Doing Good Works: Praying, Fasting, Charitable Giving

Some devoted Christians around the world will be observing Holy Week starting this coming Saturday till Sunday, 9-15th of April 2017. For many this can be set aside as a holy time for praying, fasting, giving alms and doing charitable deeds to help the underprivileged. What a special time!

An angel in Acts, announced to the devoted Cornelius that his prayers of thanksgiving and almsgiving were remembered by God. He is about to come to know Christ.  Acts 10:3-4 says,

3 “About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…” (RSV)

Here’s a seemingly simplistic but a spiritual question:
If God recognizes and remembers our prayers and charitable giving, then shouldn’t we be encouraged to pray more and give more? 

Our obvious answer would naturally be “Yes!” but our good works of praying and almsgiving can either be both a good work or they can be done purely out of genuine faith.  Martin Luther cautioned that none of our good works can earn any merit toward our salvation, or earn God’s recognition to merit more approval.  According to Paul, our human righteousness is worthless as rags.  Salvation and good works ought to be done only in faith.

Now here’s a bit of theology to get your head around… If you are past the “human religion” stage and couldn’t care less about trying to earn salvation or earn God’s favor by being a good person, then that’s great!  You are set free to act in good faith to move on to do even more good works.  Since you’ve already been created into God’s beloved child, then you are set free from a human striving in order to please God (see Luther’s quote below).

Be encouraged to observe Holy Week with passion. Pray more, fast more, and be more charitable. Praise the Lord! Do your good works boldly. God loves it and hears it. 


Martin Luther states in his A Treastise on Good Works (1520):

XVI. But you say: How can I trust surely that all my works are pleasing to God, when at times I fall, and talk, eat, drink and sleep too much, or otherwise transgress, as I cannot help doing? Answer: This question shows that you still regard faith as a work among other works, and do not set it above all works. For it is the highest work for this very reason, because it remains and blots out these daily sins by not doubting that God is so kind to you as to wink at such daily transgression and weakness. Aye, even if a deadly sin should occur (which, however, never or rarely happens to those who live in faith and trust toward God), yet faith rises again and does not doubt that its sin is already gone;…

Asking for whatever you wish

John 15:7 says: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

Someone less familiar with the bible who reads this might easily take this to mean that God will grant whatever wish he or she wishes.  I have heard of Christians who innocently asks the Lord for a miracle or healing and receive from the Lord the answer they prayed for. Is this coincidence or for real.  Probably a bit of both.

As a devil’s advocate, I wish to ask: Do we treat God the Father like an earthly father who gives good gifts, or as a genie in a bottle?  The bible directs us to approach God like we would approach a good earthly father.  For some of us Christians, we might hesitate to do so because it would be wrong to treat God our Father like a genie in a bottle who grants whatever wish we desire, but for many of us Christians, it is also practical and simple approach to understanding God. But for many Christians who do ask but do not receive, I have empathy for them.

As a father myself, my daughter will ask me for this and that, and anything she sees and likes. But as a father who loves my dear daughter, I know that some things would be unhealthy or bad for her.  I also don’t want to spoil her.

Our Father God also knows what is good and what is bad for his spiritual children. Wouldn’t God also keep things away from us in order to protect us just like a good earthly father would want to protect his children?  I certainly believe He would.  We have a Heavenly Father who knows exactly what would be good or bad or unhealthy for us.  We would not know it at the time but God knows the future and foresees what would be bad or un- or counter-productive for our lives.

Do you trust our Heavenly Father even if He were to withhold some seemingly good things back from you?

Eating the Bread of Life and drinking his blood

bread-cup What is “bread of life” and flesh and blood in John 6.  This can be confusing to many Christians.  It is why Christians have differences in understanding Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist.  The theology of the Catholic and Orthodox churches take a literal understanding of “bread of life,” and eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood.  The theology of most Protestant and Evangelical churches take a symbolic and metaphorical approach to understanding the eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood.  As an Evangelical Protestant, I hold to it being symbolic.  Why? “Remain in me, and I in you” is referenced both in the contexts of Jesus being the “bread of life“, body and blood (Jn. 6:56), and also as the vine (Jn. 15:5). This commonality may be an indication that Jesus was speaking metaphorically in both instances because in the case of Jesus being the vine, there is no biblical linkage to a sacramental practice.

chalice-breadSome of my Christians friends believe the real presence of Christ is manifested in the Eucharist; and some friends see the Lord’s Supper as simply a memorial.  Struggling through this issue is not so simple.  In some cases, as a Christian, I read things literally, and in some cases, I like to read things metaphorically.  Let’s face it, we do pick and choose.

Note: Jesus claimed to be the bread of life four times in vv. 35, 48, 51, 58.
-ref. eating his flesh seven times in vv. 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58.
-ref. drinking his blood five times in vv. 53, 54, 55, 56, 57.

