October 15, 2017
William G. Carter
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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 that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Not so long ago, in November 1999, something extraordinary happened. The Lutherans and the Roman Catholics made up. I don’t know if there were formal apologies, or if there were official confessions of sin, but I do know that the two parties agreed on a matter that once splintered the church.
They made this statement: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to do good works.” It only took 482 years to agree on this and make it official, and only seven more years for the World Methodist Conference to agree. Nothing happens quickly in the church, but when it does, it’s pretty big.
“By grace alone…” In 1517, those were fighting words. At that point, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk teaching at the University of Wittenberg. He had been raised in the church, the one church, and the church had warned him that he was never going to be good enough to get into heaven. Not directly at least, and not without thousands of years in purgatory to first burn away his sins.
This was the prevailing message of the medieval church – that you’re not good enough – and the Roman church had used that message to its own benefit. If the Christians aren’t good enough, than they need to go to church more. If the Christians aren’t good enough, than they need to work harder, repent more deeply, give more generously, and obey whatever the medieval church tells them to do and believe.
Brother Luther was a sensitive soul and took the message to heart. In the monastery, he exceeded all the others with his piety and zeal. He would spend as much as six hours a day in confession, scraping away the defenses in his soul, to tell his confessor what a terrible person he was. He was a monk in a severe monastery – and he was spending all that time confessing his sins. Makes you wonder what he actually did in his spare time, or at least what he imagined he was doing.
Spiritually speaking, there was no way. He was stuck. Life was hard, purgatory was going to be harder, and heaven was only a dim gleam, to be accessed only by confessing all his sins all the time. It was all pretty grim. Sometimes he would finish a marathon session of telling the priest his sins, doing the penance, and then returning a few minutes later to start all over again because he had remembered a few more.
As I mentioned last week, he was nudged out of his self-mortification when the monastery sent him into the classroom. As he began to teach the Bible, he made many powerful discoveries. (This is how it is when we teach the Bible, you know: the teacher learns a lot!) And one of the central discoveries was this: the Christian church tends to add a lot more layers of complexity to the simple grace of God. Sometimes we have to scrape away the extra stuff – the demands, the obligations, the requirements – to simply hear anew that God comes to rescue us in Christ, that God comes to save us from our worst impulses and darkest inclinations.
Our text from the second chapter of Ephesians is one of the most succinct descriptions of this saving activity of grace. We were lost, but then God found us, blind until Christ turned on the lights and gave us the gift of sight. We have been rescued, not because we are worthy, but because the Rescuer loves us.
This is how the letter to the Ephesians describes what has happened. Sin was taking the life out of us until God came and interrupted the destruction. We were following the passions of our five senses, captive to our own desires and addictions, and then God comes and retrieves us.
As Ephesians will go on to say, we were divided among ourselves – Jew against Gentile, sister against brother, neighbor against neighbor – the only thing we could agree upon was turning away from God – and then Christ came, and took all the warring factions upon himself. Now Christ is our peace.
The effects of the rescue are threefold: God made us alive together with Christ, raised us up with Christ, and seated us with him in the heavenly places. With, with, with – salvation is a restoration of union. Whatever the previous estrangement, whatever the hidden or obvious separation from Christ, now all has been restored. The hard labor has been done by God.
It’s pure gift, a gift that comes from God’s kindness. In every sense, it is a gift of being raised from the dead, which is why one scholar calls this section of Ephesians, “Salvation by Resurrection” (Markus Barth).
But in October 1517, these were debatable words. Martin Luther had been teaching the Bible at the Wittenberg, and the teaching experience had clarified his vision. He saw how much the church had added to the simple gift of God’s grace.
Chief among the additions was the selling of indulgences, as championed by a Dominican named Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel made his way around Germany, declaring that he had certificates of forgiveness for sale. The practice was sanctioned by Rome, and had become a considerable fund-raising scheme.
From Tetzel and his ilk, you could purchase these certificates that announced that God would shave some time off your millennium in purgatory, or that your deceased loved ones wouldn’t have to spend so long in afterlife torment. Conceivably, if you planned to take part in some licentious activity on Saturday night, you could get a certificate on Friday to declare you were forgiven in advance. All for a price, of course.
