The game of bowling is inundated with religious history and dripping with theological significance. Rolling a ball through a wall of pins, all while wearing funny colored shirts and pre-worn shoes, has deep roots in atonement for sin and the assurance of salvation, or so at least some people thought.  Bowling is said to have originated in 3rd or 4th century AD in Germany as a religious ceremony. In the cloisters of churches, worshippers placed a club at one end of a strip of grass. The club represented the heathen man and as a stone was rolled at the club, those successfully toppling it were believed to have cleansed themselves of sin.[i]

The ability to hit the pin was a sign of God’s favor on the bowler’s life and acceptance of their faith. There was a tragic misunderstanding that God’s sovereignty was not to be found in Christ. Instead, they demanded more tangible and ultimately man-centered signs to reassure themselves of salvation. The Cross had thus been exchanged for a bowling pin. I seriously doubt, however, that Paul had a bowling outfit in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 6 about being dressed in the armor of God. For that matter, Christ did not tell his followers to “pick up your bowling ball and follow me”. Like those German bowlers, we can define things based on what we want them to mean, rather than what Scripture instructs. For me, serving in the local church was my personal bowling alley.

It’s the Gospel

The famed sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther loved to bowl. He had his own bowling lane made in his garden and he standardized many rules that still exist today. In fact, he is credited with limiting the number of pins to nine. Unlike the previous generations of German bowlers, however, Luther knew that his scores had nothing to do with his salvation. Actually, Martin Luther had what was at that time a revolutionary idea concerning justification. In his treatise to Pope Leo X titled Concerning Christian Liberty; Martin Luther outlined his biblical stance that salvation was by faith alone: “From these considerations any one may clearly see how a Christian man is free from all things; so that he needs no works in order to be justified and saved, but receives these gifts in abundance from faith alone… he who wishes to do good works must begin, not by working, but by believing, since it is this which makes the person good. For nothing makes the person good but faith, nor bad but unbelief.”[ii]

So do we serve God to be justified in Christ or did Christ’s service justify us? What is the relationship between serving and our salvation? The relationship is causal to be sure. But the connection is that our salvation causes our serving, not vice versa. Salvation does not depend on works, on serving, or on knocking down bowling pins. We could never have produced enough righteousness through all Christian service to pay for even one of our sins. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28.

Our salvation is found solely in the person and service of Jesus Christ. Clothed by His blood, we can enter into the presence of a Holy God for all eternity. As Paul states in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Rather than being based upon our love or work for God, Biblical servanthood is founded, driven, and sustained in God’s love and work for us – love that devised our salvation and a love that fully purchased it on the Cross and a love that promises eternity through the Resurrection.

Christian service is therefore not defined by the task, but rather by the faith – a faith in Christ. Nowhere is this truth more exemplified than in the thief who was crucified next to Jesus as recorded in Luke 23:39-43. There was no possible way this convicted thief could go on to serve other people. He was physically nailed to a cross. He could not comfort Jesus’ disciples, nor bring meals to Jesus’ family, nor atone for his own sin.

Professing Jesus as the Messiah, and then in faith begging for forgiveness, were the only avenues open to him. Faith in Christ was all this criminal had and was all he needed. The apostle James addresses this issue in his epistle to those in the church who think they can profess faith but never lift a hand to help anyone. James explains that an important by-product of salvation is good works. Without this fruit apparent in someone’s life, James questions the genuineness of the person’s faith (James 2:14-16).  He writes that both works and faith justify us. This seems to contradict what Paul wrote in Romans 3:28. So who is right, Paul or James?

In actuality, these are complimentary statements. Paul writes that faith is all we need for salvation. James is stating that we know that faith exists because of good works. Genuine faith births good works. Good works are a sign that the Gospel has changed our hearts. James warns those who say they believe in Christ, that if their faith does not result in works, then their faith is dead. He tells the church that faith which results in good works is a sure indication that they have received the Spirit of Christ.  As John Owen explains on his edited Calvin’s Commentary of James: “The doctrine of Paul, that man is justified by faith and not by works, that is, by a living faith, which works by love, is perfectly consistent with what James says, that is, that a man is not justified by a dead faith but by that faith which proves its living power by producing good works, or by rendering obedience to God. The sum of what James says is, that a dead faith cannot save, but a living faith, and that a living faith is a working faith — a doctrine taught by Paul as well as by James.”[iii]

So faith without works is dead, but what about works without faith? While works without faith would have earthly benefits to others, they in fact have no spiritual or eternal worth. Without faith, God is not glorified, man is. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6. But what do justification by faith and serving have to do with one another?

Former President Bill Clinton used the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” to help him refocus the 1992 presidential campaign from foreign policy to domestic.  The phrase was often repeated in Clinton’s successful bid for the White House to remind the public of the main issue facing Americans. When making the distinction between Christian service and worldly service, we need to take page from Clinton’s campaign script and say to ourselves, “It’s the Gospel, stupid.” Once we understand that is the work of Christ and not of our service that saves us, then we will all stop bowling for righteousness.

[i] Encyclopedia Britannica. [ii] Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty [iii] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles edit by John Owens

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