Purpose of the Law since Christ

Paul says in Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.”  Since Christ has come, have the laws of Moses come to an end and considered useless?  On the other hand, Jesus and Paul speak of the law in very good terms. They even quote from the Laws of Moses. Some Christians also hold that the Laws of Moses are still today’s rule of life for the Christian.

So what is the law good for then if it is now abolished since the coming of Christ?  What aspects of the law are to remain, and what are to be abolished?  Does not following the law mean that we give license to sin and lawlessness?

Saints and sinners in transformation

I am in search of a balance between God’s righteousness and our imperfect human righteousness.  Is there actually such a thing so that we can please God with some of our human righteousness?

The blind man who was healed by Jesus and harassed by Pharisees as to who healed him said:

We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.” (John 9:31, NIV)

This moral theology is in line with Isaiah’s moral theology, where the sinner is not heard by God, and that God only listens to godly persons. Isaiah speaks to a rebellious Israelite people in Isa. 58:3 saying:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

It causes me to ask: Will God only be appeased when we show a righteousness that is totally transformed?  Does God close his eyes and stop his ears from listening to sinners until we exhibit a righteousness that is good enough?  I’m not certain.

If God demands only a righteousness that has already moved from darkness to light, then sinners stuck in our sins would have no hope of being heard by God?  I mean, what about those who are in a positive movement toward righteousness but are not yet there?  Will they not be heard by God until they have been totally transformed?   There are many Christians who are not yet living a totally righteous life, but yet they pray, read the bible, and do things to serve the Lord.  Does God ignore their requests until they are in total alignment with God’s righteousness?  If so, many of us would be ignored by God.

Paul’s theology of grace of the transforming (simul) saint and sinner gives us a chance at receiving God’s approval while we are still yet sinners.  After all, St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners.  Is he discounting his sainthood?  No, he’s just being humble in calling himself a sinner, but he is simultaneously also a saint in Christ who has received God’s righteousness imputed to him.

My prayer: Thank you Lord for making sinners like me a saint. When I am taken into your glory, you will fully transform me into your true likeness. Amen.

Surpassing a high standard of righteousness

There seems to be a difference when we say we are to “be righteous” or to “live righteously”.  To live righteously would seem to imply that our actions we do are to be righteous.  To be righteous would imply a constant state of righteousness.  Which is easier to carry out?

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus gave his disciples a command that is impossible to carry out:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I would say it would be impossible to surpass the righteousness of law-abiding Pharisees even if in today’s modern-day context.  Unless Jesus becomes our very own righteousness, or gives us his righteousness, there is no way to have a perfect righteousness.   Living out perfect moral lives is impossible and Jesus seemed to be giving us the impression here to the effect of saying, “Since you can’t surpass the righteous of typical lawyers, there is no way you can do it on your own, you are then forced to run toward Jesus to be our righteousness.

Can we live righteous enough lives to have a righteousness that is better than perfect law-abiding people?  I have admit that I don’t.

My prayer: Jesus, be my righteousness because I cannot be righteous enough to surpass the righteousness of good people.

A spiritual experience in your baptism

I don’t remember my baptismal experience being a spiritual experience, but it does have a deeply spiritual significance for me.  When Jesus was baptized, his experience was very spiritual.  It was heaven coming to earth.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17, ESV)
When you were baptized, did you remember having a spiritual experience during your baptism?  Was it anything like Jesus’?  Was your baptism a deeply spiritual or more of an earthly experience, or both?

Jesus’ sermon on the mount

I was recently reading Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7). This thought crossed my mind once again. Each time I read it, I ask myself: “Can I achieve what Jesus just taught?”  If I answer, “Yes, by the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, I can do it”, then to me, this is ‘prescriptive’.  If I answer, “No way Jose! Honestly I can’t remember when I fulfilled everything Jesus just taught here”, then what Jesus is teaching is law to me, and is a ‘description’ of who I am: a sinner saved by grace… but still a sinner nevertheless.

Most of the time, I feel the Sermon on the Mount is describing who I am, a person who fails at achieving what Jesus sees as the ideal.  Thankfully, I have Jesus who tells me his grace is sufficient for me when I fail to measure up.  But when Christians present Jesus’ teachings from the mount as what I need to do in order to be a righteous Christ-follower, I feel like I’m being set up for future failure.

Do we have to take a position of Jesus’ teachings being 100% descriptive or 100% prescriptive.  Is there room for middle ground or even least 95% descriptive? Personally, I see Jesus’ teachings to be hugely descriptive but I cannot deny that he also prescribes for his followers a way to live that is alignment with his ideals of righteous behavior and personal piety.  The New Testament has some prescriptive laws as taught by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

The challenge for us as good theologians and thoughtful Christians is to try to find law and gospel in what we teach.  The world is hungry for a gospel that clearly spells out God’s free gift of forgiveness motivated by unconditional love.  It is a mystery hidden behind religion; but when it is uncovered, it can be a newfound revelation because it can lead a person into an experience of spiritual freedom in Christ out from a slave-mentality under rules and laws.