9th Sunday After Pentecost August 14, 2011
1, 374, 373(1-4,7), 36
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
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.
Dear fellow beneficiaries of God’s grace:
“It’s a boy!” A son arrived into the home of a Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin. One week after the son was born, his parents had him circumcised according to God’s Law. The boy grew up learning all there was to learn about being an Israelite. He studied under one of the greatest teachers of the time. He became a model citizen as everyone could see. He was a very religious man. He became part of the strictest sect within his people’s religion. He took great pains to live up to the perfection and holiness which members of his sect expected from themselves.
When a new religious movement sprung up and opposed much of what was being taught by his sect, this man went into action. He would stopped at nothing in his efforts to eradicate this upstart religious following that was becoming quite a nuisance. With the blessing of his peers and the religious leaders he pursued the trouble-makers, bound them, and put them in prison—both men and women. When it came time to cast his vote on the prisoners’ fate, he cast his vote for death.
One day, on his way to capture more of the opposition, about noon time, this man saw a bright light from heaven—brighter than the sun. The light shone around him and his traveling companions. They all saw the light and they all fell to the ground, but only the one man heard the voice. A voice called to him in Hebrew asking why he was persecuting Him. The man on the ground asked “Who are you?” and the voice replied, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”
The man was blind after this and was led to his destination city. There he stayed for three days, blind and not eating or drinking. After three days, a prophet of God came to him, healed his blindness, and baptized him. This man, Saul, then went out preaching the truth that Jesus is the Christ—the Son of God—and that sinners have salvation through Him. His preaching stunned the people who had formerly known Saul as a persecutor of the Christians. According to the Lord’s purpose this man became God’s chosen messenger of the Gospel to the Gentiles—a man we know well as the apostle Paul. [Acts 9:1ff; 22:1ff; 26:1ff; Philippians 3:5-6]
Paul’s biography makes for a dramatic true story of God’s gracious salvation being brought to someone who once so vehemently opposed Christ. Though perhaps not quite so obvious, the drama of Paul’s conversion is no different than your own. When we marvel that God could take an enemy of Christ and bring him into the salvation offered by Christ, we marvel at our own salvation. Paul’s story of going from condemned sinner and God-hater to beloved child of God and missionary is our own story. Hard to believe? Too good to be true? Yes! but it is true. The drama and marvel of it all is what makes YOUR NEW LIFE IS A SHOWCASE FOR GOD’S LOVE It highlights I. Forgiveness for all by grace, II. Salvation to you through faith, and III. Glorification of God with works.
If we are talking about our new life being a showcase for God’s love then we must also have an old life. In the earlier words of Ephesians chapter 2, Paul gives a brief biography of every Christian. Our old lives were death. “You He has made alive who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). A life that is dead in trespasses and sins is marked by conduct that corresponds to the sinful world. “…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 suns 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 2:2-3).
Born in sin, spiritually dead in sin, living a life guided by sin, condemned by sin is how we all began our lives. “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…” (Ephesians 2:4-5). We have a new birth, a new life through Christ Jesus because of what He has done for us. Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven and our death removed. God’s purpose for doing this was so that “in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
With these words Paul describes the life-story of every believer in his journey from spiritual death to new life. But if all of this is our biography how is it that our life story becomes a showcase for God’s love? “For by grace are you saved…and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” [v.8-9]
Our new life is a showcase for God’s love because it is God’s undeserved love—His grace—alone that has created the new life. Grace leaves no room for our own contribution, cooperation, or earning. Paul keeps piling up the phrases to make his point that grace in no way comes from us nor is it deserved by us. “Grace” by definition is a love that takes action for someone in need but does not demand nor even expect anything in return. To the concept of grace Paul adds, “this salvation is not of yourselves.” To this Paul adds, “it is the gift of God.” Our salvation is a gift that comes from God—nothing earned, nothing billed to our account, just a free gift! To this Paul still adds, “not of works” and then “lest anyone should boast.”
Paul closes every door that could lead to any kind of work-righteousness or any idea that we are somehow able to achieve our own spiritual life and salvation. The words, “grace” and “gift” simply do not allow for our efforts or cooperation to be part of accomplishing our salvation. As soon as our salvation depends in any way upon something we do, it becomes earned and is no longer grace.
