Good morning! What a beautiful fall, would you agree? How about those maple trees along our boulevard! Last week I played golf at Northern Pines where several holes parallel the Stillwater River. The beauty of the fall colors were incredible. It reminded me of how the Bible describes the world on the final day of Creation. It says, “Behold, it was very good!” It was very good! So what did we do to deserve that beauty? Nothing! It comes to us as a gift.
Some try to explain all that glory away. They say all this beauty is an accident, that it came into being without any design or creative genius. It seems to me, it takes more faith to believe that than to believe it comes to us as a gift of grace from a loving creative God.
We are in sermon series on the 3 pillars of the Protestant Reformation. Let’s say them together. Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone.
Last Sunday, Pastor Ralph got us started by giving a wonderful sermon on the meaning of Grace Alone. He pointed out what Paul wrote in Eph. “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, through faith – and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” ” Eph 2:4, 8
The word grace refers to a gift. Have you ever made a list of all the gifts of grace that fill your life? You should try, it may surprise you. Beautiful autumn leaves are certainly a gift of God’s grace, so are the hugs and kisses of a child.
I remember my little girls crawling up in my lap and kissing me and saying, “I love you, daddy.” What did I do to deserve that? Or how about the forgiveness of your husband or wife when you really mess up? If we just let down our pride and humble ourselves, we’ll discover the list goes on and on. These gifts of grace don’t just spontaneously generate, they have a source and that source is God. The Bible says, “We love because God first loved us.”
My babies’ kisses were kisses from God. My wife’s forgiveness flows from God’s forgiveness. They are God’s grace, his unmerited unearned favor to a sinner like me.
So how do we respond to this gift of grace? The second leg of the salvation tripod is Faith Alone. Let’s read together: “For in the Gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last. Just as it is written – “The righteous will live by faith.” Rom 1:17
Since it’s impossible for sinners like us to ever get our act together enough to live a sinless life, God must act on our behalf and we must trust what he has done. We call our response to his grace - faith. To be honest, faith is not something we can generate or do in our own strength. That’s why Paul writes “…for it is by grace (alone) that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Eph 2:8-9
The debate in Luther’s day was “How can we as sinners ever stand before a righteous Holy God?” The answer is we can’t. But that’s why our heavenly Father sent his One and only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin. Jesus was born into the brokenness, the injustice, the depravity of our world. He became one of us. He faced the same temptations, the same struggle, the same heartaches. He suffered the same injustices, the same consequences of living in a sinful world, but he himself never sinned. He lived a life of complete obedience and holiness before his Heavenly Father for one purpose!
So that God might remain absolutely just in his obligation to punish sin, God placed our sin on Jesus and applied Jesus’ righteousness to us as a gift we receive by faith. If that’s really true, and the Bible declares is it, then there’s nothing we can do to add to the work of salvation the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have already finished for us on the cross.
But how do we respond to such an indescribable gift? Let me give you a poor illustration. Imagine for a moment, my 3 year old daughter climbing into my lap, taking my face in her little hands, kissing me and telling me, “I love you, daddy!”
What an amazing expression of pure grace. Then imagine me saying to her, “Honey, please don’t do that, I haven’t been a perfect daddy. I really don’t deserve to have this kind of love from you.”
What a horrible thing to say to her! Instead, I’d say, “Thank you, honey, I love you too!” Imagine my wife working all afternoon to make my favorite dinner only to have me say to her, “I really don’t deserve this, maybe we should just go out and get something at McDonalds.” What a ridiculous rejection of her grace and love that would be! Yet that’s the way we treat God when we try to earn or merit what Jesus paid for with his blood on the cross.
Did you know that pride is the biggest obstacle to receiving God’s grace and love into our lives? No wonder God hates pride. We want to be loved because we are so lovable and good. We want to earn the love of others. We want to be loved because we’re beautiful, strong, successful, witty, above average. But that isn’t love - its wages – payback.
Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Rom 6:23 Listen carefully - the only thing we earn by being good enough is death. Why? Because being good enough is competitive. It’s focused on how we measure up compared to others, it’s not about community, it’s about making our way to the to where the end result is always isolation. And that’s the definition of hell.
God’s grace invites sinners like you and me into the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit where each one gives up their own ego in the lifting up of the other. Grace is a place where we don’t have to exalt ourselves in order to survive. We can empty ourselves in serving and glorifying others. When I learn this dance of love, I my deepest needs are met.
So what is faith? First, faith is not something we achieve by our own work of effort. Faith trusts God’s promise that his gifts of grace are for us. Faith is an exercise in humility in that I quit trying to be God and do it all myself and I let God be God. Rather than focusing on what I want, faith is focused on what God wants. I make the conscious choice to believe what God wants is good and perfect. Faith accepts the reality that my wants and desires are not to be trusted. Let me give you an example:
Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation that their own way was better than God’s way. Instead of believing God, which is faith, they put their trust in their own ideas of what was right and wrong. That didn’t work out so well. We’re still suffering the consequences.
How different from the story of Abraham. God told Abraham to leave his home and everything he valued and follow the Lord to the place the Lord would show him. Abraham wasn’t a perfect. Like us, he was a sinner. But he made a decision to believe God and act on it. He put his trust in God’s promise rather than his own ability to generate the life he wanted. The Bible says God credited that faith to Abraham as righteousness.
Righteousness means just what it implies - a right-standing with God. Think of a carpenter erecting a building. He does his best, but the walls are skewed, out of square. Unless something is done the building is going to fall down. Somebody needs to square things up and make them right again and the carpenter doesn’t have the tools or skill to do it.
Sin has put our lives out of kilter with God and with each other. We need someone who can square things up. The meaning of righteousness is sinless, square. We need a master carpenter and we have one, his name is Jesus. God put the cost of straightening out our skewed, twisted lives on Jesus, and he put us in a right relationship with him as an act of pure grace to be received by faith.
When Martin Luther heard the work “faith” as a young monk the last thing he thought about was grace. When he read the words, “the righteous will live by faith” he thought faith meant being religious. And the harder he worked to be religious, more aware he became of his own sinfulness. The Apostle Paul had been down the same road 1500 years earlier.
Then as Luther poured himself into studying the Bible, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to the reality – “It’s not what we do that opens the door to heaven, it’s what Jesus did for a sinners like us!” Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we can stand before God forgiven, cleansed, just as if we had never sinned. It’s a gift to be received by faith. The question is, “Will we receive it? Or will we persist in our egotistical ways, trying to prove we deserve it or that we can do it ourselves?”
Paul writes about how the Lord overcame his ego in Gal 2:20. “I (your name) have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I (_______) who lives but Christ who lives in me. And the life I (____) now live in the flesh, I (_____) live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Gal 2:20
Has that happened for you? The signs of God’s grace are all around you. But they will do you no good until you respond and receive these gifts by faith. That means dying to yourself and trusting him to lead you. You may have been in church all your life, but if you have never turned over the sovereignty of your heart and will to Jesus, you are not really a believer. You aren’t really walking by faith. Why wait any longer. Time is short and this is a decision, you dare not put off.