“Itchy Ears Want Works”

As one who is passionate about missions it is so easy for me to leave the gospel of grace and move to works oriented motivational techniques to stir peoples hearts about getting the gospel to the unreached. This is short sighted on my part and is something I need reminding of often. Only the gospel of grace motivates rightly and for the long term!

Through the message below the Lord was gracious to me once again…may the gospel be first and foremost in my heart and words. Let us press on together to keep our gaze upon Jesus…the rest will follow!

Thank you Joel Brooks and Gospel Coalition!


Itchy Ears Want Works

By Joel Brooks

I can remember the exact place where I was standing, the music that was playing in the background, and seeing the group still praying and weeping by the side door, when I heard words that knocked me off balance. It was 10 years ago, and I had just finished preaching when a young woman came up to me and asked if we could talk. She was emotionally moved from the sermon, but what she said surprised me. “Joel, these past few weeks I have never felt so challenged and stirred, but after listening to you, I feel that if I don’t go on the mission field or go and do something wild for God, then I must not believe in the gospel. Is that what you’re saying?”

I was devastated. Her words crushed me. I said to her, “No, of course not! We are all saved by grace through faith alone. That is the gospel by which we are saved. God is never impressed with our efforts.”

I reassured her the best I could, but once she left, I quickly went over the message I had just preached. Did I say those things? Where did she get that idea? Yes, I had stepped on a few toes and said some things about not giving in to the American dream and how we all need to get up off our pews and live for the Lord, but I never said that we weren’t saved by faith alone. I thought, Of course we are saved by grace through faith! Of course our works can never justify us! Every Christian knows that! But was I faithfully preaching this? Was this my focus? I couldn’t get this question out of my mind.

Tempted by Apathy

When pastors plead for their congregations to shake off their apathy and finally take action, this attempt to motivate can lead us to abandon the gospel if only for a moment. I have sought the Lord to repent of my own misplaced emphasis on what we need to do to prove ourselves as real Christians. I need to constantly remind myself of the gospel. Daily I struggle to put to death the desires I have to show myself as wild for Jesus and the impulse to do something great for him in order to win his approval. Romans 4:5 is the medicine I take daily—“And to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . . .” (italics mine).

What powerful, life-altering words these are! What lavish grace! Paul is saying that the one who does not go on the mission field, does not give to the homeless, does not tithe, does not throw away his TV, does not tutor at an inner-city school but believes in Christ who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. Belief is all that is required for the ungodly. How amazing is that?!

This is the medicine we all need and what I must constantly preach from the pulpit—to Christians and non-Christians alike. Otherwise, no matter how strong my words are, they will only inspire people momentarily, never sustain them. I can guilt people into giving or use inspirational stories to move them, but without the steady drumbeat of the gospel, I am leading people into a works-based righteousness no matter how good my intentions. And sure, good works will follow, but not out of a heart of gratitude and worship to Jesus.

Gospel Foundations

The apostle Paul understood this. Writing his letter to the Romans, he addresses those who were already Christians, yet he still painstakingly walks through the gospel at the front end of the letter—not the end. At the end of his letter in chapter 15, he finally mentions that it is his hope that they help him in his mission to Spain (Rom 15:24). Do you see the flow of Paul’s letter? First, it’s the gospel—we are not saved by works, but by grace through faith alone. This then becomes our fuel for service. Once this gospel has been chewed on, every need to perform has been crucified, and every potential boast has been buried, then the end result will be living a missional life. The foundation of our service must be the gospel. Otherwise we serve with false motives.

The messages that concern me today are often filled with inspirational stories about people exercising extreme faith and enjoying miracle after miracle. But these have almost a propaganda feel and can be terribly misleading on many levels. They lead people into thinking that anyone who wishes to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind you own affairs” (1 Thes 4:11) is living a sinful life. Or to give your life towards being an honest accountant for the glory of God isn’t worthy service for Jesus. These stories can sometimes mislead people into thinking that the greater the act, the more intimacy with Jesus you will feel and the greater glory Jesus receives.

I have known quite a number of missionaries who have returned home defeated and discouraged after serving only a couple of years on the field. Several of them have told me they returned because when they initially decided to do this mission work, they assumed their faith would grow exponentially. They thought they would become spiritual giants and have a closer relationship with God. But after two years of giving up everything and exhausting themselves with service, they realized how mistaken they were. These actions didn’t bring them any closer to Jesus. Yes, they were missionaries, but they had built their lives on the sinking sand of works and not the gospel. They didn’t understand that Jesus loves them fully because of what he did—not because of what they were doing. As a result, after a couple of years, these missionaries had nothing that could sustain them. Service had become their idol, and now it was demanding its sacrifice. They returned home broken and burned out. I fear that some modern preaching is actually pushing people to serve with this type of false motivation.

Yet this is what so much of preaching today aspires to be, and preachers are reluctant to change because it works—at least it temporarily inspires and draws crowds. Perhaps this is what Paul warned Timothy about when he wrote 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”

There are many ways to scratch itchy ears. Most usually assume that itchy ears want nothing more than a feel-good easy religion that is soft on sin. Yet this has not been my experience, and it rarely was Paul’s. Paul spent much time and energy fighting anyone that would add a single work to his gospel. He fought the party of circumcision, the legalists, and anyone else who would add anything to his gospel of grace. The itchy ears of his day wanted law. They wanted to be told what works they could perform to make God love them, or what they could give in order to pat themselves on the back and distinguish themselves from nominal Christians. Both Paul and Jesus saved their harshest rebukes for people like the Pharisees, the respected radicals of their day who were so righteous they’d even tithe their herbs!

Beware Results

I confessed earlier that there were times in my past that I preached works while just assuming grace. The results that I saw from this were substantial. People loved it! I first thought that sermons like this would turn people off and drive them away, but how wrong I was. Especially younger Christians cannot get enough of it. It grieves me to look back and think of those times I looked out at the masses, got caught up in the moment, and briefly abandoned the gospel in order to scratch some itchy ears.

I am probably not alone in this. Pastors, do not forget the gospel in your call for discipleship. I know you believe the gospel, but make sure you never stop preaching it. Make sure you never add anything to this gospel no matter how much you want your people to get up off their pews and do something. Make no mistake: I am not saying that you should let your congregation keep on sinning in order that grace may abound. In fact, I hope you passionately stir up you congregation to give to the poor, serve on the mission field, or give up their American dream. I preach this almost every Sunday and will continue to do so. What I am saying is that we must make the gospel of grace central to this message and resist any urge to add a single work in order to stir up our apathetic congregation. We have to work hard to guard the good deposit of the gospel given to us. Remember what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:

I would remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

Joel Brooks is the pastor of Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama.