According to What We have Done
September 15, 2002
The soul who sins is the one who will die. . . .
"If a wicked person turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offences he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
"But if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die. . . .
"Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offences; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!" (Ezekiel 18:4, 21-24, 30-32)
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:11-13)
This morning we will conclude our three-part series on The New Jerusalem with a look at spiritual living, and how we are "saved." And as we have done in the last two sermons in this series, we will place the teachings of our church on this subject in contrast to the teachings of traditional Christianity--especially those of the Evangelical wing of Protestantism. In this area, the teachings of the Catholic Church are closer to ours than Protestant teachings, since the Catholic Church has always taught that it is not only necessary to have faith in the Lord in order to be saved, but also to live a good life.
Unfortunately, for several centuries before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church had a fairly mechanical view of what it meant to do the good works that are part of living a life that leads to heaven. They began to act as if we could buy our way into heaven through certain ritualistic "good works" prescribed by a priest--and by making monetary contributions to the church in return for priestly forgiveness of sins.
It was largely in response to this kind of corruption in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages that Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin came up with the idea that faith alone saves. This idea is specifically denied in the Bible. But the Reformers needed a distinct doctrinal break with Rome. The doctrine of faith alone provided that doctrinal break, while tearing down the false idea that we can buy our way into heaven.
The traditional Christian doctrinal term for buying our way into heaven is "meriting" heaven. You see, the idea had grown up in the Christian Church that if we simply did enough of the good works that the church teaches us to do, those good works would counterbalance our sins. It was very much like piling more weights on one side of a balance beam than on the other. If we had committed a dozen sins, we needed to do at least a baker's dozen of good works in order to tip the balance toward heaven instead of toward hell.
However, though the Bible does reject faith alone, it also teaches very clearly that salvation is a pure gift of God, and is not given to us in return for anything we have done. For example, Paul says:
For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)
And in another place:
God has saved us and called us to a holy life--not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace. (2 Timothy 1:9)
Jesus also teaches us that we do not "merit," or deserve, heaven because of the good things we do in obedience to God. He says:
Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would you say to the servant when he comes in from the field, "Come along now, and sit down to eat"? Would you not say instead, "Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink"? Would you thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty." (Luke 17:7-10)
We are servants of the Lord. And when we have done everything the Lord tells us to do, we do not deserve heaven for what we have done any more than someone deserves special recognition simply for doing his or her job. Heaven is not anything we can buy through our efforts. It is a gift from the Lord, given to us simply because the Lord loves us and wants us to be happy.
This leaves us with a bit of a conundrum. In Revelation, where it describes the judgment, doesn't it say, "The dead were judged according to what they had done"? Yes. In fact, the Apostle Paul, who is so often misquoted as teaching that faith alone saves, not just once, but at least three times says the same thing: that we are judged and justified according to what we have done (Romans 2:8, 3:15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). So if heaven and salvation are a pure gift of God, how can we be judged for heaven or hell according to what we have done?
To get past this conundrum, it first helps to know that there are at least three reasons to do good works that have nothing to do with "merit" and wanting to be rewarded with heaven:
Because God commands us to do them (from obedience)
Because it is the right thing to do (from understanding)
Because through them, we show God's love to others (from love)
If we do good works (good actions) simply because God tells us to, we are not thinking of reward; we are thinking of doing what pleases God. If we do what is good because we know it is the right thing to do, and that life goes better for everyone that way, we also are not thinking of buying our way into heaven. And especially if we do good things for others because we love the people around us, and love to do the Lord's work in serving them, we actually become sad if people think we are doing these things just to get something in return.
The fact is, as long as we are thinking about getting a reward for the good things we do, we can never truly enjoy doing them. It is like getting a job just for the money when we don't like the type of work we have to do in that job. Oh, we'll struggle through the week and do our duty; but it really will be a struggle. The whole time, we'll be counting the days and the hours until Friday comes around so that we can get our paycheck, go home, and not have to work for a couple of blessed days.
It is exactly the same if the "good works" we do are motivated entirely by a desire to get into heaven. If all we are thinking about is the heavenly bliss we're going to have after we die, then we are not enjoying ourselves right now as we do our good deeds for others. And the irony is that this kind of "good works" doesn't get us into heaven. Why? Because when we're doing them, we are not thinking about how we can make others happy, but how we can make ourselves happy. We're not acting from love for our neighbor, but from love for ourselves. All we're thinking about is how we can get ourselves into heaven so that we'll be eternally happy sitting on those clouds and strumming those harps!
Perhaps when we first start out as Christians we may be motivated to do good things for others because we hope to get into heaven. But before long, we need to move past that "baby Christian" stage and start doing good things for others simply because the Lord commands us to, because we know it is the right thing to do, and more and more because we truly love the people around us, and want to do whatever we can to make them happy.
When we get to that stage, we hardly think about whether or not we'll get into heaven. More and more, we experience heaven right here and now. We no longer drag through our daily routine. Instead, we find joy even in simple, repetitive tasks, since we are thinking of the people whose lives will be made a little happier and more comfortable because we have done them. Yes, the paycheck is nice--and we do need it to get along in this world. But if we are doing "good works" in the true spirit of heaven, we would continue to do our work even if we were independently wealthy and did not have to worry about money for food, clothes, housing, and so on. In fact, if we were prevented from doing things to serve others, we would feel that life was not worth living.
It may seem as if we've gotten sidetracked from the original question of how good works could be necessary to salvation when heaven and salvation are a pure gift from the Lord. But in fact, we have stayed right on track. Our good deeds are not something we do so that we will deserve heaven. Instead, our good deeds are an integral part of being in heaven.
The greatest reality in heaven is also the central reality of God: love. And love, as Swedenborg says, is wanting to make others happy, and feeling their joy as joy in ourselves (Divine Love and Wisdom #47). Serving others by doing good things for them is a necessary part of heaven because that is the only way we can truly feel heaven's joy. If we do not show our faith in the Lord through doing good deeds for others as the Lord commands us to do, we cannot be saved because we have rejected from our lives what makes heaven and salvation within us. We have rejected God's love by refusing to show that love to others.
Do we need faith to be saved? Yes! It is only by turning to God and recognizing that everything good and true comes from God that we open ourselves up to the source of all goodness, truth, and joy. Do we need to do good works to be saved? Yes! Not only does God command us to do good works, but the love of heaven truly takes up residence in our souls when we are serving others simply because we love them.
Are we saved by our faith and works? No! We are saved by the love of the Lord. Then why do we need to have faith and do good works? Because the Lord is standing at the door of our lives and knocking; and it is only when we believe in the Lord and follow his commandments that we open the door so that he can come in, and dwell in our souls. Amen.
Lord Jesus, your love is the greatest gift that could ever be given; the greatest gift we could ever receive. Open our hearts to receive that gift from you today! Flush out of our minds the wastage of mere theological argument and theoretical belief. Give us a true and living faith: a faith that works through love. Come into our hearts and minds and dwell with us, so that we may show your love to all those around us. Teach us to love others in practical ways: by feeding and clothing them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Do not let us rest content in the idea of faith, but keep us committed to the reality of faith--and to the warm, flaming love that is behind it. Amen.
Rev. Lee Woofenden