Part I – Good Gifts
Like many American children, I was raised with a strong faith in Santa Claus. And this faith taught me a lesson: good behavior is rewarded with the gifts of my dreams (thanks for the Nintendo, Santa!) and poor behavior is punished by withholding gifts.
Even after learning the (heartbreaking) truth about Santa, this lesson continues to be taught throughout our culture. Some may call it karma or fate. In legal terms, this lesson is called retributive justice (you get what you deserve). Whatever you call it, the lesson is the same: good behavior is rewarded with good gifts and poor behavior is penalized and punished.
This lesson of retributive justice has even crept into our theology: One one hand, our sin should be penalized by God. On the other hand, we may think God should overlook our sin because all our good behavior has outweighed the bad.
The Gospel is scandalous because it confronts the lesson we’ve learned about how justice works. God makes Santa look like a bully and a tyrant. God’s justice isn’t retributive, rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior. God’s justice is restorative, it restores the relationship between God and His image-bearers that was once broken by sin. God’s justice is redemptive, sacrificing His own Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty of death our sin deserved.
God’s grace is a gift. This gift has nothing to do with how good or bad the recipient has been, but rather it reveals the goodness of the Giver.
And yet, when we read the Bible, Jesus tells people to “sin no more” and the New Testament writers all, in their own way, stress the importance of “good works.” If our behavior cannot earn God’s gift of salvation, then what is all this “good works” talk about?
In part two, we’ll look at how good works, with the help of the Holy Spirit, helps rehabilitate those parts of us damaged and broken by sin. Before we enter into that discussion, take time to simply be with God, to rest in the gift of salvation, instead of quickly moving on to all the things we might do for God.
Part II – Good Works
Most of us, if we saw an old car at a junkyard, that’s all we’d see when we looked at it. But there are people who see that old, beat up hunk of metal and see what it could become. They’re able to look past the dents, missing doors, and broken windows to see how they can return it to its former glory.
Every man, woman, and child is made in the image of God, but our lives have been dented and broken by sin. Those dents may look like promises we broke to ourselves or others, feelings we’ve hurt, or anger and resentment we haven’t been able to release.
Because of the dents and brokenness caused by sin, we had been destined for the junkyard (death). But Jesus sees beyond the defects. Jesus sees the image of God that remains. And Jesus destroyed the junkyard by dying for our sins.
Yet, in life this side of heaven, we still are exposed to the presence and power of sin which threatens to distort God’s image in us. Good works, then, is our participation with the Holy Spirit to continually restore those parts of us which have been, and continue to be, dented and broken by sin.
The goal of good works isn’t to become good enough. We can’t be good enough to earn God’s love, He already loves us. We can’t be good enough to earn entry into Heaven, Jesus already guarantees our eternal life. What, then, is the purpose of good works?
The goal of good works is to work with the Spirit to push against the power and presence of sin in ourselves and in the world. The goal of good works is to partner with God in accomplishing His will on earth as it is in Heaven. When we believe in Jesus, we acknowledge God as our Savior. As we follow all Jesus us taught us to do, we acknowledge God as our King.
Working with God to restore the dents and dings of our lives is a life-long endeavor. Don’t be discouraged by new scratches that appear – the missteps that occur as you learn to follow Jesus. Instead, find encouragement in a family of faith, that you are not alone in the work of rehabilitation. And may you be encouraged by the Spirit, who walks with you lovingly and patiently.