Posts tagged with: good works

fireIt doesn’t take much snow to wreak havoc in the Deep South. I remember one time being immediately sent home from high school on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi for the lightest dusting of snow. But yesterday, heavier snow in the Deep South left thousands and thousands of people stranded at schools, work, and on the road. Atlanta, Ga. and Birmingham, Ala. were two metropolitan areas hit hard. Unfortunately, it’s still an ongoing problem. USA Today has great images, video, and a write up on the seriousness of the situation, which has caused at least 12 deaths. Julie McKinney, of AL.Com, has compiled some great tales of good deeds and generosity in the Birmingham area. Here are just a few of the stories McKinney highlighted: 

We were pulled from the ditch twice on 36 right past the senior center by a man with a dually truck. There were 4 wheelers out pulling smaller cars too. It was scary, but so nice to see the true concern for your neighbors, to get out in the cold and rescue people when you could be inside safe and warm. Much appreciated. My church The Connection was helping collect the kids from school and also fed us last night and anyone else who could get there. – Sarah Parish Mccoy via Facebook

My daughter got completely stuck in the ice leaving EBSCO in Mount Laurel. Our #snowangel is Paige Thompson and her family in Highland Park. They took her into their home for the night! Made her dinner and hot chocolate. I can’t thank them enough. — Wayne Rogers

I thought I was going to be spending the night in my car at the Chevron on Old Springville Rd, but a nice man named Herman drove me home! If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be home safe and sound with my family. He went above and beyond and extremely far out of his way to help me. Thank you Herman!!! — Misty Murphy Westover

Stopped in Alabaster…driving a front wheel drive, left my purse at home …no money…I get to the gas station…gentleman offered to pay my gas & something to eat…this is truly my #snowangel! Grateful for blessings such as him! — Naomi Raye Rabago

Read all of the good deeds complied by McKinney here. Even more have been compiled on a Facebook page. And read about Mark Meadows, a Chick-fil-A owner, who saw an “opportunity to help” those stranded in the snow. When it comes to charitable acts and meeting the needs of your neighbor, the citizens of Alabama are well known for rallying to aid those who find themselves in a dangerous or precarious situation. I wrote more extensively about this in “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 3 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

Concluding Consectaries:

  • These consectaries are aimed at Baxter’s audience, wealthy Christian merchants. Baxter examines in some particular detail suggestions for the right use of their charitable funds and efforts: “Might not somewhat more be done than yet is, to further the gospel in your factories, and in our plantations?” (329)

  • Concerning Christians abroad who are too poor to have materials printed in their own countries and languages: “Could nothing be done to get some Bibles, catechisms, and practical books printed in their own tongues, and given among them? I know there is difficulty in the way; but money, and willingness, and diligence, might do something” (330).
  • Baxter addresses the institution of slavery and condemns it as Christians practice it, contravening the greater moral duty to aim towards the conversion of their slaves. The law mandate the release of slaves upon their conversion: “Is it not an odious crime of Christians to hinder the conversion of these infidels, lest they lose their service by it, and to prefer their gain before men’s souls? Is not this to sell souls for a little money, as Judas did his Lord?” (330).
  • Baxter denounces such practice in no uncertain terms: “Why should these men be called Christians, or have any christian reputation, or privileges themselves, who think both Christianity and souls to be no more worth than to be thus basely sold for the gain of men’s servilest labours? And what, though the poor infidels desire not their own conversion, their need is the greater, and not the less” (331).

Next week: John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 2 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Motives:

  • Human works are God’s appointed means of grace: “It is God’s great mercy to mankind, that he will use us all in doing good to one another; and it is a great part of his wise government of the world, that in societies men should be tied to it by the sense of every particular man’s necessity; and it is a great honour to those that he maketh his almoners, or servants, to convey his gifts to others; God bids you give nothing but what is his, and no otherwise your own but as his stewards. It is his bounty, and your service or stewardship, which is to be exercised” (320).

  • An element of self-love can be present as a motivation. There is an Augustinian tone to this note, that all men by nature seek what they perceive as the good: “Self-love, therefore, should persuade men to do good to all. You are not the least gainers by it yourselves…. The believing giver hath more pleasure than the receiver; and this without any conceit of commutative meriting of God, or any false trust to works for justification” (321).
  • There is no time like the present to do good works: “And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 1 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Good Works:

  • A condemnation of selfishness: “It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).

