Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
God created people to do good things. We are to love God and to love our neighbors, and our love is intended to be active, making the world a better place. God does not need anything from us, but he wants us to take care of each other. When we help someone else, we are helping someone God loves. We serve God by helping each other. In this way, we accomplish the plan of our Maker. We do what we were created to do.
We do not always love God as he deserves to be loved. We do not always help our neighbors as they need to be helped. We have fallen short of our Maker’s plan for our lives. Because we have failed, God could reject us. Instead, he redeems us. He pays to fix what we have broken. We ran away from him, but he brings us back to himself. We were buried in our wrongdoing and in a world filled with sin and evil and death, but our Redeemer entered this world and got himself dirty, enduring even death itself, so we could have eternal life in his new perfect creation.
We contribute nothing to our redemption. Jesus has done all the work to redeem us. Even the means of grace that create and strengthen faith are God’s work in our lives, not our work for God. Being redeemed, though, we do not sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to appear in glory. We are his Body doing his work in the world. The plan of our Maker, that we should do good works in love, remains his plan for us. He did not redeem us so we can do good things; he redeemed us because he loves us. One result of being redeemed, though, is that we now have the power to do good things, showing our love for God and our love for the people he loves.
Jesus lived a perfect life. He always did the right thing and never did the wrong thing. Now, redeemed by Jesus, we imitate Jesus. We obey God’s commands. We help the people around us. We strive to make the world a better place. Our ability to do these things does not come from the commands of God; our ability to obey his commands comes from his work of redemption. We do not transform ourselves; we are transformed by God’s forgiveness, changed back into the people that God wants us to be.
One of the paradoxes of Christian living is that every Christian is both a saint and a sinner. We do not go back and forth between one and the other—at every minute each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and a saint who knows the Savior. In Romans 7, Paul describes the paradox of being both a sinner and a saint. Like Paul, we do not understand ourselves. We cannot explain why we break God’s commands. With Paul, we say, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). Every day we repent, and every day we believe the promises of redemption. Every day we are made new, transformed by the forgiveness of God.
Some Christians think they can stop sinning and can become perfect in this lifetime by the power of God’s redemption. To convince themselves that this has happened to them, they have to ignore their sins, redefine them as mere mistakes, or blame other people for any time they do not act like Jesus. Our Lord would not have taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” if he did not know that every day we would trespass, and every day we would need his forgiveness. Even more than we need daily bread, we require daily forgiveness. We are sinners while also being saints. We strive to be like Jesus, but the harder we try to imitate him, the more we realize that we are falling short of the glory of God.
Christian living is a challenge. We contribute nothing to our redemption, but our imitation of Jesus does require effort on our part. Some people call Christian living sanctification, while others call it discipleship. Jesus told the Church to “make disciples.” No one can be a disciple of Jesus without first believing his promises of redemption; but no one can believe those promises without beginning to be transformed by those promises. As James wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
A living faith produces good works, as a living apple tree produces apples. Apples do not cause the tree to live, and good works do not cause redemption or faith. We cannot judge our redemption by what we do—when we make that mistake, we have room to doubt the truth of God’s promises. Our good works are never enough to balance our mistakes. If we judge ourselves by God’s standards, we are failures. Only when we see ourselves through the promises of God do we see that we are saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God sees us through those promises; he sees us through the good works of his Son. Our sins were removed when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Now all that remains on our record in God’s book is the perfect righteousness of Christ, accompanied by those times that we succeeded in imitating Christ.
Jesus compares our good works, not to apples, but to grapes. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These words describe a second paradox: nothing we do is counted as good apart from the presence of Jesus. Many unbelievers have done great things in the world, showing deep love for their neighbors and making the world a better place. None of those good things, done without faith in Jesus, counts in God’s book, because even the greatest of good works is still tainted by sin. On the other hand, the smallest good deed of a believer—even giving a child a glass of water—is a good deed recognized by God. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, but with and through Jesus we do many things that are recorded as good.
God does not need our help. He made the world and it continues to run according to his rules. Every day God is active keeping his creation running according to his plan. Now God allows his people to cooperate with him. He tells us to pray for daily bread. When we gather for a meal, we thank God for the blessings we have received from his generous hand. Yet the food we eat, a gift from God, also involves the labor of many people. Farmers planted the seeds and tended the fields and harvested the crops. Millers ground the grain into flour. Bakers added other ingredients to the flour and put the loaves in the oven. Truck drivers moved the grain to the mill, moved the flour to the bakery, and moved the bread to the store. We then went into the store and took some of that bread, exchanging money we earned by doing some other kind of work so we can have the bread on our tables. God created the seeds and the fields where they grew. God gave the farmers and millers and bakers and drivers the ability to do their jobs. He gave us the ability to do our jobs. He will not send us manna every morning as he did for the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan. He expects us to work, as he expects the farmer and miller and baker to work. We cooperate with God, and we receive the good things he wants us to have.
Every good thing done by a Christian is done by the power of Jesus, who reminds us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” In doing good things, though, a Christian cooperates with Jesus. We cannot make anyone a believer in Jesus; we cannot even make ourselves believers. God makes us his partners in redemption, though, by giving us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When we tell other people about Jesus and what he has done, we use the keys that Jesus gave to his Church. We are cooperating with God to bring redemption to other people, even though no effort on our part can cause the redemption of any person.
Christians pray to God. God does not need our advice. When we mention problems to him, whether our problems or the problems of other people, God is never surprised. He knows everything; he knows all about those problems. God wants us to pray. He wants to hear from us every day. He wants us to praise him and thank him, not because he needs our thanks and praise to feel good about himself, but because we need those reminders of the goodness of God. He wants us to confess our sins. Our prayers do not earn his forgiveness, and a sin will not be unforgiven if we forget to confess it to the Lord. God wants us to pray to him about the things we want and need. God already knows what we want and what we need. He will not refuse to give us something that we need if we forget to pray and ask him for it. God wants us to love our neighbors and pray for their needs. He knows what they need and will not refuse to give them what they need if we forget to pray and ask him for it.
