4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 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. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The order is important. I’ve been hit by that reminder quite a bit during this whole parsonage basement remodel project. You don’t hang drywall until you frame the walls, the plumber runs all his pipes and lines, and the electrician wires all the boxes, lights, and switches. If you don’t get that right, you’re going to have to punch a bunch of holes and then put a bunch of patches in your new drywall. You don’t put the flooring in before you paint, shoot on the trim and hang the door frames. If you mess that order up, you’ll probably drip paint all over your trim, doors, and new floors. The order is important.
There are four key concepts in the Bible: Sin, Grace, Faith, and Works. That order is important. Last week, God showed us the first two from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. We are sinful. That is not only seen by God in our thoughts, words, and actions but it is also our condition in which we were both conceived and born. That sinfulness must be dealt with, it must be paid for. God says, “The wages of sin is death.” So, someone has to die, blood must be shed, to pay for sin. But imperfect people like us cannot make the payment.
God’s answer is his free gift of grace. Purely because he loves us and does not want us to be punished in hell, he demonstrates his love with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our justification – that not guilty verdict that we don’t earn or deserve – is fully and completely applied to our lives by God’s grace alone. You don’t have to change God’s mind about you, he already loves the world and wants you to be with him in heaven. His grace is not normal, and that’s good for us.
Today, we are talking about the other two key concepts: Faith and Works. That order is important. It was one of the huge reasons why an insignificant German priest and professor by the name of Dr. Martin Luther decided to stand up to popes, councils, and governors. If you mess up that order you have lost the truth of God, you’ve lost his forgiveness, and you’ve lost heaven.
But that is exactly what the church was doing in Luther’s day; they were messing up the order. Priests, councils, and popes were convincing people that works come before grace and faith. Can you imagine the burden people carried as they thought every sin flared God’s righteous anger and only good works could appease him? But the problem was that people have a sinful nature that taints us. People were endlessly trying to work for God’s righteousness, but sin kept adding up, too. The guilt was insurmountable, and the church kept preaching that God demanded more works.
But then, there was a great idea to deal with the guilt. Instead of pointing to the grace of God, his unconditional love toward fallen sinful mankind, they introduced indulgences. It was a way to literally pay money for God’s forgiveness. Do you think you can pay God off? No, like the Bible says, sins is only paid for by death. These indulgences really only did one thing, enlarged the pope’s bankroll enough so that the St. Peter’s Basilica project, the second largest in the world, could begin.
When you mess up the order, bad things happen. The church messing up that order for its people was a lot worse than a few holes in new drywall or paint on new floors. It was life. It was God’s holy Word. It was eternity.
Luther didn’t come up with a new order of these four key concepts. He just read what God had clearly recorded centuries earlier. And here is what God says: 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… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
That order – Sin, Grace, Faith, Works – is vitally important. When you mess it up you lose the truth of Scripture and heaven itself. That’s why it’s good to be familiar with the Word of God your whole life. It’s good to be student of Scripture. It’s good to refreshed and rebuilt weekly in worship and daily in devotions. Our faith needs it, because what good is faith if it has the wrong object to trust? Then, the order is messed up. Faith is turned into something I have to do to get God’s grace. And that just doesn’t work.
When faith is placed in earthly things, it’s not getting you to heaven. Your faith is useless. Have you heard or have you said something like, “Don’t worry about me, I pray every day”? Do you notice where your faith is? It is in your prayers. But you know that the ability or regularity of prayer doesn’t save someone. When someone thinks, “I am a good Christian. I go to church every week and give cheerful offerings,” they have the same issue. Their faith is placed in their ability to follow the Lord. It is great to lead a life of service, but it is not going to save you from hell. Heaven is not awarded to those who convince themselves they are such good servants of God. Faith doesn’t save people when it was placed in themselves and their own abilities to obey God. That is really no faith at all. Plenty of people do that, people who even call themselves Christian, but they are changing faith into a good work that earns God’s love. That is messing up the order: Sin, Grace, Works, Faith.
However, when faith is attached to Jesus, then heaven is open to you; you have the saving promises of God forever. It’s the object of faith that matters most. Let me illustrate. In the wintertime, if you go ice fishing, and you are about to walk out on the ice, what keeps you up? Is it your faith in the strength of the ice? You could say, “I believe this ice will hold me. I have faith I will not crash through.” Does your faith keep up? Not at all! It is the thickness of the ice that holds you up. Your faith has nothing to do with it. Likewise, a person can have the strongest faith in their prayers or their humble service to God, but they will fall with a great and eternal crash. Faith attached to anything but Jesus will get you nowhere. Faith that clings to Jesus’s forgiveness and promises, that faith gives you the robes of righteousness forever.
And by God’s grace, faith in Jesus is a gift that he has given to you. With simple water and God’s powerful word, the Holy Spirit planted saving faith in your heart. And whenever God’s Word is used, faith is cultivated and nurtured. Whenever the Lord’s body and blood is administered according to God’s Word it feeds faith. And so we, sinners, by God’s undeserved grace, we trust in Jesus. We rely on Jesus. We hold to Jesus.
That’s the right order: Sin, Grace, Faith…and then works flow from faith. We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, found in Scripture alone, but that faith is never alone. When you have faith in Jesus, you will produce the works of God. Listen again to what Paul says, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Why does an apple tree produce apples? Is it because the apple tree will feel guilty if it doesn’t? Is it trying to make up for past mistakes? Does it want all the other trees to notice it? Is it because the apple tree will get into trouble if it doesn’t? NO! Apples trees produce apples because that’s what apple trees do. God made it that way. It’s natural in his creation.
Same things for God’s children. When you are connected to Jesus, when your faith is attached to him, then you will be a fruit-producer. And there are so many kinds of fruit for you to produce.
God tells us in his Word, to fear, love and trust in him above all things. We praise, thank, serve and obey him. One way to do that for God is to do it for those around you, too. God wants us to love and serve others, to put them first, to be a Good Samaritan, to turn the other cheek, to love even our enemies. God wants you not to hate but forgive as Christ has fully forgiven you. God wants you to let your Christian light shine so that others may see your faith, see your Christ loving actions, see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. The words on our lips are used for truth and love, not cursing, lies and hate.
Think about what Paul is saying to you here. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God gives us the opportunities to show our God given faith, to show our Christ-motivated kindness, to share our gospel life.
When we fail, Jesus picks us up, washes us clean, and sends us out with his love and forgiveness. Do you see all what God has done for you? Even your faith is a gift. We cannot boast about anything spiritually. The sacrifice of Jesus has fully and freely redeemed you, motivates you to love and serve our God, and makes your good works productive for others. We live God-pleasing lives not to earn God’s grace, but because we already have his grace and faith as a gift. That is why Jesus says in our gospel lesson, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
That’s the legacy of Lutherans. We keep things in the right order, God’s order: Sinners who God loves not because of what we do, but because of what he does. His love gives us Jesus, the Savior from sin, death, and hell. His love gives us faith to hold on to him in all things. His love gives us productive work to do as his people. To God alone be glory. Amen.