Vol. 10 — No. 7 February 16, 1969


Grace, Not Works!

Matthew 20:1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into the vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received, every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmurred against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong; didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

In Christ Jesus, who is and who bestows the grace of God upon man, Fellow Redeemed:

“What shall we have?” This question of Peter was the occasion for the parable of our text. It’s an extremely human question: “What in it for me?” “What do I get out of it?” “What have I got coming?”

How did it come about that Peter asked such an earthy question? A ruler in Israel had come to Jesus with the question, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” His goal was good. He vented eternal life, but his idea of how to achieve that goal reflected the common opinion of mankind—that of works and merits. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. That answer holds true today yet. Jut the age-old difficulty remains: No one can keep the commandments! But this the ruler didn’t realize, so he eagerly asked which commandments he should keep. He must have been disappointed at the simple answer of Jesus, for Jesus recited the commandments of the second table of the law. For the ruler this was all Kindergarten stuff. He said, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” Now Jesus dropped the blockbuster. He told the young man to sell everything he had and come and follow Him. That hurt, for it revealed to the young man that what he had he had made his god. He was an idolator.

Peter and the other disciples had listened. They were amazed, but then Peter began to think that he and the others had done exactly what Jesus had told the young man to do. Peter’s thinking came out in his remarks and question: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” “What’s in it for us?” Peter didn’t realize it, but he was afflicted with the same spiritual virus that plagued the rich young ruler. His thinking was conditioned by works, merits and rewards. This way of thinking needed correcting. So Jesus told a parable. The point of the parable can be expressed in but three words—


I. This is the sovereign principle of the Kingdom.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” Note well that this group of laborers operated on the well known modern principle of “No contract, no work!” They made an agreement, a contract, to work for the going, standard wage of a penny a day. About the third hour the householder went out again and found others standing idle in the marketplace. He made no contract with them, but simply told them: “Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.” These went without a contract, on the basis of the promise alone. As late as the eleventh hour the householder went out and found some standing idle. To them he said, “Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.” Again, no contract—just the word of the householder.

In the evening the steward was to pay off the laborers. He was instructed to begin with the last, giving each one a penny. Those that had entered the vineyard later in the day accepted their pay without complaint. They knew that they had received more than they had earned. The first complained. They thought that they should have received more. They felt that they had been made the victims of injustice. But the goodman of the house reminded them of their contract. They had agreed to a penny a day. They had no grounds for complaint. The goodman said, “Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” The Lord is good, and it is His nature to give of His own freely!

Here is the sovereign principle of grace by which our Lord rules His Kingdom. Moses once asked to see the Lord’s glory. The Lord responded with a brief, but pointed lecture on His nature: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Ex. 33:l9. At the beginning of Israel’s history the nation was to know the fundamental principle that governs all in the Kingdom: grace, not works! St. Paul reviewed the Old Testament in the light of that principle in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans, using the father of all believers, Abraham, as an example: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Who has ever attained the height of Abraham’s work of offering up his only son? Did this justify him? “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Abraham was saved by faith, not by works! And then Paul lays out the sovereign principle of grace: “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.” This is the common principle that the laborer is worthy of his hire. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” This is the sovereign principle of grace which rules supreme in the Kingdom. That principle St. Paul enunciated so clearly in his letter to the Ephesians in the well known passage (2:8-9): “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.”

Grace is delicate and fragile, as a delicate flower that wilts when touched by the hand of man or as an exquisite piece of fabric that stains when touched by perspiration moistened fingers. Grace repells works, and works destroy grace. For “if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Romans ll:6. Though extremely delicate, yet—

II. This principle must mold all our thinking.

Think on this thought: Desire for reward may well lose grace! Peter had asked, “What shall we have therefore?” What was the answer of the parable? This: If your thinking is along those lines, you’ll get precisely what you contracted for and no more! The first got no more than the last. Why? Because they had so contracted. They were dealing in the Kingdom like men deal in the business world. They cried injustice when they received the justice they had bargained for. But they received no more.

