Sola gratia: Grace alone

Transcription of Sunday, October 1, 2017 sermon. 

drowning

About a year and a half ago I took an evangelism class. Every once in a while I’ll take a class like that to learn a little bit more about having conversations with people and finding opportunities to talk about faith. In these classes they teach you a lot about listening to other people to find out what they believe, where they got their beliefs from, what their spiritual background is. Since a lot of people you’re talking with may not have a lot of church background – they may have no Christian background at all — it’s good to have some illustrations to help them understand what Jesus and salvation are all about.

One of the stories they offered went something like this. You’re like a person who’s out in the middle of the ocean who’s floundering, drowning and going down for the third time. We would certainly perish unless someone comes along and throws us a life preserver. All we have to do is grab on to it and we’ll be saved.

The analogy is pretty clear for us who are Christian and have church background. We are floundering in sin and we’re going to perish, but Jesus come and all we have to do is hang on to him and we’ll be saved. It’s a pretty good analogy and illustration to use. I offered to the class that I liked to talk about that in a slightly different way. Since the bible says that we’re dead in our sin and transgression, it’s more like I’m lying on the bottom of the pool. I’m gone. I don’t need a life preserver. I need a lifeguard. I need somebody who’s going to dive in the pool, swim down to the bottom, get a hold of me, get me out of the water onto the side of the pool, start doing compressions and breathe some life into me. Otherwise I’m gone. we can see that analogy, too. Dead in our sin and transgression, we can’t reach out to hold on to anything of God. We need somebody like Jesus who dives into this world, into this mess that sin has made and we have made of this world, and comes to seek and save those who are lost. He comes to seek and save us who are lost.

The message we proclaim is all that Christ has done for us. We proclaim the grace of God, a tremendous gift. The apostle Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

Everything  about us being saved is what Christ has done for us. We add nothing to that. You do bring something to the table. You have a part in it. You bring sin. That’s what you bring. You bring the thoughts that aren’t nice. You bring the words that cut people deeply. You bring the actions, the disobedience, the failures. That’s what we bring. Everything else about salvation Christ brings. Sola gratia. Grace alone.

If you really want to offend people. I’m not saying you like to offend people, but I know you. I know you like to stir the pot a little bit. I know you like to see if you can get a reaction from people. If you really want to see the hair go up on the back of someone’s neck, just start talking about grace alone. You don’t have to take a knee to get people going. Just start talking about God’s grace love saving us. You will get a reaction from people.

it won’t be agreement. It won’t be a positive reaction. If you’re talking to some who have been a part of the church, they’ll get all over you if you start getting all Lutheran with them. They’ve got their stories about how they got saved and how they asked Jesus into their lives. The whole notion of grace alone just doesn’t add up.

It is true that “to all who would receive him, who believed in his name, our Lord gave the right to become children of God” *(John 1:12). But it is also true that you cannot reach for, you cannot take hold of, you cannot grasp anything God has for you unless he has first taken a hold of you.

It is also very true that we have some issues. We’ve got some big problems to deal with. “The heart — your heart and my heart — is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our hearts do not have the desire for good things, for God at all. Paul says that our hearts are hostile to God.

You know the words from Romans 3:11, “No one understands, no one seeks God.” We don’t go out looking for him. No one goes out looking for him. That’s what sin has done to us. It’s got us going in the opposite direction. We’re want things for ourselves. We don’t want the things of God.

In John chapter 8 Jesus said, “Anyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you are a slave, you’re stuck. you may not like your job as a slave, but you can’t retire, you can’t quite, you can’t transfer to a different job. You’re a slave. You have no say. That’s where you are. If you’re a slave to sin, you can’t walk away from that. There’s no way.

When Martin Luther was helping parents and adults teach children the truths of the faith, he gave a good explanation to the third article. You know the third article of the creed. It’s the part about the Holy Spirit. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

What does this mean? “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” I can’t do it. There is nothing I can do.

But, “the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” That is the message we proclaim, teach and embrace. It is God’s Holy Spirit, working through his word, that gets a hold of us. Now we can respond. Now we can love Now we can hold onto him. Now we can believe. His grace must initiate it.

“The gospel is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). That’s what he uses to save us. That is our Lord coming into our lives to lift us up from our hopeless condition to give us life. The message we proclaim is so simple, that gospel is filled with power, it’s something that any of us can remember. It’s simply that Jesus died for us on the cross, was buried, and was raised on the third day. That message alone is the power to get a hold of you and give you life again. In our baptism we are united with the death of Christ and also with his resurrection. In a very real way he takes us right from the bottom of the font where we are dead in our sin and transgression and gives us new life with Christ.

One of the pictures in the bible that helps us understand this is from the Old Testament, from the prophet Ezekiel chapter 37. God takes the prophet Ezekiel to a valley in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere he looks he sees bones. Human bones. Skeletons, dead for a long time. The flesh has long been eaten off them. Everything’s decomposed. There is nothing but a valley littered with human bones.

God says to Ezekiel, “Speak to the bones.” “Speak my word to them.” He does, and the Spirit of God fills those bones and they come back to life. He speaks to them and they are covered with muscles and skin and suddenly God’s people are alive again. They were dead and had turned away from God and given up the life he gave them. But he didn’t give up on them. He came to seek and save them and give them life.

That’s what God does for us. He keeps telling us over and over again, “I’ve given you my Son to save you.” That’s what takes hold of your heart. That’s where you get that gift of faith. It is God’s grace alone that rescues us from something we couldn’t get out of ourselves.

Without the truth of grace alone, it’s all on you. You have to make the right decisions. You have to have faith. You have to hold on. If it’s all on you, it’s going to be too much for you. You’re going to feel like Peter. When he was with the disciples in a boat on the sea of Galilee. The wind is blowing and the rain is falling and the waves are crashing and they are bailing and they are rowing and they are trying to get to the other side. And here comes Jesus, walking across the water. Storms don’t bother him. But it can’t be Jesus. He can’t walk on water. It’s got to be a ghost. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.” Peter says, “If it’s you, I want to walk on the water, too.” Jesus says, “Come on in, the water’s great.” Peter takes a couple steps out of the boat. So far so good. He sees the wind, he sees the waves, and he sinks. It’s Jesus who grabs him and saves his life.

It’s Jesus who saves us. He reaches out with his word to get a hold of our hearts, minds and souls, and helps us see we don’t have to do this ourselves. Christ has already done all of this for us.

We can’t handle it. But he can. Jesus has already shown that he can handle sin. He came into this world to live a perfectly obedient life, like us in every way but never sinned. He did everything God wanted him to do. So that when he suffered and died on the cross, he was punished for you and me. You don’t have to carry your guilt any more. it’s gone. No shame. No sin.

Jesus can also handle death. He came back from the dead. The grave couldn’t hold him. The bible says he first one of many who will come back from the dead. The grave cannot hold God’s people any more. He has a handle on life and death.

Jesus can handle Satan. Satan is the one who keeps lying to you, telling you that you have to do it and you’re not doing a good enough job. Jesus counters all that with the truth. The truth that he’s the way and the truth and the life, and that we are saved by grace through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God. Sola gratia. Grace alone.

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