a sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10 for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
preached on March 18, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Today is a day of beloved things. We just read a favorite scripture that talks about salvation by grace through faith, easily my favorite theological concept. We just sang one of the most-beloved hymns of our faith that speaks so beautifully of grace. And as part of the response to the word today, we will soon share in one of of the beloved moments of our life together as we ordain and install new ruling elders and deacons.
Toward that end, to go along with our scripture reading today, I want to share an extended reading from a favorite theology book, Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie. Shirley was one of my theology professors in seminary, and I don’t know of anyone who can talk about the meaning and importance of salvation by grace through faith better than he can. Thankfully, his words are easy to understand, written with people like you in mind, and though he does not speak directly of today’s text, its major point is also his major point, so I hope that his words illuminate the point of our scripture today better than I ever could.
Suppose we begin to understand what justification by grace means. “How can we have this assurance of God’s love that frees us from ourselves and for God, other people, and true self-fulfillment?” The church answers this question by speaking of justification [– salvation, making things right with God –] through faith.
…It is often said that instead of the idea that our good works make us acceptable to God, Protestantism teaches that all we have to do is have faith in order to win God’s approval and acceptance. This is a serious distortion, because it only substitutes another requirement that we must fulfill in order to earn salvation. In the last analysis it makes us just as insecure as does justification by other means. Instead of anxiously examining my life to discover whether it is good enough, now I must anxiously examine my faith to see whether it is sure and strong enough to earn God’s love. Justification by faith in this sense is only another means of self-justification and self-salvation.
According to scripture, neither our good works nor our faith justifies us – God alone does it by God’s free grace in Christ. It is not confidence in the goodness of our life or in the strength of our faith,but confidence in God that gives us the assurance that we are right with God. Robert McAfee Brown puts it this way: “The gospel does not say, ‘Trust God and he will love you;’ the gospel says, ‘God already loves you, so trust him.’ Faith is not a ‘work’ that saves us; it is our acknowledgement that we are saved.”
This does not mean that faith is unimportant. Although it is not the cause of God’s loving us, it is the indispensable means by which we accept and live from God’s love. Faith does not make us right with God, but no one is made right with God without faith.…
Our faith does not force or enable God to love us, but it is our way of acknowledging, receiving, enjoying – and returning – the love that God had for us long before we ever thought of loving God. We are not made right with God by our faith, but we are made right with God through our faith. Our faith does not change God from being against us into being for us, but it does change us from being closed to being open to receive the love God has always had for us.
What is this faith we have been talking about? …Very simply, faith is trust. It is not intellectual acceptance of biblical or theological doctrines, not even the doctrines of Christ or justification. It is confidence in God. Faith is not believing in the Bible; it is not, in Calvin’s words, “assent to the gospel history.” It is not believing in a book, but believing in the God we come to know in the book. Christian faith is not confidence in faith that saves, not a “saving faith,” but confidence in the God who saves. The faith we have been talking about, in other words, is a kind of personal relationship – a total commitment of ourselves to the living God whose trustworthiness has been proved by God’s powerful and loving action for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. John Calvin puts it this way: Faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
How can we have such faith? How can we be so sure of God’s love that we are freed from the unnecessary, self-defeating attempt to justify ourselves? How can we trust God so completely that we do not have to trust our own goodness or faith? …Faith, trust, or assurance in God is a gift. We can no more simply decide to trust God than we can by sheer willpower decide to trust another human being. The faith that trusts in the love of God is itself the work of God’s love, “revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
[Even though] we cannot give ourselves faith… there are some things we can do to put ourselves in situations in which the gift of faith is promised and received….
[First,] if we want a faith that trusts in the love of God that frees us from the necessity of trying to justify and save ourselves, we can admit honestly that none of us has such faith, at least not always. Even those who do not have intellectual doubts about the truth of biblical and Christian doctrines do not have so much confidence in God’s love that they are free from the fearful or proud compulsion to build themselves up in one way or another before God and other people, and in their own self-estimation. None us has [the kind of relaxed, anxiety-free trust in God that marks the faith that Jesus himself described in the gospel according to Matthew.] If we want real faith, therefore, we must paradoxically admit that we do not have it, and pray every new day that we may receive it. “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
[Second,] faith, trust in God’s love, becomes possible when we put ourselves in a situation in which we can hear about and experience God’s love over and over again. Such a situation is first of all the church, the community of God’s people. Just as a child, spouse, or friend needs to hear over and over again that he or she is loved, so we Christians need to hear over and over again the unbelievably good news that God loves, forgives, and accepts us despite everything that we have been and done – or not been and done. Trust in God becomes possible as we hear constantly anew how trustworthy God is. That happens in the church as [we are told and tell] over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, the story of God’s steadfast love for a sinful world and sinful human beings, each one of us included.
But hearing is not enough.… It is not enough simply to hear the words that God loves us; we need to experience God’s love. It is above all in the church that this happens. It happens when people are baptized… – when [we] see a visible demonstration of the assurance that God knows each one of us by name and has “adopted” us to be God’s dearly beloved children. It happens when it is not the good and worthy but precisely the needy, guilty sinners who are invited to the Lord’s Table to receive nourishment for the new life [we] cannot give [ourselves]. It happens when we experience God’s forgiveness, acceptance and love as we experience the forgiveness, acceptance, and love of other people in the life of the Christian community. The church is by definition the community of those who live by God’s forgiveness for guilty people, God’s acceptance of those who in themselves are unacceptable, God’s love for those who know they cannot earn the right to be loved. It is the place where people can risk putting aside all their defenses and masks, knowing that they will be accepted just as they are, with all their faults, whatever they have done, however unacceptable they are by the moral and social standards of the world.
[Now we may not always see these things here, yet the church] is still the body of Christ. God promises to make God’s justifying [and saving] grace real and effective in this all-too-human community of sinners who need it just as much as anyone else. We can recognize, experience, and trust God’s love everywhere when we first find it here.
Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, p. 322-325
My friends, this is my hope and my prayer, that this church can and will be the kind of community that shows God’s love and grace and so embodies this kind of faith, not faith to save anyone or anything, because God has already done that! – but the faith that inspires us and others to be a more complete part of the new life that God is bringing into being in our world.
May we know God’s amazing, saving grace through the faith that God alone can give us and embody it in our life together so that others might see God’s forgiveness, acceptance and love in us and so see it in God, now and always. Amen.