Q. 86. Since we are redeemed from our sin and its wretched consequences by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why must we do good works?
A. Because just as Christ has redeemed us with his blood he also renews us through his Holy Spirit according to his own image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves grateful to God for his goodness and that he may be glorified through us; and further, so that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits and by our reverent behavior may win our neighbors to Christ.
With Question 86 the Heidelberg Catechism presents an answer to the question about the Christian life that emerges from Protestant proclamation of salvation by grace alone: If salvation comes to us wholly and entirely as a gift of God’s grace, secured for us in the cross of Christ, then why bother with all the fuss of discipleship? If the Protestant proclamation of salvation by grace alone is true, why not just accept God’s gift, put our feet up and relax? Pastors sometimes complain about lackadaisical church members who do just that. Certain people have a deep, personal grasp of salvation by grace alone – and this makes it really hard to get them to serve on committees!
Heidelberg provides a classic Reformed answer to this Protestant dilemma. Students of theology will recognize Question 86 as a statement of the Third Use of the Law. In a nutshell it says that Christians who are saved solely by grace will nonetheless perform good works—we will grow in grace and love and discipleship—out of thankfulness for the gifts God has given us.
Now a superficial reading of this principle could in fact receive it as a very burdensome obligation: Not only must faithful Christians perform good works, but our hearts also have to entertain the proper feelings to accompany the works. It’s not enough that I help serve a meal at the soup kitchen. In order for this charitable service to count, my heart has to be filled with feelings thanksgiving and gratitude toward God as I pour the drinks or scoop the baked beans onto peoples’ plates. Maybe on my best days I can pull that off, at least until I start getting tired or hungry myself. But commanding peoples’ feelings is a tricky business and a lot harder to fulfill than simply telling them to go out and do good.
If we read Question 86 carefully, however, we note that it gives us not a command but a prediction. The Holy Spirit will renew you in Christ’s image, it says. And this renewal means that love and gratitude and good works will bubble up in your life as spontaneous expressions of the new person God has made you to be. Do you see the difference here? The Catechism is not saying you have an obligation to be grateful. It’s saying that when Christ and the Holy Spirit start working on you, you will find yourself becoming more grateful and loving and generous as a result. It’s an amazing promise.
Now taking this promise seriously has huge implications for how we do ministry. And in order to get at those implications, I want to contrast the two kinds of ministry that result from either ignoring this promise or taking it to heart.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of ministry that is really a stranger both to salvation by grace and to the Spirit-led response that Question 86 describes. This kind of ministry deals primarily in the currency of guilt andobligation. The motive force behind it is how much you owe to God.
Proclamation in this ministry of obligation is dominated by pious nagging: Pastors exhort, cajole, wheedle, badger and occasionally bribe reluctant church members into doing what needs to be done. The code phrase that provides cover for this comprehensive program of pastoral browbeating is, “We are called to do X.” And of course everybody knows if we fail to do what God is calling us to do, then we are bad people who should feel guilty. God probably won’t like us anymore.
Very often the driving force behind this ministry of obligation is some person’s grand vision of what the church really ought to look like. I remember speaking with a new, young pastor at a conference. He had been in his church about eighteen months and was already seeking a new call. “I had the perfect five-year plan for growing that congregation into something great,” he said. “Unfortunately the congregation members just weren’t serious enough Christians to do what I was telling them.” Can you hear what’s going on with that statement? “God is calling you to do XYZ in support of my personal vision, and if you don’t do it you are a bad person and not a serious Christian.”
The ministry of obligation can also be the slave of congregational tradition. God is calling you to help with the pancake breakfast… because that is what we have always done!
The ministry of obligation is about guilt, it is about shaming, it is all about how much you owe God and how far you are falling short. And at the end of the day it is very often about frustration, because in the context of such a ministry, the Gospel ceases to be good news. The church of obligation has no place for joyous tidings of a God who has redeemed us from the powers of sin and death and hell and secured for us the promise of new, abundant life stretching out to encompass all eternity. No, this church weighs people down with a massive new to-do list, full of duties and burdens and obligations. This ministry leaves people feeling guilty and overwhelmed, and who in their right mind comes back for a steady dose of that every week?
Compare that to a Heidelberg-style ministry that sees Spirit-inspired thanksgiving as the foundation of the church’s life. In place of guilt and obligation and nagging, the hallmarks of this ministry will be inspiration and discernment and celebration.
The motive force behind this ministry of thanksgiving is the Spirit’s action forming people in the image of Christ. So the overriding goal of this ministry is not to nag people but to inspire them, to open them up to the Spirit’s work. Such churches use Word and Sacrament and all the means of grace to draw people into deeper, more intimate communion with Christ. Ministries of thanksgiving count on the Holy Spirit to renew hearts in love and compassion and thanksgiving, inspiring them to be willing instruments of Christ’s own love for the world.
The ministry of thanksgiving requires discernment and flexibility, because the Holy Spirit doesn’t always work according to our plans and our timetables. The number one item on the Spirit’s agenda may not be staffing the pancake breakfast or even giving us more members and a bigger budget. That means we will need to hold on to our own plans loosely. I find it a pretty reliable life-principle that when I make a plan, God laughs. The Church of Thanksgiving will need to practice constant discernment so we can see and celebrate and give thanks for the places where God actually chooses to be at work in our midst. The annual rummage sale may fall by the wayside if the Spirit no longer provides passion or inspiration to support it. But we may also come to recognize and celebrate in a new way the Spirit-inspired ministries of love and caring and outreach that emerge spontaneously over coffee during our fellowship time each week. Our valiant efforts to recruit more people for the mission committee may founder, while the Spirit surprises us with a member who is suddenly passionate about distributing blankets to the homeless poor.
The Church of Thanksgiving is an exciting place to be. When congregations are unshackled from the dead weight of guilt and nagging and obligation, a new Spirit of joy and passion and freedom has a way of taking hold. The Gospel of this church is genuinely good news. It says God will draw near to you and change you in ways you will find amazing and wonderful. It says the Holy Spirit will start to fill up your life with a love and joy and peace and thanksgiving that are not dependent on your external circumstances. This love and thankfulness will even carry you beyond the bounds of your own death.
In short, the church of thanksgiving is the place where you will find your true self. It is where Christ and the Holy Spirit will begin to joyfully reconnect you with that loving, open, generous, compassionate person God created you to be.
Because just as Christ has redeemed us with his blood he also renews us through his Holy Spirit according to his own image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves grateful to God for his goodness and that he may be glorified through us.
May God open up our congregations to this wonderful promise!
MARK ACHTEMEIER is a Presbyterian minister, writer and theologian living in Dubuque, Iowa.