Six in ten people in the United States have their fingerprints listed on a law enforcement database. When we hear that statistic, many people initially wonder to themselves and say, “wow, I had no idea that so many people had been booked or got in trouble with the law to the point that they were fingerprinted.” The reality is that people get fingerprinted for all sorts of reasons, and that those fingerprints usually somehow end up being kept by law enforcement. Anymore these days we may end up shrugging and say, “well, at least it’s not as creepy as the government tapping my cell phone.”
When Luther writes the 5th thesis of the Hiedelberg Disputation that lays out the ground work for the Lutheran doctrine of “Theology of the Cross,” he says something that may surprise many of us. He says,
The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works that are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
This may surprise us in that we are often told, “you dirty dirty sinner, you cannot do anything that is good.” That is somewhat wrong, although I confess that I have preached like that before. The problem is that it is not specific enough, and because it is not specific enough, it leads us to infer the meaning - and we tend to infer negative meanings when it comes to other people.
The reality is that your good works are actually probably good. When you tithe, when you pray, when you volunteer, when you mentor a kid who doesn’t have a secure family system. All of these things are not “mortal sins” simply because they are done by a “mortal sinner”, the problem is not the work in itself, the problem is the worker. Hitler could help an old lady across the street, but he’s still going to be Hitler.
So here’s some good news - you can do good works. You actually have it in your ability to do things that are good and that will help others and will show your (partial) love for God. It’s a very imprisoning thing to think that you cannot do good works, and that ends up being what we tend to preach many times thinking that we’re preaching the Theology of the Cross. The Theology of the Cross is not simply blob-ism that creates an unmoving blob of a Christian who somehow then gets to be in the Resurrection. But here’s the problem:
After he was caught, Jeffery Dahmer (the serial killer who had sex with and ate his victims), is said to have converted to Christianity. I’ve brought his story up a bunch of times because we believe, as Christians, that all sins are covered by Christ’s work - including killing people and then having sex with and eating their bodies. However, hanging out with Jefferey Dahmer for all of eternity is a tough thing for people to consider because they still know him as Jeffery Dahmer, the guy who had sex with dead people and ate them. They don’t consider Jeffery Dahmer for his works (his good ones), because his identity is so vile. On the other hand, they are more than willing to consider Aunt Rose - your aunt who never went to church, didn’t believe in God, but knitted you a sweater - as being someone who will be with them in the Resurrection because her identity is not considered as vile. The counterintuitive thing about the Gospel is that both Aunt Rose and Jeffery Dahmer are the same in terms of identity before God - they are both criminals who happen to not commit crimes all of the time.
The difference between the fictional Aunt Rose and Jeffrey Dahmer is that Jeffrey Dahmer expressed a faith and trust that Jesus will save him from his sins. Jeffrey Dahmer may actually have been able to understand this easier than Aunt Rose. Jeffrey probably knew that there was no amount of good works that could pay for his crimes. He didn’t need a twelve step program or a method to provide restitution. Even his brutal beating and death did not provide a suitable sense of “justice” for the families of his victims. He couldn’t pay for the Resurrection, even with the good works that he actually could do. He needed a Savior, not a program.
Once you have a Savior, your identity is redeemed, not your works. Your good works are good no matter who does them (again, given that they are actually good). So if you were thinking about sponsoring a kid in a developing country and an atheist beats you to the punch, then what that atheist does is still a good work. To say, “well the atheist doesn’t get anything spiritually out of it,” with a haughty Christian snobbishness completely misses the point, because you are not getting anything “spiritual” out of it either if by “spiritual” you mean “bonus points with God”. You get to be Jeffrey Dahmer and he gets to be Aunt Rose. And it’s actually better to be Jeffrey Dahmer.