We just got done singing “Amazing Grace.” And so it would be logical to ask, “Well, what IS so amazing about grace?” Ephesians 2:8-9 answers that question very well. It’s a passage our grade school children/cat class/adults in BIC memorize, maybe you have it memorized. So let us recite it together. And if you have not had the opportunity to memorize it yet, please read it along with us, page three of our worship folder, in bold print and underlined.
What’s so amazing about grace?
“For”—This word is like a piece of Lego—it’s connecting this passage to what went before. And what went before is bad news. Like the kind you get in that uncomfortable visit with a doctor when he says, “I have some bad news. It’s inoperable cancer inside your body, you have only a short time to live.” Except in these verses it’s not a doctor speaking, it is God. And it’s worse than cancer. In the previous verses God says, “I have some bad news. It’s inoperable sin inside your body and you are spiritually dead, and you are going to spend an eternity in hell.” As it says in verse 1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” and in verse 5, “…when we were dead in transgressions.”
Dead. It was a hot, muggy day, you know, like we can get in July. The sun was just beating down mercilessly, with 90% humidity, and a young woman drove her old car on a side road, her hair limp, her back soaked with sweat. And then her car started acting up. And then it acted even uppier. And then it upped and died. She stepped out of her car. That’s when she heard it–buzzing, loud buzzing, the buzzing of 1000’s flies. She looked up and that’s when she saw it—a carcass, of a deer, a road kill, in the ditch, looking unnaturally round. The wind shifted, and that’s when she smelled it…death, the awful smell of hot, muggy death. And that is our natural odor to God. By nature we smell like death to God, all day long, all night long, because we are by nature sinful. No wonder he doesn’t want to be near us in this life and refuses to let sinners into heaven in the next life. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”
And so what’s so amazing about grace? The fact that God because of his grace slides right up next to us in spite of our horrible smell, slides right up next to us to wash us clean in the waters of baptism, wash away the stench of death of our own sins in baptism, and the water of baptism that by faith keeps washing us clean of our sins for the rest of our lives, so that we smell as sweet to him as your baby does when you wrap up in her soft towel, fresh from her bath.
“It is by grace”— God’s grace is his undeserved love. This kind of love is so very different from our common experiences of love. When we say we love something, it’s usually because there is something lovable about it. So we say, “I love pizza!”, because there is something lovable about pizza–it tastes so good. We say, “I love my dog!”, “I love my friends!”, “I love Star Wars!” because there is something lovable about them. But when God says, “I love you,” he’s saying it to people who smell like death to him because of their sin. People that God should run away from. And he would–except for his grace. Because God’s grace-love is not like our love. God loves us NOT because we are lovable but because HE is love. Because that is who HE is. It is one of his essential qualities. And that is an amazing way to be loved, isn’t it.
“You”—Guess whom he is talking to with these words? First to the people of the Ephesian congregation. And now, to the people of this congregation.
“Have been saved”—That’s an odd way of speaking, isn’t it, “HAVE BEEN saved”? We’re not in heaven yet, so what’s up with the “HAVE BEEN saved”? Well, in the Greek this is a perfect periphrastic, which allows a speaker to speak about a future event as if it has already happened in the past. So God is speaking about our being in heaven using the past tense, “have been saved,” even though we haven’t entered heaven yet.
Raise your hand if you are sure you will go to heaven when you die because of Christ paid your way by his death and resurrection and promised heaven to you at your Baptism. For those of you who are not raising your hands, I have prayed that you will be sure of salvation the end of this service. But for you who are sure you will go to heaven because of Christ, isn’t also true that sometimes you’re not so sure. Sometimes you wonder, what if…
Listen to these words, “by grace you HAVE BEEN saved.” It’s so certain because of Christ and because of your baptism that God speaks about it in the past tense, as if you were already in heaven. And that’s kind of amazing. Because it takes the most important question of your life, “Where am I going to spend eternity”, and guarantees you that the answer is, “heaven” because of Christ—I HAVE BEEN saved because of Christ.
