“Win $5,000 a week for life –OR— take $2,600,000 at once!” (Publisher’s Clearing House advertisement; http://www.pch.com/) Which one did you select? After all, you did get the letter, right? If you didn’t, then maybe you caught the television commercials. It’s good news! The Publisher’s Clearing House wants you to win lots of money!
That’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? Junk mail and television ads use big, bright red print: “FREE!”— and that magnificent word is almost automatically tossed aside. In America we have this saying: “Nothing is free.” You expect some catch, some condition that you must meet in order to get something— which then, in reality, no longer makes something truly “free.” Even television infomercials offer to double your purchase for “free.” Yet, you still have to pay an additional $10.00 for shipping and handling— hardly what I would call “free.”
So, when you hear: [I]t is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, there may be a part of you that leans forward, intently waiting: “and… what’s the catch? What do you expect me to do?”
God’s gift of complete forgiveness, wiping away every single guilty stain, may sound too good to be true. Standing on Scripture teaches you to Rely on Grace! Because grace is God’s saving gift and grace unleashes life to the fullest.
Look at our reading from Ephesians, chapter 2. Verses 4-5 define what “grace” means and how it looks. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
So, what does “grace” mean? God says it: his great love for us. In English we have only one word for love. You can say you “love” a hamburger, “love” your friend, and “love” your spouse. The way you are using the word “love” in each of those statements is a little different. So, you have to understand the context in order to know what type of “love” is being shown to a hamburger, your friend, and your spouse. The Greek language uses three different words for “love”— and this part of the Bible in written in Greek. One word for “love” is (1) eros [ἔρως]— a romantic love between husband and wife. Another word is (2) phileo [φιλέω]— a friendship love. The other word is (3) agape [ἀγάπη]— which describes loving someone even when they do not deserve it. So, when God says: “[I have] great love for you,” he is not describing a physical romantic attraction to you. He does not merely call himself your “friend.” He says: “You did not— and never did— deserve my affection. It was I who chose to love you first.” (1 John 4:19). That is grace. God chooses to love you, even when you (and I) gave him absolutely no reason to do so.
Sound too good be true? In America, nothing is “free;” you always expect some condition to good news. In our lives, love is never “free;” you always expect some condition for love. If you are nice to me, then I will be nice to you. If you give me some money, then I will consider you generous. If you are not nice to me, then I will be rude to you. If you are not generous, then I consider you stingy and greedy. So often we expect this condition for love: If you give me a reason, then I will love you.
How easily we can act as though God deals with us in this very same way! That God is looking for something from you in order for him to love you. Your mind cannot shake off the shame from years ago when you made yourself a fool in front of friends. Your secret was so well hidden, but then someone found out what you really daydream about— and you feel so horrible. Regret fills your heart— you could have been a father who was there for his kids, or a mother who showed more love, or a child who could have been more respectful. That guilt can absolutely crush you, and it can spontaneously haunt you— and, boy, how you want to make it go away.
So, you try to find a reason God should want to love you; you make love conditional. If you change your habits, then God will remove the rest of your guilt. If you convince yourself that you are not really all that shamefully bad, then God must think of you as good too! If you are an absent father or a overbearing mother, then make it up— be there for your adult children, love your grandchildren— and that must undo your past. If you give God a reason to love you, then he must love you!
A part of you may feel that grace is too good to be true— that God must love you because of something you have done. But that’s not true. God says: “You were dead in transgressions.” All people are born spiritually dead. Dead people cannot move. Spiritually dead people cannot earn or choose God’s love. They are lifeless. You and I are born without the ability or power to earn or choose God’s love.
And so, God chooses to deal with you in grace— love which you (and I) do not deserve! Verses 8-9 make that explicitly clear: 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. God chooses to have mercy on you. God has compassion and chooses to send his one and only Son into the world. God chooses to hang his perfect Son on the cross. God chooses to heap on Jesus the punishment for your shame, your foolish past, your failure to live up to your calling as father, mother, or child. Jesus is the One is not loved. He is the One forsaken by God. He is the One seized with physical pain— aching joints, nails piercing his hands, blood gushing out, lightheadedness, life draining out. Jesus is the proof of God’s undeserved love for you. Jesus takes what you (and I) deserve and removes your guilt from the sight of God.
