“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them,” says Jesus in Matthew 7:24-25, “will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” By contrast, Jesus adds in Matthew 7:26-27, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
The rain will fall, the floods will come, and the winds will blow.
And the only way for the house to stand is to build it on the hearing and the doing of the word.
Sadly, this sometimes makes some Christians nervous, as if what is being affirmed is that we are saved by faith and works, which, clearly, we are not. They quote Paul in Ephesians 2:8: “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.”
But Paul does not end his train of thought with Ephesians 2:8. He continues on in Ephesians 2:9 to say, “Forwe are his workmanship,created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
For Paul, as David W. Hegg points out on page 51 of his masterful little book, The Obedience Option, the contrast is not only between our faith and our works (verse 8 ) but between our works and God’s works (verse 9). By faith we cease to work our works and instead work works that only he can do through us. Jesus makes a similar point in John 9:4 when he says, “We must”—now that’s an interesting word to use, isn’t it?—“work the works of him who sent me.” Working his works equals doing the word. We stop working our works, doing our word, and we instead do his. Any talk of merit is out of the question because it’s, you know, his works.
Why do Jesus and Paul (and James, for that matter, in James 2:17) link hearing and doing, faith and works, so closely?
Because all good teachers (including and especially Jesus, the master teacher) know that hearing and doing reinforce learning as two parts of the same process.
Hearing and doing, faith and works need not be opposed to each other. Yes, many people do believe that they need to be “good people” in order to “go to heaven when they die.” But the solution is not to teach them the irrelevance of conduct and behavior. It’s to train them in such a way that their conduct and behavior can only stand to reinforce their utter reliance upon God.
When Jesus invites Peter to walk on the water in Matthew 14:22-33, it would be beyond idiocy for Peter to conclude that his sea stroll was meritorious. Instead, the logical conclusion is, “It is humanly impossible for me to walk on the surface of a liquid. Therefore, the only explanation is that Christ made this possible. This would explain why I sunk when I saw the wind.”
And, grievously, this is the biblical link between hearing and doing that is often dismissed out of hand by Christians. They hear, for instance, Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and they think, “Ah, I am unable to forgive those who trespass against me. Were I even to try, I would be seeking to earn God’s favor. Therefore, Jesus must be asking me to do this so I will realize it is impossible and that I thus need a savior to avoid being sent to hell.” End result: they accept Christ as savior…and they remain oddly comforted by their very immaturity–their inability to forgive their enemies.
But there’s another option. We can say, “Ah, it is humanly impossible for me to forgive those who trespass against me. But Christ has forgiven me my trespasses. Since it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, he is giving me his forgiveness to pass on to my enemies. How can I pass on his forgiveness through me in order to make his grace visible in my life?” End result: they are motivated to practice receiving the grace of God deeply and passing it on fully…and when they forgive their enemies they know that—in the words of Paul in Ephesians—“this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
How could it be anything else?
As Alan Kreider puts it, the early Christians “did not think their way into a new life; they lived their way into a new kind of thinking.”
Believing in the indispensability of hearing and the dispensability of doing is not gospel by a long shot. It’s Gnosticism—the age-old heresy that we are saved by secret knowledge that others do not possess. In contrast, Jesus—and Paul, and James, and all the writers of Scripture, every last one of them—insist that God’s word is living and active, intending to be performed. Performing it is in no way meritorious, because the performance is by definition humanly impossible. It’s his performance, from first to last.
When we understand this, we see that God uses our doing of the word as a means of grace to us—a way we come to see his glory more clearly, rely on him more completely, and come to know him more fully. We hear what he has done for us—all grace!—and we obey his call to pass this (his work) on to others, not only in word but in deed. His deed, using us—all grace again! The only sane response is to fall at his feet and worship.
In the lay church, hearing and doing the word are inextricably linked. Every month begins a focus on a different Work of Mercy. At the start of the month the question is, “How does Christ perform this Work of Mercy on us?” As the month unfolds, the question becomes, “Having received this grace, how does Christ now call us to pass it on to others so that he may be made visible (not just audible!) to us and, through us, to others?”
Then, in the culminating week of each month, the lay church hits the street to “do the word” together.
When our Work of Mercy last month was sharing our bread with the poor, for example, we took our worship to the park, bringing food we had prepared. We reviewed together how Christ shares his bread with us. Then we ate bread, sharing the Lord’s supper together. Then we dispersed across the park—not to distribute our food to the poor (after all, that’s not the word the Scripture calls us to do), but to share meals together with the poor.
It takes practice—that’s the point! We learn from each endeavor—not only how to mirror Christ more effectively the next time, but also gaining new insights into how Christ performs that work on us. Grace upon grace.
For example, Mrs. Foley and I ate with a group of mentally ill homeless men and women at a bus station near the park in Korea. They were physically quite dirty and their words were largely incoherent. One woman, in fact, was mute. As we shared our food with the group, one of the men shared his food with us in return—a hot dog he had retrieved from the trash. Another man rebuked him for this, insisting how worthless they all were and how their food was not even fit for dogs. Yet when Mrs. Foley and I ate the bun (praise God for the promise of Mark 16:18!), they were beyond thrilled. Suddenly we received an insight into how we must appear to God, and how amazed we are that he receives us and our meager and insufficient offerings and not only dispels our notions of worthlessness but uses our offerings and us to transform the world.
I could of course share that story with a congregation in a sermon, and they would be moved. But then the rains, floods, and winds would come, and, according to Jesus, their houses would collapse in great and terrible ways. Stories have a way of vaporizing into sentimentality when the twister touches down.
But for those who fanned out across the the park in Korea that day to do the word we had heard—they know they earned no credit with God for their actions. Instead, they received something far more precious: a deepening experience of grace leading to a deepening dependence on God; hearing and doing that can withstand storms because our households and families now cling that much more closely to the one who reveals himself to—and, astonishingly, through—us, and who promises he always will.
 Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47.2 (Nov. 1996), p. 328.