“saved”—This is a very vigorous word. Maybe we forget that. Maybe we will remember it better if we remember that the Greek word for “saved” can also be translated “rescued.” “For it is by grace you have been rescued.” Rescue, that’s a vigorous-sounding word, isn’t it. Because one thing you know about anyone who needs to be rescued—it’s a lot of work, and often messy work, whether you’re rescuing someone from the Taliban, or from an abusive relationship, or from a car wreck…or from sin, death, and hell. A lot work, a lot of messy work. Of which Christ did 100% of it. By obeying the commandments perfectly for us for 33 years, then spending an unfathomably horrible six hours dying on the cross to pay for our sin, and then rising again. A lot of work, a lot of messy work. For which he got zero benefit. It was all, 100%, for the benefit of sinners like us.
That’s yet another thing about grace that is so amazing.
“through faith”—Authentic faith is always based on a promise of God found in the Bible. You know what you call faith that is not attached to a promise of God in the Bible? A superstition. Even if what someone believes sounds very Christian, “If you forward this message that says ‘To God be the glory’ to at least 20 of your Facebook friends, God will bless you,” –that promise is not found in the Bible; that’s a superstition. It’s not authentic faith.
Because authentic faith comes by hearing God’s promises in his Word and then trusting that he is talking to ME with those promises. Which is a thing so difficult to do that the Holy Spirit himself must work this in us. Which is why he condemns in very harsh words this lie– when people say, “YOU must accept Jesus. YOU must choose to believe.” Those words sound like nails on a chalkboard to the Holy Spirit. Because authentic faith is his job to produce, not ours.
And what’s so amazing about this? The fact that this means that, for you who trust in God’s promises, the Holy Spirit knows your name. Because faith, by definition, is a gift that he can give only one person at a time. Faith, by definition, is a gift he can strengthen only one person at a time. Like he is doing right now. So, he who is so massive and powerful that he fills the universe and beyond is also the one who is knows your name and tenderly plants and nutures faith in your heart as you hear his Word. One person at a time. And if you give that even 10 seconds of thought, you’ll say what every Christian says, “That’s amazing.”
“and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works”—“And this not from yourselves,” that’s crystal clear, isn’t it? Faith is not from yourself, being saved is not from yourself, God’s grace is not from yourself. Then why do so many churches and Christians insist that you have to do something to get to heaven? Some say you have to do penance. Some say you have to live a Christian life. Some say you have to decide to believe. And each are shamefully contradicting this passage, “…and this not from yourselves”—faith is not from yourself, being saved is not from yourself, God’s grace is not from yourself. It is all a…”gift of God”— Faith is a gift of God, being saved is a gift of God, God’s grace is a gift of God. And when it comes to gifts, it’s the giver who pays, not the receiver, otherwise it is not a gift. And Christ did pay. By his perfect life and innocent death on the cross. And rose again to prove it. “…and not by works”—Just in case you didn’t quite get it yet, the Holy Spirit adds this third phrase, “…and not by works”–faith, salvation, and grace are NOT something you do work to get. Faith, salvation, and grace are gifts from God—just in case you missed that, the Holy Spirit also includes these words, “…not by works.”
And that’s amazing. Because if you could bottle this up and sell it, you’d get millions. After all, people are willing to pay tens of thousands for medical help so they can live just a few more years in a kind of happy but also miserable world. What would they be willing to pay to live forever, in a place of total and complete happiness? Which is exactly what God is giving away, free-for-nothing, every Sunday in the Absolution, in the Gospel, in the Sacraments. Things that, if you could bottle them, you could sell for millions. But God gives them away each Sunday morning, free-for-nothing. That’s amazing.
“…so that no one can boast.” Sinful pride grows on the human heart like lard on a pig. Sinful pride is the source of most of the problems and conflicts and rubs in our life, is this not true. Christ warns us to repent of sinful pride and instead to be humble, like he is, as he once said “Come learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” (Matt. 11:29) Now, you remember the definition of humility? Humility is not thinking less of yourself, for in Christ we are to think very highly of ourselves, after all, we are saints and royalty in Christ. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less. Humility is learning on focusing on other people—how do they feel, what do they need. And one thing everyone needs you to do is to live by the 10 Commandments—that benefits everyone else, and happily, also benefits you.
And that’s our last thing about grace that is so amazing. God in his grace gives you heaven as a free gift, you do not need to obey the commandments to get to heaven. But it is precisely because he loves us that he wants us to live by his commandments every day, and night, and even at 2 in the morning. CS Lewis explained it this way, “Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities…but Love cannot cease to will their removal….Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.”
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was bind but now I see.” May you never again be blind but always have the kind of eyes that see God’s grace in Christ so clearly that you never stop being amazed by it. Amen.