By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 25 2020 08:56PM
Happy New year, and a happy back to the 39 Articles! Though in the church's year we're still in the Christmas season, (with Epiphany tomorrow), here in St Peter's/Curig's we're going to get back into some of the meaty issues of life as a Christian. We will still celebrate the Epiphany, but you've got to come to Penmark this evening for that. Since we began our series in the autumn, we've thought deeply about who God is and what he's done, with topics such as the Trinity and the Resurrection. We've thought about how we can know him through his word in scripture, and we've begun to delve into the reality of humanity and what we're truly like. Most weeks we've seen that our Anglican Articles of Religion, though written way back in the 16th century, answer questions which people are asking today. Today's is no exception. Now, we all know people who, though they aren't Christians, do wonderful things for others. Perhaps they are tireless charity workers, or people who are always on hand to help a neighbour or who always think and speak good about others. And we ask the question "Surely even though they don't believe in Jesus, God will take their goodness into account and give them eternal life anyway." Is this the case? We need to check out what the Bible says. Let's look at our readings for today.
Our Old Testament reading is from Isaiah 64 (p752). It's part of a section where the prophet is taking a long, hard look at God's people. He says some striking words v6 "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." He's not saying that no one does anything good, in fact the people are capable of righteous acts and are even doing them, yet before God, he says, those acts are worthless; even worse than that, the imagery conveys disgust, uncleanness. The filthy rags are menstrual cloths, dirty and smelly. Why is that the case? Why are the righteous acts anything but in God's sight? The clue is in the previous verse as the prophet addresses God v5 "You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways." So the doing of right in God's eyes is inextricably linked with remembering his ways. This is a conscious thing, something which involves the mind as well as the body. In the Bible the concept of remembering always links the two: calling to mind and then acting on it. So someone who doesn't know God and his ways can't be doing good in God's eyes, says Isaiah. And he continues by saying "But when we continued to sin against them [God's ways] you were angry. How then can we be saved?" It is a very pertinent question. If without God we can't please him, how can we be saved?
Paul, in our reading from Romans 8 (p1134), contrasts the person who lives by the Spirit (someone who through faith in Jesus has received the Holy Spirit into their life) and the person who lives in accordance with the flesh (so doesn't have God in their lives). He says v7 "The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." It's quite clear, isn't it? Unless we have come to God, even our kindest acts don't please him. And yet, we can still think 'this person is so good, or God is so kind that perhaps this rule doesn't apply to everyone.' Last time we were looking at the Articles of Religion, we were on Article 9 which sums up the teaching of scripture in these words "Original sin . . . is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man". Every man (woman and child). There are no exceptions. And Article 10 continues: "The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will."
So we have our answer then. We can't please God by ourselves. We need God working in us. Yet we are sinners. Where's the hope in all of this? Jesus says, in our gospel reading today (John 6:44) "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day". God takes the initiative. He chooses to draw us to Jesus. He says 'these people can't please me, so I am going to take them to Jesus who does, so that through him they can please me too.'. It's a complete reversal of the way the world thinks about goodness and God, and it's a complete reversal of the way we, even as Christians, often think about goodness and God. God doesn't come to us and love us and give us eternal life because we've pleased him in some way, because we've been good. He comes to us because we can't do good and we can't help ourselves. By his grace he intervenes. And the result is mindblowing. Romans 8:1 "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death." and in the words of Jesus, John 6:47 "Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life." These are clear promises of scripture. So, rather than being a negative doctrine, Article 10 teaches us something to give joy and peace to our souls, as it gives us hope, humility and gratitude.
It gives us hope, because if you're honest with yourself, you know that most of the time your heart is far away from the ways of God, yet Jesus has given you eternal life as a gift. We don't have to be afraid, thinking 'Have I done enough for God?' because he has gifted us everything by his grace. The confidence in our future can be sure, because it's not based on how good we are but in the all sufficient goodness of Jesus.
It gives us humility, because we know we haven't added to our salvation in any way. Left to our own devices we'd either despair at ever being good enough for God, seeing each failure as further evidence we're not the right sort of person for heaven, or we'd get over confident, thinking that we're a cut above everyone else because our sins are less obvious. We'd start to take pride in our attendance at church, our volunteering with the children's work, our regular hoovering of the church or whatever it might be. But knowing that it is only by God's grace we can do these things means we can't turn everything around on ourselves to despair or to boast. Instead it's all about Jesus and we give the glory where it is deserved, to him.
Finally, it gives us gratitude. So many people live their lives in bitterness: "God should do this and that for me because I've been going to church or reading my Bible, or helping out", or whatever it might be, and if he doesn't do it, they get confused, or angry or bitter. They feel that God owes them something. But when you realise that he doesn't, yet he has given you everything anyway, there is a wonderful sense of love and freedom. "Wow, Jesus did that for me, even though I don't deserve it." It frees you up to enjoy God, to look for his hand even in the dark times, and to serve him with faithfulness. Ephesians 2:8-9 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
So, Article 10 clears up an often confused issue. It tells us what the Bible teaches, that while good acts might be good things in themselves, if they're done without faith in Jesus then they don't make us right with God. In fact to him, they are like filthy rags. Yet it also teaches that God in his grace comes down to ordinary sinful people like you and I and does what you and I could never do alone, he brings us back to himself through Jesus, and then by the power of the Holy Spirit he equips us and helps us to do all the good works he wants us to do. We don't have a God who waits to be appeased by our attempts at goodness, we have a God loves us dearly, so much so that he even creates the good things for us to do. We have an amazing God, let's give him the glory.