Lectionary 13 A

It's all about works, baby! And how they're insufficient to make us worthy of eternal life, of course...

Semicontinuous Reading - Genesis 22:1-14

Chapter 22, as a chapter is cited twice in the Book of Concord. This chapter comes up first in a footnote in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4: Justification (AP 4.209, n. 161) indicating where the story of the (didn't actually) sacrifice of Isaac is found. The context of this citation is in an argument that direct imitation of the lives of saints is not salvific. But as this part indicates: "The people heard that Abraham had sacrificed his son. Therefore they also put their sons to death in order to appease the wrath of God by this most cured and severe act." The second sentence has a footnote (AP 4.209, n. 162) listing where in the Hebrew scriptures this happens. The connection for Melanchthon was that just as people in Leviticus, 2 Kings, and Jeremiah thought the sacrifice of a son would save them from God's wrath only because they sacrificed a son, so people think that just seeing or receiving communion earns them divine benefits just because it's communion. Both of these notions (which are both examples of ex opere operato) are wrong. What matters is faith, not some work that we can hold over God to make God forgive and love us.

Chapter 22 is also cited in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article 4: Good Works (SD 4.28) directing us to Luther's arguments on the issue of the necessity of good works for salvation. (Hint: They're not!) As Luther wrote an entire commentary on Genesis, if you're planning on preaching the semicontinuous texts, I would suggest spending some time in that commentary if you haven't already). The reformers after Luther's death cite chapter 22 and Luther's commentary to make clear that any thought of good works being necessary for salvation is in error. Even the argument that they're necessary but we shouldn't trust in them is too far for Luther.

Romans 6:12-23

Verse 12 is cited in Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article 6: Concerning the Third Use of the Law, Affirmative Thesis 3 (Ep 6.4) along with several other verses to show that the old person in us must be made captive to the will of God, even after baptism, for the "rebirth and renewal is not perfect in this world." The old person is made captive in order that we not make up ways to appease God, but instead have "the law of God constantly to light [our] way."

Verse 14 is also quoted in the Epitome, but a bit earlier, in Article 4: Good Works, Affirmative Thesis 5 (Ep 4.10) to make clear that words like "necessity" and "necessary" point not to an external force but to a faithful response to the gospel, since we're no longer under the law.

This idea using verse 14 is brought into the conversation on the third use of the law in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article 6: Concerning the Third Use of the Law (SD 6.17) to make clear that good works are not works as the law would describe but fruits of the Spirit. So the necessity of works is not about salvation or trusting them to point to salvation, but a reality of faith. God's gift of faith leads to good works as a response to the gospel as we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit.

Verse 17 is cited a bit earlier in Solid Declaration, Article 4: Good Works (SD 4.17) in a section carefully unpacking the difference between works and good works around the issue of "necessity" that was brought up with the first citation of verse 14. The concluding thought here is a good summary: "it is right to teach that those whom the Son of God has freed do true good works freely or from a free and willing spirit" (SD 4.18).

Verse 19 is quoted twice in the same argument in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 12: Repentance as a place of difference in scriptural interpretation. The first quote (AP 12.122) is Melanchthon quoting the Confutation using this verse to argue that acts of penance are scriptural. The second quote (AP 12.132) is Melanchthon showing that what Paul is calling for here is not particular good deeds that make up for our bad deeds, but total repentance of life. 

Verse 23 is cited three times in two different ways. First, verse 23 is cited through editorial insert in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4: Justification (AP 4.356) to drive home the problem of thinking that we can earn God's grace, forgiveness, and love. If eternal life is a gift, there is nothing we can do to earn it. If eternal life is a reward, then as long as we do the necessary work, God must give it to us, thus giving us power over God and stripping God's free grace of any good news.

The next two citations are both in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article 11: Election and focus on the part of the verse, "the wages of sin is death." The fist citation (SD 11.61) is an argument that when God's fair judgment is seen, it should not surprise us that death is the result for what we earn under God's judgment is the wage from our sin. The second citation (SD 11.81) spins the argument to show that God is not the cause of either sin or the condemnation that comes from sin. God does not want to see people sin or be condemned because of sin. In some great imagery, the reformers pull from 2 Timothy 2 to argue that while only God can cleanse us from being vessels of dishonor to be vessels of honor, but the vessels of dishonor prepare themselves "as vessels of condemnation" (SD 11.82) through sin.

TheoThru

This set of citations gives me reason to ponder the difference between good stewardship and good works. Both are good, but one is intentional (stewardship) and the other is unintentional (works). Yet both seem to come as fruits of the Spirit, when done in faith.

But stewardship can be done without the presence of the Spirit by following the letter of the law as strictly applied as possible. (Do you give 10% before or after taxes? What counts as a first fruits from a paycheck in a non-agricultural industry? Etc.) But this path may never lead to the person giving being a cheerful giver. Is discipline the same thing as faithfulness?

I'm skirting the edges of a Lutheran debate that we officially decided not to decide in the Formula of Concord, is there a third use of the law? Lutherans agree that there are at least two ways God uses the law. The first way that God uses the law is general for all people and cultures: to provide good order. Wherever there are basic rules that create trustworthy systems of oversight and social structure, that's God using the law in its first use. The second way God uses the law is to drive people to Christ by showing them how impossible it is to earn God's love by following the law, thus calling people to repent and believe. The third way God uses the law, if there is a third way, is to provide a model for Christian living. The question is how does the third use differ from the first use.

Given all that, is good stewardship something that comes from good order or something that comes spontaneously from the indwelling of the Spirit? Is God calling all people to be good stewards or just Christians?

There is a danger in developing our own notions of faithfulness that have more to do with being good stewards that doing spontaneous, Spirit-led works. Both are good, but when we confuse being good stewards with doing good works, we step back into the very topic the Lutheran reformers worked to hard to articulate. Our works, no matter how good or how faithful, will ever be sufficient to pay for our sins. There is nothing we can do to guarantee salvation. This is God's work, and God's work alone, given to us as a gift. There is nothing we can do to claim it.

  • How do we create new pieties that create a second law rather than announce the gospel?
  • How do we help people find faithful ways to live out their faith without confusing God's work and our discipleship?