As we seek to remember Nancy Rust, and her life of kind service, one of the things we must do at the same time is remember the gospel of Christ, and how the kindness of God intervened in our world to bring us back to Him. The gospel of grace teaches us that we are not saved by our good works, but it also teaches us that we are saved to good works. We were saved by a good work, certainly, but it was the good work done by Christ.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Eph. 2:8–10 (KJV)
So this is what happens. God intervenes in our lives, and saves us from our sins in a way that is entirely independent of any merit of our own. On the basis of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on that basis alone, He grants us our salvation. He gives us that salvation in Christ, free and clear. And once He has saved us apart from any merit of our own, what does He then do? He gives us merit of our own.
Now that merit comes in many shapes, talents, colors, and kinds. In Nancy’s case, she was a godly woman devoted to gardening, crafts, loving and educating children, and more. This is all in the category that the Bible describes as good works, the kind of good works that God ordains beforehand for women like Nancy to walk in, as she faithfully did, over the course of years.
“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did . . . Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.”
Acts 9:36, 39 (KJV)
In short, we cannot remember a woman like Nancy without also remembering the character of the God who gave her to us. And we cannot think about the character of our God like this without wanting to point to the good deeds that adorned the life of Nancy Rust. When Peter went with the women who were mourning the loss of Tabitha, one of the things they were able to do, and do easily, was point to things she had done, or hold things up that she had done. One of the glories of the Christian faith has to be the kind of women it produces.
“Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”
1 Tim. 5:9–10 (KJV)
So rightly understood, the good works of the saints do not compete with the grace of God in Christ. Rather, they adorn the grace of God in Christ. Servants were instructed, for example “to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10). This is no rival to grace, but is rather a great reminder of it. In the next breath, Paul says that “the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” We are not saved by our labors, but it is most certainly the case that our labors, along with us, are also saved (1 Cor. 15:58).
Nancy Rust, just like everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, was not accepted by God because she did lovely works. Rather, she did lovely works because she had been made lovely in the grace of God poured out on a sinful planet. She heard the message that was declared and preached, and she did what all of us are summoned to do—which is to believe it. Christ was hanged on a gibbet, a spear was run into Him to prove to everyone that He was dead, His body was taken down and laid in a tomb, and three days later He came out of that tomb. Because He came out of that tomb, and only because of that, every Christian is privileged to report to their appointed places in order to occupy themselves with the good works they were ordained to do. Those who have the perspective of eternity will not sneer at the humility that shrouds many of those good works. If the last day will reveal every cup of cold water given in the name of Christ (Mark 9:41), I have little doubt that it was also reveal the various world transformations that were set in motion by faithful pre-school teachers.
The grace of God which saves Christians and the good works that Christians do are two things that exist in a necessary relationship. But it is crucial that we get that relationship right because it is the relationship of cart and horse. We must know which is the cause and which is the effect. A bramble bush doesn’t turn into an apple tree because it was successful, after much effort, in producing an apple or two. No, not at all, not a bit of it. God in His marvelous wisdom and power transforms a bramble bush into an apple tree, and as a result, as an inexorable result, the apples come.
And so then, as this is a Christian memorial service, we are here to honor the grace of God in Christ. This is not to shunt Nancy to the side, as though we were not remembering her. We do remember her, but what we are remembering is a life of faithfulness, the kind of life that can happen in this world only when Christ has intervened with His saving power. If there is no God, and if the gospel is not the truth of God, then the meaningless concourse of atoms that we called Nancy is now gone, and gone for good. But if Christ was raised from the dead, as He in fact was, she has been received into glory. She has already received her well done, and she has turned around just inside the door, to wait for the rest of us to catch up with her.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen.