The Sixth Sunday after Easter June 1, 2003
421, 289, 292, 283
May the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ make you truly whole, both physically and spiritually. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
If I tell you “God is love,” I have really told you little or nothing, for I have not told you who that God is or what kind of love he is. If I tell you that God sent his Son, or Jesus is our Savior, I have still told you very little. Which god sent what son and why? From what is Jesus our “savior”? I can talk about grace or justification or sanctification or redemption or mercy or hope and I might just as well be speaking a foreign language that only a select few can translate. The point is that when we speak the Gospel we most often use a kind of “evangelical code.” The words sound good and they are good, but only to those who possess both the keys to understanding the code and the mental energy to use them. “Grace” for example means very little unless we make the effort to remind ourselves that it refers to “God’s undeserved love for sinners.” Most often we simply allude to “the Gospel,” in Christian code and our allusion has become an illusion—an illusion that we are actually spreading the Gospel when, in fact, we are wrapping it up in unbeliever resistant packaging. In some circles this has become such a problem that precious souls for whom Jesus died—even churchgoing folk—haven’t the faintest idea what the Gospel really is.
Let it not be so among us. Today’s text simply forbids anything but a clear, concise, unmistakable presentation of the gospel itself. We now let that text speak for itself, the words of the Holy Spirit through Paul in the Second Chapter of his Letter to the Ephesians:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Thank God in heaven for these words, for it is by these very words that we will one day be able to join him in his heaven, for these are the Words of Life. So also we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Dear Fellow Servants of the Lord Jesus:
If there is only one section of Scripture that you can memorize, if only one set of verses that you can bring to a dying sinner, if only one bit of Holy Writ to carry with you through life, this text from Paul’s Letter to the saints in Ephesus would not be a bad choice.
We have seen time and again that Jesus spoke in mysteries, parables, and other “coded” language that only the children of God could understand. From these sayings only those with faithful understanding could benefit. He spoke in this way so that the unbelief of the godless would prove to be their own undoing. In Jesus’ own words, “…so that ‘seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand’” (Mark 4:12). Again, we read in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “Natural man does not receive (understand) the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them, for they are understood spiritually.”
Yet, that is not the only way Jesus presented the facts of Life. With countless miracles and with the plainest of words, Jesus spoke so that the simplest child could understand. Those who did not come to trust in Jesus were not lost because of a lack of clarity, but because of unbelief. Though in our Bibles today many passages can only be understood by those who are spiritual-minded, that is not the only way God the Holy Spirit brought the message of the Gospel. So that men everywhere might be “without excuse,” (cf. Romans 1:20). God the Holy Spirit also inspired some of the most simple and unmistakable explanations of life and death possible. Our text for this morning is one such section.
Can there be any doubt by anyone among us exactly what the Holy Spirit meant in our text? In our society it has become fashionable to say only what you believe, never what you condemn. This method of miscommunication gives us the illusion that we are in agreement when in fact we are not.
Here is an example: If I say that I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world and say only that, a good Mormon would be perfectly willing to throw his arm around my shoulder and call me a brother. Does that mean that I am one with the Mormon Church? Hardly. It is, usually only when I say what I do not believe that I really begin to communicate clearly. If, in speaking to a Mormon, I say: “I do not believe that Satan is God’s other son. I do not believe that Jesus is our savior only because he outlined a better plan for man to earn his way to godhood than did his brother, Satan,” then I have said something. No Mormon will be left in doubt as to whether or not we agree.
The practice of stating what we do not believe as well as what we do believe is something that used to be practiced by all, but is thriving now only in the most conservative churches. Why? Few churches today recognize the true love demonstrated in speaking clearly. Only conservative churches care to adhere strictly to God’s Word because only today’s most conservative churches still believe that there is only one path to heaven.
Why is it necessary that we state both what we do and do not believe? First, because that is what God does in his Word. Secondly, we state both what we do and do not believe because it is the only way to communicate fully and clearly the facts of eternal life and to point sinners to the one and only path to heaven. Clarity is, therefore, an act of purest love.
Look at our text. Note well the clarity of God’s position when He uses both positive and negative statements joined one to the other. Positive: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Negative: “and that not of yourselves.” Positive: “It is the gift of God.” Negative: “Not of works, lest anyone should boast.” [vv.8-9] It is, the negatives that prevent any tinkering with the truth of this text.
When Martin Luther presented his reformation statement that we are saved “by grace through faith,” that statement was actually accepted by the defenders of the papacy. Luther then added one simple word to clarify his position: “alone” — “We are saved by grace alone through faith.” That one word clarified the difference and the Roman Catholic Church cried, “foul!” They pointed out that the passage does not say, “Grace alone,” but only, “Grace.” If God had not included the negative, “Not of works…” Luther would have had nary a leg on which to stand. However, because of the three words, “Not of works,” the defenders of work righteousness are without argument or excuse. There are, after all, only three possibilities by which man can obtain eternal life:
No one disputes the fact that it must be one of the three. Our text actually settles the question with those three short words: “Not of works.” This simple statement of fact tells us that since salvation cannot be earned, it is undeserved. If it is not of works (is not earned) then it is a gift—which is exactly what our text says: “It is the gift of God.”
What all of this means to you and me right here and now is difficult to measure or fully explain. It means, first of all, that Christianity is unique among all other religions in the world. Every other religion teaches some form of work righteousness. Why? Because work righteousness appeals to our human natures and because work righteousness is fed by sinful pride.
Each of us had a natural knowledge of God’s Law written in our hearts from the womb. This natural law we know as “conscience.” When we transgress that law, we feel the sting of its condemnation. When we turn from the evil thing that we are doing and instead pursue what is right, our conscience rewards us by making us “feel good.” Therefore, it feels good and right, according to my flesh, that I must do something good before I can consider myself worthy of God’s love. That is why every human religion has, at its core, work-righteousness. It just feels right… but it is dead wrong.
The Gospel is different because it is not from man. It is from God. Only a God of mercy, grace, and love could ever come up with such a plan for man’s salvation. His plan was that the perfect, holy, righteous, Creator God would send his perfect, holy, righteous Son to become one of His own creation. God the Father would then heap the sins of all of mankind upon His own dear Son. The switch is made. Man’s sin is placed on Jesus. Jesus’ perfection is credited to man. Mankind has to do nothing in order to share in this plan for salvation—believing that it is true, it is his. God knew that even the faith to believe in His plan of salvation was beyond what we sinners could supply. So, God sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts to create faith for us. Though the Old Adam in us would sorely love to take some credit for our own salvation, our text simply rules it out: “Even when we were dead in trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” [vv.5-7] Even our sinful flesh is smart enough to know that a dead man can’t contribute to his own raising. The fact that we are now Christians and heirs of heaven says nothing at all about what was in us by nature. Instead it speaks volumes about the kindness and mercy of our God: “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” [v.7]
This is part of what makes the Gospel so unique. There is no “however” attached to it. There is no “except” or “but.” It is not, “Jesus died on the cross and took away all our sins, but…now you’ve got to live the right kind of life.” Nor is it proper to add at the end, “Now all you’ve got to do is believe it.” It is the Gospel itself that carries the power to make a man a believer. Telling a man “You’ve got to believe it!” is an exercise in futility. If a man does not already believe, he is still “dead in trespasses and sins.” No amount of pleading or persuading will ever empower a dead man to aid in his own recovery. The creation of a saint from a sinner is no less a miracle than the creation of a woman from the rib of man. As only God could create that life, so only God can create faith through the Gospel. The message itself is the only thing that can create faith in that message.
What a plan! What a message! What a God! The only thing more amazing than our God and his gift of salvation is our own gloom, sluggishness, and thanklessness in the face of such love. Contemplate instead where we once were, and to where we were headed. Paul reminds us in the verse preceding our text: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:1-3). How desperately we needed this Savior and this plan for our salvation. No other plan could have worked or would have worked for us. We were powerless to contribute anything at all. Only such a plan could rescue sinners like us from an eternity in hell. God be praised for the clarity of the message in our text for this morning, and for His love and mercy which planned my salvation from eternity—even mine! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.