SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE
Ephesians 2: 4-9
When I was a sophomore in college, I changed my major to English Literature. As a high school student I regularly got As and Bs. College was an adjustment; I had to really study; and take notes; and buy books and write in them! Toward the end of the semester it was time to write a major term paper. It took days to do but I completed it and believed it to be good. A few days later my professor called me into his office. He handed me my term paper! F! I had a big, red F on my paper with lots of notes written all over it in red pen. My eyes filled with tears. “What’s wrong with it Professor Williams?” I asked. “You plagiarized!” he roared. “You stole someone else’s words!” “What do you mean?” I asked. He replied: “ You took words right out of encyclopedias and included them as if they were yours.” In my head I was trying to figure that out. In my high school classes that was the way I had written papers. I thought that is what research was about! I was wrong. My professor went on to explain: “Anything; anything you write that is not your own thought, or are not your own words, must be quoted and footnoted.” My paper had few of either. According to my college handbook, he could have failed me in the very subject I had chosen as my major. “Is there anything I can do about this?” I asked lamely and desperately. My professor paused and he sighed. “You can go back to the library, and in the next two days before grades have to be turned in, rewrite this paper, footnoting everything that is not your own thought. Bring it back in, and I’ll re-grade it, then average the two grades.” That is one of my most memorable experiences of grace: a gift from the one in power. He didn’t have to do that; I was holding up his grading. I turned in the second paper; when I got it back, I got a B+ on it. Averaged with the F on my first paper, I got a C in the class; not an F! What a lesson! So when I wrote my Doctoral Project a few years ago, every thought that I found in a book had a footnote!
Grace makes people grateful. Grace is a gift, and it was a subject about which that Paul felt most powerfully, and that Jesus illustrated most abundantly. Let’s first look at Paul. Have you noticed that even when he had important things to say, he would begin his letters with this greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul was profoundly grateful for grace. “Grace” was the traditional greeting between Gentiles; peace was the traditional greeting between Jews. Paul knew his audience; he always started with “grace,” in part because he believed that the grace of the Lord Jesus saved “a wretch like him” to quote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We’ll look at that again in a few minutes. Paul, as Saul, had persecuted Christians and had even given permission for their death. He was astounded that Jesus himself would appear to him in a vision, asking why he was persecuting him! Scales fell from him eyes, and he was changed. It was a major change. He was baptized, and he began a life of witnessing. All because of the grace of the Lord Jesus, who met him instead of condemning him. In the book Paul for a New Day, published by Augsburg-Fortress Press, Robin Scroggs says: “It is my conviction that Augustine and Luther were correct at least in finding the heart of Paul’s thought in the cluster of motifs summed up in the phrase, ‘Justification by grace through faith,… Paul said it, but it was Luther, once again, who read it and was changed by it.” Remember last week when I said the church of Luther’s day said the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was not sufficient for salvation; that sacraments, administered by a priest, completed the salvation process? Well in addition, there were some priests in Luther’s day who were encouraged to take financial gifts, called indulgences, to move a loved one out a state of suspended destination they called purgatory, on toward heaven. There is no term in the Bible such as purgatory; and there is no place in the Bible where giving more money gets a person closer to salvation or through the gates of heaven. It’s not like the “pay to play” ideas in the world, where paying a high amount of money gets a person political or business favors. The ways of God begin with the love of God. We love because God first loved us. Likewise, God has shown us grace so that we might show grace. That makes salvation a gift, pure and simple.
We’ve learned how grace became so important to Paul. Now we turn to Jesus, who had had story after story demonstrating the Grace of God. Many were called “Parables of the Kingdom.” One I read today was from Matthew 18: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” You heard me read it. One person was brought before the king; the man could not pay. By rights the king could have been sold as a servant, along with his wife, his children, and his possessions, to recoup part of the debt. The story says, instead, that “Out of pity (that is, compassion, or grace) the king released him and forgave the debt.” What a gift! Like a judge who considers circumstances and metes out a lighter sentence than the full one allowed by law. Such a gift likely changed the life of that servant in the parable. It also can change the life of a prisoner in a courtroom. In such cases an old life can be cast aside, and a new life can begin! Grace and love our top qualities of God! Here’s another parable Jesus told: Matthew 20: “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The early workers agreed to the wage and to the hours. The householder hired extra people later in the day. Some just worked for one hour. When it was time to collect their pay, the householder gave those who worked an hour the same amount as those who worked all day! Yes it sounded unfair! But Jesus couched the graciousness of the householder with these words: “Did I not keep my agreement with you? Do you begrudge me my generosity?” A third situation describing the gracious qualities of God is the woman caught in adultery, told in John chapter 8. In those days, the law stated that a woman charged with adultery could be put to death by stoning. You’ll find it in Deuteronomy 22:24. The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus wanting to hear what he said about the situation. It was clearly a test, and Jesus answered as if God were the judge on the matter. Here’s what Jesus said: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Case closed. Verdict rendered; grace offered. Can you imagine gratitude filling the heart of the woman? Jesus’ sentence released her from death when he said: “Go, and sin no more.” Grace offers such a gift for those who feel condemned by the law and ashamed of their sins!
On the cover of Pastor David Jeremiah’s book it says:
“Amazing Grace’ lyrics by John Newton, words from the Apostle Paul, both men Captured by Grace.” In his book he writes:
“As for courtrooms,… we’ve heard aggrieved families shouting at thugs as they stood to hear the verdict. And we’ve agreed with them, haven’t we? It’s part of our constitution. Aren’t we supposed to support justice and jeer at evil? …. The smallest toddler retaliates to losing a toy to another child. She doesn’t reclaim her toy calmly or dispassionately. She reacts in outrage. She seizes the toy and shouts recriminations at its thief…. We get mad and we get even. Why then, do we catch our breath upon observing behavior that precisely overturns these expectations? Grace is shocking…. Grace turns human politics on its head, right before our eyes….Grace suggests that human beings may be something more than honor graduates of the animal kingdom after all …. We find a smile, perhaps even shed a tear. It’s like warming the soul at a hearth on a chilly night.” [Integrity Publishers, Nashville, 2006, p. 12]
John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” deplored his life until “the change.” For him, the change was from an inhumane member of the crew on a ship that tortured and killed slaves, to a man who turned his life upside down and became an abolitionist. What could possibly forgive the actions of a man like that, except the amazing grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ? The Apostle Paul deplored his life as Saul—the driven persecutor of Christians—until “the change.” His change was in meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. After being saved by grace and not by the Law, Paul spent the rest of his life preaching tirelessly about the Good News that Jesus saves. And I myself, after the unforgettable encounter with my English Professor, the one who chose grace over what the college handbook said the penalty was for plagiarism, graduated as an English Major who footnotes everything! I was delivered from failure.
Grace is amazing. Years ago some hymnal editors tried to change the word “wretch” in hymnals, thinking that it didn’t describe the people in the pews. But they quickly changed it back, finding plenty of broken people who, after one terrible choice or another, felt like a “wretch.” If we do not feel like we have hit rock bottom, we have less desire to grab the lifeline that has been thrown to us. Grace is one of the greatest gifts that get us back on track, giving us a second chance. God wants that!
Will you accept the gift of grace?
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 15, 2017