Be imitators of God, beloved children… Ephesians 5:1
One of the interesting things about Paul’s writings that is not noticed enough is that Paul doesn’t really have an “application” section. He does not present the Gospel and then say, “Now go do this.” Instead, he weaves Gospel and good works into a tapestry to form a complete image of the Christian’s life. It is absolutely true that we should never conflate Law and Gospel. But while the two things are distinct, they are not so separated as to exist apart. They are not like stages of human development, “childhood” and “adulthood”, where you start in one and leave the other behind forever to move on to the next. They are more like sex: male and female—two distinct genders that come together to form a picture called, “person.”
I bring this up because I think there is a tendency, especially in the West, to see salvation in predominately individualistic terms. In this scheme, God’s will and purpose in sending Jesus to the cross was to save me. That’s it. Done. My neighbor is incidentally just another member of the club, another person I can relate to because they believe the same things about ultimate reality that I do. In other words, my connection to my neighbor is because we believe the same things, are in the same club. But is such a connection really a connection at all? How often do we process our spiritual lives through the filter of how we “feel” about God, or what we think God is “doing” in our lives? Spiritual health today assumes a language of private, individualized, inner intimacy with God. But we should ask, is this right? Is it healthy? Is it just another form of narcissism disguised as piety?
Because when you see salvation in solely private, individualistic terms, the consequence is a loss of community and an increase in anxiety. Now let me try to be clear here, I am not arguing that there is no private faith, or that one doesn’t have to trust in Jesus with their own heart. No. But what I am saying is that when we see salvation in terms of progress, we get into trouble. It’s not—“Once I was a sinner and God hated everything I did, and everything I did damned me, and now I’m a Christian and God doesn’t care what I do, because he never looks on my sin because of Christ.” No. God does look on your sin. The difference is that your guilt is taken away (“There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”-Romans 8:1). God sees your sins but “forgets” them (Hebrews 8:12). If we run salvation through a purely private filter, we might make the mistake of thinking our sinning isn’t really that bad. After all, we are already forgiven through Christ. Sin is a paper tiger—unwise and wrong, but not really that bad as far as eternal consequences are concerned. So what you get is a type of functional “get of out jail free card,” where your sin is still bad--but only on a technicality because Christ has paid the debt. And it is true that Jesus has paid the debt and when God looks at you he only sees the perfection (alien righteousness) of Christ.
It is this reality-that God has forgiven us in Christ—that is supposed to move us outside ourselves. Salvation isn’t grace just for me and my private relationship with God, it is also for my neighbor. Ephesians really makes this case quite clearly.
So Paul can state the objective reality of salvation: “For grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is a gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one can boast” but then immediately say why God has given this gift: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, what we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
Notice a few things. Paul is clear that salvation is free, not of human effort and God’s own work (“workmanship”). But notice that this gift has a purpose: “created…for good works…that we should walk in them.” In other words salvation comes to me as an individual through the hearing of the Word, but that graced-gift points me outward toward my neighbor. Paul actually understood his calling and salvation this way:
“For this reason, I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you.” (3:1). He continues, “To me, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages…”(3:8-9a).
What is Paul doing here? He is showing us that the response to grace is freedom to love and serve neighbor. The irony is this: Before we received the Gospel our spiritual lives were caught up trying to impress God. They were obsessed with God. We only looked vertically. And we were enslaved to behavior, moralism and works. But now, because Christ has taken care of the relationship between God and Man (the vertical) we are set free to be horizontal—that is to focus on our neighbor.
So Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2).”
To “walk in love” is to do good works. And that’s what we were created for. Salvation isn’t just about a private rescue between me and God, it’s about a private rescue that frees me to a life of love and sacrifice. That’s why I cringe when Christians turn justification into an excuse to not care about their sin. I’ve even heard Christians say and tweet, “If you still call yourself a sinner when you trust in Jesus you are spitting on the grace of God.” No. Not at all. You and me are sinners. And you know who knows this most? Your neighbors and family who you hurt, and the God who gave up his Son. Let us never, post-justification, take a lax view on our sinfulness.
There’s one final irony, or important point to make in all this. While it is true that no one is saved by works, there is no salvation without works. Paul says it best here, its worth quoting the whole part: Romans 10:10-15
"For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
Notice what Paul does here. First he grounds justification (salvation) in Christ alone because he has spent most of chapter 9 explaining that those who “call on him” call on him due to God’s grace. But what follows from this is a practical series of hypotheticals. How can the saving message of the cross go out if no one brings it? In other words Word and work are distinct but necessary. Salvation is not by works, but without works no one hears about salvation. Preaching is a work. “going” is a work. Sacrificing is a work. Loving your neighbor is a work. If the Church does not do these things, if it does not “Go into all the world” teaching, preaching and baptizing the foolish message of the cross that saves by grace alone does not happen.
"So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." (Gal 6:10).
The tapestry Paul paints is one of a vibrant, Christian community. A Church of believers who know that they are saved by grace so that they can do good works. And that’s good news, that those who are saved by grace and commissioned and called to love people and bring Christ to the nations, to the local community, to our friends, family and neighbors. Christians, do good.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.