Oh, the ink that has been spilled on good works! Oh the keyboards that have been worn out on the discussion thereof! Even in Lutheran Circles, the debate will rage - how do we preach and exhort to good works, to sanctification - on and on and on it goes.
I have a suggestion. Do not exhort "good works" Exhort "works that are Good." That's what St. Paul does.
Think about the famous passages, like Galatians 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."
St. Paul doesn't say, "Do x, do y, do z - because these are good and you have to do them." Instead, he gives ideas, fruits -- these are the sorts of these that you should see -- do things that look like this, do things that are gentle.
But what specifically are "gentle works" or "peaceful works"? Why doesn't Paul give a specific list so that I know that if I do X or Y then I have been gentle or peaceful? Because - you are to be walking by the Spirit, a Spirit which always pushes you not towards action X or good deed Y, but towards gentleness, towards peace, towards self-control, where you are always doing things that demonstrate these fruits more and more and more.
It's not a check list that you complete, it's not specific things that you do - it is a whole way of learning to approach all of your life more and more with these fruits.
Even James doesn't give lists - in James 1:27 he says this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." Visit those in need, especially orphans and widows (who have nothing with which to repay you). Keep away from the world. Do you hear how... broad that is. Visit them with what? Food? Cash? How often? Give me specifics!
No - go show love to them. Bring forth the fruits of faith, the fruits of your pure and undefiled religion.
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I think part of the problem with how we approach works and the preaching there of is this: We tend to preach "works" when we want a specific result.
We need cash in the Church (or Synod) bank account: Better preach stewardship.
Attendance is lagging: Better preach about showing up to Church.
People are fighting: Better preach about being nice.
That's not exhorting good works -- that's smacking down the sins of greedy and laziness and hate.
Or we might preach works when there is something that we in particular want done, or feel important about. We'll tell the people to show up to thing X - be it the VBS or the Lutherans for Life rally. Are these good things - sure! But does a person *need* to help out with VBS, or attend the Pro-life rally? Is that something *they* need to do -- or do they have plenty of other ways in their life in which it is much more important for them to demonstrate peace and gentleness and kindness and self-control?
Like dealing with their sick father.
Like dealing with that spouse who has been cruel lately.
Like covering at work for someone who has been distracted by problems at home.
Like getting some rest themselves because they have been tired and quick to snap lately.
Like spending more time with their kid who has been having a hard time adjusting to a new whatever.
Like just trying to catch up on all the simple, everyday things that have been piling up.
I *can't* know what "good works" a person needs to do. I can inform a person of things that would be good, of opportunities. It would be good to attend the rally, it would be good to help with VBS. But I can't say, "This is what a Christian does - he goes the rally this Saturday at X time".
You are a Christian wherever you go, whatever you do -- let the fruits of the Spirit shine forth more in you whatever you do - do works that are Good, that are increasing in Goodness as you grow in the knowledge and security of Christ Jesus' love for you. You are forgiven by Christ, you have salvation - nothing else is bigger than that. Beat down your sinful flesh, and in whatever you do, whatever you delight in - whatever works God has prepared for you to walk in, let those fruits of the Spirit shine forth more.
And when you see how much more growth you have yet to grow, for you are not yet in the life of the world to come, but rather this sinful, fallen life - repent of your sin, struggle against it, yet rest in Christ Jesus and His love for you -- and He will make you to bear much of His Spirit's fruit wherever you go.