In last week’s devotion, we read that the Christian is perfectly free from sin, and in fact that neither obedience to the law nor disregard for the law has any effect whatsoever on our relationship with God.
This is good news! We trust in God alone for our salvation, not in our own works.
Even though we are completely free in our relationship toward God (Luther calls this the “inner person”), we do not only have relationships with God, now do we? There are all these people running around! Family, friends, coworkers, classmates, and that’s not all! Does being completely free toward God mean we are also off the hook in our interactions with the people around us?
Martin Luther anticipated this objection: “some people say, ‘If faith does all things and alone suffices for righteousness, why then are good works commanded? We will therefore be content with faith, take our ease and do no works.’ I respond, ‘Not so, you wicked people, not so!’ To be sure, this would be true if we were completely and perfectly inner, spiritual persons, which will not happen until the resurrection of the dead on the last day. As long as we live in the flesh, we are only beginning and advancing toward what will be perfected in the future life.”
In other words, there is an inner person who, in relation to God, is perfectly free because they have received full, generous forgiveness of sin. There is also an outer person who has to live within the community, society, and world around them. Each of us is both inner and outer person, all at once.
Here is where the struggle begins.
That inner person in us, who has been loved, forgiven, and united with Jesus Christ: they are delighted to do whatever brings delight to the God who has dealt so graciously with them. But the outer person? The one who has to deal with the driver who cuts us off in traffic, the parent who’s too busy to listen, the boss who undervalues, the partner who manipulates, the restaurant that’s short-staffed… well, that part of us is only too delighted to retaliate rather than reconcile.
In order to bring the sinful outer person into harmony with the sainted inner person, that’s where God’s law comes into play. The commandments, from “do not steal” to “clothe the naked” to “if a foreigner resides in your land, do not oppress them” to all the rest, show us how to live with our neighbors as God intends. God’s law shows us how to align our outer person with the inner person.
But why bother? Well, because “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,” as Jesus himself said. Those who have been made new in Jesus Christ—with an inner person who is completely forgiven and free—they are good trees. A good tree makes good fruit. If they are not bearing good fruit, how will anyone else know that the inner person has been made new in Christ? Our completely dutiful good works toward our neighbors are one of the very best ways to show the world the complete freedom found in God’s forgiveness.
God, you grant us complete freedom toward you in our inner being. You also see how our outer being resists showing that same love toward our neighbors. Conform our actions toward our neighbors to the love you have shown to us, that we may be trees that bear good fruit. Amen.