October 3, 1999 | Ray Pritchard
Listen to this Sermon
Since this is a sermon series on the gospel, I would like to point out that my text contains the whole gospel message in just six words. If you know what these words are and what they mean, you will know the gospel. And you can share it with anyone you meet.
The six words come in three sets of two words each—the first from verse 1, the second from verse 4, and the third from verse 8.
You were—verse 1
But God—verse 4
Through faith—verse 8
The first two words describe our true condition apart from God’s grace. The words “you were” describe not only what we used to be, they also describe the current condition of everyone in the world who is not saved. That condition, as we will see in a few moments, is truly hopeless.
The second two words tell us how grace works. The phrase “but God” announces the world’s greatest rescue mission when the Creator took on human flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ to perform the work of salvation.
The final two words explain how we come into contact with God’s grace. It is “through faith” and only through faith. It is not faith plus works or faith plus anything else. It is faith alone that brings the blessings of grace to us.
Rightly understood, the whole gospel is in those six words: You were…But God…Through faith. God made it simple so that anyone could understand it and so all of us could share it with someone else.
The Last Great Word
My subject today is the grace of God. Perhaps a quote from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal will put things in their proper context: “To make a man a saint, grace is absolutely necessary and whoever doubts it, does not know what a saint is or what a man is.” One phrase hangs in the mind: “Grace is absolutely necessary.” If you doubt that, you don’t know what a saint is or what a man is, and I might add, you don’t know what grace is either.
This week I’ve been reading Phillip Yancey’s fine book What’s So Amazing About Grace? In an early chapter he comments that grace is the “last great word.” He means that it is one of the last of the “great words” that has retained some of its original meaning: “free and undeserved bounty.” For instance, when we pray, we “say grace” to thank God for our food. We are “grateful” for a kindness done by another person. To show our thanks we offer a “gratuity.” Something that is offered at no cost is said to be “gratis.” And when we have overdue books from the library, we may return them at no charge during a “grace period.”
Our Churches and Our Children
It is commonly said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace. And that is certainly true. We sing about grace, we write poems about grace, we name our churches and our children after grace. Across the street is Grace Episcopal Church and less than two miles from here is Grace Lutheran Church. Every year parents in our church name their daughters Grace.
But for all that, grace is not well understood and often not really believed. We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means. It’s probably true that most of us think infrequently about God’s grace. For every discussion we have about grace, we have a dozen about the church budget or the church programs or more likely, whether or not we’ll live to see the Cubs win the World Series. If you ask us, we certainly believe in grace, but outside of the worship services, the word is rarely on our lips.
Yancey points out that part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is scandalous. Hard to accept. Hard to believe. Hard to receive. We all have a certain skepticism when a telemarketer tells us, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii.” Automatically we wonder, “What’s the catch?” because we have all been taught that “there’s no free lunch.”
Here are a few other notes I jotted down from Yancey’s book: Grace shocks us in what it offers. It is truly not of this world. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.
Jeffrey Dahmer and Me
As I pondered his words I recalled an illustration I ran across in a sermon I read the week before our recent Celebration Sunday service at Oak Park-River Forest High School. The illustration seemed too shocking to use on that special occasion, but now it seems entirely appropriate.
It goes something like this. Consider for a moment the deeds of Jeffrey Dahmer. He seduced young men, then murdered then, and in some cases, ate them. That’s right, he was a pervert, a murderer, and a cannibal. After he was arrested, he professed faith in Jesus Christ. That is, he claimed to have seen the error of his ways, confessed his sins, and cried out to Jesus to save him. We’ll never know the full story of what happened because he was beaten to death in prison not long after that.
My point is not to ask whether or not his conversion was genuine. Only God knows the truth about that. But let us suppose that you are the parent of one of those young men he had seduced, murdered, and then eaten. How would you react if one Sunday you came to church and saw Jeffrey Dahmer behind the pulpit giving his testimony about how God had saved him? That question is easy for me to answer. If he had murdered one of my boys, it would take all my inner resolve not to jump up, run to the platform, and kill him with my bare hands. Such a man does not deserve to be among the living. And I would happily be the agent of sending him off to eternal destruction in hell. That’s how I would feel. And perhaps that is what I would try to do.