What is this “penny” that each received? It’s the temporal blessings that the Lord gives to men for working in His vineyard. The vineyard is the visible church. The laborers or those called to work in the vineyard are all the members on the rolls of the churches. The Lord pays off those who work—with temporal blessings. Did He not say of the scribes and Pharisees: “They have their reward.” What was that “penny”? It was honor before the people, respect, prestige, position. Church membership and working for churches and on church projects bring with it their own rewards. Such people are usually honored by their fellow church members and by the community. They enjoy respect in the community. Their business may prosper. They may enjoy advantages in public life. But members of the church who have signed such a contract with their God get what they contracted for—honor and glory—but they may well miss the spiritual blessings. For these aren’t dished out as contract benefits. They are given by God’s grace. It can well be that a person is honored by his fellow church members for all that he has done, but that same person may not receive forgiveness and may die and lose his soul. Why? Because he imagined that he could and was earning this blessing, whereas no spiritual blessing can be earned anyone. Spiritual blessings are gifts of God’s grace. “For many are called, but few chosen.” Not all members of Christian churches will be residents of heaven.

Here is another thought that the sovereign principle of grace should mold into our minds: Don’t begrudge anyone the Lord’s grace! The steward paid the last off first. When the first received the penny that they had contracted for, “they murmurred against the goodman of the house.” They had worked longer and harder and so they thought they should have received more or the others less. Should we begrudge the dying malefactor his entrance in the Kingdom because he came at the eleventh hour, while we may have been working our whole life time? Let’s not think that we are beyond such littleness! Some of us were born in Christian homes, baptized as infants, carried to Sunday School and instruction classes, compelled to study the Bible stories and catechism. We were restrained from doing many things that other children did. We go to church and Sunday School every Sunday. We give of our time and talent. Over the course of a lifetime we give many thousands of dollars to the church. Then when it comes time for us to die, we get a funeral and a Christian burial. That’s all well and fine. But then along the way there may come a case of a person who fell away in youth, who never came to church or Sunday School, who never lifted a finger for the church, who never gave a cent but kept it all for himself. But before he dies, the pastor finds him in the hospital, brings him to repentance, leads him to the foot of the cross and to the empty tomb for the assurance of forgiveness, and finally helps him through the valley of the shadow of death. Then he too gets a funeral and a Christian burial. But he didn’t work in the heat of the day from dawn until dusk. Isn’t it easy to feel that an injustice has been done? Isn’t it easy almost to begrudge a death bed convert his salvation? It’s horrible to think that we could be that way, but it’s easy for us to become that way. Why? Because thinking in terms of works, merits, what we have coming, comes natural for us. Thinking in terms of God’s grace is impossible for us unless the Spirit of God works such thinking in our hearts.

Think about this thought: All activity outside of Christ is standing idle in His sight! The householder went out to the marketplace, the world, to get laborers. He chided many for standing idle in the marketplace. Think of what this means. The world is a place of hustle and bustle. Almost 50,000 cars have been counted going through but one busy intersection in Columbia. People go and come, scramble and scratch to get ahead, set themselves goals and strive for those goals. Some of these people achieve local or statewide or national and even international fame. Their names go in history books for future generations to study. But if their activity is outside of and apart from a living faith in Christ, it is all considered by Him as standing idly in the marketplace. This is a staggering thought, but it reveals the vast difference in the way our Lord judges the activity and work of men and the way the world judges it. So you want to achieve something that will stand both the test of time and eternity? There is only one way—to come under the influence of God’s grace and to labor in response to that grace.

Here is a final thought to think about: God calls man; man does not call himself to God. The householder went out into the marketplace and hired the laborers. He came to them; they didn’t come to him. So it is in the Kingdom. God calls us by the Gospel. He makes us His own by sending His Spirit to work on our hearts. Do we at times weary of working in the vineyard? Do we feel the heat of the day? Do we complain of the long hours? Let’s remember that the decision to labor for the Lord was not made by us, but in us. Man likes to pride himself on his natural Spiritual powers. He imagines that he can and does know the things of God. He actually believes that he can, when he wants to, make a decision and the right decision for Christ. But it isn’t that way. None of the laborers in the parable applied for work. They stood idle until the lord called them. So it is, for no man can say that Jesus is his Lord but by the Holy Ghost. He has called us. Thank God For that. But not all who are called are finally chosen. Why? Because they fall in love with their own spiritual abilities and their own imagined achievements. In so doing they destroy the sovereign principle of grace. Let us be on our guard, for by grace, and only by grace, can we be saved. Amen.

—Pastor Paul F. Nolting

Preached February 2, 1969
Holy Trinity Independent
Evangelical Lutheran Church
West Columbia, South Carolina

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