“To say nothing of other matters, what greater blindness can be imagined, than to hope for the expiation of sin from the sacrifice of a beast, or to seek mental purification in external washing with water, or to attempt to appease God with cold ceremonies, as if he were greatly delighted with them? Such are the absurdities into which those fall who cling to legal observances, without respect to Christ.”
–Calvin, Institutes 2.11.10
To be sure, the Bible is full of instructions for Christians. There are plenty of things we ought to do if we are to bear the name of Christ rightfully. Concerning our quote above, we are to sacrifice, we are to be baptized, we are to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness continually, but we aren’t to do these things expecting that they merit our salvation. We’re put right in God’s eyes by grace through faith in Christ’s finished work, and nothing else. However, as James points out rightly, saving faith is a faith that works (James 2:14-26). Consider with me Psalm 51:16-17– some of the most quoted verses in the Psalter.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Many take these verses to be precedent for their lethargy in service to God and others. They take these verses and assume there’s nothing that they need to do before God other than be sorry for sinning, and they think the occasional ‘good deed’ or church attendance will show that. First, this interpretation misses the mark on ‘sin’ in general because it relegates it to simple actions done that were ‘wrong’ and needed to be fixed instead of seeing sin as our unregenerate, all-encompassing, condition apart from God’s intervention. Our sin nature is what we must be saved from, and it’s our sinful flesh that we are still wrapped in that causes even the regenerate heart to continue to fall into ‘sins.’ Second, and my main point is that this interpretation neglects to read the very next verses(!) and take them into account for what David means. David continues in v.18-19:
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
David is saying that once a sacrifice of a broken spirit and contrite heart are offered (v.17), we move into the ‘then’ of v.19 which compels us to offer sacrifices that God will delight in (works). Notice that David mentions ‘burnt offering’ (v.16, 19) as something God will reject, and then something in which God will delight. He delights in what he would have rejected otherwise because it’s offered with a right heart. In fact, a theme of Psalm 51 is that David longs to know that he is set right with God so that he can respond by doing. Look the response to his restoration that he pants for in v.13-15: he will teach transgressors so that they will return to God (v.13), his tongue will sing aloud God’s righteousness (v.14), and his mouth can declare God’s praise (v.15).
In a sense, this is what Calvin is getting at here. He’s saying that we don’t merely do works (offer sacrifices) to check it off the list or get it out of the way. Or to put it another way, we don’t attend church on Sunday, or take communion, or pray, or read our Bibles, or say the right things, or hang out with the right people to make God happy. Calvin says that to do so would be performing works “without respect to Christ.” Instead, we do these things as a response to the fact that God is already happy with us in Christ. As Tim Keller says, “Christianity is the only religion where we get the verdict before the performance.”
So if you’re living your Christian life as one giant ‘do & don’t’ list, or going through the motions because you think it somehow pleases God, then I plead with you to dwell upon God’s grace (and all of the implications bound within), because it doesn’t. There are things you should and shouldn’t do, and the motions are essential, but your works, your service to God and others, ought to come from a place of assurance and joy found in the finished work of Christ. They shouldn’t come from a fear of performing or clinging to the cold ceremonies of religion, assuming that your adherence will tip God’s cosmic scales in your favor on the last day. Receive Christ’s record through faith, and then work hard while giving all the glory to God.