Close, but No Points

In the 29 June, 2012 edition of The Week, the following editorial appears.  Now The Week only has this one small text box for their own editorials and this one is quite packed.  Mr. Graff takes on the topic of “good works” and salvation as it relates to a couple of current news stories. Needless to say, it’s appeal to an orthodox Lutheran is self-evident.    I reproduce it in full and then I have a couple of comments on it:

              I don’t know whether good works will get you into heaven. But there’s plenty of evidence this week that they won’t get you out of trouble on earth. Wall Street giant Rajat Gupta, on trial for insider trading,  tried the nice guy defense. His lawyer argued that Gupta’s “lifetime of honesty  and integrity” proved his innocence. In the end, though, all the hours and money he had spent fighting AIDS and malaria did him no good in court. The jury foreman called Gupta “a wonderful example of the American dream,” but his panel took just 10 hours to declare him guilty. While no such definitive judgment has been reached on Lance Armstrong, it may be gathering on the horizon. Some of the cyclist’s defenders suggest we remember that his heroic victory over cancer breathed hope into thousands of cancer victims. That’s unlikely to sway the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in determining whether he doped his way to seven yellow jerseys in theTour de France.

            Nor should it. Saint Augustine took a hard line on such matters. “Good works in sinners,” he wrote, “are nothing but splendid sins”  That’s overly harsh, I think.  The world can’t afford to be so picky about the source of good works, which are always welcome.  The mosquito netting Gupta helped provide prevented thousands of people in Africa from getting malaria—they don’t care about his motives. Armstrong’s amazing comeback from cancer generated inspiration and $400 million in research funds. But if these men thought their good works would exempt their sins from scrutiny, they were obviously mistaken. It’s never worked that way, and never will.

I don’t know whether good works will get you into heaven.  We do know, from Jesus Christ and the whole of Scripture that good works will not get us into heaven.  If good works attain heaven, then obviously the Exodus  and the Passion narratives are not necessary, but they are. They are central, crucial and unequivocal:  The Lord is our salvation.  The Cross is crucial and is the sinners’ crucible of His mercy for sinners.

“Good works in sinners,” (St. Augustine) wrote, “are nothing but splendid sins”. That’s overly harsh, I think.  I do not think so and I think St. Augustine, a faithful evangelical, knew that and he was being very pastoral.  Pastoral because the pastor, Augustine, knew the sinners’ salvation is in Jesus Christ: look out, not in.  Sinners will parade their good works before men to be seen by them, while the Christian’s left hand does not know what his right hand is doing.   Even Roman Catholic monk, Thomas Merton wrote that Luther knew even men’s goodness must be redeemed in Christ.  Roman Catholic Tolkien knew that ultimate power (“the ring”) would be disaster in the hands of a Gandalf because, “…by it I would do good and wreak horror.”

The world can’t afford to be so picky about the source of good works, which are always welcome.  Yes, the world must be extremely picky about the source of good works.  The United Way is given a hefty donation of a million dollars…except it’s from Bernie Madoff.  Just think if it were found out that some well-known Christian, say like Mother Theresa, had skimmed funds from the Sisters of Charity, the world would have exiled her from it’s collective memory. We are not to “gather the hopes and dreams of all” and then  uncritically unite them with the prayers we offer.  The Lord does not allow such.

But if these men thought their good works would exempt their sins from scrutiny, they were obviously mistaken. It’s never worked that way, and never will.  I think Mr. Graff has the answer to his own query.  No,using good works to avert our doom has never worked that way because God is just.  Using good works in such is just the epitome of Adamic self-centeredness.  Just think:  “community service” is a type of punishment! The criminal must pay, “If you do the crime, you have to pay the time.”  Good works cannot avert our doom, temporal or eternal,  because they help and save  us never but do prove that faith is alive that others might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven…but not to ourselves.  Does anyone really think that the LORD is fooled by such good works toady behavior?  Even a smart jury can see through the pretense to the actual breaking of the law.

What do you think about the editorial?  If I have missed something (quite possible!) or am I amiss in what I have written, then please fraternally add and correct.

 

About Pastor Mark Schroeder

I am currently the Pastor at Concordia Lutheran Mission, authorized by Good Shepherd Lutheran, Roanoke, Virginia. I have been an AELC then an ELCA pastor since my Ordination April 24, 1983 until leaving the ELCA and being accepted by Colloquy, June 1, 2010. My wife is Natalie and we have three children, Luke, Talitha and Abraham.

Comments

Close, but No Points — 1 Comment

  1. Sounds like Mr. Graff is ready for a bit of proper Law/Gospel distinction (as well as civil/spiritual righteousness distinction). He should return to Augustine only after reading Luther. “Spendid sins” is not harsh enough. Isaiah compares our works to previously owned feminine protection products. Paul uses a Greek word with the strong connotation of excrement. It should drive us to despair of works, look to the hills and wonder whence comes our salvation. Then… the Gospel!

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