Romans 5:1-5 – Maybe There Can Be Peace…

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (New International Version)

Today, there are millions, perhaps billions, of people without peace in this world.

Maybe…

Maybe there isn’t much peace in your life. Because of that unsettled icky sense of agitation, your mind is somewhere else. It could be that you are upset about something that has happened or are worried about something that is going to happen. 

Maybe the lack of peace has to do with another person. They did or said something, and it’s been grinding on you. So, you are having conversations with that person in your head for which you will probably never say aloud. 

Maybe you have to deal with someone else who doesn’t have peace, and it’s creating stress for you. And you are wondering when things will settle down.

Maybe the lack of peace runs much deeper than your immediate circumstances and plans. 

Maybe every day, day-in-and-day-out, you are not quite sure about where you stand with a person or a group of people.

Maybe you aren’t sure about how you stand with God. You wonder whether God is really pleased with you, or not. 

Maybe you aren’t even in touch with your lack of peace because you are an expert at pushing whatever feelings you have so far down that you think you’re fine. But you really aren’t.

Maybe you are a perfectionist…

Perfectionists are never at peace. The specter of perfectionism always hangs in the air. There’s a steady stream of “should have’s,” and “could have’s” making noise in your head. Your work, no matter how good, is never good enough. “I should have done better.”  “I ought to do better.”  “I must be better.” 

Instead of viewing life’s opportunities as challenges to be welcomed, the perfectionist sees life as one unending mountain to climb, never quite reaching the top. 

The constant companions of perfectionistic people are disappointment, condemnation, frustration, and perceived failure. There is, for them, an internal world of self-loathing based on the lie that I am not enough – I have to be perfect. Peace, for the perfectionist, is a pipe dream.

Maybe we could focus a bit on God…

The Christian God is a triune God, existing in three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – the great Three-in-One. The Trinity is the basis for all we are and all we do.

All of life is grounded in the triune God. God exists in perfect unity and harmony. God is God’s own community of glorious love. God’s glory is primarily seen on this earth through creation, through us, God’s creatures.

Glory is revealed as we reflect the image of God stamped on us in creation. Since God is love, God’s people are to be characterized by love – loving God, loving one another, and loving neighbor. God’s people are meant to exist together in unity and harmony, reflecting the very nature of the Holy Trinity. 

Yet, after the creation of the world and humanity, man and woman fell into guilt and shame through bucking God’s design for people. Ever since, God has been on a mission to reclaim the lost glory.

Maybe we need to focus on the Son… 

The ultimate expression of God’s mission was the sending of the Son to this earth. It is through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension that the way has been opened to a renewed relationship with our triune God.

The way is now clear for us to experience real practical peace. It has been achieved through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since God has initiated a rescue mission for us by sending the Son, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God. 

To be justified means God made us righteous – has made things right between us. God has also provided access for us to be right with each other and the rest of creation. To put this in a contemporary vernacular, we ask God, “Are we good?” and God responds, “We’re good.”

Since then, we’re good with God, we have peace with God. 

Since then, that is true, we cannot try and get peace by another way.

Peace does not come through doing the right things, and by being a good person. 

Peace does not come through trying to obtain feelings of peace.

Peace is not merely the absence of conflict – of just keeping people from strangling each other and harming one another. 

Peace cannot be achieved by trying to relieve anxiety through better effort. 

Maybe grace is the answer…

The antidote to perfectionism, the resolution to feeling a lack of peace is unconditional approval from God. 

Grace is the elixir of life. 

Grace is the thing a perfectionist cannot work to obtain, and the thing that truly helps. 

Grace is freely given; it is a gift.   

Grace (God’s loving unconditional acceptance of us) is the true way of peace.

Some folks have so tied themselves to impossible performances and conditional love that the gift of grace is hard to accept. 

Change won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay – because God deals with us according to grace, not by earning spiritual merit badges. 

The renewal that brings transformation is a process, not an event. In Scripture it’s called “sanctification.” So, it’s important to enjoy the process. 

When you’ve caught yourself going back to the pigsty of perfectionism, instead of beating yourself up, go ahead and laugh at yourself and your own fallibility. Perfectionists take themselves way too serious. Anytime they can lighten up, it lights up the face of God (in a non-performance sort of way!).

Maybe peace is possible…

Peace delivers us from our brokenness.  Again, let’s return to the triune God. There is perfect peace within Father, Son, and Spirit. God is perfect unity, harmony, and love.

Peace means living, working, and playing together. 

Peace means experiencing wholeness, integrity, and contentment, even in the midst of hard circumstances. 

Peace means being a peacemaker.

The late Fred Rogers, from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, got into television because he didn’t like TV. During spring break of his senior year in seminary he encountered television for the first time. What he saw repulsed him because he saw people demeaning each other and not having peace.  

Fred Rogers worried that TV programming would create a generation of emotionally-bankrupt children. Faced with the decision to either sour on television itself or work to restore the medium, he chose the latter. He dropped out of seminary and began pursuing a career in broadcasting. Fourteen years later, he created a television show that shaped entire generations of children, running on PBS from 1968-2001.

Mr. Rogers was a devout Christian who rarely talked about his faith on the air. Yet, his show infused our society with beauty and grace. “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you,” he’d famously sign off. “There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” 

In many ways, the lasting legacy of Mr. Rogers will not only be the greater emotional stability of generations of children, but also his wonderful example of peace and how to restore the world through basic human kindness.

Maybe the path of peace is different than I believed…

Having all our circumstances like we want them is not the basis of experiencing peace. That’s being delusional. Peace doesn’t happen whenever everything goes our way.

Instead, we are to rejoice in all our circumstances, even the ones which cause suffering – because they the Holy Spirit’s means of teaching us to experience the peace we long for.

Suffering is our triune God’s way of weaning us off all that divides and antagonizes so that we can attach ourselves to God’s peace. 

One of the most read Christian books of all time was written in the 1500’s by a French woman known as Madame Guyon. She saw the disunity of the world and the lack of peace in our individual lives as stemming from our lack of practicing God’s ways. 

Much of the world doesn’t know what to do with suffering, and does not accept it, because people want their own way with everything.

War and Peace by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter

To know God’s peace, we must practice just the opposite – by refusing all personal desires we have, whether good or bad. Why? Because the practice of refusing our own will breaks it free so it can attach to God’s will.  

We need our brains to be rewired in saying “no” to ourselves.

The other part of Madame Guyon’s practice is to accept every circumstance, even difficulty and suffering, with joy and thanksgiving. 

We can learn to say “yes, thank you” for each hard circumstance, whether good or bad. As in the case of Mr. Rogers, the evil we observe can spur us toward making peace in this world. We detach from personal desires so we can attach to what God wants to do.

Peace, on the practical level, comes from persevering under suffering and rejoicing in it. Why rejoice? Because suffering produces character and character hope. There cannot be hope without suffering. 

God the Father called God the Son to suffer; and God the Spirit leads us into suffering so that we might know peace and hope on a daily basis.

Conclusion

Abandon everything to God. Let it go – every dream, every personal desire, everything you have so that you are free to know God’s will for your life. 

Accept each circumstance you face with joy and thanksgiving. The Trinitarian love of God is poured into our hearts through every circumstance of life, even if it is difficult and hard. 

When we practice abandonment of our wills and acceptance of our circumstances, the result gives us hope, the confident expectation that nothing in our lives happens in vain. 

Every situation can lead us to know God and experience peace. This is very different from simply believing in the Trinity; it is to daily experience the Trinity. 

Glorious God, make your presence known through our worship, our prayer, and our reading of your Word. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, within you lies unity, love, justice, peace, and power.

Fill our outstretched hearts with your Spirit and encircle us with your love. Make yourself known to us in new and challenging ways. Empower us to forsake every will but your own.  Inspire us toward your peace. Do with us what you will, through Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37 – How Do We Start Our Ministry?

The Good Samaritan by He Qi

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (New International Version)

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan in the Cathedral of St. Mary, Madrid, Spain

Start with Love and Mercy

The short answer to the question of how to begin any ministry is love, by providing relief through showing mercy. Compassion, mercy, and love are always behind every true Christian ministry.

Being available and approachable, crossing paths with people in need, noticing and caring about others is a merciful response. Following the example of Jesus, the Christian community ought not to pass by on the other side of the road. Instead, we are to stop and get involved smack in the middle of human need.

That isn’t what always happens, though. It can be far too easy to respond to the vast sea of human need by being judgmental and critical. We might observe people’s predicaments and write those persons off as being lazy, foolish, or of bad character. Just as bad, our prejudice or bias might see a person’s clothes, habits, race, ethnicity, or gender and immediately make sweeping negative assumptions about them – without having even engaged them.

