Reformation at 500: Grace Alone, Faith Alone

What we would like to have is a guarantee: something in writing, preferably, with full assurances. A baseline, a foundation we can build on because we know it will never go away. Something set in stone. What we would like to have is the full knowledge that things could not be different, that there is no other possibility than the reality we have right now. And if we don’t see that foundation, if we have trouble finding it, or if someone points it out to us and things look a little wobbly, we start to build that foundation for ourselves. If God won’t give us the foundation we think we need, the sure footing we want for our salvation, then we will make our own, by the works of our hands. Yet at the heart of the gospel, at the heart of our salvation, lies this precious word: grace. And grace means that things could have been different, that the way things are right now is not the way things must be. Grace means that the guarantees, the foundations we want, need to be thrown out the window.

Oh, we sentimentalize the heck out of grace most of the time. In our hands, grace becomes a warm, soft feeling, like a ray of sunshine on a cool fall afternoon. When we talk about grace, we tend to mean that God is pleasant and mostly harmless. But we sentimentalize, I suspect, because deep down we find real grace scary. In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us we are saved by grace, “the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” That’s scary to us. We want to boast. We want to be able to point to something strong, tangible, obvious. We want to say, “Look at that: I did that, you can’t deny it, so that’s my ticket, that’s how I know I’m getting what’s mine. I earned it; I deserve it after all I’ve done.”

You see, we know how unreliable a gift can be. A gift is not earned, so it can be taken away. If, out of my generosity, I give you a fancy car that you did not pay for, you can drive around in it, you can enjoy it, you can take it home—but you know, or you should know, that there’s nothing keeping you in that car except my generosity. You haven’t earned it; it was given to you.

Of course, the gift God gives us is far greater than any car, or anything else you and I could give each other. God’s gift to us, grace, is that we have been made alive in Christ. You and I once were dead, through sin, but we have been made alive in Christ. Nothing is more precious, nothing is more valuable. The gift, the grace, exceeds everything we could ever imagine. But since it’s a gift, it also means we have no claim on God. We didn’t earn it, God wasn’t required to give it to us, and the only thing keeping us alive in Christ is God’s generosity, God’s love for us. That is grace, real grace. And it’s scary: what if God changes his mind? What if we do something that makes God regret his grace? In our human world, our fallen human world, the possibility of losing something always accompanies anything we haven’t earned. When we’ve earned it, we can go to court, stand before the judge, and demand we get our due. But when it’s a gift, when it’s grace, we have nowhere else to turn.

So sometimes, feeling like we’re standing on a precipice, at the edge of a cliff from which we could fall at any moment, we start building our own foundations. These are works, things we do to try to earn what has been given to us, things we do to earn the grace we’ve been given. Of course, grace can never be earned, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. We become do-gooders, building up impressive resumes of working in the church kitchen, or holding back from some mean remark about a person we dislike, or wagging our fingers in disapproval at the moral indiscretions of those around us. The things we do become a sort of insurance policy: God says he saves us by grace, but we keep track of what we’ve done just in case there’s some doubt, just in case we need to prove that we earned the grace we’ve been given.

But nothing is more certain than God’s grace. That’s the irony, the sad irony of sentimental grace and our list of good deeds. God did not save us in order to be nice to us. And there was no requirement for God to save you or me. In fact, there was no requirement for God to create this world, the universe we inhabit, in the first place. There is nothing forcing God’s hand; there is no claim that we have, no way for us to say, I earned this, God, you must give it to me. All is grace; it is grace, God’s grace, all the way down. God, though, is not like us. There will never be a day when God turns to us and says, Just kidding: you need to start earning your keep around here.

Why? Why won’t God pull back his grace? The answer is: Jesus Christ. Grace does not just mean that we haven’t earned a thing in God’s sight. Grace also means that everything we have has come at God’s expense. At the beginning of Ephesians 2 Paul describes a world of death, a world in which “life” is a shadow of sin, trespasses, wrongheaded passions, and foolhardy desires. In Jesus Christ God enters this world, plows headfirst into our deathly existence, and suffers death himself, without changing. That act of self-giving, for us and for our salvation, is grace. Grace explodes the bonds of death. Grace breathes new life into us, raises us in Christ. We can’t earn it, we can’t boast about what we’ve done to get it, but we can trust. This is the response of faith: trusting that God’s grace is sufficient, seeing grace as the only foundation we need. By grace we are alive in Christ, alive to a life of faith.

Faith, trust, seeing God’s grace, doesn’t take the place of God’s grace: all is grace, God’s grace. Faith doesn’t earn our way into God’s good favor any more than good works merit our salvation. In our reading from Genesis 15, we heard that Abraham “believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The Lord could have reckoned Abraham’s belief, trust, faith, as foolishness or as untrustworthy itself, but God instead reckons Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Grace. Grace, because everything we do, even the trust we have, we only have because of grace: God in Jesus Christ, giving himself so that we may be alive in Christ.

As Paul says in Ephesians 2, we believe that salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone. We are alive in Christ because Christ is alive. We can trust God to save us, because Christ trusted God all the way to the cross. But salvation is not a check box: saved, unsaved, you pick. Salvation is life, life in Christ Jesus. We are not dead, even though we often live as if we were. We are alive, and the life we live now is our salvation. Not all of it, of course: the promise is that salvation now is a taste of the eternal salvation that awaits us. But we are alive now, here, as the body of Christ.

And living bodies do not sit idle. They do not lie around doing nothing. We are not corpses; we are living beings. And the expectation is that, while we live by grace, we are to live. God’s grace does not just come to us in a neat package to sit on our shelf. Grace empowers us to live, to be alive in Christ Jesus. So we are always doing, we are always working in the church kitchen, or refraining from an unkind word, or refusing the disorder of sin that surrounds us. That is life in Christ, and we have been saved by grace alone through faith alone so that we may live in Christ alone. It could have been otherwise, but it was not. Grace, real grace, is here for you today. Receive God’s grace by faith. Come alive! There is no other way!

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