September begins with Labor Day. This year it is the first of September, other years it is another number, but it is always the first Monday in the month, so it has to begin with day numbered less than eight.
The reason I bring it up is that Labor Day makes one think of work, and thinking of work always turns my mind to the grace of God. I think of the discussion of the Apostle Paul about grace and works - or rather, grace or works.
It is pretty simple, isn't it? Either your salvation is by the grace of God or is earned, accomplished in some way by your works. It is an either/or, something akin to a light switch, on or off. I just replaced a light switch, and I guess even they are not always that simple. The issue of works or grace is certainly not.
Actually, the issue is that simple, but religious men have been wrestling with it since the beginning of time, and trying to make it something more complex, or trying to find a way to turn God's grace into some sort of a reward. It has to do with the human ego under sin (which is, let's face it, the only way we have ever known any human ego). People want to be able to claim the credit for their salvation. They may put that another way, but it comes back to wanting to have something to say about their own salvation besides, "Thank you, Lord!"
Some people don't like the idea of taking charity. The gift of God is just too much like charity for them. Others want to be able to be certain of their salvation, by which they mean they want to know what it is that they must do to earn eternal life, so they can go out and do it and know without a shadow of a doubt that they have done that thing that needs doing to go to heaven. Still others cannot believe it is God's free gift. It sounds way too easy, and they know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is always a price to be paid somewhere, somehow.
Of course, most people today don't actually believe in heaven or hell, except, perhaps, when Aunt Sally dies, and they have to deal with the issue of what about Sally now? Most people, including most of the "Christians" I have met, live by the motto, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die," reflecting the unrepentant attitude of Jerusalem in Isaiah 22:13. Pagans — what most of you probably call "unbelievers" — don't necessarily believe in anything. The don't really believe in God. They don't consciously expect a judgement at the end of their lives. What the unbeliever believes doesn't really matter because they are without God and without hope in their unbelief, no matter what their opinion of it is. This discussion is among that minority of people who know Christ and have heard the Gospel, and actually think about these issues now and then.
Most of them believe that they are somehow responsible for their spiritual and eternal destiny. Some have works you must perform to get to go to heaven. Some have works you must perform if you have been given the "gift" of going to heaven, or you will lose that gift. Many believe that since God commands us to believe and tells us what sort of life is pleasing in His sight, they not only can actually live that life out, but they must. Others reduce the requirements of salvation to a bare minimum, a prayer or a decision or an experience of spiritual bliss or enlightenment.
What they consistently overlook is the simple equation of Paul in Romans, it is either grace or works, not both. If it is a gift, you don't do anything to earn or deserve it. What you earn is called a wage. It doesn't matter how cheaply one earns it, or if the cost is great. If you do something to deserve it, or to continue to deserve it, you are earning it.
Look at it this way, if Jesus has done everything that anyone needs to be saved (which He has), and all that is required of you is this little thing, that little thing is what saved you. Your work in the form of the deed, or prayer or decision or whatever is what saved you. The difference between the elect (chosen ones) and the reprobate (those who have no hope) is in what the elect did, said, prayed, decided or whatever. Jesus leveled the playing field for everyone, so the thing that saves anyone, in this way of thinking, boils down to what those who are saved have done to get into that condition. It is a wage - a huge wage for a little thing, it is true, but still a wage. Works save.
The grace of God is that completely undeserved favor (favoritism, if you will) in the mind of God towards us sinful creatures on account of Christ and what He did for us and earned for us and won for us. We are God's favorite people, the people of His favor. God is truly on our side, just not necessarily for football, or for getting rich, or finding pleasure, or being healthy. Just about forgiveness and resurrection from the dead and living eternally with Him in glory. He has chosen us from the foundation of the world to be with Him forever, and to do the works which He would have us to do in eternity - and also in time, here and now.
But the works are the result and consequence of salvation, not the cause or prior condition required. Paul makes that point too, in Ephesians 2:10, "for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." The word "should" in there does not mean that we ought to do them, but that we will because that was the purpose, or one of the purposes, of God creating us in Christ Jesus, which He does through Word and Sacrament.
The grace of God is that He rescued us, each sinful and totally unworthy of such a good thing, by sending His Son to keep the Law for us and in our place, and then to die for us and in our place the death we have actually earned and deserved by our sin - both the condition with which we are infected and the actual thoughts, words, and deeds that we have dome and still do. God then did what He had to do to tell us what He had done, to pour out the riches of His grace - the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of resurrection and of eternal life, and His abiding love - through the Word of His grace, and by means of the Sacraments.