Frankly, from a Christian perspective, it just doesn’t matter. Whether we believe someone deserves our help or not, all Christian ministry is to be driven by a spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – rather than a spirit of condemnation. We need to see all people, without exception, as image bearers of God who possess inherent worth and dignity as human beings.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Start with Relationships

It is good to give money, food, and resources to those in need. It’s even better to develop relationships and get to know the people for whom we are helping. Both handouts and hugs are good and necessary. In this COVID-19 world we are currently living in, I am using “hug” as both a metaphor and an acronym….

Hold eye contact. One of the things we all have discovered about masking is that the eyes communicate a lot. Looking someone in the eye is important. Far too many people in our world don’t feel seen by others. They wonder, if they fell off the face of the earth, whether anyone would even notice. Seeing people is a necessary ministry, in and of itself.

Understand another’s life and point of view. Be curious about their lives, their history, their faith background, and their experiences. Put yourself in their shoes. See things from their perspective. Empathy (communicating to someone that they are not alone) goes a long way. What’s more, we don’t have to agree with another to extend mercy.

Go to others, rather than waiting for others to come to you. Go where they are. Get close enough to show empathy and compassion, even if it’s an air hug. Half of any relationship, before any talking or doing happens, is simply showing up. The good Samaritan showed up and stopped. He was willing to go wherever the mercy of God sent him.

Start with Building Trust

Most needy people have been, at the least, ignored or dismissed by others; and, at worst, like the man attacked by robbers, beat down and berated by others and left for dead. Anyone who has endured past abuse or trauma is understandably guarded in trusting others. The last thing they want to do is be open and vulnerable to a stranger who might take advantage of them and hurt them.

It takes time to build trust. A person’s issues, a neighborhood’s concerns, and a city’s anxiety won’t be solved overnight. Those problems took a great deal of time in their development, and so, it will take just as much, or more, time to address and resolve all that is wrong.

As we lovingly and mercifully tackle those problems, we must always keep in mind that we fix problems and heal people – and never the other way around. Trying to fix people is a fool’s errand because people are not their problems. Nobody is a cancer, a disease, a schizophrenic, or a lunatic. People have physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual illnesses but they are not inherently those problems. Anything we won’t possess in heaven is something we are not, as people.

Human organizations, systems, institutions, and culture can be a problem – but not people themselves. Whenever someone begins labeling people as “problem” people, or as “those” people, or even worse, as “monsters” or some other label, the judgment of God is not far behind. (Matthew 5:22)

Trust cannot be developed with putting adjectives in front of people’s names or replace those names with pejorative terms. Christian ministry can only thrive in an atmosphere of love, mercy, and compassion.

Trust is developed when we give people the dignity of choices and ask whether they would like help, or not. We don’t save anyone. God does. We are all responsible for our own choices and our own openness to accepting and owning our own problems.

The Good Samaritan by Paulus Hoffman

Start with Meeting a Need

The man alongside the road had a clear need for immediate assistance. The Samaritan stepped in and met that pressing need. The man would have died without it. Yet, some people’s needs aren’t quite so obvious. If we have worked at building trust, some of those needs become known. And there are always existing organizations who are diligently addressing many of those needs with whom we can partner.

Another way of meeting needs is to connect people with one another. Through consulting and collaborating with others, we can foster relational connections in which someone’s or a group’s needs can be met. Since no one person or community can meet everyone’s needs, many times the best approach is to help people meet one another.

When we get neighbors working together to care for one another and improve their neighborhood, they are empowered to make a difference. This is especially viable when a church commits itself to the place or parish in which it exists. By being involved, partnering with community organizations or neighborhood associations, the church joins others as a community connector and a place where the community comfortably gathers.

Conclusion

All Christian ministry begins with a loving attitude, a compassionate heart, and a merciful spirit. Then, it looks for opportunities to be available and show up with a compassionate presence. From there, we are able to discover and discern the real needs of people so that we are providing what is truly needed instead of what we believe someone else needs.

