While getting our boys ready this morning we were flicking through the Children’s Bible and came across the parable of the two sons, in Matthew 21.
There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
God challenged me directly through this about an area of my life in which I have been saying to God and people involved, “I will do this,” and meaning that, but in practice have not done so.
But then he led me on from there to reflect wider about what this says about people’s response to God. This is a little crude, because in reality there are scales and degrees, but I wonder if we can basically group people into 4 categories: those who say they will and do; those who say they will and don’t; those who say they won’t but do; and those who say they won’t and don’t.
The question is, how does God respond to these groups, and particularly the middle two. The Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith not by our good works has tended to favour those who say over those who do. But I don’t think that is correct. In this parable, those who outwardly reject God but still do what he says, are seen as being in the right, whereas those who profess to follow God but their lives do not reflect this, are in the wrong.
And I would suggest the rest of the Bible backs this up. To give just a couple of examples from the mouth of Jesus: Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”; and against that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:37-40 where the righteous are presented as having been oblivious to the fact they were encountering Jesus through their works, but the works are the reason they are welcomed into his presence.
In probably every church in the world there are people who profess to follow Jesus but whose lives consistently fail to bear that out. Please note I am not talking about there being occasions where we don’t do the right thing – none of us are perfect – but where the whole basis and direction of the life is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
And there are also those whose lives are lived in accordance with the love of God, even though they would not claim his name, or even actively reject him. The Bible suggests this latter group are more in accordance with God’s will, but they are by definition not in our churches. It is challenging to think that there are those outside the congregation who are closer to the kingdom of heaven than some of those inside.
Obviously my aim for myself, and my prayer for each one, is to be in the group of those who say we will follow Jesus and then live according to that desire. But if I had to choose, I’d rather be outside the church doing God’s will, than inside but refusing to follow his call.