Thursday, 9 April 2009

Created for Good Works

I have spoken about some of the ways God uses us to bring people to faith. We have considered the power of a personal testimony – telling our stories and the way God has worked with us. We’ve looked at the power of prophetic words to open hearts to the truth of the gospel. We have also considered the power of preaching and teaching to challenge and inform people in their journey to Jesus. All of these means of communicating the gospel are by the spoken word.

I now wish to speak about three primary ways that people come to faith that seldom involve speaking. They are; Acts of Power, Acts of Mercy and Acts of Service. They are powerful because they are rooted in action and for many it is still true that ‘actions speak louder than words’. When personal testimony, prophecy or preaching and teaching are combined with one of these, it has a great impact.

Acts of Power, Acts of Mercy and Acts of Service are all means of serving people that come under the general category of ‘Good works’. Jesus challenges those who wanted to stone Him, “Many good works I have shown you from my Father. For which of these works do you stone Me?” John 10.33. Everything Jesus did was a good work. He clearly saw all of His disciples as having a part in these good works, “Most assuredly I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” John 14.12. The only qualification laid down is to be a believer – He who believes in Me.... That is a totally universal and inclusive statement for all believers at all times in all situations.

Later in Acts we read Peter’s response to the religious leaders who questioned them about the healing of the crippled man at the Temple Gate, “If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all and to all the people of Israel , that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man now stands here before you whole.” Notice how like Jesus, he too saw this act of power as a good deed or part of the good works the church is called too.

Eph 2.8-9 is known by many believers: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift if God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” This clear statement about works having no part in being saved has made many evangelicals nervous when it comes to encouraging believers to do good works. But the very next scripture goes on to say; “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Paul is clear. We are not saved by works but we are saved for works. Not only that; these works were not an after-thought by God. Rather they were ‘prepared beforehand’. Life for the believer is not meant to be passive. We are the forerunners of the New Creation. As such God wants to begin effecting change now – through us; by good works. The word Paul uses for ‘workmanship’ is the Greek word poiema from which our English word poem is derived. A Shakespearean sonnet is a carefully crafted poem that has 14 lines and often focuses on the theme of love. The church is something like this to God. It is carefully crafted. It expresses something of His beauty. When it walks in its destiny it walks in the works God has prepared.

In Matt 5.16 Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” Our good works are different to those of well meaning people. They are something God has created for us to walk in and as such they draw attention to Him. Men don’t raise us they praise God for what we do in His name!

I want to focus on five words that can help us be more effective as a church involved in our community. These words are all used in the book of Titus. Titus is one of Paul’s last letters. It is to a young companion with whom he had planted churches throughout the island of Crete. Paul intentionally left Titus on Crete to establish local leaders in the churches. He mentions the issue of good works several times and the verbs he connects with the theme of good works is instructive.

The first word is Pattern, Titus 2.7. Titus was to be a pattern to the church in good works. He was to model something they could in turn emulate. In church life someone has to take the initiative. This usually falls to the leaders. Whilst it is true that we are all priests it is not true that we are all equal. Equal in value yes, but not equal in gifting and certainly not equal in maturity. Crete needed mature leaders who could model good works to younger believers. Titus himself had to take the lead in being a pattern to others.

Why is this so crucial? The answer is simple; people do what we do, not what we say. They look to see if there is resonance between our words and our actions. Do they fit? Being a model of good works to others is intentional. Paul lived with all kinds of restraints in his life for the sake of the gospel and the church, 1Cor 9.19-23, 27. He was modelling something. He wanted others to copy him! 1Cor 11.1. There was no pseudo spirituality with Paul; ‘Don’t follow me follow Jesus’, as I often heard as a teenager in church. It sounds spiritual but is not that helpful. Yes we follow Jesus, that’s a given. But more importantly we follow those who inspire us to follow Jesus. We copy their way of doing things and in copying them we find our own authentic voice and way of being. This is how children grow and learn.

The second word is Zealous, Titus 2.14. We are purified as a special people, Paul says, in order to be zealous for good works. One definition of zealous is; to be warmly engaged in an activity. Jesus criticism of the church at Ephesus was that they had become luke warm. They were neither cold nor hot and it made Jesus want to puke! To be zealous is to be passionate about a thing. Everything about Jesus demonstrated this. In John 2.13-22 we have the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. His action reminded His disciples of a scripture, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up”, quoting Psalm 69.9. What a phrase. To be consumed with zeal for God’s house – that was Jesus.

