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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Grace, Salvation, and Faith

Fourth Sunday in Lent

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 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. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:1-10

The world is going to pot! At least that’s what it looks like. The more you read the news – or listen to it – or watch it – the worse everything seems. There are economic problems: like hunger, unemployment, inflation, and the spoiling of natural resources. There are social problems everywhere: racism, tribalism, and the disintegration of family life. And moral guidelines have been thrown out, leading to violence, dishonesty, and sexual promiscuity and deviation. Man is doing a lousy job of managing his affairs and the affairs of the world.

And against this somber background of our world today, our Epistle lesson stands out in remarkable relevance. For Paul first looks at man with pessimism, and then looks to God with optimism. He contrasts what man is by nature and what he can become with the grace of God.

Now, as we look at Paul’s description of the human condition apart from God, we need to be clear that he’s talking about everybody, not just some decadent tribe or only the corrupt paganism of his own day. No, this is the Biblical diagnosis of fallen man in fallen society everywhere! We all need to “confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against God by thought, word, and deed.” And that “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

If sin lies behind death, what lies behind sin? Paul’s answer is the world, the flesh, and the Devil. These three influences want to control and direct our lives, he says.

First he speaks of “following the ways of the world.” Society organized without God, or it often seems, against God! Secular humanism, with its value system alien to God permeates – no, dominates – the world around us, tempting us and influencing us.

And then there’s the Devil, whom Paul here calls “the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” Today people like to pooh-pooh the idea of a Devil and his band of fallen angels, even as Satan worship goes on around us. But the plain teaching of Jesus doesn’t permit us to modify our theology to please skeptics! Scripture identifies the Devil as the source of temptations to sin, and Paul further calls him “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Near the end of his Epistle to the Ephesians, he writes, “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the Devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the Heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:10-12)

The third influence which causes us to sin is “the cravings of our sinful nature” (often abbreviated as “the flesh”) “and following its desires and thoughts.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with natural bodily desires, whether they’re for food, sleep, or sex. That’s the way God made our bodies. It’s when the appetite for food becomes gluttony, sleep becomes laziness, or sex becomes lust, that natural desires have been perverted into sinful desires. And, as Jesus made plain, our thoughts of anger, hatred, lust, pride, revenge, and so on are sinful too!

So Paul can say that outside Christ man is dead because of sins; enslaved by the world, the flesh, and the Devil; and so condemned under the wrath of God.

Thank God that’s not the end of the story! For God has given us a message of Good News which offers life to the dead, release to the captives, and forgiveness to the condemned!

Just think of that! We were the “objects of God’s wrath,” but “because of His great love for us” God had mercy on us. We were dead, and dead men don’t rise, but God “made us alive with Christ.” We were slaves, living in dishonor, but “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the Heavenly realms.” God took action to reverse our condition in sin. In one word, He saved us!

And the more you look at these verses the more amazing they become:

· “God made us alive with Christ.”

· “God raised us up with Christ.”

· “God seated us with Him in the Heavenly realms.”

These three verbs, “made alive”, “raised”, and “seated” refer to the three historical events in the saving career of Jesus, which are normally called the resurrection, the ascension, and the session. We declare our belief in them in the Apostles’ Creed: “The third day He rose again from the dead, He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God.” But the most amazing thing is that in our Epistle lesson Paul is not writing about Christ – he’s writing about us! He isn’t affirming that God quickened, raised, and seated Christ; he’s saying that God quickened, raised, and seated us with Christ!

We don’t just admire Jesus, just live by His moral standards, nor even just worship Him. We are in such a close union with Him that the Bible says we are “in Christ” and He is “in us.” By virtue of our union with Christ we have shared in His resurrection, ascension, and are seated in Heaven!

Maybe just as amazing is why God did this for us. In our Epistle lesson Paul assembles four words to express the origin of God’s saving initiative. He writes of God’s mercy, of God’s love, of God’s grace, and of God’s kindness.

We were dead, and helpless to save ourselves; only mercy could reach the helpless.

We were under God’s wrath; only love could triumph over wrath.

We deserved nothing from God but judgement on account of our sins; only grace could rescue us from our just desserts. For grace is undeserved favor.

Why did God act then? Out of His sheer mercy, love, grace, and kindness.

These few verses are truly packed with God’s truths. Verses 8 through 10 have been called the center of Lutheran doctrine:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” Here are three foundation words of the Christian Good News: salvation, grace, and faith. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It’s deliverance from the death, slavery, and wrath we’ve been looking at. In fact, it includes the whole idea of our new life in Christ, with whom we have been made alive, exalted and seated in the Heavenly realm. Grace is God’s free and undeserved love and favor towards us. And faith is the humble trust with which we receive God’s grace for ourselves.

And to enforce the positive statement that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, Paul adds two balancing negatives: First, "and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” And second, “not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Salvation is God’s free gift to us. It’s not something we can achieve by something we do, nor is it a reward for any of our good deeds – so there’s no room for human boasting either.

But there is plenty of room for Christian living! We must not forget the next verse, verse 10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

“We are God’s workmanship,” His work of art, His masterpiece, “created in Christ Jesus.” So salvation is also creation, re-creation, new creation. And our good works are necessary as the consequence and evidence of our salvation. We are not saved because of good works, but we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works! Good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Formerly we walked in transgressions and sins in which the Devil had trapped us; now we walk in good works which God has planned for us to do. The contrast is complete. It’s a contrast between two lifestyles, and behind them two masters.

What could affect such a change? Just this: a new creation by the grace and power of God. The only hope for dead people lies in a resurrection. But then the living God is the God of resurrection. He’s even more than that: He’s the God of creation!

Praise be to God!!


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