Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 23, 2009

Sermon on Ephesians 2:4-10

BY GRACE ALONE — MORE THAN A MOTTO

Text: Ephesians 2:4-10

Introduction

If you visit the campus of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin, you will notice the cornerstone outside the main classroom building.  Three Latin phrases are engraved on one side of the cornerstone, and they are well-known phrases among Lutherans: sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), and sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone).  It’s no mistake that the theological foundation for the Lutheran church is engraved in the cornerstone of our synod’s seminary.  Our Christian faith can be summarized nicely by those phrases: We are saved purely by the grace of God, which is ours only through faith in Christ, and that faith comes to us solely through the message of Christ in the Scriptures.

By grace alone.  By faith alone.  By Scripture alone.  Lutherans know those phrases well.  The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt.  We read those truths in Scripture, we learn about them in Bible classes and youth Catechism instruction and adult membership courses, we hear them preached from the pulpit on a regular basis…and they start to seem sort of stale.

The readings for today’s service, and especially the Second Lesson, emphasize the first of those key Lutheran phrases: sola gratia, by grace alone.  And even though we are prone to take God’s grace for granted or treat it like yesterday’s news, it is anything but yesterday’s news or something that we should take for granted.  To rekindle our appreciation for this key, central truth of our faith, let’s take a careful look at the words St. Paul wrote in today’s Second Lesson.  As we do that, I hope that we will be led to a newfound appreciation for the grace of God.  I hope that we will realize that “by grace alone” is so much more than a mere motto.  God’s grace has given us spiritual life from start to finish.  That’s why “by grace alone” is more than a motto.

I.

Several days ago I went for a bike ride on the trail along the Crystal Springs reservoir.  I loaded my bicycle on the back of my car, brought along my portable CD player, parked, unloaded the bike, started riding — and then discovered that my CD player wasn’t working.  The batteries were dead.  I like to listen to something to keep my mind occupied when I go for a ride, but dead batteries don’t help a whole lot.

I suppose we could compare our natural spiritual condition to a dead battery.  In fact, we start off worse than that.  We come out of the womb spiritually dead, lifeless, and useless.  A dead battery once had some life in it, but you and I have no spiritual life or value within us when we come into this world.  Paul makes that point in the verses just before our reading.  But at the start of our reading he shows us how God himself has changed our dead, useless condition.  “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.”

“Grace” is a word we can take for granted.  So are the words “love” and “mercy.”  Verse four talks about God’s “great love for us” and that God is “rich in mercy” toward us.  Let’s clarify those terms.  The love of God is something that is entirely in him.  He planned the way to remove us from our own sinful mess purely because of the love he has for souls, not because we had anything praiseworthy in us.  But mercy is the love that God has for us because of something he sees in us.  God has had mercy on us not because of anything good in us, but because he sees that we are spiritually lost and helpless without him.

So what did God’s great love and rich mercy lead him to do?  “[He] made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”  Notice that Paul does not say that God made us alive when we tried our best.  Paul does not write that God made us alive because he saw our good intentions.  No, God made dead souls alive, and he did this “with Christ.”  The particular Greek word Paul used shows that the way God made us spiritually alive was entirely attached to Jesus.  It couldn’t have happened any other way.  And that sheds light on what grace means.  God didn’t do all these spiritual favors for us because of something favorable within us.  Dead souls and rotting spirits have nothing to offer the Lord!  But God’s grace, his undeserved love, came to us and through Christ’s gospel injected life into our previously dead hearts.

Now let’s jump down to verses eight and nine where Paul takes up the “grace” theme again.  “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.”  Many of you have memorized those two verses.  If you don’t know them by heart, it’s certainly worth committing it to memory.  But this is another case where familiarity breeds contempt.  Do we really grasp and appreciate everything Paul says here?

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”  God redeemed the world from sin at Calvary’s cross.  But that redemption only becomes yours “through faith.”  This is the point where many Christians today like to take a little bit of credit.  “Maybe I can’t earn my spot in heaven, but at least I can choose to believe in Jesus, right?”  Wrong!  The way Paul writes the next phrase in the Greek language makes it clear that grace is a “package deal.”  We don’t earn our way to heaven, and we don’t even choose Jesus for ourselves.  Even our faith is God’s work.  “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this” (grace and faith are) “not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Sola gratia.  By grace alone.  It’s a familiar motto in the Lutheran church.  But if we stop and meditate on God’s Word this morning, it’s so much more than a motto.  God’s grace, and his grace alone, has made us spiritually alive.  God’s grace sent Jesus to the cross, carrying our sin and shame and washing it away in his blood.  And God’s not only raised Jesus from the dead for us, but God’s grace also raised us to spiritual life with Jesus.  God’s grace is more than a term or a motto, it’s an incredible reality that you and I have been brought into his family and been given spiritual life and forgiveness through Jesus.  That’s what grace is all about.

II.

When I was a young child, I remember an occasion when my father spoke to me about not talking to strangers.  I appreciate that much more now that I have my own children.  I don’t know if my dad’s talk was triggered by a news story or just general parental concern.  But I remember how he didn’t want me to be lured by some twisted adult who was out to kidnap a child.

