Eph. 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved
Today we’re looking at a second truth to fix our life on, namely, salvation by grace alone. Ephesians is one of the most beautiful passages of scripture. It speaks of our complete hopelessness in our state without God - we were dead, we were completely lost following the ways of this world and the desires of our flesh, under the influence of Satan and under the wrath of God. And you have that great contradiction in verse 14: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together - and the entirety of our hope is summed up at the end of verse 5: by grace you have been saved. What a passage! What a promise! What more needs to be said? We can go home!
Yet the powerful truth the resounded out of the reformation was not merely “salvation by grace” but “salvation by grace alone”, and so all week I’ve been trying to understand, what difference does that little word make? and does that little word still matter? And if it does still matter, what does that mean for us?
There are those who deny salvation at all. Some people go through life seemingly unconcerned with eternal matters. Why speak of salvation at all, when this world is enough to worry about. Why waste time on the immaterial world, when the material world stands before us, calling us to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and find peace and love and happiness however we can and however we define it. If that’s you today, I’m glad you’re hear, because it means either that you love someone enough that you let them drag you here. Let me implore you to not harden your heart, because you never know when you’ll get hit with a moment of transcendence, struck by something beyond you. It might be that you’re struck by injustice and realized that you have no answer within yourself as to why you might be so concerned to uphold an objective moral law that you don’t believe in. It might be a moment of awe or beauty, in which you sense yourself praising the beauty of something beyond yourself and it leaves you speechless. It might be a song that breaks through your heart, or a feeling of gratitude to an Unknown Giver. On the other hand, it may be a sense of uneasiness or despair, a sense in which you understand that there must be more to life than this. In any case, I implore you to not suppress these moments of transcendence, but explore them, for God has said that he’s given you a conscience and placed eternity in your heart, that you would be restless until you find your rest in Him.
There are those who deny that salvation is by grace. Of those who seek transcendent answers, of those who seek salvation, or enlightenment or eternal peace, there are those who do so on their own terms, believing that old mantra of my father, “If you want something in life, you’ve got to work for it.” In the fourth century a Welsh monk named Pelagius attended a public reading of the most famous theological work of all time, “The Confessions of St. Augustine” and took great exception to one of Augustine’s favourite phrases, a prayer to God, “Command what you will, and give what you command” the meaning being that God in his grace to us will supply to us all that he demands from us. Pelagius was so enraged at hearing this that he stormed out and soon both he and Augustine were embroiled in bitter controversy. Pelagius believed that mankind though fallen, had retained enough of their initial goodness after the fall that they could, according to their own will, recognize and obey God by following the example of Christ. In his view, sin was not something inward and inherent in human beings, but outward. Our problem is moral ignorance, and if we only tried harder, were more intentional about following the example of Christ, we could merit or earn our salvation. It’s important to note two things: first, Pelagius’ teachings were universally condemned by the church initially and repeatedly through out church history. You might hear some people slander the Catholic church by referring to it as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, insinuating that they teach salvation apart from grace. They do not. They have consistently condemned the teachings of Pelagius and those who came after, and they have consistently maintained that salvation is by grace, a free gift of God. So please do not slander.
Second, and more importantly, please note how appealing the Pelagian answer is. First, it flatters the moral character of humanity. We want to believe ourselves better than we are. It offends us to hear that we are morally incapable of fulfilling God’s law. Second, it cohere’s with the goodness we see in humanity. Human beings are moral creatures and in fact at times do morally admirable things. Third, it seems to uphold God’s justice and moral character, for God is revealed in scripture as a God who judges justly, rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness. Fourth, it sets the goal of holiness ever in front of us as something to pursue and attain. This seems to us to be the sole purpose of religion, to develop our moral character. Fifth, it seems to be a place to find common ground with the other world religions, as we can recognize each as paths through which humanity seeks to better itself. Pelagianism is attractive, we need to recognize that. But I want to show you that it is nothing but a lump of coal compared to the gem of grace.