Is there grace for Jeffrey Dahmer?
At this point in the story the preacher made an arresting point. When we think about Jeffrey Dahmer and the possibility that he might truly have been saved after those heinous crimes, our first response may be to say, “There is grace even for people like Jeffrey Dahmer.” That statement, true as it is, reveals at least as much about us as it does about him. All of us would like to think (and in fact do think) that we are “better” than he is. Or we’re not as “bad” as he was. I make no bones about the fact that I think I am “better” than Jeffrey Dahmer. I’ve never done the things he did. I’ve never even thought or dreamed or imagined about some of them. So when I say there is grace “even” for the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, while I’m willing to include him in the circle of those God might save, I’m not putting myself on his level. I truly believe I’m better than he is.
But then (as you can tell I’m partly telling the illustration and partly thinking my way through it at the same time) the preacher said it’s not enough to say there is grace even for the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer. In truth, he said, there is grace only for the Jeffrey Dahmers of this world. They alone can be saved.
Something deep inside the human heart resists this conclusion. How can it be true? Does it mean God somehow “favors” the perverse, that grace is a reward for truly terrible sin, that the greater your sin, the more likely you are to find God’s grace? That can’t be right, can it?
Is this not a version of “Let us continue in sin that grace may abound?”
Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Teresa
But when the smoke clears, I think the preacher is on to something. Too many religious people are like the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11). He might as well have said, “I thank God I’m not like Jeffrey Dahmer.” Well, it’s true. He wasn’t like Jeffrey Dahmer. And he wasn’t saved either. He went home still in his sins while the hated tax collector ended up justified by God.
As long as I think I am better than other people, I am not ready to be saved from my sin because I have not yet considered how great my sin really is. Jesus did not come to save “semi” sinners or “partial” sinners or “not-so-bad” sinners. As long as you feel the need to put some kind of qualifying adjective before the word “sinner,” you aren’t ready to come to Jesus because you won’t see your need for the grace of God.
To put the matter this way is not to deny the real moral differences among people. Is there no difference between Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Teresa? Of course there is. One was a killer, the other an instrument of mercy to thousands of hurting people. But our perspective is all-important. Let’s suppose that we throw Jeffrey Dahmer into the deepest pit on earth. Then let’s get the rest of us and travel to the top of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. There we will look over the railing and jeer at Jeffrey Dahmer and congratulate ourselves at being so far above him. Now consider what God sees. From heaven as he looks down it is as if earth is a trillion miles away. What happens to the distance between us and Jeffrey Dahmer? It vanishes from God’s point of view. That’s why Romans 3:22 says, “There is no difference.” And that’s why the next verse says, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We’re all in the same boat—like it or not.
At this point the words of Jesus come to mind. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). That is a truly astounding statement if you think about it. On one level he might be saying that if anyone is truly righteous, i.e., has never sinned at all, that person doesn’t need a Savior because he (or she) has never committed any sins that need forgiveness. As a theoretical point that statement is entirely true. But it’s a closed category since there is no one outside of Jesus himself who ever lived a sinless life.
The statement might also mean that Jesus came to save those who will admit their true sinfulness before God. If a person says, “I’m not a sinner,” the words of Jesus will mean nothing to him. Even Jesus can’t save a person who won’t admit he needs to be saved. As long as you and I cling to our self-righteousness, we will be hopelessly lost and there is nothing that can be done to help us.
What the Woman Said to Me
Yesterday during the first few minutes of the second service, I was sitting on the stairs leading up to the balcony when a lady came by, shook my hand, and said she wanted to ask me a question. I could tell that she was deeply concerned about something. “Last week you said there was no one righteous in all of Oak Park.” That’s true. I did indeed say that, and I also said there are no righteous people in any of the cities and towns in this area. Apart from God’s grace, there is no righteousness to be found anywhere. With a face marked with intense concern, she asked, “But Pastor Ray, if you aren’t a righteous man, where can we find one?” I told her to listen to my sermon and she would find the answer.
