Dear brethren in the Lord: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ!
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Eph. 2, 8. 9.
As individual Christians, as members or a Christian congregation and or an orthodox synod, we should be remiss if we did not again and again come back to the fundamentals of our most holy faith. For anyone who does not deem it necessary, or who no longer has any desire, to grow in grace and in the knowledge or our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3,18) has simply ceased being a Christian.
The fact that we may have learned the saving truth in earliest infancy and may even now be able to repeat word for word that same truth does not prove that we have no more need or pondering it anew for the strengthening of our faith. If the Virgin Mary found it necessary to keep the wondrous things which were said about her child and to ponder them in her heart (Luke 2,19), who are we, that we should not find it profitable to do likewise? Unwillingness to do that is evidence or a pride which is as unwholesome as it is wicked. For upon all vain pride Scripture pronounces this severe judgment: “God resisteth the proud.” 1 Pet. 5,5. And we most certainly do not want to be numbered among those who shall be found fighting against God. Acts 5,39.
But of all the doctrines taught in Holy Spirit, none is more fundamental than that which you have just heard read from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. For what is its essence? It is, in brief, the central truth of all revealed religion: Justification by Faith, without the deeds of the law, that article of faith which our fathers were wont to call “Articulus Stantis et Cadentis Ecclesiae,” that is, the article by which a Church would stand or fall. If a Church teaches according to Scripture in this fundamental article, it will stand. But if it here teaches contrary to Scripture, it will fall. All other doctrines of Scripture revolve about this central truth as the planets of heaven revolve about the sun. In fact Justification by Faith IS the very sun in the heavens or God’s most wondrous mercy. Let us, then, on the basis of our text briefly consider it for our mutual edification.
1. The very first noun in this fundamental passage is that word “grace,” than which there is no more meaningful word in language committed to men. Without it we should still be in our sins, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. But with it as our possession, we are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God. Eph. 2.
Grace, mercy, forgiveness, pardon, and all the other attributes of our heavenly Father’s unfathomed love for a fallen race! It is this which saves us, and nothing whatsoever in man, no matter how small a part he will be satisfied in having ascribed to him. For the moment you mix anything into God’s grace, it is no longer that divine attribute of which Paul here speaks.
It is true that Scripture often speaks of faith as being that which saves. And there is nothing wrong about that. When our Saviour again and again states: “Thy faith hath saved thee,” or “Thy faith hath made thee whole,” He is simply speaking of that act through which the sinner took unto himself God’s saving grace. That is why our Confessions speak of faith as the “organon lepticon,” the organ of receiving, the empty hand which grasps the proffered grace of God. But there could be no saving faith without an object. And what is its object? God’s grace which, instead of damning us for our manifold sins, has decreed an unconditional pardon for the guilty. It is therefore that the Apology to our Augsburg Confession says: “And, again, as often as we speak of faith, we wish an object to be understood, viz. the promised mercy. For faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy.” Chapter II: 56.
And God didn’t wait to see what our faith would be before He made His decision. No, “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” says Paul. Rom. 5, 10. Yes, he makes bold to assert that “Christ died for the ungodly.” Rom. 5,6. And when God, by the prophet Isaiah, bids the sinner reason together with Him, what are the stipulations? Does He perchance say: “If you will give evidence or your worthiness, prove that you are a ‘noble soul’, I will do this or that marvelous thing for you?” No, here are his exact words: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Isa. 1,18. Or, as Paul puts it (and you and I have from our very infancy learned to confess it in Luther’s Small Catechism): “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.” Tit. 3, 5–8. And that this attitude or God was not something which came into being after man had begun exercising his faith is made equally clear by the apostle when he says this about our gracious God: “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” 2 Tim. 1,9.
And since this grace is for sinners, no one shall be able to accuse God of having by-passed him, since all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Since it is so cleansing that it will make even the most scarlet stained crime as pure-white snow, no one shall be able to claim that his sins were too great to he cleansed by the blood of Christ. Since it was provided for him even before the world began, no one shall be able to excuse himself on judgment day by saying that salvation for him was not worked out betimes. And since such is the nature of God’s ineffable grace, let us not quarrel with Him, but rest satisfied to thank Him with our stammering tongues while here in the valley of the shadow, and then, with tongue unfettered by sin, pay Him due homage in the realms or perfect day. Yes,
“God hath ordained from eternity Christ as our Saviour!
Great is His name, let its praises be sounded forever!
Christ is the Lord,
Honour Him, treasure His word,
Own Him in all your behaviour!”
2. When the apostle teaches us that we are saved” through faith,” he is telling us that it is something which can be ours only through that agency which has but few definitions, but which Holy Writ has taught us through scores or living examples. And one living example is worth any number of mere definitions. Yes, we have this definition of faith in Hebrews 11,1: “Now faith is the substance (or confidence, as HYPOSTASIS might be rendered) of things hoped for, the evidence of thing’s not seen.” Less descriptive, but most comforting, is that other definition of faith given by John: “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” 1 John. 5,4.
But when we look to the many examples of faith given us in the Old as well as in the New Testament, we are not left in doubt as to how that agency or God worked in the individual, yea, under the most varied and trying circumstances. And there they stand, not only to show us what God did for them, but also to assure us that God can and will do likewise with us. There stands Abraham as an example for all time of one who implicitly relied upon the promises of God; or, as Paul put it: “Who against hope believed in hope.” Rom. 4,18. Even when God demanded or him that he should offer up the “son of promise”, which meant that Abraham’s own salvation would be cut off, he did not hesitate. And why not? The epistle to the Hebrews gives us the answer: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.” Heb. 11, 13. There stands Job likewise in the firmness of his faith, not only confessing his confidence in a living Redeemer, but making the astounding statement: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Job 13, 15. How oft do we not find in the Psalms or David, in some form or other: “In him do I put my trust.” And following Christ in His ministry of mercy, what a vast array or poor sinners from all walks of life do we not see putting their trust in Him! The poor woman of Canaan makes out of that term of disrepute, “dog “, the most glorious Gospel. Matt. 15,27. The father of the boy possessed of the devil had to refer to his weak and trembling faith hut as “unbelief”, and yet he was not turned away. Mark 9,24.
But the remarkable thing about true faith is this, that it is not its greatness or its strength which determines what you will get. Just so it is true faith (a hungering and thirsting after righteousness) it is a saving faith. And why is that? Because “faith derives its importance, not from its virtuous quality as an act of man, but from the value of that which it accepts and holds, Christ and His righteousness.” Hove’s “Christian Doctrines”, p. 280. And rightly does the same author conclude: “The believer becomes righteous in the same way as a beggar may he made rich by a great gift. His acceptance or the gift does not merit the gifts, and does not determine the size or value of it. Whether he accepts it with a feeble and trembling hand, or with a strong and firm hand, the value of the gift is the same. The acceptance is only the indispensable means through which he becomes the possessor of the gift.”
But while we know that even weak faith is a saving faith, we do not for that reason become indifferent as to the status of our faith. No, as God’s true children we pray to-day, even as did the disciples of old: “Lord, increase our faith.” Luke 17,5. And how is that done? Paul answers that very briefly when he says: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word or God.” Rom. 10,17. The Gospel of Christ is simply called “the word of faith.” Rom. 10,8. By it, faith is created, strengthened, and preserved. If you become indifferent to that “word of faith”, you have left the safe moorings or that which Peter calls “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1,19), and will in the end become but an helpless hulk driven by the ravaging waves of doubt and unbelief, ending in complete shipwreck.
We see then how absolutely necessary it is that we use the word of faith aright; that we do not rest satisfied with a mere smattering of Bible knowledge, but that we do as did “the more noble Bereans,” who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Acts 17,11. There is not throughout our entire synod the earnest and faithful searching of Holy Writ which there ought to be. And as a result many who would be disciples or Christ are not, of a truth, His followers. There are still among us all too many who do not take seriously the feeding or the lambs in Christian day-schools, nor the daily devotions with the reading of Scripture and the singing of hymns in every home, nor the regular attendance upon divine worship in the house of God, nor the attendance at Bible classes, nor the strengthening or their faith through frequent communing at the Lord’s Table. Let us not forget the sober warning of the prophet: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word or the Lord, and shall not find it.” Amos 8,11.12. Could you think of anything more calamitous: “Seek — and shall not find”?