Even better, He poured out Himself, His Holy Spirit, to enter us and dwell in us and stay with us, and to intercede on our behalf for every blessing we need so that we do not finally come up short of the glory for which God has chosen us and worked in us.
And He chose us before He began to create the world. Once it entered the mind of God to create, He saw it all from eternity, and chose us to be His own, His portion for eternity. He has managed all of human history so that each one of us individually would be brought to faith, carried to the font, and preserved by His grace through the Holy Supper and taught the nature and reality of His grace by preaching and the work of His Spirit.
The grace of God in our salvation is so huge and complex and wonderful beyond our ability to sense the wonder of it that we cannot imagine it. We just need to believe it. I say "need" in the sense that comprehending it is beyond our powers so the only real way to deal with the grace of God is faith - taking God at His Word and trusting Him to keep His promises even when it doesn't make sense and seems so undeserved and overwhelming, simply because He said so.
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
It is the magnitude of the grace of God that tempts men and women to find some other explanation. They want something that makes sense to them. They insist that God, as they understand Him, would not tell us something we cannot reason out, or give us something to do that we are incapable of doing by nature. I would respond that any God that fits into my ability to reason out and comprehend is a very un-godlike God. He planned the world, then built it and everything in it. We have six thousand years of mankind trying to figure out what God did and how He does it, and we are still learning new things every day, and we are supposed to comprehend Him and His ways in our salvation? That does not seem realistic.
Besides, God tells us in His Word that He gave us the law so that we would fail to keep it and thereby learn that we are sinful by nature and in desperate need of being rescued and saved from ourselves and our own weakness and inability and wickedness. The notion that God would not command it if we were not capable of doing what He commands is contradicted by God Himself. He commands to teach us humility. He pours out His grace to give us life and salvation.
Take any hero of the faith in the Bible for an illustration. Adam and Eve destroyed the sinless perfection of God's creation, so God promised them a Savior. Noah alone was righteous in his day, so God floated the boat, and righteous Noah got totally stupid drunk once the boat landed and he could grow some grapes. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he lied about his wife to save his skin, and slept with her maid to help God keep His promise, and tried to make Ishmael his heir. He did impressive acts of faith, too, but he was not consistently holy or remarkable.
Moses saw the burning bush and heard the voice of God and faced His glory in such a way that his own face glowed with the afterglow, but he didn't trust God after all he had seen, and speak to the rock. No, he had to hit it. Sampson had miraculous powers, but could not keep himself in line, doing foolish things in anger, and even dumber things in lust. David took another man's wife and then murdered the man, and yet God spoke forgiveness to Him through Nathan the prophet, and kept His promise to raise up a descendent of David to sit on His throne forever, and to be our Savior.
It was not their weaknesses and failings which made these men heroes of the faith, but faith itself. These weak and failing men were chosen by God, and beloved of Him. They were saved by grace, and not on account of their works. In spite of their sins, clear enough to us today, these men are in the catalog of faith in Hebrews, claimed by God as among His holy ones.
Like us, they were not holy in all their behavior, but holy by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, and blessed because of that righteousness. Their failings and sins can bring us comfort in the throws of the assaults of the devil, when he tempts us with out own sin and guilt to doubt the grace and love of God. If these great heroes were also sinners and weak at times, and still remain among the great men of faith, then we can trust God to also keep His promises to us and count us righteous by faith for Christ's sake.
After all, few of us, if any, have seen the great power of God as many of them experienced. Most of us cannot boast of the same sorts of sins either. It is not that we are better, or lesser sinners, just that we have not had the blinding visions that they had (or real experiences) and have done our sinning in much less public and dramatic ways than at least some of them. But like Paul, we still must confess ourselves to be chief of sinners, no better than they and no more deserving to God's love and goodness.
And yet, the Gospel tells us that Christ is our hope, our righteousness, and our life. When we face the call of God to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be counted with Christ as righteous just as He chose to be counted in our place as sinful, and so faced the wrath and judgment of His Father for what we are and what we have done precisely so that we will not.
Those who insist that they must have a place, a role, and their works must come before God, will actually get their wish, just not as they expect. Their works, not Christ's, is the standard they demand, and they will face that accounting, standing among the ones Jesus likened to goats. They will be confused and demand an answer, as Jesus said they would, as to why they are among the lost and when they failed to do the Lord's bidding. And He will answer them.
Their mistake is not the things they did, or even the things they failed to do. Their fault will be denying the grace of God and refusing to believe what God said so plainly, "It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." Grace or works? It must be one or the other. Go with grace.
Yours in the Lord,
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