I recounted the story to the congregation and said I would show them the only righteous person in Oak Park—or anywhere else for that matter. Pointing to the cross on the wall behind the pulpit, I declared that “Jesus is the only righteous man who ever lived.”
And compared to him, I am Jeffrey Dahmer.
He was pure, holy, perfect in every way. He never sinned, not even one time. Though he was severely tempted, he never gave in. All the rest of us fall so far short that we cannot begin to be compared to him. He is the only righteous man ever to walk this earth.
And we crucified him. His reward for doing God’s will was a bloody Roman cross. Here is the wonder of grace at work. From the murder of a perfect man came God’s plan to rescue the human race.
This, I think, is what Phillip Yancey was driving at when he called grace “scandalous” and “shocking.” Indeed it is. To the human heart no doctrine is more repugnant than the doctrine of grace because it presupposes a common human condition that we don’t like to admit.
With that as background we turn to our text. Ephesians 2:1-9 is the most extensive statement in the Bible about grace. It tells us how God saves dead people.
I. Grace Needed—”You were”
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Why do we need God’s grace? Because all men and all women are by nature spiritually dead and separated from God. We must begin at this basic starting point for biblical theology. When God looks down from heaven, the whole world looks like a cemetery to him. All he sees are dead people. Above every corpse is a three-word epitaph: “DEAD THROUGH SIN.”
In what sense are human beings “dead” even though they are alive? Because of sin we are separated from God. We are unable to know God personally and we can’t do anything about our condition. To make matters worse, we are dead and we don’t know it.
Consider this scene. You are at a party with lots of laughter and plenty of frivolity. Next to you is a renowned doctor. Pointing to a man in the middle of the celebration, he says, “That man does not know it but he has an incurable disease. He will be dead within a week.” What would you think of him then? And what do you make of his antics at the party? He is a dead man and doesn’t even know it.
To be dead is a hopeless condition. You can’t say to a dead man, “Walter, get up!” and expect him to do anything. You can’t talk the dead back to life.
When God looks down from heaven, he sees our world as a vast graveyard filled with the living dead. Unbelievers appear to be alive. They laugh, they talk, they plan, they fight, they marry, they dream of the future, and one day they die. But they are dead even while they are alive.
This is the human condition apart from God. It is true of all people without exception. Apart from grace, we are all born dead. Which is why, when God wants to save someone, he first finds a dead person.
II. Grace Given—”But God”
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7).
Note the two little words in verse 4: “But…God.” Our salvation hangs entirely on those two words. We were dead…But God! We were enslaved…But God! We were trapped…but God! We were self-destructing…but God! We were lost in sin…but God!
Now circle three words in verses 4-5—love, mercy, and grace. Love is that in God which causes him to reach out to his creatures in benevolence. Mercy is God withholding punishment. And grace? Grace is the unmerited favor of God.
Think of it this way. Imagine a vast reservoir of God’s love. As it begins to flow toward us, it becomes a river of mercy. As it cascades down upon us, the mercy becomes a torrent of grace.
These two verses offer three words which answer to the desperate state of mankind:
Here’s a good way to remember the difference between mercy and grace. Mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve—Judgment. Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve—Salvation.
The picture of a torrent of grace rushing upon us is especially apropos since grace always comes down from God to man. Grace never goes up; it always comes down. Grace by definition means that God gives us what we don’t deserve and could never earn.
III. Grace Received—”Through faith”
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In these two verses we discover how grace is communicated to the human heart. It does not come by works, by religion, or by anything we might conceive as “earning” God’s grace. Grace saves us through faith. Nothing more, nothing less. Years ago I attended a Christian college where we often recited the Statement of Faith. It contained a line that I didn’t appreciate then but see now as central to the Christian faith: “We believe that salvation is by grace—plus nothing and minus nothing.” Something in us always wants to add to God’s free grace. It’s humbling to admit that we can do nothing to earn our deliverance from sin. But anytime we add anything to grace, we subtract from its meaning.
