I’m sitting in the late afternoon sun, my baby in her exersaucer on our back patio while the big kids help their dad with some yard work. It’s a struggle to see my typed words through the glare off my laptop, but I push on, because this is a rare moment when I have to just sit and write while enjoying the sound of our kids laughing and loving this spring weather. Never mind that just on the other side of the sliding door is a sink full of dishes from two meals and a laundry basket overflowing with clean clothes needing to be folded. There are toys needing to be picked up, crumbs to be swept up and a whole slew of other chores and tasks waiting to be done.
And as much as I’m procrastinating tackling them right now, I know once they’re all done — once the kids are in bed, the dishes are clean, the laundry is folded and the house is somewhat put together — my husband and I will settle into our adjacent spots on the couch and let out a collective sigh of accomplishment for having marked off most — if not all — of the items on our to-do list.
I love lists — whether scribbled on a post it, tucked away in the corner of my head or carefully organized into a color-coded spreadsheet, lists are fun. They show us what we need to do, and we can happily and with great satisfaction mark each item off as we complete it. Our lists provide us some semblance of control, no matter how chaotic and frustrating life is at the moment. Even if we don’t succeed every step of the way, that list helps us prepare for the challenge, wrap our minds around our situation or fit uncertainty into manageable and digestible categories and sequences.
We may forget the eggs at the store, but hey, at least we survived the shopping trip with three cranky children. We didn’t get to our run this afternoon, but at least the yard work is done. We may still have money woes, but we have a plan to end those.
This isn’t just about groceries or chores, financial strategies or parenting challenges. When it comes to God and faith, our love for lists shines bright. We may say we believe in salvation by grace alone. We may claim to reject works righteousness. We may appear to delight in the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ and His words of the end of our slavery to sin. Yet our Old Adam has a nasty habit of creeping out of the Baptismal waters where we drown him every morning to ask us, “But what do I need to do?”
Our Old Adam wants a list. He can’t accept that this gift of salvation is actually free. There must be strings. Everything comes with strings. Everyone knows that. Sure, our justification is free, but c’mon man. It’s great You died on a cross for me and all, Jesus, but tell me what I have to do! I must say yes. I must be more. I must work hard and do this and tackle that and be the hands and feet and mouthpiece of Christianity to the world, right? I need a list. Something I can mark off each day to show myself I’m doing things right, to prove to myself I’m a-okay and to convince myself (and maybe others) this faith and salvation thing I think I have really is, well, real. Because we all know, if our fruit’s not ripening, it must be rotting…… or something.
But our faith is not a list of checkmarks to accumulate throughout our life or a bucket list of items to complete before we die.
Sure, we strive to do good works. We seek to serve our neighbor. We desire to be better and do more, not to be saved, but because we have been saved. Our works flow from the faith we’ve been given by the Holy Spirit, a faith which saves us from the grip of Satan and sin. But we ought not look to our fruits or the number of boxes we check off on the good-deeds-to-do-list as proof that we are one with Christ.
But instead, we trust Him who says we are:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
We look outside ourselves — and, no, the works of our own hands do not count as looking outside yourself. Instead, we look to God’s Word and Sacrament. We remember our Baptism, where we were brought into Christ to share in His death and His resurrection. (Romans 6:4).
We are freed by the Gospel of Christ, no longer slaves to a checklist of deeds to be done or a scorecard to turn in to God on the last day. For we are one in Christ through faith, and on that day of judgment when we stand before the Father, we will each, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, be presented as blameless and pure. And that checklist our Old Adam nags us to complete will be long forgotten.
This does not give us liberty to throw up our hands and shout “Woohoo! Freedom! I can now do whatever I want, whenever I want, because… Jesus!” (Romans 6:15, anyone? Anyone?) But it does mean we don’t need to worry and fret over whether we’re tracking on some Christian growth-chart, improving enough each day or year. We simply receive God’s Word and Sacrament, trust Christ when He said “it is finished”, rejoice in the times we serve well, repent in the times we muck it up and remain focused on what Christ has done rather than what Old Adam wants us to mark on that list.