There are those who teach that salvation is by grace but not grace ALONE: It may surprise you to hear that years before the reformation, in his days as a monk, Martin Luther taught salvation is by grace “not because of our merits … given out of the pure mercy of God.” This was standard Catholic teaching, in opposition to the Pelagian doctrine that I’ve already described. Yet years later, this same Martin Luther would write to one of his opponents, that the “real issue” of the reformation was that salvation is all of God, fundamentally the issue was the nature of grace.
See, the grace Luther taught in his early years as a monk was an enabling grace, a grace that helped a person to do what God required, only after all the person’s energy was spent. Luther had been a devotee of a man named Biel, who taught that God had made a deal with us, that God committed himself to give grace to those who literally, “did what was in them” (did their best). When I read this I realized this was exactly the religion i was taught growing up, whether through the church or through popular conception of religion. Growing up I had understood that God is a perfect, holy God who makes demands upon us as his creatures, but he understands that we are imperfect and weak. So we try to live a good life, try not to do anything too bad, and hope that God will be merciful and say, “Hey, you tried. It’s ok I got this” and then He would kind of push me through the rest of the way. This is truly the “God helps those who help themselves” idea.
Now, in order to avoid Pelagianism, Luther and his Catholic brothers taught that the initial approach to salvation was by one type of God’s grace, and that the push over the edge that God gave was another type of God’s grace, but they maintained throughout our need to cooperate with God’s grace, that’s God’s grace is enabling grace, but that we must cooperate with it in order for it to do anything. This is still the teaching of the Catholic church today, although some will admit that our cooperation is yet another type of grace. But here was precisely the problem for Luther. He was racked with doubt and guilt as to whether he had in fact done his best and ever achieved a state of grace. This destroyed him as a man. In his own words:
When I was a monk, I made a great effort to live according to the requirements of the monastic rule. I made a practice of confessing and reciting all my sins, but always with prior contrition; I went to confession frequently, and I performed the assigned penances faithfully. Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said: “You have not done this correctly. You were not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession.” Therefore, the longer I tried to heal my uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak, and troubled I continually made it. In this way, by observing human traditions, I transgressed them even more; and by following the righteousness of the monastic order, I was never able to reach it.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.
Luther would spend hours in confession, days fasting from food and water, he descended into emotional and spiritual darkness. Of what good is grace, if one is never sure that one attains it?
The scandal and hope of the gospel is that salvation is by grace ALONE: After that long introduction, turn with me in your Bible to Luke 18:9-14. In this parable we see to religious people - they are not of those who deny salvation; indeed they are both approaching God seeking salvation. In this parable we find two people who believe in grace - neither of them denies God’s active work in their lives. Yet, only one of the two men in the parable actually receives what he is looking for.
Note first the words of Jesus:
Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:
Jesus gave this teaching to humble those who would think that they had attained a righteousness of their own, in and of themselves, and in so doing, looked down upon others. Now, to be fair, there is a question here: is Jesus teaching against an approach to salvation, or is he teaching against an arrogance that one might have or a behaviour that one might display in looking down upon others. How strongly are we to understand the “and”? Keep that question in mind as we read the rest.
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisee Boasted in Enabling Grace Please do not miss that the Pharisee approaches God in gratitude that God has done something in him so that he can attain a level of so-called righteousness. “I thank you that I am not like other men.” He believed in not just God’s general grace to all men, but that he had receive from God a special, enabling grace that he might be more righteous than others. Yet remember Luke’s introduction to this parable, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Thus, the pharisees belief in enabling grace did not diminish his self-righteousness, but instead the opposite thing happened entirely, though recognizing God’s grace as the source of his goodness, he looked to that goodness, his own goodness, as that which separated him from other men and fit him for salvation. Look at the personal pronoun used again and again, “I” am not like other men, “I” fast, “I” give tithes. Yes, God may have enabled as initial cause, but make no doubt the pharisee sees his work as his own, as something to boast of, something to be proud of, something worthy of commendation or of merit. This is the gospel of cooperation - God did his part, but man, look at what I’ve done with God’s help.