Grace must be free or else it is not grace at all. Free grace? Of course. What other kind could there be?
Consider the three key words of verse 8: grace, saved, faith. Grace is the source, Faith is the means, and Salvation is the result. Or you might say that Grace is the reservoir, Faith is the channel, and Salvation is the stream that washes my sin away.
And all of it is the gift of God, even the faith that lays hold of God’s grace. Even our faith is not of us. It too is part of God’s gift. As Martin Luther said, our situation is so hopeless that salvation must come from “another place.” That’s why the Reformers talked about “alien righteousness.” That means a righteousness that comes from outside ourselves. We are not saved by what we do but by what Jesus Christ has done for us.
Here’s Luther on faith: “God creates faith in the human heart the same way that He created the world. He found nothing and created something.” Thus every part of our salvation is a work of God from first to last.
We are saved by grace through faith:
Apart from works
Apart from all human “goodness”
That salvation is freely given and is received by faith alone.
“You and me, Jesus”
This view of grace is hard for good people to accept because it means we must give up our “goodness” in order to be saved. We must admit that nothing we have done matters in the least when it comes to being forgiven by God. In the words of an old hymn, we must lay our “deadly doing” down. God has designed our salvation so that he alone gets the glory!
What would heaven be like if you had to earn your way there? It would be like going to one of those $100-per-plate political dinners where people stand around bragging about how much they gave to help their man win the election. “I gave $5,000.” “So what? I gave $10,000.” “Big deal. I gave $50,000.” “Move out of the way, pipsqueak. I own this guy. He’s got $300,000 of my money.” And so it goes.
Heaven would be just like that if you had to earn your way there. “I was chairman of the elder board.” “I made tapes for blind people.” “I gave a million dollars to world missions.” “I helped old ladies cross the street.” “I changed dressings for burn victims.” As good as those things are, they will not help forgive even one sin. They will not save you or help save you.
Wouldn’t it be horrible to spend eternity listening to people brag about what they did to earn their salvation? Heaven would not be heaven in that case. Someone would put his arm around Jesus and say, “You and me, Jesus, we did it. You died on the cross and I baked the cookies.”
Thank God, it’s not like that. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the full price for your salvation. It doesn’t matter whether you baked the cookies or not. Jesus paid the price all by himself. Entrance into heaven is limited to those who trust Jesus Christ—and him alone—for their salvation.
Too Bad to be Saved?
That’s why God alone gets the glory in your salvation. Jesus did all the work when he died on the cross.
In the end grace means that no one is too bad to be saved. Are there any truly bad people reading this sermon? I have some good news for you. God specializes in saving really bad people. Do you have some things in your background that you would be ashamed to talk about in public? Fear not. God knows all about it, and his grace is greater than your sin.
Grace also means that some people may be too good to be saved. That is, they may have such a high opinion of themselves that they think they don’t need God’s grace. They may admit they are sinners but they don’t admit they are spiritually dead. They may think they’re sick because of sin but not truly dead. God’s grace cannot help you until you are desperate to receive it.
Which brings me to my final point. How do you find God’s grace? Just ask for it. That’s all. It’s really that simple. The more you feel your need for grace, the better candidate you are to receive it. Hold out your empty hands and ask God for his grace. You will not be turned away.
It’s never too late. Though your sins be as scarlet, God says they will be white as snow.
This is the miracle, the wonder, the scandal, the shock of God’s grace. It truly is “out of this world” for no one in this world would have thought of something like this.
Here is good news for sinners. Free Grace! Free Grace! Free Grace! Shout it, sing it, tell it, share it. And above all else, believe it, for in believing, you will be saved.
When we get to heaven, there will be no contest to see who was the most deserving of God’s grace. After all, we were all dead to start with. There will only be one contest in heaven. When we look back and see what we were before, when we see the pit from which he rescued us, when we recall how confused we were, when we remember how God reached out and dragged us into his family, and how he held us in his hand, and when we see Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us, the only contest will be to see which of us will sing the loudest, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Amen.