March 09, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
John 3:16 may be the most famous Bible verse in the world but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand. As Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on The Gospel of John, this entire chapter is fraught with mystery.
The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesus’ rhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse and then to evoke wonder and awe once some measure of understanding begins to break through after all.
What’s more, in the midst of this conversation—Bruner calls it Jesus’ “Nicodemus Sermon”—Jesus evokes one of the oddest images from the Old Testament in bringing up that bronze serpent on a pole out in the wilderness that, weirdly enough, became an instrument of healing to the snake-bitten Israelites at that time (that story is the Old Testament lection for this Sunday in Lent in Year B as well).
When I was a child, somewhere in a children’s Bible storybook (or maybe it was on a painting my Sunday school teacher showed me), I saw an image of this story. It showed Jesus and Nicodemus seated in the dead of night on a kind of terrace. As Jesus talked, a wispy image of that bronze serpent appeared over Jesus’ head (almost like a cartoon bubble might appear over Charlie Brown’s head in a comic strip) even as Nicodemus listened to Jesus’ words with his mouth hanging partly open from the mystery of it all.
I don’t generally find great inspiration in the artwork in children’s storybook Bibles but that one actually may fit the bill here as John presents the scene. It’s a mysterious encounter. And well-known though the words of John 3:16 may now be, they are part of this mystery. Maybe we can revive for ourselves and for those to whom we preach the vividness of John 3:16 if we view it through this mystery lens.
After all, what we encounter here is confounding. Because no sooner does Jesus utter those famous words than he goes on in verse 17 to say that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it.
There sure have been a lot of Christians across the last two millennia who seem to think that condemnation is where it’s at when it comes to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing. Not a few Christians in North America seem convinced that a major part of their vocation as believers is to wag judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people. After all, what are all those placards and protest signs paraded in front of socio-political opponents on a range of “culture war” issues if not a message of condemnation?
But here in John 3 Jesus indicates that although there are plenty of condemned people in the world—it’s pretty tough to read John 3:18-20 and deny that Jesus was aware of bad and evil people who really exist in this world—pointing out to them their condemned status is not exactly job #1 for either the Son of God himself nor those who enter his marvelous Light to become saved. Yes, the condemned are out there and yes, they stand in contrast to those who live in the Light. And yes, the evil will resist the Light and they won’t willingly walk into the Light lest they be exposed.
All true. But the message that is to be both proclaimed and lived is one of Life and Light and Truth. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” So why do so many of us who are baptized into that Son’s name feel that it is our job after all to condemn the world? Again, we need to be clear that plenty of people stand self-condemned. There is a difference between those who serve God in Christ and those who serve only themselves or any number of the false gods of the age.
But even in the Season of Lent when we focus on sin and on what Jesus came to do to save us from our sin, we dare not forget that above all what we have to proclaim, preach, and teach is Good News.
Questions to Ask/Issues to Address
As is reflected in also the Old Testament sermon starter for this Sunday in Lent, God’s chosen way of salvation is finally so strange, so unexpected. I don’t mean to trivialize the most serious matter in the world but there is a sense in which upon encountering God’s plan of salvation for the first time, most any thoughtful person would be tempted to slap his palm onto his forehead while exclaiming, “Who woulda thunk it!!”
Who indeed? Even as in Numbers 21 God used a symbol of the very problem to be solved as the solution to the problem—snakebite victims had to stare at the image of a snake—so in the New Testament we look to the very thing that frightens us the most—death itself—and somehow find there a path to an eternal life that means death no longer has the final word for any of us.
God made the sinless one to be treated as the most sinful one ever.
God made the eternally alive Son of God die.
Now for the rest of us: Get some of that death into you and you live after all.
Strange. Striking. Unexpected.
But as also noted in the Numbers 21 article—and riffing on an observation of Neal Plantinga—there are analogies. A couple of years ago ahead of my first ever trip to Africa, I had to visit a Health Center to receive multiple shots. To ward off things like typhoid and yellow fever, my body was injected with small or inert strains of the very diseases I would just as soon avoid. Getting a dose of the diseases in question gave my antibodies a head start, a way to develop an immunity strategy that put my body ahead of the game in case the real-deal disease ever tried to enter my body big-time. If vaccines work, it’s the body’s way of saying to an incoming disease, “We’ve got your number, pal, because we’ve seen just enough of you before to know what to do now. So adios, adieu, hit the road! We are so ready to resist you!”
