I supposed we've all heard the expression "the road to…well…it’s paved with good intentions." These words have been said in different forms from St. Bernard in the 11th century to George Barnard Shaw in the 20th. It’s the problem we all have when we know what we should do, but we don’t do it. Or, if what we do, doesn’t work out as intended.
For example, ask anyone worldwide, “Who is the leader of the Christian Church?” there answer is likely to be “The Pope.” That’s fair, even though we enlightened Lutherans and our fellow Reformers would say, he’s the head of the Roman Catholic Church. But as we enter into our 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this month, Pope Francis has also gone down the road of good intentions gone wrong.
Sixty-two conservative Catholic theologians, priests, and academics have served Pope Francis with a formal document accusing him of teaching seven heresies. This process was last used in 1333, admonishing Pope John XXII of his errors, which he later recanted. Among Pope Francis charge is that the Pope is following the teachings of the “heresiarch” Martin Luther! The 25 page “filial correction” says that Pope Francis is following the arch-heretic Luther, emulating his teachings about marriage, the two kingdoms, who should take the sacrament, the distinction between Law and Gospel, the effects of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, and justification by faith!
Citing a July 26, 2016 press conference hoping for closer unity, Pope Francis said, “(Luther was Catholic then) we see that the Church was not exactly a model to emulate. There was corruption and worldliness in the Church; there was attachment to money and power. That was the basis of his protest. He was also intelligent, and he went ahead, justifying his reasons for it. Nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point he was not mistaken.”
Friends, it’s not just Roman Catholics, it’s Lutherans too. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, a large inter-faith prayer service was held in New York City, which included the newly-elected President of the Missouri Synod--he was brought up on similar charges. The Missouri Synod Church or LCMS, is a closed denomination, they can’t pray with non-Missouri Synod people. Now understand I’m not using these examples as a bully pulpit against Roman Catholics or LCMS; I don’t do that. We all need help. I’m using these as examples when good intentions and good actions go astray. I think these Good Christian leaders were trying to be just that, good Christians and Good leaders. In this case, church polity got in the way.
So the sin of good intentions seems to be a universal human problem. In the Bible, we see a number of stories where someone's "good intentions" just aren't carried out. Think of Joseph, beaten by his ten brothers and thrown into a pit. His oldest brother Reuben had very good intentions to sneak back and rescue Joseph. But later found that the other nine brothers had already sold Joseph into slavery. Reuben's intentions were good, but no help to Joseph.
Or think of Peter, just before the arrest and trial of Jesus. "I'll never leave you, Lord, no matter what happens!" But Peter denies the Lord not once but three times, his once good intentions denied for fear for his own life. Yes, the sin of good intentions is an ancient one, with us since the dawn of history--back to the garden “What’s for dinner? Have an apple.”
So perhaps you're wondering what’s wrong with "good intentions" are they sinful, or heretical? Aren’t our intentions supposed to be good? Of course they are! The sin is whatever it is that keeps us from acting on our good intentions. Peter's problem was he was afraid, and fear kept him from staying with Jesus. Reuben's problem was also fear—fear of defending Joseph to his brothers. And it’s the same story with us. Perhaps not just fear, there are many things that get in our way. Sometimes it’s pride, selfishness, or maybe just plain laziness. We're all like that—just too lazy at times, to do the things we know we should.
But the sin of good intentions is deeper than our laziness or our selfishness or our pride. We often use our good intentions as our justification. We say, "Well, I really intended to do that, as if our good intentions get us off the hook. We intended to do it, and so it's not that bad we didn't. And so we don't say, "I have sinned" or "I have failed." Rather we say, "My intentions were good.” And we expect God to view it that way as well.
But listen to what Jesus says: "What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" Even the scribes and Pharisees admit it was the first son who did the father's will.
The second son had good intentions; he likely meant to go. But when all was said and done, he just never got around to doing what was right. And of course Jesus' point is quite clear: It’s not which son intended to do the father's will, but which one actually did what his father asked. It’s the action that counts, not the intention. What we do matters.
We have so many good intentions, and perhaps most in our spiritual life. We intend to read the bible more, to pray more, to work harder as Christians, and to be open and inviting about our faith with all those whom we meet. But somehow it doesn't work out that way. St. Paul's words in Romans 7 ring so true: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it."
So how can we do better in getting beyond our good intentions, coming closer to the good life that God has set before us? God cares what you do—and holds you responsible for your own actions. What matters is what you do. Now that's tough love for us good Lutherans big on justification by faith, so let's remember that when we fail, God is faithful and just and forgives our sins. But God also longs for us to do better. God forgives, so that we can try once again to turn those good intentions into action.
St. Paul in Philippians 2:13 says: "God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey God’s own purpose." "It is God," Paul writes. God has promised to direct us in God’s way--not just in our ways or religious polity. How we live and how we try, and what we do matters, not just our good intentions, but our good actions in God’s name. AMEN!