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The works of true faith

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 5 Mar 2021

Lee Gatiss preaches Part 2 of the “Homily of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith.”

There were three things in a previous sermon especially noted of living faith. Two these have been declared to you. The first was, that faith is never idle, without good works, when occasion serves. The second was that good works acceptable to God cannot be done without faith. Now to go forward to the third part, that is: what kind of works they are which spring out of true faith, and lead faithful people to everlasting life.

This can be best learned from our Saviour Christ himself, who was asked by a certain great man the same question: “What works shall I do,” said a prince, “to come to everlasting life?” Jesus answered him, “If you want to come to everlasting life, keep the commandments.” But the prince, not satisfied with this, asked further, “Which commandments?” (Matthew 19:16-18). The Scribes and Pharisees had made so many of their own laws and traditions, to bring people to heaven, besides God’s commandments, that this man was in doubt about whether he should come to heaven by those laws and traditions or by the law of God, and therefore he asked Christ which commandments he meant. Christ answered him plainly, rehearsing the commandments of God, saying “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honour your father and your mother, and love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:18-19). By which words Christ declared that the laws of God are the very way that leads to everlasting life, and not the traditions and laws of people. So this is to be taken as a most true lesson taught by Christ’s own mouth, that the works of the moral commandments of God are the very true works of faith, which lead to the blessed life to come.

Sin leads to idolatry
But people’s blindness and malice, even from the beginning, has always been ready to fall from God’s commandments. Adam, the first man, had but one commandment, that he should not eat of the forbidden fruit. Despite God’s commandment, he gave credit to the woman, seduced by the subtle persuasion of the serpent, and so followed his own will, and left God’s commandment. And ever since that time, everyone who has come from him has been so blinded through original sin, that they have always been ready to fall from God and his law, and to invent a new way to salvation by works of their own devising. Indeed, almost the whole world, forsaking the true honour of the only eternal living God, wandered about in their own fantasies: some worshipping the sun, the moon, and the stars; some Jupiter, Juno, Diana, Saturn, Apollo, Neptune, Ceres, Bacchus, and other dead men and women. Some were not satisfied with this, and worshipped diverse kinds of beasts, birds, fish, fowl, and serpents, with every country, town, and house being in a way divided, setting up images of such things as they liked, and worshipping them.

Such was the roughness of the people, after they fell to their own fantasies and left the eternal, living God and his commandments, that they devised innumerable images and gods. In which error and blindness they remained, until such time as Almighty God, pitying their blindness, sent his true prophet Moses into the world, to reprove and rebuke this extreme madness, and to teach the people to know the only living God and his true honour and worship.

But the corrupt inclination of mankind was so much given to follow their own fantasy, and (as we might say) to favour its own bird, that all the admonitions, exhortations, benefits, and threatenings of God could not keep them from such inventions. For despite all the benefits of God shown to the people of Israel, when Moses went up to the mountain to speak with Almighty God, he had been there only a few days when the people began to invent new gods. And as it came into their heads, they made a calf of gold, and knelt down and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-6). And after that, they followed the Moabites, and worshipped Baal-peor the Moabites’ God (Numbers 25:1-3).

Read the book of Judges, the book of the Kings, and the Prophets, and there you shall find how unsteadfast the people were, how full of inventions, and more ready to run after their own fantasies than God’s most holy commandments. There shall you read of Baal, Moloch, Chemosh, Milcom, Baal-peor, Ashtaroth, Bel, the Dragon, Priapus, the brazen Serpent, the twelve signs, and many others, to whose images the people with great devotion invented pilgrimages, preciously adorning and censing them, kneeling down and offering to them, thinking this a high merit before God and to be esteemed above the precepts and commandments of God.

Although at that time God commanded no sacrifice to be made except only in Jerusalem, they did the exact opposite and made altars and sacrifices everywhere, in hills, in woods, and in houses, not regarding God’s commandments but esteeming their own fantasies and devotions to be better than them. And these errors were so spread abroad, that not only the uneducated people, but also the priests and teachers of the people were corrupted, partly by glory and covetousness and partly, by ignorance, blindly deceived with the same abominations. Things were so bad that King Ahab had only Elijah as a true teacher and minister of God), but eight hundred and fifty priests who persuaded him to honour Baal and Asherah and to sacrifice to them in the woods or groves (1 Kings 18:19-22). And so continued that horrible error, until the three noble Kings — Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah — God’s chosen ministers, clearly destroyed them and brought the people back from such false inventions to the very commandments of God. For this, their immortal reward and glory remains and shall remain with God for ever (2 Chronicles 17:3-6, 30:14, 31:1, 34:3-7).

Human traditions
Besides these inventions already mentioned, people’s inclination to have their own holy devotions devised new sects and religious groups, called Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. They had many holy and godly traditions and ordinances (as it seemed by the outward appearance, and the great glistening of their works), but in fact they all tended to idolatry, superstition, and hypocrisy. Their hearts within were full of malice, pride, covetousness, and all wickedness. Against these sects and their pretended holiness, Christ cried out more vehemently than he did against any other people, saying and often rehearsing these words “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you clean the vessel on the outside, but within you are full of greed and filthiness. You blind Pharisee, and hypocrite! First make the inward part clean” (Matthew 23:25-26). For despite all their great traditions and outward shows of good works, devised by their own imagination, by which they appeared to the world as the most religious and holy people, Christ (who saw their hearts) knew that they were inwardly, in the sight of God, most unholy, most abominable, and the furthest away from God of all people. Therefore he said to them “Hypocrites! The Prophet Isaiah truly spoke of you when he said ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Those who teach merely human doctrines and commandments, worship me in vain.’ For you leave the commandments of God, to keep your own traditions” (Matthew 15:6-9. Isaiah 29:13).

Although Christ said, “They worship God in vain, who teach merely human doctrines and commandments”, he did not mean by this to overthrow all human commandments; for he himself was always obedient to rulers and their laws, which are made for good order and governance of the people. But he reproved the laws and traditions made by the Scribes and Pharisees, which were not made only for the good order of the people (as the civil laws were) but were set up so high that they were made out to be for the right and pure worshipping of God, as if they were equal with God’s laws, or above them. For many of God’s laws could not be kept, but were compelled to give way to their rules.

This arrogance God detested, that people should so advance their laws, to make them equal with God’s laws in which the true honouring and right worshipping of God consists, and to make his laws for them to be left aside. God has appointed his laws so we can honour what pleases him. His pleasure is also that all human laws which are not contrary to his laws, shall be obeyed and kept, as good and necessary for every Commonwealth, but not as things in which his honour principally rests. And all civil and human laws, either are or should be made to help people better keep God’s laws, so that God should be better honoured by them. However, the Scribes and Pharisees were not content that their laws should be no higher esteemed than other positive and civil laws, nor would they allow them to be considered like other temporal laws. They called them holy and godly traditions, and would have them esteemed not only for a right and true worshipping of God (as God’s laws indeed are), but also for the most high honouring of God, to which the commandments of God should give place. And for this reason, Christ so vehemently spoke against them, saying, “Your traditions which people think of so highly are an abomination before God” (Luke 16:15).

It is common with such traditions that they lead to the transgression or breaking of God’s commandments, and to more devotion in keeping the traditions and a greater conscience about breaking them, than concern for the commandments of God. The Scribes and Pharisees so superstitiously and scrupulously kept the Sabbath that they were offended with Christ because he healed sick people on it, and with his Apostles because they being very hungry, gathered the ears of corn to eat on that day, and because his disciples did not wash their hands as often as the traditions required (Matthew 12:1-14). The Scribes and Pharisees quarrelled with Christ saying, “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders?” But Christ objected that in order to keep their own traditions they taught people to break the very commandments of God. For they taught the people such a devotion that they offered their goods into the treasure house of the Temple, under the pretence of honouring God, but left their fathers and mothers (to whom they were chiefly bound) unhelped. And so they broke the commandments of God, to keep their own traditions (Matthew 15:1-6. Mark 7:9). They esteemed an oath made by the gold or offering in the Temple, more than an oath made in the Name of God himself, or of the Temple (Matthew 23:16-22).

They were more studious to pay their tithes of small things, than to do the greater things commanded of God, such as works of mercy, or to do justice, or to deal sincerely, uprightly, and faithfully with God and people. These (says Christ) ought to be done, and the other not left undone. And in short, they were of so blind judgment, that they stumbled at a straw, and leaped over a block. They would (as it were) carefully take a fly out of their cup, but drink down a whole camel (Matthew 23:23). And therefore Christ called them blind guides, warning his disciples from time to time to avoid their doctrine (Matthew 23:24). For although they seemed to the world to be most perfect people, both in living and teaching, yet their life was but hypocrisy, and their doctrine sour yeast, mingled with superstition, idolatry, and preposterous judgment, setting up human traditions and ordinances, in place of God’s commandments.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society

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