St. Paul underscores pure grace. This is a line that resonates with us Lutherans:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Where then do we acquire this notion that we must somehow earn God’s pleasure? It comes from the tension we experience, living between God’s law and God’s grace.
On the one hand we have God’s Law, the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are a social contract delivered by God to us. These are the things people do to live in harmony with each other and with God. I’ve heard them called the Ten Blessings, and so they are. Do them, and everything is cool. No problems or mess ups.
But on the other hand, we have the word of God’s grace through Jesus Christ:
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
If we can save ourselves following the commandments, what’s the point of having Jesus?
God’s grace amounts to nothing more than this: simple trust that God, working through Christ, forgives all transgressions of the law.
Okay, good. So where does the law fit?
And most of us live somewhere in the middle. Most of us would say that simple faith, simple trust, is not enough. Most of us would add a dash of law.
Researchers did a poll of Lutherans a some years ago, entitled a Study in Generations. Almost two-thirds of the Lutherans responding said: Something more than faith was necessary for salvation.
I suspect the figure would be about the same anywhere, even today. What is disturbing about that research is that it runs exactly opposite to what we think is Lutheran teaching.
This is the simple truth of the Gospel. “It is the gift of God, so that no one may boast.” That’s it. Period. End of discussion. It’s over and done with. Salvation is ours—and it is ours not for the asking; it is already given. You cannot “earn” a gift.
So, what’s left to do? Absolutely nothing; not a thing. This salvation thing we talk about? You have it already, every bit of it. You can’t get any more of it because God in Christ has given it all.
Of course, you might want to say “thank you.” You might want to take advantage of the gift and use it properly. You might.
Let’s go back to the law for a moment. What does the law do? The law is a stark, blunt, pointed reminder that we are sinners. In classical Lutheran teaching the law sends us back to Christ with a “thank you” in our hearts and upon our lips.
Here is Martin Luther on the subject, from his Lectures on Galatians:
The law is to terrify men and make them shy and despairing, especially rude and vulgar people, until they learn that they cannot do what the law demands nor achieve God’s favor.
This will make them despair of themselves—for they can never accomplish obtaining God’s favor by their efforts to keep the law.
And why not, I ask?
Because I cannot do the law consistently; not day to day nor hour to hour. If God kept a “favorable” vs. “negative” poll on me like Rasmussen does with Romney, I’d be up six points one day and down twenty the next. What I should pray is a prayer I once read:
Hello, God. I’ve done pretty well keeping all your commandments, and I’m sure when you look things over you’ll agree with me. I haven’t taken your name in vain and there’s not one idol in sight. I haven’t stolen anything, not even a postage stamp from work. I am not envious of anybody for anything. I haven’t defamed any neighbors or co-workers or any of the people I love. I have kept every one of your commandments, straight down the line and no quibbling about it, yes, sir.
But, listen, it’s morning and I’m going to get out of bed now . . . .
We do try, but we miss the mark, repeatedly. The Hebrew root word for “sin” carries the sense of an archer taking aim at a target, seeking the bull’s eye, aiming carefully, releasing the arrow, and despite all that skill and effort missing the target.
This is the way nearly all of us sin, and always have and always will.
This is why the Jerusalem Temple had an endless system of sacrifices for purification, for repentance, for forgiveness, endlessly repeated and endlessly necessary. Christians argue Christ put an end to all that. His sacrifice is our atonement, the only one we will ever need.
I want you to think of a family, no better, no worse than most. This family has children born to it from parents who wanted children. No one ever says to the children: If you want to be a member of this family you must clean the garage, weed the garden, clean the supper dishes—and if you don’t, you’ll be kicked out of the family.
No one ever says that because membership in this family is never based on doing chores. It is based on love, it is based on the fact that these parents wanted children, and for no other reason, they had children.
No one of us ever earned our way into a family, nor did we have to do certain things to remain in the family.
We can of course reject our family. But parents remain parents even when the garage isn’t cleaned, the weeds aren’t weeded and the supper dishes pile up to next week. The child may reject the family. But the family always remains with the child.
You were baptized into God’s family through Christ and in his family you will remain. God keeps his part of the bargain. As Scripture says: He is faithful even when we are faithless.
That’s the Gospel. We are his, always his, even when we don’t know, feel it, want it, or appreciate it—and even when we don’t act like it.
But with family comes responsibilities. Or better put, with family there is opportunity: To show gratitude and love and thankfulness for the gift—the unearned gift—of being family.
The weeds, the garage, the supper dishes—all these things get done because we are members of the family—and what were once chores now become acts of simple love and trust and devotion and dedication, acts of faith borne of God’s grace given through Christ. So St. Paul can add without any violation of the free gift of grace:
We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.