That’s how God dealt with the scourge of sin and its grim wage of death: he inoculated us with a bit of that very thing through our baptism into Christ. We die with Christ so that death cannot do its dirty, final work in us. The Holy Spirit comes to live in us and knows just what to do when death comes knocking (as it still does for each one of us). In baptism we have all been there before when it comes to death and so the eternal life that Christ gave us knows what to do to kick death out once and for all.
In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner points out that he once saw John 3:16 laid out as follows as a way to highlight the amazing power in this most famous of Bible verses:
“God ……………………………………………………………The greatest subject ever
So (much)…………………………………………………….. The greatest extent ever
Loved………………………………………………………….. The greatest affection ever
The world (kosmos)………………………………………….. The greatest object ever
That He gave His One-and-Only Son,…………………….. The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual, whoever, ……………………The greatest opportunity ever
Who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him…………………. The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed, ………………………………….The greatest rescue ever
“But would even now have a deep, lasting Life.” ………….The greatest promise ever
You’ve probably heard the story about the guy who is walking down the street but who suddenly falls into this deep hole he did not see. The hole is deep, the walls are steep.
A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Lexapro and throws it into the hole. A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down into the hole.
Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says, “Now we’re both stuck.” “Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
In this world of sin and evil, there are so many dark and deep pits into which we fall. And for each of us there is finally a six-foot deep hole in the ground waiting for us at some cemetery somewhere. Thanks be to God that Jesus has been down in that hole himself and he knows the way out.
You’ve probably also heard of the way out.
It’s called Easter.
Author: Scott Hoezee
You really cannot appreciate this passage from Numbers 21 without paying attention to the surrounding context. In the first three verses of this chapter, we get a tiny narrative snippet about a time the Israelites got knocked around by some Canaanite king named Arad. A few Israelites got nabbed, a few got injured, possibly a few got killed. So the people do what people of faith should do: they cry out to their God, who hears them and delivers the enemy into their hands. God came through big-time for them, so much so in fact that the Israelites nick-named the place where the battle had taken place “Destructo-Ville.” Because it was there that the Israelites destroyed their foe at last.
But then . . . as every good parent knows, the child who had been so charming and loving and grateful the previous day is by no means immune from the throwing of a temper tantrum the very next day. Flush from their stunning and God-given victory at Destructo-Ville, the people suddenly notice a rumbling in their stomachs. They notice that the sun can get pretty hot out there in the wilderness. Between being hungry and being hot, the people think back to good old Egypt, to farmer’s markets loaded with leeks and cucumbers and cool melons. Before you know it, Egypt transmogrifies in their imaginations into a kind of Shangri-La, a shimmering oasis of goodness. True, the whole bricks-without-straw period was a little tough but hey, at the end of a long day of building pyramids, you could go home, grab a glass of fine Claret, and take your ease over cheese and crackers.
And so they speak against God. They speak against Moses. For a covenant people such as Israel was (or was supposed to be), speaking against God is a little like speaking against oxygen. Speaking against God’s anointed and chosen servant is a little like speaking against the branch you’re sitting on by sawing it off. It’s a lesson they should have learned long ago but didn’t. This is not the first time in Numbers this happened. (I sometimes think that the most important “number” of the Book of Numbers is the number of times the people spit in God’s face, suffered as a consequence, and then groveled before Moses to get them out of their self-induced pickle.)
Sure enough, venomous (or fiery) snakes soon slither among the people, nipping and biting whoever was not quick enough to avoid the snakes’ lightning-fast strikes. People started to die. Others got really, really sick. In an instant the same Moses who had been the communal punching bag a few hours earlier starts to look once again like their savior and so they beg and plead for him to step into the breach between them and God and do something to get rid of these fiery ropes of death.
Who knows just what these serpents were. The fact that they are called “fiery” literally in Hebrew could indicate that these were not ordinary snakes. They sound like maybe a divine kind of sign or something. But whatever they were, the main thing to know about these serpents is that they were lethal. If the God who sent them doesn’t do something to get rid of them, the people would soon start to die in big numbers.
As is the predictable pattern in Numbers, God does respond to Moses’ plea on behalf of the people. Curiously, however, he does not respond by just evaporating the fiery snakes he had sent in the first place. That would have been the logical thing to do. God sends snakes, God removes snakes. That’s what the people asked Moses to pray, too, and presumably he did so—he prayed that God would “take the snakes away for the people.”
But God doesn’t. Instead he does the counter-intuitive thing of instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it up on a pole, and then has the people look upon that bronze snake as the weird cure for the bite of the real snakes.
Maybe because this way of dealing with the people’s blindness and sin is, in some curious way, more fitting, more instructive, than a simple removing of sin’s scourge. Perhaps this is a reminder that all across the Bible—for reasons that are properly vexing—it seems that God is able to do any number of things far more easily, far more swiftly, than dealing with the presence of sin and evil. Compared to what God ultimately had to do to save us from our sins, the whole act of Creation looks to have been a snap. Creating appears to have gone more smoothly for God than salvaging that same creation once it became marred by evil. Where sin is concerned, God is not simply going to snap his fingers and, voila, it’s just gone.
So also in Numbers 21: the people had to look at an icon of the very thing that was afflicting them—which was simultaneously a vivid reminder of the sin that brought about that scourge—before some kind of healing was going to happen. As Neal Plantinga pointed out years ago in a sermon on this chapter, this is an example of the principle of “like cures like.” Even as in a vaccine you are injected with a small amount of the disease to be warded off—thus building up immunity to that same disease—so in the long run of the Gospel we need to look at the Son of God on a cross as a way to deal with the scourge of death that our sinfulness has brought upon us all. Death cures death.
The Season of Lent is a long reminder to us all that our sins are no trite matter. They cannot be scrubbed away quickly or lightly. Also, Numbers 21 may be an example of our common struggle with sin. Even as the Israelites could so quickly pivot from a God-assisted victory to a God-denigrating period of grumbling, so the whole of our lives for now remain a series of mortification and vivification, of dying and rising with our Savior Jesus Christ. The whole thing is an agonizing process, and who knows exactly why God doesn’t just snap his fingers to make each one of us perfect at the moment of our baptisms. But in truth it doesn’t work that way despite the truth that we are so singularly and instantly saved by grace alone.
In Lent and at all times, these are surely worthy matters to ponder, to pray over, and to struggle with.
As you may know, Numbers 21 is not the last time in the Bible that we see this bronze serpent on a pole. In addition to the John 3 reference when Jesus referred to this with Nicodemus, the actual pole and bronze image itself reappears in II Kings 18 when Hezekiah becomes the king of Judah. Hezekiah is the one who finally cleaned house in Israel after years of wanton spiritual apostasy. Hezekiah is the one who smashed the altars to Baal and dismantled the fertility poles dedicated to Asherah. Hezekiah smashed these things to end the ritual prostitution and idolatry that had become commonplace among the Israelites. But II Kings 18:4 tells us that along with those pagan altars, Hezekiah destroyed one other item, too: the bronze serpent on a pole that Moses had made. And why did he destroy that?
Because it had become an idol to which the people were offering sacrifices!
The bronze serpent that had been used as a symbol of God’s saving power had turned into a talisman, a lucky charm, a false god. Now isn’t that startling? Because if that is what happened to the forerunner to the cross of Christ, you have to wonder if the same fate could befall the cross. The cross must never become for us a mere symbol of the past, a relic that is thought to possess power within itself. In the Middle Ages there was a lot of traffic in the relics trade in which items that allegedly had belonged to saints were bought, sold, and collected. One of the more common such relics were pieces of wood supposedly from Jesus’ cross. These slivers were revered because they were thought to confer saving power on the person who owned them.
That may come pretty close to the kind of idolatrous worship that eventually centered on Moses’ bronze serpent. And, of course, that misses the point of it all quite singularly as well.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 107 is a thanksgiving liturgy that worshipers probably recited at a festival in Jerusalem’s temple. Some congregations still use it or a modified form of it at Thanksgiving worship services. It also serves as the basis for a number of well-known hymns, including Martin Rinkart’s stirring “Now Thank We All our God” and the mariner’s hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may want to help hearers enter into it by reflecting on examples of God’s goodness and enduring love. They may want to invite them to contemplate examples of such goodness and enduring love in their own lives. One helpful exercise might even be to invite worshipers and students to compose their own version of or just a stanza for Psalm 107.
After all, the God of Psalm 107 is still as good and faithful as God was in the psalmist’s day. In fact, those aren’t just two of God’s many characteristics. They are, in some ways, the very essence of who God is. While our own goodness and faithfulness may be as enduring as a snowfall in July, God remains good and faithful.
