Essentials 1: Grace Alone


A few years ago, when my son, Logan, ended up in the hospital after nearly drowning when swimming with some friends, I got an education about what it means to have someone you love in an Intensive Care Unit. If we say the initials “ICU” quickly, they don’t tend to make much of an impact. But when Logan was in ICU, he was in a coma and he was hooked up to machines that measured his heart rate and respiration. He had an IV that was used to give him whatever medicine was needed to try to keep him alive. His body was chilled to reduce the amount of brain injury caused by going without oxygen for an extended period of time. And he had one nurse that was exclusively dedicated to watching him and his vital signs. