Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017
Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God? I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there. On how we are doing things to earn our salvation. So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions. It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death. Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are. Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t. In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God. Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.
This is not a new problem. This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection. And it comes from very understandable places! We don’t like being helpless. We want to know what we can do! And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love. But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act. The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives. The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.
On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous. A lot more room to judge other people. To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save. Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector? The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day. And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is. And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it. You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people. The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions. He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t. Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.
Then there’s the social aspects of salvation. By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral. The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people. You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up. It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others. Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out. And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.
All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther. See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation. They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest. Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.
Of course there are several problems with this idea. One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for? If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross? And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place. The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit. Not just human beings, either. The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death. And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be. And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.
This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians. “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.” Or “forgiven.” Or being acquitted, like in a trial. And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings. If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing. That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center. When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us. He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t! We can’t earn our salvation. We can’t justify ourselves. We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us. We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation. We depend on God’s grace and mercy.
And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being! The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve. The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back. Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved. Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning. Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit. Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket. It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.
This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us. We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try. God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other. That’s what Jesus died for. That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to. That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel. That’s the good news.
And from that good news flows faith. Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow. Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift. But there’s more. When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things. In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other. The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus. The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us. Paul meant both of those. We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness. We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us. His absolute dedication to our salvation.
That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls. When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms. When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic. Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction. God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.
The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.” We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted. Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us. Thanks be to God.