Derek Johnson Muses

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Good. Working on it.

So let me say this first: I believe in the Lutheran teachings about good works, that they flow from the heart of faith only, and that we can’t consciously do good works. I believe that, I really do. But I still have a question.

When I started going to St. John, I wasn’t really involved in anything. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I began helping with the tape ministry, welcomers, and serving on worship committee for the sole reason that I was bored and wanted something to do around church. I didn’t really care about the people who were getting the tapes or I was helping into church. Okay, that is not really true. Technically, I do care about people who are shut-in and in the nursing home. I’d have to be a pretty cold guy not too.

But those good works, like a number of my good works were done simply because they were right in front of me and I just didn’t want to be the bad guy. I wanted to be the bad who once in a while did something not as terrible. Does that make my good works a little less good? Well, any way I answer that question, I’ll end up saying that my good works came from me.

That’s really part of the practical problem with the Lutheran doctrine on good works. Said doctrine states that good works flow from faith, that they are the work of the Holy Spirit, and that even if we try, our good works are just filthy rags. Even when we are thinking we do a good work, it becomes soiled because we are always sinking in our sinful motivation. Perhaps my good works out of apathy reflect this to a degree. My problem with this doctrine is, how do you go out after hearing it and do anything for God, if you know that what you do will ultimately just get soiled by your sin? It’s like the problem with inception Arthur points out to Saito in Christopher Nolan ‘s movie: if you tell someone not to think about elephants, they’ll just think about elephants. If you tell a Christian that good works only flow from faith and have nothing to do with himself, won’t the Christian automatically just do good works because he was told that good works don’t come from himself?

I’m not sure how to answer that, other than to say there’s no good or perfect way to live in this fallen, sorrowful world. Trust whatever certainty you have to Christ, and seek His forgiveness and image. The sheep in the parable didn’t know their good works, so I don’t worry if I can’t know mine.

A Christmas Meditation on John 1:14

Today, on Christmas, I wanted to reflect on a verse we talked on often in Greek class, John 1:14a, a text that is often used at Christmas. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (ESV).” Our professors called our attention to this verse very often. The second half of that verse featured a verb that is that is translated “dwelt”, which could also be translated as “made his tabernacle among us.” As the rest of this verse says, “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Exactly what the tabernacle

Advent and Christmas are about the incarnation: Christ leaving His high position at the side of the father to come to earth to take on our sins and die for them (verse 5, Dear Christians One and All Rejoice.) He set aside all that He had in heaven, and took upon our nature and lived as a poor man. It would be like Bill Gates living among homeless people, but even that analogy doesn’t do Christ’s sacrifice any justice.

Too often, I think that devil tempts us in subtle ways that we miss. We always think the big sins are murder and adultery, and these are great sins. But too often he tells us to rely on our own works: our dutiful service to our employers, our volunteer work at church, our time at the homeless shelter working with the people who have nothing. Certainly, these are all good works, which we should do with our whole hearts. But they all pale in comparison to Christ’s good work, which he came to this world to do for us. It is the only good work that has any merit before God.

So, as we go about this Christmas, let us remember why the angels are singing “Joy to the World”, and what the real “Wonder of His Love” is. It is the simple love of us, which Christ gave us through His death on the cross. As we go to the stable to see the Christ child, let us remember that Christ’s glory is that He did give himself, out of His own volition, for our salvation, a work that He does without any merit on our part. Let us come to him, not with our outward works, for all our works, no matter how righteous seeming, will all eventually fall short. Let us come to him with our failings, constant as they may be. Let us stand before Him, as the tax collector did in the temple and say, “Have mercy on me, oh Lord, for I am a sinner.”

When we look at baby Jesus, we should see him similarly to how we receive him in the Lord’s Supper: we see him without His glory, only in part. Even though He is still the one who saves, He is that in a state that is to our benefit, whether it is a baby in the manager, or as He is distributed to us in the bread and wine. That, along with baptism and the preaching of the Word, is how He makes his dwelling among us now. Let us rejoice!

So now, as we go about our shopping and other things this Christmas, let’s remember the reason we gather together with our families and give gift: Jesus Christ first humbled himself to be born in a manger and die, so we may live with him in heaven. Let us rejoice and be glad in it, and may He keep us faithful until the day of his coming! Amen.


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