A few days after that talk, my dad came home from work, and pretended to be the stranger I wasn’t supposed to talk to.  “Hey, kid, c’mon over here to my truck; I’ve got some candy for you.”  I knew what he was doing, and so I jumped on my bike and in my childish way said, “No way!  I’m getting out of here.”  But the whole point of that silly little incident was for me to put into practice what he had taught me earlier.

How does that incident relate to our reading today?  In the last verse of our reading, God shows us that he wants us to put our faith into practice.  We’ve already learned that our good works-the good things we do in our daily lives in thanks to God for his grace-do not contribute in the least way to our salvation.  But that doesn’t mean God isn’t interested in us living a godly life.  Just as my father wanted me to put into practice what he had taught me, our heavenly Father wants us to put his Word into practice in our lives.  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Paul describes us like a great work of art that God has completed.  Part of this great work of art is that we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works.”  God isn’t looking for us to get brownie points with him.  He’s inspiring us to decorate our lives with the kinds of loving acts that express appreciation for God’s gracious acts toward us.  In fact, even our good works are an act of grace from God, because he sets them up for us in the first place.  We are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  God made us spiritually alive when he brought us to faith at the font.  He uses his Word and Supper to keep us alive.  And now he keeps us living for him with lives that honor him.

Sola gratia.  By grace alone.  It’s a familiar motto in the Lutheran church.  But if we stop and meditate on God’s Word this morning, it’s so much more than a motto.  God’s grace, and his grace alone, keeps us spiritually alive and living for him.  God’s grace sent Jesus to the cross, carrying our sin and shame and washing it away in his blood.  And God’s not only raised Jesus from the dead for us, but God’s grace provides us with opportunities to live for him as we serve others.  God’s grace is more than a term or a motto, it’s an incredible reality that you and I have been brought into his family and been given spiritual life and forgiveness through Jesus.  That’s what grace is all about.

III.

Your boss comes up to your desk at work and says, “I have a task for you that I need finished before the end of the week.”  And you respond, “Consider it done.”  Even though you haven’t started yet, your statement indicates that the job is as good as done; your statement guarantees that the task will be completed before week’s end.

In our Second Lesson, Paul talks about some gracious things that God is going to do for us in the future, but he writes about them as if they’re in the past.  In other words, they’re as good as done.  “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”  We know that God has taken our dead, lifeless souls and made them alive in Holy Baptism.  We know that the Holy Spirit keeps our faith fueled.  We know from this reading that God gives us opportunities to put our faith into action with good works and godly living.  But those are past and present matters.  Now Paul talks about a future matter-when we will be raised from the dead and living with Christ eternally in heaven.  But Paul doesn’t talk about this as if it’s going to happen.  He speaks about it in the past tense.  It is as good as done.  If we’re already connected with Jesus through faith, then we know that we’ll also rise with him, because he rose for us.

Sola gratia.  By grace alone.  It’s a familiar motto in the Lutheran church.  But if we stop and meditate on God’s Word this morning, it’s so much more than a motto.  God’s grace, and his grace alone, will make us alive and bring us to life with his Son in heaven.  God’s grace sent Jesus to the cross, carrying our sin and shame and washing it away in his blood.  And God’s not only raised Jesus from the dead for us, but God’s grace assures us that our spot in heaven is signed, sealed, and secured by the resurrection of Christ.  God’s grace is more than a term or a motto, it’s an incredible reality that you and I have been brought into his family and been given spiritual life and forgiveness through Jesus.  That’s what grace is all about.

Conclusion

When I was a sophomore in college, one of my professors preached an eight-part series of chapel devotions on these verses from Ephesians 2.  The combined length of those eight devotions would have been about the equivalent of four full-length sermons.  And in those eight chapel devotions, our professor only focused on three words from this chapter: grace, mercy, and love.  Eight chapel devotions lasting well over an hour in all, and in all that time we focused on just three words!  That should tell you something about the depth of material and meaning in this section!

Quite honestly, we have barely scratched the surface of Ephesians 2:4-10 in this sermon.  We could focus on one verse for each Sunday in Lent and still not exhaust everything Paul has to say here.  We have considered the grace of God in our past, present, and future lives as God’s people.  I hope our review and meditation on these great words from St. Paul will help us remember that “grace” is not merely a Lutheran buzzword, and “by grace alone” is so much more than a Lutheran motto.  Grace is the whole reason we live as Christians!  Grace is the whole reason we can have a smile when we get out of bed in the morning!  Grace is the wonderful news that Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the essence of God’s good news for me!  Grace is the word that assures me that God has brought me into his family from start to finish.  “By grace alone” is so much more than a motto.  “By grace alone” is the essence of the Christian faith and life!

By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;

My soul, believe and doubt it not.

Why waver at this word of promise?

Has Scripture ever falsehood taught?

So then this word must true remain:

By grace you, too, shall heav’n obtain. (Christian Worship #384:1)

Amen.

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