Sound too good to be true? Yes, it does— but that’s why God calls it “grace.” He does not give you (and me) what we expect. In fact, God calls grace a gift! And you know what a gift is, right? After all, why do you receive presents for your birthday? Because you didn’t really do anything to deserve presents, right? You did not get a new dirt bike because you chose to be conceived (as though your family celebrates your decision to enter their life). A friend did not give you a new tablet because you picked the day you would enter this world. You did not receive a new Barbie doll because you behaved so well over the past year. So then, why do you get presents for your birthday? Because, in reality, you didn’t do anything to earn them.
That’s the point, right?! For something to truly be a “gift” it means you receive something without conditions attached. God hands you the perfect life of Jesus as a gift— no conditions, no strings attached!
When you worry about how you stand before God, Rely on Grace! God deals with you in love which you (and I) do not deserve. That is called “grace,” and It is God’s gift to you. And It unleashes life to the fullest.
Look at verses 6 and 7; see your past, your present, and your future. God raised [you] up with Christ. In the past— God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus lives anew— exalted above any earthly leader and any devilish enemy (Ephesians 1:20-21).
In the past— God raised you up out the waters of baptism— creating spiritual life in your heart, creating a new way of life for you. When you came to faith, God applies the saving work of Jesus to you specifically. You own it, you possess it, and you keep holding onto it. It’s similar to a high school diploma. You received it once. You still have it. You will always carry the title: “High-School-Graduate.” You came to faith. You still have faith. With faith in your heart, you will carry the title: “Believer.” What was started so long ago has given you this new life as a child belonging to God.
And as if that’s not enough, God seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. Notice that verb: He seated you. Past tense, the action’s already done. Isn’t that amazing? In God’s eyes you living with him in heaven is already a completed fact; it’s as good as done. God already looks to the future and sees you seated around banquet table in heaven! You have this privilege because of God’s grace.
And as if that’s enough, verse 7 says: in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. In the coming ages-- that can refer to two different time-eras, but the understanding remains the same. (1) It can refer to the very moment Jesus burst out of the Easter-day-tomb. Everyone from Easter day to the end of time are able to see how high and deep and wide and long God’s love is. Isn’t that true?
You and I living in 2017 still recognize just how powerful God’s grace is. Even though Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, he still wipes clean your slate against him. Nowhere does he say: “I’m done with you. You have sinned too much. Stop coming to church. Stop bringing your confession to me. I don’t want it.” He does not treat you in this way. God says: “My grace hasn’t worn out over the past 2,000 years.” God continually puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “I can do more than you have ever done against me.” No matter how horrific your act, no matter how shameful your secret, no matter what pet sin you keep stumbling into, God still showers you with the incomparable riches of forgiveness.
Those coming ages (2) could refer to the moment you come to faith— from that point to the ages to come, to the years ahead in your life— you still see God’s grace. God does not treat you and me as our sins deserve. If you and I received what we deserved, then life would literally be hell on earth. Yet, God still forgives you— every single day. You do not have to fear that your hospital stay came as a result of something you did. Your car did not break down because God is angry at you. He does not seek revenge for your foolishness. God allows you to sit and stand in his presence today and hear of his love for you. He is not an adversary, he’s not a mean foe, he’s your heavenly Father. Grace unleashes a new way of life—a life without fear or distress, a life confident of how God sees you!
Being “Lutheran” means you Rely on Grace. Nowhere does God teach that you must earn his love. Nowhere does God teach that you must choose to bring his love in your heart. You and I contribute nothing because Jesus has done all of it.
God chooses to give you Jesus. God chooses to use Jesus to wipe your heart clean from guilt. God chooses to give you eternal life as a free gift— no conditions attached! The more you recognize that you cannot save yourself, the more you treasure just how much God has loved you.
Sound too good to be true? Yes! Yes, it does! …But that is why God calls it “grace.” God deals with you in undeserved love. Rely on Grace! Because grace is God’s saving gift and grace unleashes life to the fullest.