Yet the psalmist doesn’t just praise God for that goodness and faithfulness. She also cites evidence of it throughout the psalm. Verses 4-32’s evidence has a discernible pattern. Each stanza features a description of some form of trouble people encountered, as well as their prayerful response to that crisis. Each also includes details of God’s redemption of those in trouble in addition to the appropriate thankful response to that salvation. Those whose redemption the psalmist cites includes people dying from hunger (4-9) and rebellion (17-22), as well as prisoners (10-16) and sailors caught in a storm (23-32).
Psalm 107 begins with the psalmist’s call to those whom God has redeemed from various crises to respond by giving thanks to their Savior. The call’s a bit reminiscent of parents trying to teach their children how to express their gratitude to those who have given them a gift. After all, we can almost see the psalmist, like a parent, asking worshipers, “Now what do you say?” And then it’s as if he reminds those “children” whom God has given the gift of redemption, to say “Thank you, Lord!”
The passage appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary focuses on just those whose rebellion against God’s good and perfect ways reflected their foolishness. In verse 17 the psalmist reports that they “became fools” and “suffered affliction.” However, the context at least suggests they became ill because of their rebellion.
This would, of course, echo Israel’s experience in Numbers 21. After all, the Israelites foolishly complained there to Moses and God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food.” God responded to that rebellion by sending poisonous snakes that bit, sickened and killed many Israelites.
Psalm 107 seems to draw a straight line from sin to sickness. After all, according to verse 17 the rebels “suffered affliction because of [italics added] their iniquities.” Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 in the light of Jesus Christ’s work may want to help hearers think carefully about what that means. After all, our sin sometimes has harsh consequences. If, for example, you break the law by driving your car through a red light, another car may hit yours. Yet those who profess that God has punished all of God’s sons and daughters’ sins in Jesus Christ don’t claim that God punishes God’s children by making them sick (or making them get into accidents). Sickness and death are part of the general human condition on this side of God’s new creation.
The disaster that Psalm 107:17-18 describes prompts those who have acted foolishly to respond in wise ways in verse 19. Those who’d suffered affliction, hated food and nearly died “cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” They turned to the only One who could rescue them from the calamity they’d brought on themselves. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 107 a chance to help hearers reflect on their own natural responses to trouble. To where do we turn first for our help in times of crisis? It’s tempting for citizens of the 21st century who have so many resources at our disposal to turn to God for help only as a last resort when all other resources have failed.
God’s response to the rebels’ desperate cries for help reflects God’s goodness and faithfulness for which we thank God in verse 1. God rescues miserable people from their distress. In fact, with the same power that God displays by speaking a creative word, God speaks a healing word. God rescues those who cry out to the Lord from the lip of the grave. Of course, Christians can hardly hear verses 19 and 20 without thinking of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. The gospel writers fill their works with accounts of Jesus’ healing power in the lives of countless ill people cried out to him for help.
The psalmist recognizes that the most appropriate response to such gracious “yes’s” to our pleas for help is thanksgiving. Much like the psalmist calls God’s children to give thanks to the Lord because God’s love endures forever, in verse 21 she calls those whom God has redeemed to give thanks to the Lord for God’s “unfailing love.” After all, God manifests that love by, among other things, doing wonderful deeds for those God loves.
However, the psalmist insists those God has rescued also have good reason to sacrifice “thank offerings” to the God who redeemed them. As Nancy deClaisse-Walford notes, when people sacrificed thank offerings, they also ate with the priests a meal of celebration of God’s goodness. So in the context of Psalm 107, those who’d hated food and nearly died again taste life-giving nourishment.
Since Christians believe Jesus Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law that involved offering sacrifices as thank offerings, those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may wish to explore how God’s modern sons and daughters can offer God their thanks. How can we go beyond saying and singing our thanksgiving to God? How can thanksgiving be a central theme of our thoughts and actions?
After all, as deClaisse-Walford notes, we not may be or ever have literally been dying because of our rebellion. Yet nearly all of us have needed not only spiritual but also physical rescue by God. Psalm 107 offers a good template for our response to such crises. We recognize the problem, cry out to God for help, gladly accept the help the Lord gives and then give thanks to God.
