The text: Ephesians 2:1-10
“By grace you have been saved”—one of the most well-known verses in the church, especially amongst us Lutherans. Or is it?
What does being saved by grace mean?
The assurance of salvation by grace was the message that Duke George of Saxony heard in July 1517.
He had requested a “learned and eloquent preacher” to preach in the castle chapel at Dresden.
Who was sent? None other than Martin Luther! Luther preached on the assurance of salvation.
In his sermon he said: “Our salvation must ever remain our foremost concern.
Man can obtain it only through faith in Christ Jesus, not by his own good works.”
Later that day at the dinner table, Duke George asked his wife’s attendant, Barbara von Sala: “How did you like the sermon?”
“Ah” she replied, “let me hear just one more like it, and I can die in peace!”
But Duke George was not impressed. In fiery indignation he exclaimed:
“I’d give much money not to have heard it.
It makes men secure and reckless in sin!”
I’m not sure that being ‘secure and reckless in sin’ was what Barbara von Sala was advocating, and Luther certainly wasn’t either.
In fact, Barbara wanted the opposite. If Barbara was secure and reckless in sin, she wouldn’t have cared for the gospel at all and have longed for the comfort and peace of God’s promise of forgiveness and righteousness with him.
“Let me hear just one more [sermon] like it, and I can die in peace!”
Barbara said. She had heard the gospel and it had given her such great joy.
The gospel message Barbara von Sala rejoiced in is summarised by today’s verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“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 may boast.”
It is a verse that is at the heart of the reformation and at the identity, theology and culture of the Lutheran church.
But what is the gospel?
Paul gives us a key word in today’s text:
The gospel is that we have been saved.
Someone who has been saved can’t save themselves; they need another to save them.
Often the gospel is explained this way: because of sin we are separated from God, but God throws a life buoy to us—Jesus—and when we grasp hold of him, we are saved.
But in today’s text Paul says: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”
We weren’t only drowning with one arm above the waves reaching for a life buoy.
We had already drowned, as it were—we were already spiritually dead, at the bottom of the sea of human sin.
Now someone who’s dead can’t do a whole lot.
They can’t raise themselves to life and contribute anything to change their situation.
Paul says that’s what the natural human condition is like.
The only life we had was in sin, and we followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.
Amazing that what Paul writes centuries ago is the exact diagnosis of society today — a society which mere humans create God in their image and who even want to be God, being the final authority and worshipping the self.
No wonder Paul says we were objects of wrath. God’s sentence of death for our transgressions is just. Why?
Because sin is not restricted to a particular culture or time, but entrenched in what it means to be a human being after the Fall.
Sin is a spectrum that we are all part of.
When God’s law shows us the ways in which we sin it shows us, at the same time, that we are no better than the society we lament over.
The Ten Commandments show us how God wants us to live in every area of life, in our spiritual life, family life, work life, in all our interactions with God and neighbour.
There’s no such thing as a little lie. It’s a lie.
Or, as Jesus taught, just thinking about something sinful but not following through in action is no better than actually doing the wrong thing.
We are truly among those who need saving because we cannot save ourselves and we need saving from ourselves.
Barbara von Sala knew that—that’s why she cherished the gospel she heard that day in the Dresden castle chapel.
It’s the same gospel we need to hear too, and we hear it in our text today: “we have been saved.”
For it was while we were dead in our sins that God showed his rich and unconditional mercy and lavish love to us through his Son.
It was while the human race was unable to reach out to Jesus that God reached out to us by sending Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world—but to save the world through him.
Jesus kept the law for us perfectly then traded places with us to take the Father’s wrath on our sin for us and save us from his just sentence of death that we might have his very own righteousness.
This was a past event that has already happened for us, a complete gift, totally undeserved: “by grace you have been saved.”
We could never do anything to deserve God’s love, never contribute anything to life with God or earn a pat on the back from him.
We are not saved because of our kindness to our neighbour or by our service in the church or how often we donate to community service programs or by how much we put in the offering plate.
We are not saved because of our faith as if our faith were a work by us that is pleasing to God;
we are not saved because of any decision we make,
or our piety,
or the eloquence
or frequency of our prayers,
but faith is itself an undeserved gift from God brought into effect by the Holy Spirit as he speaks to us through the Scriptures to enlighten us to see we are saved by Christ and because of Christ, and we receive all his saving work through faith.
But what of Duke George’s response to Luther’s sermon?
Remember what he said?
“I’d give much money not to have heard it. It makes men secure and reckless in sin!”
Duke George’s concern, Christians abusing their freedom, is a valid one, even though I feel he misunderstood what Luther had said.
For the gospel is certainly not the reason to discard the law, but only to strive harder to keep it.
The danger in the church is the temptation to think that because we are saved apart from the Law, we should disregard the Law and don’t need to strive daily to lead a holy life.
That because good works aren’t necessary for salvation that they aren’t necessary at all.
They were thoughts the church at Rome entertained.
But in chapter 6 of his letter to the Christians there, Paul insists:
“What shall we say then?
Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (v1-2).
And in today’s text he says: “For 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 may boast.
For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which he has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v8-10).
We’re not saved by good works but saved for good works.
The gospel doesn’t mean a doing away with the law, but upholding it.
That’s really what we ourselves confessed again this morning.
Did you notice the careful wording and order of the questions of confession?
Having been redeemed by Christ from all our sins means that we will strive daily to lead a holy life.
We don’t strive daily to lead a holy life that God might redeem us—in Christ, he already has.
And we can’t daily strive to lead a holy life apart from Christ, who has already brought us to share in his holiness that we may walk in it.
What does walking in holiness look like?
How do we know what the good works are that God has called us to do?
Again, God’s law shows us.
The 10 commandments show us God’s design for what good works are to be.
We are to use God’s name to pray,
we are to desire His word and gladly hear and learn it.
We are to honour and respect our parents and all those in authority.
We are to help our neighbour in all their needs.
We are to uphold God’s design for marriage so that in matters of sex, our words and conduct are pure and honourable and husband and wife love and respect one another.
We are not to gossip but defend our neighbour and speak of them in the kindest way possible and help them protect and even increase what is theirs, and to be satisfied with what God has blessed us with, and to use it to bless others.
This is all completely different to the way of the world but it is what God rescued you for.
So, we can say that Lent and the Christian life is all about good works.
And we can even say it is about being saved by good works—that is, Christ’s good works.
He is the one who perfectly kept the commandments for you and showed both perfect submission to his Father’s will and perfect love and compassion, even to the point of laying down his own life on the Cross for you, to free you from sin, death and Satan.
Grace is not cheap, for the ransom price God paid to make you his very own was the holy and precious blood of his Son Jesus.
Then he actually made you his own at your baptism, where the crucified, risen, exalted Christ stood in the sanctuary space in the church here on earth, baptising you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to make you who were once dead now alive, with him.
In your union with Christ you already share in Jesus’ own enthronement and have a place of belonging and permanency in heaven, so that while you wait for the day he comes again, you already receive every spiritual blessing that comes from your Father in heaven through Jesus.
In union with Christ you are indeed covered in his holiness, and walk with him as his holy priests for the sake of the world, partners with him in his mission of prayer for it, and service to it through the good works he prepared for you beforehand.
Why has God done all this for you?
Simply because of his love for you, and because he was determined to shower the inexpressible riches of heaven in Christ upon you.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.