|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. We are his
workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath
before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
I am going to tell you something scandalous this morning.
I am going to tell you something that you don’t want to hear. Deep down inside, my words are going to challenge you.
But if you listen to God’s Word with a prayerful, receptive spirit, you will be lifted to heavenly places.
The message you will hear this morning is familiar. It is the hallmark of Reformed Protestantism. It is the high-water mark of the Scriptures, I believe. The message is one of God’s grace to you in Christ: that He has done the unthinkable in your life by sending His dear and only Son to suffer at your hands.
Scandalous though it is, you and I need to hear the message of salvation by grace through faith again today. You need to hear it every day. And you need to live it every day. You and I as the church cannot – cannot – compromise on this most-critical of messages to a dying world.
Why is this message of salvation by grace through faith so scandalous to you? Well, because some of you don’t really want to own up to your inability to come to the Lord. You want to think you’re better than you are; that the Titanic really isn’t sinking.
Some of you will be scandalized by the message of grace. After all, this is America! You make your money the old-fashioned way: you earn it. Grace – God’s totally undeserved favor in Christ – just doesn’t make sense to you. You who are uncomfortable at the thought of being a “moocher” bristle at the thought of grace.
And some of you won’t want to hear the upshot of this message: that grace must guide all aspects of your life. You want to be saved and then go on your merry way.
Scandal – that’s what the message of grace causes you and me in some way or another.
First, we’re going to examine the heinous facts about you and me as humans. Second, we’re going to be challenged by the message of God’s saving grace in Christ. And third, you and I will be tested by God’s call to gracious obedience in all of life as a response to His grace.
Yet God, in Christ, has transformed you to be His holy servant; so answer His grace with gracious obedience.
The Reformation message of sola fide and sola gratia – “faith alone” and “grace alone” – no doubt will cause you scandal, because this classic text in Ephesians on the topic of human nature does great injury to modern assumptions about humans.
You and I cherish false notions about ourselves: our favorite being that we’re all pretty good people deep down inside. Sure, there are a few Eric Rudolphs and Osamas and Saddams in the world – but they’re the exceptions, not the rules, right?
Not according to the Lord.
The Lord judges properly; you and I have a skewed interpretation of the facts. The Lord isn’t biased; you and I are. The Lord demands perfection, true to His perfect nature and standards; you and let sins slide.
St. Paul goes to great lengths to describe human nature in this passage. He speaks of you and me as walking corpses, spiritually cut off from God because of our sin. Oh certainly, because of His common grace basic to all people, you might perform a good deed every now and again such as giving to a charity or helping someone in physical need.
But you can’t erase those blots of sin covering your soul and your life, and therefore the Holy Lord can’t accept you.
Paul says all of us are guilty. Curiously, he includes himself – a Pharisaical Jew who once was perfect when it came to obeying the law. Paul was a “really good guy” according to human standards. (Too bad he was so absorbed in his own pride and vainglory that he had no room for God in his heart or in his life).
You and I, Paul says, are by nature the children of wrath. This phrase is a Hebraism, a way of saying that you, by virtue of your descent from the first sinner, Adam, can only expect God’s wrath for your sin. Yes, God grows very, very angry at those who rebel against Him and refuse to honor Him as their Lord; and apart from His deliverance in Christ, you and I are doomed to His holy wrath. He will not compromise.
And Paul says what happens in your life begins in your heart. Human nature is a broad term, and Paul says that you and I follow our master in our hearts – and consequently in our lives – before Christ changes us. “Fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and of the mind” means more than simply sexual immorality and drunkenness; it has to do with greed and envy and faithlessness and selfishness too. And it has to do with that mean thought you had about the person who hurt you last week with his hateful words.
It’s all a matter of following the prince of the power of the air, Satan: he controls the evil spirits of this age, and he animates your rebellion and pride against God.
I told you the message of grace would cause you to stumble.
The second aspect of the message of grace that causes you to stumble is just that: grace. You are saved from the eternal penalty of your rebellion against the God who formed you only because He sent His Son to pay the price for your rebellion. And Christ’s salvation is yours only through faith, which God works in you. You can’t even earn your way into God’s favor!
How hard those words are for you and for me to accept.
You want to earn your way in life. You and I will take a meal at a friend’s house – only if we can repay the friend later. Who wants to be a parasite?
America is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps nation, and that sort of bravado infects your religious thinking as well. You and I want to make our way to God; and the thought that only He can awaken you spiritually is awfully hard to stomach.
But remember: because of Adam’s rebellion, you and I inherited his spiritual deadness. And only God can draw you to Christ; that’s what the Lord teaches in St. John’s gospel. Only Christ can satisfy God’s wrath for your sin, and only Christ can earn heaven’s rewards for you.
Only in the living Savior can you be brought to life, and you can receive his life only through faith, which itself is the work of God.
Not an agreeable message, would you say?
If I offered to pay off all your debt this morning because I love you, you would doubt my word. If I fulfilled my pledge, you still wouldn’t understand why. That sort of grace doesn’t make sense to you and to me.
But that’s the grace of God in Christ. Paul says time and again in this passage that your spiritual life is in a faithful union with Christ, and no part of your spiritual life and hope is attributable to you. It’s all about Jesus … and about his work. His love. His rich mercy to you.
I told you that the message of grace would cause you to stumble.
Third, the message of grace causes you and me scandal because it calls us to live every aspect of our lives for the Lord.
Let’s be perfectly honest: most Christians have a shallow view of salvation. Walk an aisle (which isn’t biblical!), pray a prayer and you’re set for eternity. Then you can resume your “normal” life.
Sadly, that’s the view of so many professing Christians. Your faith stays on the shelf, and there’s no real holiness to show in your daily activities.
But the Lord changes you for a purpose: His purpose.
The point of life is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. That’s what Paul teaches in chapter one and verse four of Ephesians, and it’s what he’s saying in this text. So many of us quote Ephesians 2:8-9 … and leave out verse 10. You can’t do so, though. You and I are God’s workmanship, created to live a life that He has ordained for us to walk in.
Even your post-conversion good deeds are attributable to God alone. He does it all.
As you go through this week, though, remember that God has changed you out of His love and grace in Christ in order to please Him. We read our first lesson from Genesis, in which the Lord gave the “creation mandate” to Adam. He was to tend the garden and to have dominion over the earth: in short, to live all of life before the face of God. Even tilling the garden was to be sacred, set apart to the Lord.
But sin got in the way. Adam believed the lie of Satan and thought he could get more through disobeying the gracious Lord who gave him all. So he rebelled, and his life became fragmented and shattered by sin.
You and I aren’t to be that way, however. You are God’s workmanship in Christ, transformed to serve the Lord through meaningful, pure art. Through honest labor with our hands. With joy in our hearts at a job well-done to His glory. Through forgiving and loving those who hurt us the most. Through using your brain to learn about God’s vast cosmos.
Salvation is much, much more than a one-time event. It involves a continual life of submission and of service to the Lord, which scandalizes you and me. You want to give God part of your life; He wants all your life.
This morning’s message is scandalous. It is hard; who can hear it?
But you and I must hear – and receive – this word if we are to have hope and life.
If the Word of the Lord has cut you to your heart, then admit your inability and embrace His mercy in Christ. You are under the control of one of two masters: the prince of the power of the air or the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. No, you might not be as bad as you could be; but you’re not perfect, and God only tolerates perfect people.
Look to His grace – as scandalous and hard-to-believe as it is. It’s true: Christ has done it all, even for you.
You who are Christians, who know something of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, must take God’s call to heart today. The central message of Scripture is that you have been redeemed and chosen by God – for a purpose. Your mission is to honor Him by doing those good works that He has prepared for you to do.
Being a faithful servant of the gracious Lord means more than simply praying or coming to church or inviting a friend to church. Those actions are admirable; I exhort you to do them.
Being a faithful servant of the Lord means that you reclaim His creation for its original purpose. It means you’re faithful and loving to your family instead of self-centered and harsh. It means you study in school as well as you can, delighting in God’s gift of learning. It means you perform your work with a sense that you’re serving the God who created banking and law and medicine and farming and every calling under the sun.
Yes, you need to cherish and to preach this message of grace in Christ, scandalous as it is. Because only by God’s transformative grace in Christ can you fulfill your mission in life: to glorify and to enjoy your Creator at every time, in every place.