God does not need our advice, but he loves us as a Father and wants to hear from us. Imagine spending an entire day with someone you love and never hearing that loved one speak one word to you. Some days we treat God that way. To keep that from happening, God commands us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer our prayers. As we pray for daily bread and receive it from God with the cooperation of the farmer and the miller and the baker, so in our prayers we cooperate with God. We become his partners, making the world a better place through our prayers as well as through our other good deeds. A Christian who is so ill that he or she cannot leave the bed can still do good things by praying for other people.
Sometimes a Christian is aware of the good deeds he or she is doing. Often that Christian is not aware that he or she has done a good deed. Imitating Jesus becomes easier over time, just like any other activity. When you learned to walk, when you learned to ride a bicycle, and when you learned to drive a car, at first what you were doing took effort and concentration. After a while, the task became easier, and eventually you could do these things without thinking hard about the details of what you were doing. The good deeds of a Christian are selfless, done without awareness. They are not done to earn rewards. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In the same sermon, Jesus spoke about helping other people, about praying, and about fasting, each time saying that such things should be done secretly. The good things done by Christians are part of their relationship with the Lord; they are not done to impress anyone. When we help others, Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).
Jesus promises that God will reward our good works. But Jesus does not want us to keep score of our good works. In his parable about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46), those entering God’s kingdom are surprised to be rewarded for doing good things. “When did we do all that?” they asked. They had done those things without keeping score, but Jesus remembered every good deed and treated it as service to him. Likewise, those barred from the new creation asked, “When did we fail?” They thought they had done enough good deeds to win God’s approval. Because what they did had been done without faith, every failure was remembered and they were treated accordingly.
Christians do good things without keeping score. Often the best things Christians do are not noticed as good deeds. They are simply the result of love. No one enjoys changing a baby’s diaper. Some people consider changing a diaper to be about the most revolting thing they ever had to do. Yet people change diapers. They do these good deeds because they love the baby and want the baby to be healthy and comfortable. When a Christian changes a baby’s diaper, God sees that good deed and remembers it.
Most Christians recognize the saintliness of others more than they recognize their own saintliness. Acting selflessly out of love, a Christian is serving God by helping others without keeping score. For that matter, every Christian knows his or her own secret sins. Being aware that we are sinners, we continue to repent and continue to be active doing works of love. Other Christians inspire us to do more, because we are all working to imitate Jesus and do things as he would do them.
Some good deeds are done in the church building or as church activities. Many more good deeds are done in other settings. Members of a family do good deeds for each other. Friends and neighbors serve God by helping each other. Even someone working for a salary is still doing good deeds that bring glory to God (unless, of course, their chosen career is sinful or they are doing corrupt things on the job). Paul’s letters follow a similar pattern: he addresses problems, shows the answer to those problems in Christ’s redemption, and then urges his readers to do good things. Many of those good things involve husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers and employers. “Whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
As members of the body of Christ, each Christian has unique ways to serve God by helping others. In the congregation, different Christians do different things to serve the entire body of Christ. Every day of the week, in homes and workplaces and schools and neighborhoods, Christians are doing good things that help others. Because they have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, Christians do different good works. If we were all the same, many good things would never get done. Because of the diversity God created, his Church is filled with many different people doing many different things, all for his glory.
God’s commands tell Christians how to live, but God’s commands do not address every situation a Christian will face. The attitude of a Christian is not slavish obedience to rules, but freedom to be like Jesus. Different Christians make different decisions about their personal lives. Some drink no alcohol, and others drink in moderation. Some Christians are vegetarian, and others eat meat. Some listen only to certain kinds of music, while others enjoy many kinds of music. Where no command has been given by God, Christians are free to serve him in various ways. God has forbidden his people to judge each other for their personal decisions. To the Romans and the Corinthians, Paul stressed this diversity. He warned Christians not to offend each other by openly doing things that trouble others. The Christian who eats meat willingly forgoes meat in the presence of the Christian who eats no meat. However, when the vegetarian is not around, the other Christian is free to eat meat. Neither one judges the other, but both act in a way that shows love for God and love for each other.
The good things done by Christians do not earn for them a place in heaven. Redemption is accomplished only by the work of Jesus Christ. His redemption which opens heaven to Christians changes the lives they live on earth. As an additional mystery, one could say that Christians live backwards. Everyone else in the world assumes that the present is shaped by the past and that the future is shaped by the present. For the Christian, though, past sins are erased and do not shape the present or the future. Eternal life in the new creation is guaranteed and is not shaped by what we do today or by what we did yesterday. Instead, what we do today is shaped by our future. Because we are citizens of the new creation, we are transformed today. The forgiveness of Jesus changes us, making us able to do good things today.
We do not know when that Last Day will come, the Day Jesus will appear in glory and we will enter his new creation. Only God knows that mystery; he has not revealed it to anyone. This creates a paradox for each Christian. We live each day as if it were the Last Day. We spend our time doing the things we want to be doing when we see Jesus face to face. Yet we also plan for the future. We do not waste our resources, because we want them to be available for future generations. Even if a Christian was firmly convinced that the world was going to end tomorrow, that Christian would still plant a tree today.
We are not yet perfect. We still sin and fall short of God’s glory every day. In the new creation we will be perfect. Today we practice for that perfection. Loving God and loving our neighbors, serving God by helping our neighbors, we remind ourselves of the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves of the home Jesus has prepared for us in his new creation. And we teach others about Jesus, not only by our words, but also by our loving examples.