Yet this template also helps us to consider our response to those in crisis around us. We join those who are sick, hungry, lost, imprisoned or in some other kind of danger in crying out to God for help. However, we also remember that God often rescues others from their distress in no small part through God’s children. So those whom God has redeemed from their distress always ask ourselves how we can put ourselves in a place to be used by God to help rescue others from their crises.
The Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim says Psalm 107’s imagery reminds him of the baby monitors many parents of young children have. They resemble walkie-talkies. Parents place the monitor near their baby and keep the receiver near them. So no matter where the parents are in the house, they can always hear the noises their child makes. They can hear, for example, when their child cries upon awakening from a nap. This allows them to respond immediately to those cries.
It’s almost as if the psalmist pictures God as placing a kind of baby monitor near God’s sons and daughters. That monitor is tuned to the noises we make, particularly our cries of pain. God instantly hears our cries for help so that God can graciously respond with redemption.
Author: Stan Mast
The first three verses of this text reminded me of my two favorite criticisms of Calvinism, which has historically taken these verses as a proof text for its doctrine of total depravity. A car critic described the famously boxy Volvo as something that might have been designed by “a Calvinist with a straight edge.” And Garrison Keillor on his radio show advertised a fictional breakfast cereal called Mournful Oatmeal. “It’s like Calvinism in a box.” Calvinists (of whom I am one) are often stereotyped as straight-laced and gloomy, just like Paul in Ephesians 2:1-3.
Except that Paul is not gloomy in this text, not by the end, and not overall. Indeed, this text is the locus classicus for the great doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, surely the most liberating and joyful teaching in the world. But to get to the pinnacle of grace, to help us sing “Amazing Grace” from the mountaintops, Paul slogs through the lowlands of humanity’s sinful condition. He is like a doctor confronted with a difficult decision about treating a patient who has fallen. In order to prescribe the right treatment, the doctor must come up with an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s condition. A faulty diagnosis can lead to incorrect, even deadly, treatment. Most Christians agree that the human race has fallen into sin, but there’s significant disagreement about the effects of the fall. How bad are the damages from the fall?
So, let’s ask Paul, “How bad is it, Doc?” Here’s a graphic way to think about three very different answers to that questions: picture a corpse lying on the ground, a cripple using a set of crutches, and a healthy person climbing a step ladder. First, focus on the corpse. You might say that the fall was so severe that it left us dead. We’re alive physically, but dead spiritually, sort of like zombies, the living dead. Left to ourselves, every human being is a corpse, unable to move spiritually, incapable of doing the very things we must do to be saved. That’s the infamous Calvinist doctrine of total depravity.
Or picture a person hobbling along with a pair of crutches. You might say that the fall was bad, but it didn’t kill us. It left us crippled. We’re like a person with a badly broken leg who needs crutches or at worst like a quadriplegic who needs a wheelchair to get around. With some help, we are able to do what we must do to be saved. That’s the position of Christians who have historically been called Arminians.
Or you might say that we haven’t really fallen at all, so we don’t need to be saved. We are simply climbing the ladder to goodness in our own strength, getting better and better as the human race evolves into a higher order of being. All we need is more knowledge, a more rigorous exercise regimen, or a better step ladder. This is the view of some liberal Christians and all secular humanists, going all the way back to the Enlightenment.
What does the Word of God say about the condition of the human race apart from the grace of God: corpses, cripples, or climbers? How does Paul answer our question? “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of the world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit now at work in those who are disobedient.” You weren’t just a little sick and in need of a couple of aspirin, plenty of rest, and a visit to your doctor if you don’t feel better in a few days. You weren’t just a little off course in your life and in need of a minor, mid-course, educational correction. You weren’t seeking God in your own way, getting better and better each step of the way, though you were a little lost in your sincere effort.
No, you were dead in your sin, and thus unable to do what you had to do. Indeed, says Paul, you lived in sin. It was the dominating factor in your life; it was the sphere or realm or kingdom in which you used to live. Picture a modern day biosphere. You lived like everyone else who lives in the biosphere of sin; you were completely trapped in the sinful ways of a disobedient world. In fact, you were followers of Satan, unwittingly perhaps, but nevertheless you followed the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air. And, says, Paul, I was no better. “All of us, even those of who were raised in church, in the confines of the covenant community, lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts.” We (and I include myself) were not basically good people who occasionally did the wrong thing. We were by nature slaves to our sinful cravings.