The work of redemption was a one-time thing. Jesus lived and then died for our sins and declared that the work was finished. Then He rose to life and returned to Heaven. By God’s grace, the benefits of what Jesus did continue to come to us day by day. Each day there is forgiveness for all of our sins, and how thankful we can be that this forgiveness is not based upon how good we were that day but upon God’s grace and on Jesus’ perfect life and death. Day-by-day we are forgiven sinners. Day-by-day we remain children of God and heirs of eternal life by God’s grace.
The forgiveness of sins that comes by God’s grace is available for all sinners. It is God’s grace of which Jesus spoke saying: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). John declared: “Behold! The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). So abundant is God’s grace that it forgives our abounding sins and offers forgiveness for all the sins of every sinner (cf: Romans 5:20).
Despite the completely free gift of forgiveness that God offers by grace, many reject it and still choose to try to earn their favor with God. Try is all they can do for they will never succeed. Satisfying God’s expectations in the Law is much more than just outward obedience or coming “close enough.” God demands perfection! God demands perfection in thought, word, and deed and who on the earth can give Him that?! No one! But there is full and free forgiveness by God’s grace through Christ Jesus. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Outward “good-living” might lead us to say “so—and-so is such a good person” but that won’t stand up before the judgment seat of God. Being a “good person”—not cheating, not stealing, being kind, helping when possible, etc. isn’t going to open Heaven’s door to anyone. If anyone supposes that he or someone else is going to enter Heaven because “he’s a good person and does what is right” then that showcases the person and not God. Even things that outwardly appear to be done in Christ’s name will mean nothing if the works themselves are relied upon. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
There is forgiveness for all despite our utter sinfulness. It is forgiveness by God’s grace not by our works and that highlights God’s love.
God’s grace sent Jesus to the earth to become the Savior of all sinners. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was complete. The forgiveness is complete and available for everyone, but that forgiveness still needs to come and be applied to each individual sinner. The forgiveness that is available for everyone comes to the individual through faith. “By grace you are saved through faith.” [v.8]
Faith is trusting that God’s Word is true when it says that you are without doubt a sinner in the eyes of God and therefore condemned to eternal death. Faith also trusts that God’s Word is true when it tells you that Jesus did indeed die for your sins, and that He forgives your sins, and will give you eternal life.
Faith is the “pipeline” through which God gives the forgiveness of sins. It was through his faith in the promises of God that Abraham was declared righteous in God’s sight (cf: Genesis 15 and Romans 4:4). Without trust in Christ, the forgiveness of sins which Jesus won for you would remain unclaimed. Those who will suffer eternally in Hell are not damned because of a lack of forgiveness, but rather they will be damned because that forgiveness remained unclaimed and rejected through their own unbelief.
The faith which rests in Jesus and lays claim to the forgiveness of sins is also a gift from God and does not come from within us. Paul’s words, “…not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” apply to the whole of salvation of which faith is a vital part. Your own personal faith is God’s creation through the working of the Holy Spirit, again without any connection to your own cooperation or work. “God has saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace…” (2 Timothy 1:9).
An illustration will help us see the connection between grace and faith in our eternal salvation. In several parables, Jesus compared forgiveness of sins and eternal life to a great feast. Now suppose that you are a hungry beggar with no food, no way to find food or buy food, and really no hope for survival at all. Then one day an employee of a multi-billionaire finds you on the street and says that there is free food at his employer’s house. This is not just any food but a feast of rich tasty food and refreshing drink. It is food to satisfy every need and every craving. It is food that will give life to the starving. “Oh, and one other thing,” the employee says before he leaves, “the food you eat will just keep being replaced. No matter how many people are eating and no matter how much you need, he guarantees there will always be more and you will always have enough forever. He wants you to come and never leave.”
Remember, you are the miserably starving person who hears this news. First of all, it is going to be unbelievable that anyone so great as the multi-billionaire could even think about you, much less make such an offer. You know that you don’t have anything that you could possibly offer this man in return for what he has promised to give you; but the messenger said you didn’t have to give him anything. It is a free, never-ending gift!
If you don’t believe the messenger’s report and don’t go to the house it won’t change the fact that the food really is there and that there is a never-ending supply for you. The food has been bought and it is there no matter what you do, but for you to enjoy the food it takes trust that the message is true and that trust leads you to go to the house and take part in the feast. Without trust in the message you won’t go and will remain hungry.