In one of the communities I once pastored, I noticed the town had a significant number of single parents trying to raise their kids. So, I did a bit of demographic work and presented it to the elders, pointing out the opportunity we have to make a difference in many of these family’s lives. The elders became excited about the chance for outreach, that is, until I proposed that we recruit two or three of those single parents to come, sit around the table, and help us understand their needs and how we might help…. The elders became eerily silent…. Finally, one of them spoke up and said, “We can’t do that. They got themselves into this single parent situation. They don’t know what’s best. We do….”

That response is just the opposite of what God is looking for in us. If we believe we know better to the point of not even asking others how we might help, then our arrogance and prejudice has blinded us to true Christian ministry in the way of Jesus. Now for a better story….

The Good Samaritan by Corinne Vonaesch

A woman and her husband were not from the area they were living, and so, every Thanksgiving they spent it only with each other, since both their families lived far away. So, when one Thanksgiving came around, they wondered if there were others like them, spending the holiday apart from family.

They found a few and spent that Thanksgiving together. Those folks had such a good time together that, next year, the woman and her husband asked if they could use the church fellowship hall where I was pastoring at Thanksgiving because they found more people who had no family to celebrate with.

To make a long story short, these two people now serve about two-hundred people in the community every Thanksgiving who gather together, and another two hundred shut-ins are delivered a Thanksgiving meal, along with some needed human connection. Many positive friendships and relationships are formed.

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

Mother Teresa

Small acts of kindness done with big love result in the kind of Christian ministry which pleases God.

Lord, help us believe we are all ordinary people made extraordinary through your vision and power. Take our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy and give us the courage to see ourselves and others as you see us, with gifts and potential to transform your world and build your Kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 22:36-40 – Who Do We Minister To?

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (New International Version)

I love my three daughters. I think God made them beautiful to compensate for all the ornery things they did as kids so I would not go crazy. Once the oldest was at the top of the stairs with the youngest (who was two years old at the time). She put her in a laundry basket and pushed her down with the middle kid at the bottom to catch her. 

I love my wife with all my heart and soul. Yet, she always thought it would be a good idea to have an open-door policy for the girls to come into our bed at night whenever they needed us. I have been puked on, peed on, kicked on and pushed out of bed. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of drunks. Raising this girl version of “Malcom in the Middle” was often stressful. However, I gladly dealt with it all because I love my girls with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Who do we minister to? The short answer: everyone. The reason we are to pay attention to everyone within our orbit is that God does. The way of loving our neighbor is to experientially know the heart, soul, mind, and strength of our great God.

Love God with All Your Heart

God has children across planet earth, and the Lord loves them all. To love God with all our heart is to begin seeing God’s big expansive heart for people all around the world. God’s compassionate heart is close to the broken-hearted, near to those in need. In fact, God’s wrath is a response of love to make things right in this fallen world. As early as the book of Genesis, just a few chapters in, it says:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV)

God is disturbed with violent and evil hearts. God is heartbroken about the dark places within the human heart. God is deeply concerned for suffering, injustice, oppression, and death.

Every year fifteen-million children die of starvation. Human trafficking of women and girls has increased six-fold over the past five years resulting in forty-million victims of forced sex worldwide. Five and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 Hundreds of millions are locked in grinding poverty, have no clean water to drink, and face a lifetime of illiteracy and poor wages.

The breadth and depth of human need and suffering goes on and one and on….

This is just a small glimpse of what God sees every day. And God knows each one of their names. For us, people need to move from being numbers to being names. God wants us to champion vital causes and aim our collective love toward people in need of Christ’s compassion and deliverance.

Love is a deliberate decision to meet a need in another person. One who fails to see the needs of others will suffer a shrinking heart. But the one close to God’s heart and aware of another’s need will gain an expansive heart. God also sees the good and the beautiful: every obedient act done in secret, each prayer uttered in the privacy of our closet, and all the places of selfless love toward another.

Love God with All Your Soul

I believe the world will experience a mass turning to God whenever Christians reclaim the soul of Christianity by experiencing a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty.

If loving God with all my heart means my heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart, then loving God with all my soul has my life flooded with God’s glory – awed by Divine majesty, mystery, and beauty. Loving God with all my soul is to perceive the glory and wonder of God all around me. It is to be profoundly grateful for everything – even and especially for the lessons learned from personal hardship and suffering.

Without a divine perspective, we only see the world as we are and not as it is. The ways to cultivate a beautiful love for God with all my soul is to meditate on Scripture and creation. Literally take time to smell the roses. If we walk or drive the same route every day, be mindful to observe one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for it. Each time Holy Scripture is read, do it slowly and carefully, noticing one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for that perception.