Luther was furious at the practice. He had seen some of the corruption of the church, a corruption which is part of every organization that has people in it. He knew first hand that there are power plays, that every leader is tempted by the power of their office. So he nailed 95 complaints to the door of the university church, in an attempt to correct what he saw as an abuse of power and a distortion of the Gospel.
The Gospel is clear: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So let’s talk about grace a little bit. What’s so amazing about grace?
In a recent book, Eugene Peterson asked, “What is it? What does it consist of?” He noted, “Grace is an insubstantial, invisible reality that permeates all that we are, think, speak, and do. But we are not used to this. We are not used to living by invisibles.” Then he found a metaphor: it’s like swimming in water.
If you look at water, if you pass your hand through water, you can see it’s not going to hold anybody up. But swimmers know if they relax on the water, it will prove to be miraculously buoyant. And if they make a succession of little strokes in the water, they will begin to make some progress. It can’t be hurried. You have to trust the water. It only makes sense if you get into the water, rather than remain fearful on the bank of the river.
Grace is not what we do; it’s what we participate in. As he notes, “But we cannot participate apart from a willed passivity, entering into and giving ourselves up to what is previous to us, the presence and action of God in Christ that is other than us. Such passivity does not come easy to us. It must be acquired.”
He goes on:
In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace – a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lives) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace.
It is grace that saves us, the grace of God that declares acceptable what is otherwise unacceptable. “This is not your own doing,” says Ephesians. “It is the work of God,” the hard work of Christ bearing all sin on the cross, the hard work of raising to life what was dead, the hard work of winning over God’s beloved children who think that if only they work harder and obsess a bit more, they will earn the love of God.
Grace says, “Give it up. You are already loved and forgiven.”
So Martin Luther shares his own story, and writes:
So Martin Luther shares his own story, and writes:
Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I had pleased him with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who actually loathed him. I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monastic discipline, I was that monk. All my companions in the monastery would confirm this. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.”
It was only when he heard the Gospel anew, “by grace you have been saved,” that he knew the one thing greater than our goodness is the goodness of God, the God who accomplishes what we cannot, the God who rescues us from our addiction to self-destruction, the God who declares, “You are mine; I have bought you at a price.”
Before he died a couple of years ago my dad was a high achievement individual. You might imagine my surprise one night when he told me on the phone that he had started meeting with a spiritual director. It was astonishing for an engineer for whom everything was quantifiable to begin exploring the mysteries of divine love. But I suppose that work is waiting for all of us to undertake, sooner or later.
So every Thursday night, when Mom went to church choir practice, Dad met with a retired Presbyterian minister named Vince. Vince had been a high achievement person too. For many years, he served with distinction as the pastor of a nearby church full of IBM engineers, and it was a good fit.
But he had some bumps too. A hidden bout with alcoholism prompted him to retire early and move to a small cottage on the edge of my hometown. He had gone to rehab, gone to AA, and gotten his life together. One day, in a chance conversation with my Dad, he enquired if Dad would like to get together and talk about spiritual matters. So they did.
At the time my dad had gotten quite involved with the local Presbyterian leadership and was elected to serve as the moderator of his Presbytery. He took along all his concerns and questions for those spiritual conversations. He would say, “Vince, what about this? Or what about that?” Vince would listen, pause, and smile. And then Vince would say, “Glenn, it's all about grace. It's only about grace.”
I'm sure my Dad pushed back; in fact I am certain of it. And he would say, “Yeah, Vince, but what about this matter? And what about this other matter?” He would fuss a bit. Again Vince would wait him out, smile, and say, “Glenn, it's all about grace. It's only about grace.” And Vince kept repeating his hard-won statements to the point that my Dad began to repeat them for himself. And I can't tell you how grateful I am for that lesson.
So let me remind us of the words that started a Reformation in the church, words that Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and all the rest of the Christians can affirm: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to do good works.”
It’s all about grace. It’s only about grace.
 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” November 1999
 Romans 2:4, 11:22; Titus 3:4
 Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010) pp. 94-96
 Quoted in Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) 276.