The free feast from the billionaire is God’s free gift of gracious salvation to sinners. It’s there for everyone, but without faith it doesn’t come to the individual sinner. It is the message about the feast and the trustworthiness of the billionaire that would create the trust that will bring the hungry man to the feast. It is the words and promises of our gracious God which He announces to us through the Gospel that creates trust in His Son and brings us to the feast.
The truth about grace and faith defines our mission work. Someone who is suffering with a guilty conscience because he does not have the peace of God through faith needs to hear the message that the free feast is offered to him. If our advice to a troubled sinner is “lead a good life, observe the commandments, and pray” we are directing him to himself and their works and that will only lead to more frustration and despair. If, instead, we tell the troubled sinner, “there is full and free salvation in Christ Jesus—a gift from God to you—that makes you a beloved child of God. As a child of God you can take everything to God in prayer.” Then we have showcased God’s love for that sinner and brought him the message of life.
The truth about grace and faith corrects us whenever works begin to slip into our thinking. Should we become puffed up a little bit with pride in the kind of life we lead and the good Christians we are, we are reminded that all of what we are is by grace, not of ourselves, not of works, lest we should boast. Should we think to ourselves, “I’d better not do that or else I’ll never make it to heaven” or should we be cast into doubt by thinking, “Am I really good enough to be a child of God? Is my faith strong enough to be saved?” These thoughts are adding works into our salvation and we are saved by grace through faith not by works.
Paul wrote the Romans “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). God has given us the good news of the Gospel for our peace. Relying in any way upon ourselves leads to doubt and fear. If you begin to doubt your salvation you are relying on yourself so go back to what God says. The knowledge that our whole salvation comes freely to us out of God’s love gives peace and highlights God’s tremendous love for sinners.
God saves us by grace through faith totally apart from the works we do. This does not, however, leave good works out of the picture. It’s important to make a distinction between “justification” and “sanctification.”
Justification is God declaring us righteous on the basis of Christ’s work. It is complete in Christ. The work of our salvation is finished. We can not add anything to it by our own works. Sanctification is the kind of life we lead. It is the way in which we show our Savior in how we act and in the things we do and say. Our sanctification is not complete. Sanctification is ongoing, and we pray that it is also always growing. Sanctification—our Christian life—does not earn forgiveness and salvation. It shows that we already have forgiveness and salvation through Christ. Sanctification and justification are always found together, but they are not the same and cannot be mixed or confused with one another otherwise we end up with the false doctrine of salvation by works.
Paul writes, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. [v.10] God has given us new life through the forgiveness of sins. We are His new creation, His masterpiece. He has created us anew so that we might do good works. He created us to have a new life and in that life to do what is pleasing to Him out of faith, love, and thanksgiving for all that He has done. He created us to do good works because through them and by living like God’s children we show forth the glory of God and “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9)
Our inherited sin still clings to us and is in everything we do even in those things that outwardly look perfect. Whatever is still sinful in these works will not be seen as sin by God because that sin too is washed away through faith in Christ. It is by God’s grace through faith that anything we do is pleasing to God and therefore, a “good” work. Furthermore, God Himself has prepared the good works for us to do.
God presents us with the opportunity to do good works, He gives us the faith that makes the works good in His eyes, and He works in us the desire to do them. So we find that even in our good works there is nothing about which we can boast. Paul counted everything as loss—including all the righteousness he thought he was earning when He was a Pharisee—and said “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
Luther described Christianity as a religion of gratitude. It is impossible to imagine a faith that coexists and persists with a wicked intention to sin and act against one’s conscience. This would show a lack of appreciation for what God has given by grace. Our good works are not demanded by the hot breath of the Law on our necks saying “do this or die.” The Law can no longer threaten because Christ has fulfilled the Law for us. Good works do not contribute to our salvation because Christ has done it all, and our good works can accomplish nothing for our justification. Rather, our good works show gratitude to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—the God of our salvation; and they glorify God by declaring His unsurpassed love.
Saved by grace through faith! It leaves all the glory to God. It gives peace, life, and hope to the sin-burdened soul. It changes our lives forever and in those changed, new lives the love, mercy, and greatness of our God is evident.
Grace ‘tis a charming sound,
harmonious to the ear,
heaven with the echo shall resound
and all the earth shall hear. [TLH #374 st.1]
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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.