You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
A man walked into a barber shop one day, and asked for a haircut and a shave. The barber was out running errands, but his wife, Grace, said to the man, “I usually do the shaves anyway … sit down and I’ll shave you.” So he did. She shaved him and when done, he asked, “How much do I owe you?” “$25,” Grace replied. The man thought that was somewhat expensive for just a shave. Nonetheless, he paid Grace and went on his way.
The next day, he woke up and found his face to be just as smooth as the day before. Maybe that $25 was worth it after all, he thought to himself. The third day he awoke to find his face as smooth as the day before. Wow! he thought. That’s amazing, as he normally would need to shave daily to keep his clean-shaven business look. On Day 4, he woke up and his face was still as smooth as the minute after Grace had finished.
Now, somewhat perplexed, the man went down to the barber shop to ask some questions. This particular day the barber was in and the man asked him why his face was as smooth as it was the first day it was shaven. The kind old barber gently replied, “Friend, by Grace you were shaved … and once shaved, always shaved.”
We are now halfway through our Reformation Heritage series on the “Five Solas” of the Reformation. Last week we talked about Sola Fide, or the teaching that salvation is from “faith alone” and not through any good deeds or things that we do, say, think, or even believe.
Today we talk about Sola Gratia which means “by Grace alone.” Verse 8 and 9 of our passage from Ephesians is perhaps the most famous articulation of this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
So in a nutshell, salvation comes by faith alone, and salvation comes by grace alone. Wait a minute! Isn’t that a contradiction? Isn’t that like saying the *only* way to lose weight is to exercise, and then saying the *only* way to lose weight is to diet? Which one is it? Or is it both? And if it’s both, why say “only?”
That’s a good question. I’m so glad you asked.
Faith is something that originates within us, and Grace is something that originates within God. So an expanded way of thinking about it might be “Only the grace within God can create faith within us, and only in that process can we be saved. I do think that in the 21st century we need to re-think our notions about what “salvation” means, and what exactly it is that we are being saved from. But more on that later.
First, what is grace? It has several meanings in English, which can make things a bit confusing. It can mean elegance of movement (gracefully they danced across the floor). It can mean the prayer you say before eating, which is a prayer of thanks or gratitude (in Spanish gracias, hence, grace). It can also mean forgiveness or mercy. Incidentally, mercy comes from French merci, which also means “thanks.”
In Latin, grace is gratia, which literally meant “something good and pleasing, something to be thankful for.” Usually something given to you. Grace, then, is essentially a gift. Incidentally, the words gratis (free) and gratuitous (generous) come from the same root. Free gifts generously given are certainly pleasing and worth our gratitude.
But wait, there’s more! Gratia was the Latin word used to translate an older Greek word, Χάρις (charis) which is where we get English words like “charisma” and “charity,” both of which also have the sense of gifts–hence a charismatic person has the “gift” of personality, and charity is…well…giving someone a gift of kindness.
So what is grace? Well, I don’t know, exactly. It’s some kind of gift–something good, something beautiful, something pleasing, something that has the power to save us. But exactly what that is and how it works has been the subject of theological debates for centuries.
Last week we talked about how the doctrine of Sola Fide (faith alone) sprung from a disagreement (or more charitably a misunderstanding) between the 16th century Reformers and the medieval Catholic church.
Likewise, Sola Gratia or “grace alone” stems from a later disagreement between two protestant traditions on the question of how that free gift (grace) works in the process of salvation.
On one side of the fence were the folks who would eventually become the Arminians, the Wesleyans, and the Methodists. They believed that God’s grace was a free gift offered to everyone, but that you as an individual could either accept that gift…or reject it. Sounds fair enough on the surface. It makes God a polite gentleman who always knocks on the door and waits to be invited inside.
On the other side of the fence were the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Reformed Churches who said, “Wait a minute, what???” If you have to accept God’s gift in order to complete your salvation, then doesn’t that mean that YOU have to DO something, that your salvation is now (at least in part) in your hands? No, no, no! And once more, they quoted Ephesians: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The reformed version of God is not a polite gentleman, to be sure. That’s because God is in the rescue business: If your house is burning down, do you want the firefighter to knock on the door and politely wait for you to invite him in? Or do you want him to break down the door and stop at nothing until you and everyone in your house are saved?
The presumption, for the Reformers, is that the house is always burning down–that we are always a people in need of being rescued. Which brings us, at last, to this concept of salvation, which I think today is in need of some reforming.
One of my favorite movies is the Cohen brother’s 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” And one of my favorite lines in the film is from a bank robber, George “Babyface” Nelson. At the end of a scene where he has just finished a heist, he turns to the cowering people in the bank lobby and says to them before jumping into his getaway car, “Remember folks–Jesus saves, but George Nelson withdraws!”
Jesus saves. What does that mean? Saves who? From what? The standard Christianese answer to that question today is that “Jesus will save your soul from an eternity of torment in hell, if you ask him into your heart as your personal lord and savior before you die.”
That understanding is not exactly a recent one in Christianity, but it’s not an ancient one, either. And you would be hard pressed to find much support for it in the pages of the Bible, and especially in Jesus’ own words. For one thing, the Bible has almost nothing to say about what we call heaven and hell–those ideas evolved over time in the centuries after the Bible was written. The bible does have a lot to say about salvation–but in both the Old and New Testaments, it almost never refers to individual people. It is almost always a collective salvation, referring to nations, kingdoms, and communities of people together.
John Calvin, writing in the 16th century, said that “the Christian should aspire to a loftier goal than the salvation of his soul.”
So when Paul writes that we (there it is, in the plural!) are saved by God’s grace…what are we being saved from? Well that’s in the first half of our scripture passage:
“You (also plural–as in all y’all) were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world. And then in verse 3, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
What does God save us from? In short, from ourselves. Collectively. From the course this world chooses to take, and all of its violence, and greed, and oppression and selfishness. From the mess we make of things, from the combined weight of all our fears and failures, all our stubbornness, our hatred, and our pride.
How does God save us from all this? Through grace, which is to say, I don’t really know. But it has something to do with giving, with charity and kindness, with loving, with thankfulness and gratitude.
We don’t deserve it.
We didn’t earn it.
We didn’t ask for it, and we didn’t choose it.
God’s grace is, in the words of the late theologian and poet Robert Palmer…simply irresistible.