Psalm 103: 1-14 and Ephesians 2: 1-10
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017
Kenmore Presbyterian Church
Kenmore, New York
So, we start this sermon series,
looking at “Sola gratia—By grace alone.”
In “The Five Solas: Five Hundred Years and Still True,”
retired history professor, James R. Peyton provides
a brief paragraph about “By grace alone.”
Recognizing that our feverish endeavors cannot commend us to God, we rely on divine grace—God’s unmerited goodness toward us in his overarching, never-failing love for us in Christ. We rely and depend on God’s grace for our righteousness in Christ, for daily provision, and for all the needs we have in life and in death.
Now, if you asked me what caused the Protestant Reformation,
I would say it’s the rediscovery of grace.
You see, in the medieval church,
a series of rituals created a relationship with God.
Besides the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church,
the medieval church emphasized
an urgent need “to get right with God.”
It offered many disciplines designed
to bring the flesh under control.
Martin Luther provides an excellent case study in what I mean.
When he was young, he encountered a thunderstorm so violent
that he fell to the ground and prayed,
“By Saint Anne, I will become a monk.”
As a monk, Luther became a priest,
but his real profession was a biblical scholar.
He followed all the spiritual disciplines he knew.
At one point, even his spiritual director grew weary of
his constant confession and overwhelming fear.
Yet, something happened to Luther.
It wasn’t another lightning bolt,
but instead, he started to notice something in his studies.
He read Romans, chapter one, verses sixteen and seventeen,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’"
Probably, he ran across Ephesians, chapter two,
and read verses eight and nine, “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.”
Luther discovered that
it wasn’t all the rituals that made him right with God.
In Christ, God intervened by grace alone through faith alone
to make him right, to save him.
Yet, save him from what?
How was he wrong?
Well, the author of Ephesians lays out
an answer to those questions,
which begins with this stunning statement,
“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.”
No, the author doesn’t pull any punches.
Our sins and trespasses bring us death.
Oh, we may walk around, thinking we’re alive.
At least, that’s what “the course of this world” teaches us,
what “the ruler of the power of the air” wants us to believe.
If you’re not sure whether the author’s right,
all you need to do is look at people you meet.
Most of them look as if they’re dead,
but the brain hasn’t gotten the message yet.
They do what they’re told.
They live as they think they want.
Yet, in their eyes, the lights are out.
You see, the author and Luther take sin seriously
and we should as well.
Every time we fail to love as Jesus commanded us;
every time we live as if our actions have no consequences;
every time we let ourselves follow “the course of this world,”
we sin, which means
we miss the mark of what God intends for us.
Yet, here’s the kicker:
we cannot get out of this mess on our own.
Sometimes, people wonder
what the hardest part of being a pastor is.
I think the most difficult nut to crack is this one.
I watch with frustration as people try to earn God’s love.
I worry as someone asks me
what God thinks about his or her addiction or habit.
I wonder what it would take for us to believe
something I heard once,
“God knows us through and through
and loves us still and all.”
You see, that’s what grace means.
Even though God knows everything we do and don’t do,
God never gives up on us.
As the author of Ephesians says twice,
“By grace you have been saved.”
He underscores that it’s God’s deal,
because there’s nothing we can do to earn it.
It’s a gift, a free gift, with no strings attached.
Now, some of you may want to argue that last sentence.
You might say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
You might ask about all the lessons we learn in church
about doing the right thing.
Isn’t that a string?
Didn’t you say last week there was a cost to discipleship?
Yes, I did, but let me ask you to think about gifts.
Someone gives you a gift.
For the purpose of this illustration, let’s make it priceless.
After the giver picks you off the floor,
after you say something like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”
what did our parents teach us to say
when we receive a gift.
That’s what the author of Ephesians means
in verse ten of chapter two,
“For we are what [God] has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be
our way of life.”
Our good works are not what earns us a ticket to heaven.
Instead, it’s how we’re made in Christ Jesus:
to live a life of gratitude for the grace God shows us
by doing good works.
Now, I want you to understand that “grace alone”
is not as easy as it sounds.
As a matter of fact, it scandalizes some people,
even some Christians to think we need to earn our salvation.
The church thought Luther went too far down this road.
In our day, some churchy types think
there must be more than grace to be saved.
Yet, if we are children of the Reformers,
we need to believe and to live as if God’s grace is enough
and more than enough to make us God’s own.
©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church