The Tax-collector Trusted in Effacing Grace Contrast the attitude of the pharisee with that of the tax collector, who will not even approach the alter, much less even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast in sorrow, and cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” What do I mean by effacing grace? Erasing, diminishing, pride-crushing, soul-despairing, grace. A grace that exposes the gulf between God’s holiness and our unrighteousness; a grace that kills boasting, a grace that kills pride, a grace that kills self-righteousness, a grace that causes the sinner to cry out, I have no hope but you, I am lost without you, I am dead without you, be merciful to me. This is salvation by grace alone, for there is no other person, no other thing, no other shred of righteousness, no other means by which man can bridge that infinite gulf unless God himself leaps over it, and grabs him by the soul, and fully and freely forgives.
“I tell you,” says Jesus, “this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” This man, and not the other. This man AND NOT the other. AND NOT! We preach salvation by grace alone, because salvation by enabling grace is a different gospel than the one that saves. And the reason “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Effacing grace alone is elevating grace - you might even say exalting grace.
We Understand that Grace Alone is Scandalous: Now I want to leave you with two final thoughts about the nature of this grace. Notice that the man went home justified. This is really important because Jesus uses the perfect tense which refers to a present condition pointing back to an act in time. This man stand justified before God even though all he has done is cry out. This man stand justified before God even through he has done nothing to either evidence or add to the grace of God. He stands justified before God, why? Because Jesus says so. And this is scandalous! Look at this man and compare him to the other. There is nothing in this man to suggest that he is more righteous than the other, nothing in him other than the declaration by Jesus that he goes home justified before God rather than the other objectively more righteous man. How is this fair? It’s not fair, it’s grace. Grace that is completely undeserved, completely free, and solely dependent upon the will of the giver, not the worthiness of the recipient. And that is good news! Because it means that any of us, any of you, might be then next one to receive that gift!
We Believe that Effacing Grace Alone is Enabling Contrary to the charges of some, protestants do not reduce God’s grace to be only effacing. However, we believe that enabling grace must be preceded by effacing grace and that We believe that enabling grace must not obscure effacing grace. How do we obscure effacing grace? Anytime we preach morality without the gospel, we obscure effacing grace. Anytime we get to obsessed with ourselves or our performance rather than our Christ and his work on our behalf, we obscure effacing grace.
In fact we understand that the grace that effaces is the grace that enables, for when one receives the gift of justification, we do not merely receive forgiveness of sins, but we receive the entirely of salvation. We receive the grace of regeneration, becoming new creatures in Christ. We receive the grace of adoption, entering into the family of God. This is the grace to be right
We receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, poured into our lives to transform us from the inside out. We receive the grace of a freed will, that we no longer live in bondage to sin. We receive the grace of the church, the word, and the ordinances, that we are continually encouraged and nourished in Christ. We receive nothing less than God himself, al things pertaining to life and godliness, becoming partakers of the divine nature. We receive a hope that does not disappoint, a love that fulfills the law, and a grace that teaches us to say no to temptation. This is the grace to do right
Finally, counsellor David Seimens writes:
Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness and grace to other people … We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the gospel of grace has not penetrated our emotions.
Augustine defined this as “rest” - at the beginning of his “Confessions” he famously declares, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you. In the first half of his book he tesl the story of him first resisting, and then surrendering to God’s effacing grace, and in surrendering, finding peace. Martin Luther, on discovering the gospel of God’s grace, testified, “I felt that I was altogether born again.” William Tindale called it “merry and glad and joyful tidings, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance and let for joy.” this is the grace to feel right.
Oh soul are you weary and tired? Are you anxious and unsettled? Are you desperate to love and to be loved? Here Jesus’ promise: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Effacing grace alone is elevating grace. Would you receive grace today in your soul?