Take the extra step of sharing your wonderful and beautiful observations with others, especially unbelievers. It does no good to try and scare or cajole people into the kingdom of God. It makes all the difference when the world can see Christians captivated by the beauty and majesty of Christ.

Love God with All Your Mind

True love has an insatiable desire to know more and more about the object of its affection. To love God with all our mind is a desire to learn and experientially know more about the Lord. It is to have a constant curiosity about God.

Loving God takes our full faculties. God wants all our brains, not just one half of it.

Left-brain dominant people rely on the logical, analytical, practical, and think chiefly in concrete ways. Right-brain dominant folks are artistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, humorous, even sarcastic, often speaking poetically and with satire or metaphor. Loving God with all our minds means we will use all our brains, both the right and the left hemispheres.    

One obstacle to loving God with our brains is that the mind of sinful humanity is death (Romans 8:6). A sinful mind is a small brain; it is not interested in genuine critical thinking – only in stubbornly expressing opinions. Such individuals are merely using a ridiculously small part of their brains. God, however, wants to sanctify our whole brains, to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). 

We are to use our full cognitive capacities to love God – meaning we will value the left brain hemisphere of order and discipline, using all the tools of reason and logic, learning critical thinking skills, and pursuing the life of the mind.

We will also value the right brain hemisphere of mystery, paradox, and gray areas, enjoying the process of discovery, and probing the deepest issues of divinity and humanity – being comfortable with asking questions and not always having the answers.

Love God with All Your Strength

God loves the smell of your sweat. You might stink to high heaven from hard work but for God it is a sweet aroma and sacred incense. Love is measured not only by words spoken but by calories burned. Using our hands and our effort is as valuable to God as using our brains. 

Go hard after God with all your strength! Yet also be mindful that we all have a finite amount of energy. Because of this, we need to ensure we do not inordinately waste our energy pursuing power and control. Pride, anger, and selfishness saps our strength. Guilt, shame, and regret follow it up by draining our spiritual stamina. So, we need to keep busy doing the right things.

Our priorities need to reflect God’s values. Therefore, we will worship the Lord with all our strength, pray like there is no tomorrow, read Scripture like its our favorite food, fellowship with others as if they are adored old friends, and engage in mission with a continual sense that today could be the day of the Lord’s return.

Loving God with all our strength requires helping others in need whether they believe in Jesus, or not.

Since the Lord is truly concerned for all people’s welfare, putting our energy into sponsoring a refugee family, helping someone with their budget or their bills, providing for at-risk children, or organizing the neighborhood to work together, we let people know we care about them – and not just about whether they end up attending church, or not.

At the same time, we never need to ignore genuine opportunities to share our faith with folks we have connected with. Even if we are functioning with tangible help, we can make the extra effort of connecting people with Jesus.

Conclusion

The power of the gospel is strongest when people experience the full life that God desires for their entire existence. That will happen, I firmly believe, when people are in relationships with believers and with Christ.

When a church or faith community pays attention to the holistic needs of all persons within their sphere of influence, the effect on an individual, a family, a neighborhood, and a city is dramatic.

We love God by being obedient to his great command to love the world through meeting needs and establishing caring relationships. We can do this. It’s what we were saved from sin to do.

Gracious God, we give you thanks that you did not leave us in our misery and suffering, but that in love and mercy, you reached out to us. Thank you that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Thank you that Jesus humbled himself, even to death on a cross. Thank you for your heart that seeks the lost. We were once lost, desperately needing you, and going our own way. We are sorry for having hearts that rebelled against you and sought darkness. Thank you for saving us from ourselves.

Please give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness. Teach us to care for them as you do. Thank you for including us in the mission of reaching other people for your Name. Grow us to care for humanity, both believers and unbelievers. We pray our conversations will be seasoned with salt and full of grace. We pray our friends will see the love of Jesus in us. Enlarge our hearts and make them passionate to see people delivered from their guilt and shame, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, in the mighty strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen

Two Ways of Living: Blessed or Cursed

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law, day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psalm 1:1-6, NIV)

The Righteous and the Wicked

This psalm presents two ways we can choose to shape our lives: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, blessed or cursed. The way of the righteous leads to human blessing, flourishing, and living. The way of the wicked leads to human cursing, degenerating, and dying.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when Judgment Day comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

To discern the difference between the two, let’s refer to the Reformer, Martin Luther, to help us. You might be familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses posted on the door of the Wittenberg castle church, sparking the Reformation of Christianity. Less familiar is the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.

