But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14
Good works aren’t about omitting this sin or that sin or doing this good deed or that good deed because of fear of punishment or hope for reward. God did not create a humanity of mere pets that are obedient to their master out of fear or try to please their master for a milk bone. But as Christians, enlightened by the Word of God and filled with the Spirit of God, we should omit sin and do good works because we hate sin and love the good. And omitting sin and doing good should be motivated, not by fear or reward, but out of love for God.
Nothing good is accomplished when a preacher only preaches, “stop sinning and do what’s right” except for despair or pride. The hearer may say to himself, “I cannot do what I should” and abandon all hope, or he may say, “I must stop, but oh how I wish I could keep living as I please,” which is hypocrisy. When a preacher preaches nothing but a call for virtue, people remain enemies of holiness and God and whatever ‘good works’ they do come from a heart that still loves and desires to sin.
There is the great motto of our time often recited among many churches, “Deeds not creeds,” which asserts that man is saved by his works and not by what he believes. In fact, many Christians today shy away from talking about or confessing what they believe — or even worry if what they believe is inline with the Scripture — and instead rely on their deeds, their perceived goodness, and this is completely backwards. What does the Scripture say? St. Paul, who before his conversion, strutted around flaunting his own righteousness and works and thought himself as blameless, persecuted Christians and was an enemy of Christ the Son of God. His own perceived goodness did not make him good. Luther, before his conversion, struggled and tried to crawl his way to make himself holy before God but continually fell short and ultimately became angry at God and even hated Him. And many, many more today who constantly hear virtue-only preaching and teaching and an obedience-based salvation experience the same despair, hopelessness, pride, or hypocrisy. They try to make themselves look good on the outside, while deep inside lusting and longing for the sins they fight so hard to defeat.
If a person is to truly become holy, it must come from a power other than his own. He needs the helping hand of heaven; he needs the mighty power of God. This power comes from the cross. It is a power, a message, a Word that wakes the sinner up from death, enlightens him, strengthens him, and sanctifies him. Yes, every Christian must pursue holiness and right living because, as the Scripture says, without holiness, no one can see God. But this is not his own doing or work; is the work of God by His Word which does it all. And it starts with repentance, when a person denies himself and instead runs to Christ the crucified and his faith holds tightly to that bloodied cross.
The proper order of salvation isn’t that it starts with man and his acts or will for holiness, but that it starts with God who saves and then makes him holy. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s love first comes to a person when he acknowledges his sin and brokenness and believes that God loves and forgives him, and this comes only by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word. A person is raised from death to life through hearing both Law AND Gospel, he learns to hate his sin and love holiness and his love for God flows out to the neighbor. This is the Christain faith, and this is why God sent His only Son.