faith.
Circumcision in the New Testament is often used as a shorthand way of referring to the keeping of all of the Jewish ritual law. The feasts and the tithing and the sacrifices and the tassels and the dietary requirements. But all this has never been what allows you to enter the rest. It’s faith, not a list of “do”s and “don’t”s, that gets you in.
Not even the sacrifices were really what God required; as David prophetically wrote, “sacrifices and offerings You did not require”. The sacrifices were nothing in and of themselves, but they looked forward to the one perfect Sacrifice that was once for all. By putting your faith in these sacrifices as what God had commanded, you were putting your faith in Jesus’ once-for-all final sacrifice.
In short, it never has been about what you do.
The writer makes this explicit, or as explicit as anything in this passage, by saying that those who enter God’s Sabbath rest also rest from their own work.
The point of all this is that though we are fully convinced that we don’t have to work to earn our salvation, sometimes we seem half convinced that we do have to work for God’s favour. If I don’t share the Gospel with this person today, God won’t be pleased. If I don’t help that person with the money I don’t have, God won’t be pleased. After all, if I do, it’ll be sacrificial giving, which Jesus commended in the widow with the two small coins.
If I don’t do what this person is asking of me, even if it’s going to cause trouble for my own family, God will not be pleased.
Certainly there are times for going out of your way to help someone. There are times when the right thing to do is to sacrifice your own desire and put another’s needs first. Exercising faith rather than works has never been an excuse for laziness or failure to show compassion.
But there are times when all of these things become works. Something we do out of a heavy sense of obligation, because if we don’t then somehow we’re sinning, or God will remove His favour from us.
When we’re helping someone because we feel we have to, when we’re giving because we think we’ll be sinning if we don’t, when we can’t say “no”, that’s when we’re in danger of it becoming works-driven.
God doesn’t need our sacrificial giving. He owns the universe. He doesn’t need us to meet anyone else’s need. He knows their need better than we do, and He has a thousand channels through which He can meet it. He doesn’t want our sacrifices: “Sacrifices and offerings You did not require… Then I said, “here I am; it is written about me in the scroll. I delight to do Your will, O Lord”. When we’re doing what we do with a heart of faith, it’s joy and peace. When we’re doing it because we must, it’s works.
Now, sometimes we can become weary of doing good. What started out as a joy and a ministry becomes a drudge and a labour. But there are two kinds of labour. The one is the labour of a slave under a heavy load. The other is the labour of a pregnant woman giving birth. Same word, but vastly different results. One is joy and life, something you endure for the great new birth that is coming. The other is suffering, endurance and death. Sometimes we need to refocus, to pray “restore to me the joy of Your salvation”. Other times we need to come aside and rest. The sabbath was commanded, not an optional extra if you felt like you needed it. Still other times we need to stop trying to earn His pleasure.
The Christian walk of faith is an entry into rest. Rest from working and striving: this is the one place in the Bible where we are ever told to strive, and it’s “strive to enter His rest”. Living by faith and showing Christian compassion isn’t the inability to say “no” to anyone asking something of us. God will be just as pleased with us if we continue in faith and never do a single thing more in terms of “righteous acts” as long as we live. Really.