Is it to be wondered at, then, that there is a growing laxity among young as well as old, less regard for the eternal verities which even an atomic age cannot shake from their moorings? Would to God that. we not only teach our children to sing with their mouths the stirring words of Johan Nordahl Brun, but that they might be inscribed on their very hearts:
“God’s word a treasure is to me,
Through sorrow’s night my sun shall be,
The shield of faith in battle;
The Father’s hand hath written there
My title as His child and heir:
‘The kingdom’s thine forever;’
That promise faileth never.”
Not of Yourselves
3. To make doubly certain that no one shall imagine that his soul’s salvation, either in part or in whole, is due to anything which he may have done or left undone, Paul continues with the definite negative statement: “And that not of yourselves.” There are perhaps few passages in Holy Writ which teach us more forcefully man’s inherent desire to get some credit for his own salvation than the text before us. But so plain are Paul’s words or warning that even a child shall be able to grasp it: “Let no one indulge the vain thought that he has in any way merited aught of that which is become his through the grace of God.” Your faith is not of yourself, not even the least beginning of it. What hope would there be for the poor sinner who, like a Paul, had struggled with the evil that was in him, and finding that the good which he would he did not, while the evil which he would not, that he did (Rom. 7,19), unless God had assured him: “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure”? Phil. 2,13. It would be a most wicked thing to sing, as we often do at the beginning of our service:
“All our knowledge, sense, and sight
Lie in deepest darkness shrouded,
Till Thy Spirit breaks our night
With the beams of truth unclouded.
Thou alone to God canst win us,
Thou must work all good within us,”
if the least bit or good were to be found in natural man. But, thanks he to God, in His own mysterious way through the power of the everlasting Gospel He works that miracle of faith in us of which our Formula of Concord speaks after this fashion: “In conversion Gad, through the drawing of the Holy Ghost, makes out of stubborn and unwilling men willing ones.” Epitome II, 17.
It Is the Gift of God
4. Could anything be plainer than that? We all know what a gift is. And when Scripture tells us that our soul’s salvation is “the gift of God,” it would be the height of ingratitude to begin arguing about it, instead of gratefully accepting it as such. And not only does Scripture tell us that our salvation is a “gift,” but it also tells us why God has decided to bestow it upon us — His unspeakable love for us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Joh. 3,16. No wonder that Paul, when he would encourage his fellow-believers to give just as liberally and cheerfully as they have received, closes the 9th chapter of 2 Corinthians thus: “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.”
Not of Works, Lest Any Man Should Boast.
5. And as a final thrust at the ever-present synergism in the natural man, Paul concludes this classic passage with the words: “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” All who seek to establish a righteousness based on their own keeping of the law, and who would boast of such a claim, are here put to shame. Not only are they shown to he ingrates, but vain boasters besides. In the words of his epistle to the Romans Paul would have us understand: “Therefore by the deeds or the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Rom. 3,20. “’Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay, but by the law of faith.” Rom. 3,27.
The way which our heavenly Father has opened to an sinners through faith in the merits or His Son must never be despised by those who would enter life eternal. For to do so would be like following those self-willed Israelites of old, concerning whom the Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah, had to complain: “My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Jer. 2,13.
Shall we who have enjoyed the crystal-clear fountain of God’s never-failing grace commit a like set of evils? God forbid! No, may He ever grant us grace to give evidence of a faith so imbedded in the Rock of our salvation, that it will he our constant confession, in the words of the unknown hymn-writer:
“O Fount of grace redeeming,
O River ever streaming
From Jesus’ holy side:
Come Thou, Thyself bestowing
On thirsting souls, and flowing
Till all their wants are satisfied.”