Today's sermon concerns the work of the Spirit to produce good fruit in believers. This work is often called Sanctification.
When it comes to the Christian life, many people seem to think that once Christ has saved us, we are left on our own to work as hard as we can to produce good works. We may be able to pray to God for help. He may "enable" us or "empower" us, whatever that means. But it seems like it is WE who must do the major lifting when it comes to sanctification. Once we are converted, it is said, we have received all the equipment we need to get our Christian life going. We have a new heart and a new mind. But we are told that WE must make the right choices and work as hard as we can to succeed.
We Lutherans are sometimes seen as strong on the Gospel, but weak when it comes to good works. So we are told that we need to wake up, get busier, and try harder.
We are sometimes told that we would be more successful if only we understood the principles of good stewardship, or the principles of good discipleship, or the principles of this, that, and the other thing. If only we would stop to think more often, "What would Jesus do?" surely we would be better people.
That is how many people use their good works: to see how good they are doing in their Christian life. Some may anchor the security of their faith upon their good works. They would probably never say that good works save them. But they still measure their progress in Christian living by their works, nevertheless.
Instead, you should ask who is doing the work in your sanctification. Is it you, or is it God? According to Philippians 2, "it is God who works in you to will and to do according to His good purpose." Ephesians 2 says that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."
So it is not by our efforts that we shape or mold our lives. It is God the Holy Spirit working in our lives that causes us to do good works. They are HIS works, done through us.
That does not seem true to our human eyes. If I do a good work, it is my hand that moves, or my mouth that speaks. It seems like I chose to do good and avoid evil. How can it be the Spirit working through me?
Yet we must repeat with the Apostle Paul, "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."
It is not simply that God changed you into a new man, and now you are a good person desiring good works. Apart from the Spirit, you are not a good person at all. Even now, the sinful flesh remains in you. If there is any good thought in you, any good desire, any good word or deed, it was put there by the Spirit.
That is the same way it was in your conversion. You could not believe on your own. But the Spirit gave you faith, so that Christ could come to you with His gifts. Even now that you are a new creature, you still cannot do any good deed on your own.
But you are not on your own. The Spirit is with you, constantly striving to renew and transform you. The same Spirit that gave you faith also gives you good works and desires. That is why saving faith always has good works, as Saint James says. The Spirit does not stop at creating faith in you. He keeps working in you throughout your life.
So are you doing enough good works? The answer depends on who you are talking about. If you mean a Christian in whom the Spirit is working, then you must answer, "Yes, the Spirit is producing many and abundant good works in every believer," because to answer any other way is to insult the Spirit's work.
But when you are asked as an individual, "Have you done enough good works?" then you must answer as Jesus directed: "I am only an unworthy slave." For even your most righteous works are only filthy rags according to your sinful flesh. You could never take credit for your sanctification, any more than you could take credit for your salvation. Both are God's work, to His glory, not yours.
The Spirit is indeed creating in you great works. These mighty works of the Spirit may earn you no credit before the world. They may appear to be small works. They may be hidden, so that no one sees them at all. That's okay. Don't worry about it. God sees. God knows what He is doing in you.
Many of your works will be done according to your vocation. As a husband, wife, mother, father, child, worker, citizen, etc. you do many good things that the world will not even recognize as good works. Right now, just sitting in a pew listening to the sermon, you are fulfilling your vocation as a lay person. A mother cooking a meal for her family is doing a great work before God. A husband bringing home a paycheck is doing what God intends.
All these vocations are not our self-chosen works in which we do good. No, it is God doing good through us. He desires to show love to human beings. So He takes care of your neighbor through you, by creating good works in your vocation.
But you may protest, "If God does the good works through us, aren't WE supposed to do anything at all?" Of course you are. Strive and work as hard as you can to do good. Just remember that your efforts, no matter how heroic and powerful, are really nothing but the buzzing of a fly trying to push a wagon. The Holy Spirit is the horse that pulls the wagon, while next to Him, you are buzzing away with all your might. To you, it seems that you are doing much work indeed. But it is the Spirit who actually accomplishes something.
Most certainly, we should never willingly give in to our sinful desires with the excuse that it is the Spirit who does the work, not us. May that never be! That would give the sinful flesh the freedom to run amok, out of control in our lives. We must fight the flesh as much as we can. Yet it is not truly us fighting, but the Spirit in us.
It is a bitter and frustrating struggle. The flesh can never be completely killed off. The flesh is you, so it is a fight against yourself. The new man, created by the Spirit, battles against the old man, which is your flesh. There will be constant failures in this struggle. The new man will always strive for perfection, yet will never be able to reach it so long as the old man remains.
Since it is so difficult a struggle, you must remember that the strength to persevere is not in you. It is in the Gospel of Christ, since that is where the Spirit works. The Word of forgiveness is the only place He comes to you and causes you to do good, as well as to avoid evil. So it is nonsense to say that Lutherans concentrate too much on the Gospel, instead of upon sanctification. The Gospel IS the power of the Spirit to create sanctification in you.
The natural inclination is to try to increase your holiness by going back to the Law with all its commandments and instructions. But the Law cannot overcome sin. It can only multiply sin, as St. Paul wrote. Only the Gospel is the power of God, not only for salvation, but also for sanctification.
You should never think that your good works in life make you any better in God's sight. You are already as good in God's sight as you can ever get. The Cross has removed your sins from you as far as the east is from the west. The Blood of Christ covers you with His holiness, and you are clothed in Him in Baptism. Since in Christ you are the righteousness of God, then how could you make yourself any better by adding a few paltry, human good works? Christ has redeemed you perfectly. All is accomplished for your salvation. Nothing more can be added to make it better.
But once you have been saved and brought to this gracious Savior and His precious death, then the Spirit at once begins to work in you to produce good works. The good works of your sanctification follow directly from the forgiveness of sins you received in your justification. Since you are saved, you ARE producing good works. The power of the Cross, delivered by the Spirit, is constantly pushing you onward to do good.
That is why only a Christian can do good works before God. Only a Christian has the Holy Spirit. Only a Christian has the freedom to do good that the Cross gives. Only a Christian who is perfectly redeemed by the Blood of God can perform a work that is declared perfect in God's sight.
Therefore, may the Spirit continue to work in you according to His good and gracious will. Even now, He accomplishes such wonders through you that the angels are surely amazed. Do not trade this divine work of God for any man-made, counterfeit works or principles. But trust in the mighty works of the Holy Spirit.
In His Name alone, with the Father and the Son, One God forever. Amen.
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