Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ; Matthew 22:34-46
Today is a special Sunday in the history of our church – the church in general, not this specific church. Today is the day that we celebrate Reformation Sunday. The Reformation didn't actually start until October 31, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door on the Wittenberg chapel. But we celebrate it on the Sunday closest to the 31st that is before it (because the following Sunday is All Saints Sunday.)
His propositions sparked a debate that eventually gave us five key Reformation doctrines, which are usually referred to by their Latin names. Since I've been with you for a number of years, you've heard all of these before. Sola Scriptura, which is Scripture alone; Solus Christus, which is Christ alone; Sola Gratia, which is grace alone, and we'll be talking about that today; Sola Fide, which is faith alone; and Soli Deo Gloria, which is for God's glory alone.
As I noted, we are going to examine “Grace Alone.” The passage in Ephesians that was read today, I can't help but believe, served as part of the foundation for the Reformation, since it speaks of this directly. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
It speaks there of grace alone: by grace alone, through faith alone, and that coming through Jesus Christ alone. In his book Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters, author Carl Truman wrote:
The language of grace so permeates the Bible and all traditions of Christian theology that to claim that salvation is by grace alone is, in itself, to claim very little at all. It does not distinguish Augustine from Pelagius, Thomas Aquinas from Gabriel Biel, Martin Luther from Desiderius Erasmus, or William Perkins from James Arminius. What distinguishes them is how grace is understood. There is therefore a need for definition, lest grace become merely an empty piece of theological rhetoric. Indeed, unlike “faith alone,” “grace alone” as a simple phrase is unlikely to provoke much controversy among anyone who claims the name Christian.
So it's not just saying “grace alone.” We have to understand what that implies and how it's to be understood. J.I. Packer defines the grace of God as “love freely shown toward guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity and had no reason to expect anything but severity.”
When looking at God, I tend a couple grace and mercy. Mercy is not getting what you do deserve. Grace is getting what you don't deserve – a benefit that you don't deserve, a blessing that you don't deserve. God's grace is given to us when we do not deserve it. We can't earn it. We don't do anything that would allow us to say, “It's mine by right.” Because we have no rights before God. He created us and we are His. God's grace is His love freely shown towards us, contrary to our merit and indeed in contrast to our demerit.
The Reformation helps us understand that each one of us is a sinner. Rightly does the Bible say in Romans 3, part of the infamous – or famous, depending on how you look at it – “Romans Road: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Then in 3:23 it says, “Therefore all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Thus the only way any person is saved is by the unmerited grace of God.
God, by His grace, alone saves sinners. By the way, the unlimited grace of God is part of the U of Calvin's TULIP. There's another Reformation thing, that concept, that you can feel free to ask about at some point. TULIP – it's an acronym, where each letter stands for something.
Augustus Toplady’s hymn “Rock of Ages,” I think, captures beautifully the truth that we are saved by God’s grace alone:
Not the labor of
Can fulfill the law’s demands,
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring:
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Vile, I to the fountain fly:
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
As I read to you, in verse 8, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved,” and we need to understand what that is, as unmerited favor. “God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Paul's overarching point is that grace is an absolutely free gift. That's why he emphasizes that this is not of your doing. It is the gift of God.
Can you see that salvation is completely a free gift? We should never feel ourselves to be worthy of salvation. If we do, we do not understand grace. And I think that this is important for us in having a proper attitude toward God.
Everybody – well, maybe not everybody – but a lot of pastors like to talk about an “attitude of gratitude.” We want to have thankful hearts, Paul tells us. Why? Because God has given us what we do not deserve and cannot earn. Kent Hughes illustrates this truth with the following story:
A large prestigious church had three mission churches under its care. On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the big city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions – thieves, burglars, and so on – but all knelt side by side at the Communion rail.
On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England – the very judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and become a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict, neither one seemed to be aware of the other.
After the service, the judge was walking out with the pastor and said to him, “Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning?” The pastor replied, “Yes, but I didn’t know that you noticed.” The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, “What a miracle of grace.” The pastor nodded in agreement. “Yes, what a marvelous miracle of grace.”
Then the judge said, “But to whom do you refer?” And the pastor said, “Why, to the conversion of that convict.” The judge said, “But I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself.” The pastor, surprised, replied: “You were thinking of yourself? I don’t understand.” “Yes,” the judge replied, “it was natural for the burglar to receive God’s grace when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Savior he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help.
“But look at me. I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, to go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, it was God’s grace that drew me; it was God’s grace that opened my heart to receive it. I’m a greater miracle of his grace.”
He was saying something much like Jesus had said to the Pharisees. He was a greater miracle because, by everything that we hold standard in the world, he really didn't need it. He didn't need salvation. He was a good man. But by God's grace, he realized that wasn't enough.
Whether we were churched or criminals, educated or an educated, wealthy or poor, we are all dead in our trespasses and sins, and in desperate need of God's grace. And that faith that saves us is not mere temporal faith. That is, saving faith is not trusting God for temporary crises, such as financial, family, or physical needs.
You know, sometimes people bargain with God, when they really need or want something from Him, but that is not saving faith. I like to say that God is not some vending machine where you put in your proper prayers and then you pull the button on what it is that you want. That's not faith. That's treating God like a tool, not as your sovereign.
So what is saving faith? Saving faith is trusting in Christ alone for the gift of eternal life. It means resting in Christ and what He has done to save you. Saving faith, as Acts 16 says, is to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” It's to understand that it's not by works, as Paul says in this passage, but only by the action of God.
Just about every other religion and every philosophy in the world, except Christianity, teaches that salvation is achieved by works. You have to do a number of things to appease God, or do a number of things to reach nirvana, or do a number of things to go up in the next cycle of reincarnation. You have to act in certain ways and do certain things and follow certain prayers and patterns.
And they don't do it out of thankfulness for what God has done. They do it so that they can achieve, on their own, basically, the next level. And the god (or gods) is the ones that set up the system, but they're not necessarily involved. Only Christianity speaks of grace alone being the method of our salvation. It sets us apart from all other things.
And I really don't know about you, but I find that very comforting. Because frankly, I can't do it. I can't be perfect. I can't even keep my New Year's resolutions. I keep them so poorly that I finally gave up doing them. And sometimes I can't even keep that resolution, and I try to make one anyway, which I then fail. So many promises to myself. So many promises to God. Yet I can't follow through, or I don't follow through.
But thankfully my salvation, and your salvation, is not dependent on that. It's dependent on the actions and the worth of Jesus Christ. He was perfect. He did follow through. He did finish the tasks, before ascending to heaven and giving us the task, as the church, to continue his work here on earth, sharing the message and the good news that by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, we shall be saved. And we will be able to go to heaven and spend eternity with Him, and celebrate there, and even celebrate here on earth, as we experience the blessings of God with a thankful, grateful heart. May you know that joy, that comfort, and that assurance.
There's another hymn that I want to mention, in part because of the name of the author. His name was Horatio Bonar, and he wrote these words:
Not what my hands
Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears
Can bear my awful load.
Thy work alone, O Christ,
Can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God,
Not mine, O Lord to thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest
And set my spirit free.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy pow’r alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other work, save thine,
No other blood will do;
No strength, save that which is divine,
Can bear me safely through.
May you know the peace and joy of God that will bear you through all of this world's trials and tribulations. And may you keep the joy of salvation, knowing that it is a gift from God.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.