Theology of the Cross and Theology of Glory

Like Psalm 1, Luther contrasts two opposing ways. He calls these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. It is the death of Christ which is central to Christianity. Therefore, one must embrace the cross and rely solely upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. It is through being crucified with Christ we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. It’s important to understand Luther because he has a key which helps us unlock Scripture by not walking in the way of the wicked, as expressed in Psalm 1. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of readily observable outward sinning. You, perhaps like me, have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like. My guess is that it probably has something to do with certain lifestyles or evil acts. 

“Good” Works?

Luther, however, insisted the worst of sinners are people who do good works. Specifically, the wicked person is one who has clean living and does nice things but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting it: The wicked person seeks to gain glory for themselves rather than give glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness and living the way of the cross. It is far too easy to place faith in our good works, done apart from God, rather than placing complete trust in Christ alone. It can be too easy, doing good things, for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner lives life apart from that cross, trusting in self, so that people will give personal recognition, respect, and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

Delight, or Not

The answer to this problem of doing good works to gain glory for self is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in God’s law and connected to Christ’s vine. The psalmist uses the word “law” in referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s world.

People who yield juicy abundant fruit have immersed themselves in the law. Because they delight in God; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately read the Bible’s message; and pray to put that message into practice. They will be blessed. 

The wicked are too busy to notice the law. They serve to be seen and desire public recognition for their charity and works. But those works will not stand in the Judgment. Jesus described them this way:

“You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean….  On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27, NIV)

Which is Which?

Identifying the righteous and the wicked is not as simple as saying the wicked are “those people” out there, and the righteous people are in here. The truly righteous person delights in God through the law. They have the humble sense they could easily drift from God if not staying connected, rooted in Jesus, and grounded in the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention which God rightly deserves. When I was a kid, I always wore a mask during the corn harvest because of the chaff and corn dust. Every year, from the time I was seven years old, I had the job of taking the tractor out and hitching up the wagons of corn and bringing them back. Then, I unloaded the wagon of corn into the auger which sent it up and into the corn bin. The corn dust flew everywhere. It was annoying and could easily take over my lungs if I weren’t masked up.

The wicked have nothing of substance to contribute to God’s kingdom – they add no value to what is going on. In fact, they are a hindrance to the harvest of souls God is trying to accomplish. Conversely, the righteous do good works which sprout from rich Iowa-type soil, producing a harvest of righteousness. 

The righteous person takes the time to know God’s law; satisfies the needs of those who are not able to pay them back or give them proper recognition; and cultivates relationships with those they help. The righteous are relational.

Righteous Job

The biblical character, Job, is an example of a righteous person. Job did all kinds of good works. And he did them because of his close walk with God. Job persevered through intolerable suffering and grief because he knew God. Job assisted the needy; helped others no matter their situation; championed the less fortunate; and gave glory to God even amid terrible trouble. Job did not throw in the towel when his reputation, his family, and his wealth were completely taken away. Instead, he said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:21-22, NIV)

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious. Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is born of a righteous relationship with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Injustice and Judgment

However, the wicked perish. There are sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness. And the wicked turn out to be some of God’s covenant people. That’s because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. And they withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or personal goals. 

For example, prophesying to those who fasted so that others would see their spirituality, the prophet Isaiah communicated God’s message:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loosen the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7, NIV)

God desires genuine spiritual growth. That happens when we eschew a theology of glory, and embrace a theology of the cross, which delights in God and God’s law, meditating on it day and night.

A Choice

We always have a choice between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, to embrace a theology of the cross or a theology of glory. Here is how that choice is framed in the book of Deuteronomy when the ancient Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess….

I have set before you: life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, NIV)

The idolatry which can easily seduce us are our own good works done for a human audience who will recognize and affirm. Jesus said we must play to the audience of one:

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NIV)

Our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. Perhaps Christianity needs another Reformation – one in which we do not just uphold the authority of Scripture, but reform our habits by loving God through basic disciplines of Bible-reading and simple obedience; and by loving our neighbor through giving them time and attention, the gift of relationship and friendship.

What will you choose this day?