  • The orderliness of subsidiarity obligations: “But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: first we must begin at home and with our own souls and lives; and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbours; and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimate and intention, differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of city, and church, and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set” (294).
  • The need for discernment and prudence in Christian charity: “In such cases there is need of great prudence and impartiality to know whether the good or the evil do preponderate; and a great part of the actions of our lives must be managed by that prudence, or else they will be sinful” (295).
  • God brings good even out of the evil of selfishness: “A narrow-spirited, selfish man, will serve others no further than it serveth himself, or, at least, will stand with his own safety or prosperity. He will turn as the weathercock, and be for them that are for his worldly interest. I confess that God oft useth such for common good: but it is by raising such storms as would sink them with the ship, and leaving them no great hope to escape by being false, or by permitting such villanies as threaten their own interest” (298).
  • Again, the need for wisdom in loving others is emphasized: “He that will do much good in the world, must be furnished with considerable abilities, especially prudence and skill in knowing when, and to whom, and how to do it. Without this, he will do more harm than good” (299).
  • Good works are oriented towards the ultimate good of the soul. The composition of human nature, body and soul, determines the relationship between material and spiritual assistance: “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul” (303).
  • This prioritization of the spiritual over the temporal necessitates the use of the sort of prudential wisdom and reasoning Baxter praised earlier: “All men are sensible of pain or pleasure, good or evil, to the flesh, before they are sensible what is necessary for their souls. You must therefore speak on that side which can hear, and work upon the feeling part, if you will do good” (303).

In Parts 5 and 6 we addressed the two most common Protestant objections to natural law. And now, as promised, we will see what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law, even as they affirmed its value. (Incidentally, the treatment of the natural knowledge of God that Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Francis Turretin provide, to mention only a few, is completely in step with that of the early church. For more on that topic, click here.)

The widespread assumption that Reformation theology allows no access to natural law—that its view of Scripture, revelation, Christ, salvation, and faith excludes every kind of natural theology —needs serious correction. Yet, in affirming natural law’s value as a bridge, it is also necessary to acknowledge its limitations.

The Reformers hold to the existence of a natural knowledge of morality in creation, conscience, and reason, but they think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. In fact, its primary role is to make people accountable for the basic moral truths they already know by undercutting any excuses they may propose along the way. In other words, according to the Reformers, natural law informs the mind of what is right and wrong, but it cannot ensure that the will shall choose to do good over evil. In this sense, they think natural law is ineffective and insufficient to bring about right action, even if it is a reliable source of moral information.

The Reformers’ assessment of natural law is complicated further when the issue of free will and morality is considered. They think the will is free in the sense that it is not coerced but self-determined, choosing voluntarily, on its own to do or not to do something. This is why people can be held responsible for their choices: They are self-determining moral agents who know right from wrong. The Reformers reject the extremes of the will’s complete unimpeded freedom, on the one side, as well as the will’s external coercion, on the other. Instead, they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption is in bondage to sin and therefore subject to a constant state of sinning.

Underlying the bondage of the will is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Following Augustine, the Reformers see the fall affecting every aspect of human nature with the result that fallen human beings are in bondage to sin. Despite the fact that human nature was originally created good, it has become corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. Thus, prior to the action of God’s grace, the will is in bondage to sin, which means there is no way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where the Reformation doctrine of prevenient grace comes in.

Grace is prevenient; that is, God’s grace precedes any human good will. Prevenient grace does not simply make it possible for people to respond affirmatively to God’s call; it actually brings conversion about. This is true not just of the beginning of the Christian life. Grace is needed at every stage and, in particular, for final perseverance. Prevenient grace is a gift of God, not something that is merited by previous obedience.

Other questions also enter the discussion about natural law in relation to free choice and grace. One such question is whether it is even possible to obey the moral law. The Reformers reject the assumption that “ought” implies “can”: That people can do on their own without divine assistance what they know they should do. While “ought” implies “can” was certainly true for Adam and Eve in the Garden, after the fall they think it is no longer possible to observe perfectly the moral law’s internal and external requirements. The purpose of the law, according to the Reformers, is not to show human ability but to point to grace. Grace gives what the law commands. Tied directly to the law is the question of “good works.” The Reformers argue that even the best of human works are tainted by sin. Thus it is by God’s grace and generosity that he rewards good works. Furthermore, all good works are the gifts of God’s grace and thus, as Augustine put it, when God rewards our merits he crowns his own gifts.

In Part 8, the final installment of this series, I will summarize what I think natural law is.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.