Zeal is like the engine that drives the train. It brings motivation and energy to a task. It makes value judgments about what is and is not important in life. It makes the hard decisions easy because it helps to frame them in the light of God’s Kingdom. We are not just saved from something we are saved for something – good works. It’s not about trying to impress God; it’s about trying to reach and serve men. More on that later.

The third word is Ready, Titus 3.1. This was a major theme in Jesus teaching. The parable of the Ten Virgins is all about being ready. Readiness like zeal is an attitude of heart. When Olympic runners know the date of the next Olympic events they begin to prepare. Everything in their life is geared for that event. That’s how they become winners. They don’t put off training – they get on with it so that they know they will be ready. This is the aim of discipleship; getting the saints ready for every good work, 2Tim 2.20-21. It often means substituting one set of habits that are often unhelpful or destructive, for another set that build and shape us. What could you do today that may prepare you better for the good works God has ordained for you and your church?

Let’s get practical for a minute. Some people, for example, have a passion to see others healed. How can they best be ready to be used by God in that sphere? Here are my suggestions:

1. Read books written by practitioners that deal with the subject of healing; people who have a track record for being used by God in this area.

2. Go to a week-long seminar or training event where healing is not just taught but modelled. Do this once or twice a year.

3. Continue to develop a Biblical understanding of healing by constantly going back to the text to test your practice.

4. Meet with others who have a similar passion and pray for the sick in teams.

5. Stay accountable to leaders who are empowering you for this ministry.

6. Earnestly desire the gifts of power listed by Paul in 1Cor 12 to be manifested in you.

7. Practice moving in words of knowledge – they teach us to listen to the Holy Spirit.

The fourth word is Maintain, Titus 3.8. Paul says that the church must learn to maintain good works. I have a Ford Focus. Its’ been a totally reliable car, so far! The other day I took it in for its 6000 mile service. It needed two new tyres, new windscreen wipers, a new wheel bearing and blower switch along with the all the other parts for such a service. This maintenance cost me something – more than I had anticipated. But given the age of the car, it really wasn’t that unexpected.

When we first come to faith we often approach serving with genuine zeal and enthusiasm. We are keen to get involved. We put heart and soul into everything. But as time goes on we hit a few disappointments – some in others, some in ourselves. If we are not careful we can lose our zeal and love for serving. It all becomes rather routine and samey. Like Martha we think we are the only ones who really care and why don’t others pull their weight more?

All this goes to highlight the need to maintain our souls in order that we can maintain our good works. Paul writes about this in Gal 6.9-10; “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore as we have opportunity let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Notice that Paul says we can grow weary while doing good. It is seldom that believers grow weary of doing good but they often grow weary while doing good. There is a difference. Paul reminds us of the farmer who must live with the gap. It exists between the time the seed is planted and the harvest comes ready for reaping. The farmer is still committed to caring for the soil because he knows that something is happening below ground. We too need to have a similar mind set in order to maintain good works. In some situations the pay off will come much later than we would like; but it will come.

Finally Paul says, “Let our people learn to maintain good works to meet urgent needs....” Titus 3.14. The key word here is Learn. Maintaining good works is a learning process. And the best way to learn is to do. The more I learn the more I realise how much there is to learn and how little I really know. Learning is good. The challenge is whether or not we are willing to revisit something we think we know. If we stop learning we usually end up on a rut. Moving into good works is not always easy. We sometimes get taken out of our comfort zones into areas we can feel inadequate. But these can be great times of growing in trust. Through this process we can learn to operate at new levels of faith.

But why is Paul so committed to seeing the church involved in good works? He gives us three simple reasons:

Titus 2.10 – Good works adorn the doctrine of God. Good works are like the working clothes of good theology. They make theology look attractive.
Titus 3.8 – Good works are ‘profitable for men’. Others become the main beneficiaries of our works. They profit by our service and that’s as it should be.
Titus 3.14 – Good works produce fruit to our account. God is our ultimate reward. He sees every act of service and treasure is laid up for us, by Him, in Heaven.

My prayer for us is that having understood the why behind good works we will be inspried by these five simple words and let them build a lifestyle of service in us as a church that brings people closer to Jesus.