When we ask Doctor Paul how bad it is, he says, “We were dead in sin, completely conditioned by sin, so that all we do is affected by sin, and totally in bondage to sin, so that we can’t do what we must do to be saved.” Jesus said it powerfully years before in John 6:44. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” But the good (?) doctor isn’t done yet. His diagnosis ends with this statement. “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” Well, of course, we were. How could we be anything else when God is as holy as God is? If we willingly follow the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh and the Devil, how could the Holy Trinity by anything other than angry with us?
That’s what you would think, but God had other thoughts. Those unfathomable thoughts of God are summarized in Ephesians 2 with that great two word summary of the gospel—“but God.” We were dead in sin, but God made us alive. We were sunk in the pit of depravity, but God raised us up. We were headed for hell, but God seated us in the heavenly realms. We were being ruined by Satan, but God turned us into a masterpiece of goodness. We are still inclined toward all evil if left to our selves, but God won’t leave us to ourselves. He sent his Son to save us and his Spirit to finish the work. We were dead; note the past tense. But now God has made us alive; we are not what we once were, corpses, cripples, not even climbers. We are new creatures. How bad is it? It’s so bad that it will take a miracle for us to be saved. Which is exactly what Ephesians 2 says has happened.
Why in the world would God do that? To explain it, Paul heaps up words like cordwood. “But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive…. It is by grace you have been saved… so that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” What a rich and wonderful picture of God. Salvation began in God’s love. His love took the form of mercy, which took pity on poor sinners, and that mercy came to full expression in grace, which pardoned sinners. What a kind God!
I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
That’s right. It is only because of God’s grace, his undeserved, unearned love and mercy and kindness for sinners, that we are saved. That is the very heart of Christianity. Well, not quite. As the Reformers put it, it’s not just sola gratia. It’s also solus Christus. God’s grace comes to us only in Christ. There is no grace for sinners apart from the person and work of Christ. Listen to the way Doctor Paul puts it. “God made us alive with Christ… raised us up with Christ… seated us in the heavenly realms in Christ…. His kindness expressed to us in Christ…. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus….” God’s grace saves sinners only in connection with Christ.
But Paul isn’t done with his prescription for our cure, because he knows that there is only one thing in this world that can connect us to Christ—not a good life, because apart from grace we are dead in sin; not an honest effort, because apart from grace we follow sinful desires; not our sincere seeking for God, because apart from grace we follow Satan; not God’s love for everyone, because apart from God’s grace we are by nature objects of wrath. There is only one thing that can connect sinners to Christ, and that is faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith….” Faith is the channel, the funnel, the conduit through which the grace of God in Christ reaches us. Faith doesn’t earn God’s grace, because then we could boast of our faith, and our text explicitly says that no one can boast. No, faith receives God’s grace like the trembling hand of a street corner beggar received the handful of dollars thrust through the open window of my car.
But then, says Paul, the beggar becomes a doer, no longer a panhandler begging for a buck, but a prince(ss) striding through the world doing the good works that God in his grace has prepared for us to do. Now the gloom is gone. No more Mournful Oatmeal for breakfast. This is full gospel joy, because the grace of God given through Christ and received by faith makes us fully human. By grace, we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.
We can’t get to this great good news without first understanding the awful bad news. Thanks God that we don’t have to end with the bad news or live in its darkness. That’s a temptation for straight edged Calvinists. It is our duty as preachers to take people through the depths so that they can sing on the heights. Don’t ever leave them down there. Make sure they can sing, “Amazing Grace,” by the time you say “Amen.”
To help people understand that even faith is a work of grace (“you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God….”), take them to the beach. Imagine taking a ride to Grand Haven (a beautiful local beach here in Michigan) to watch the big waves roll in. Some foolish adolescent jumps in the water by the pier where the undercurrents are treacherous and powerful. He struggles for a moment and then goes under. Because you are a loving and merciful and gracious person, you jump in to save him. But by the time you find him, he is lying on the bottom, apparently dead. You try talking him into swimming to shore, but you know he’s going nowhere on his own. So you pull him to the beach and stretch him out. You stand over him yelling at him to breathe, but having swallowed half of Lake Michigan, he simply can’t do it. The only way to get him to breath is for you to breathe for him. You give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, and your breath enables him to breathe. In ways we can’t fathom, God in his grace makes us alive so that we can breathe, and believe.
Here’s another take on what God in his grace has done for us sinners. Back in the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther was debating the great humanist Erasmus. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.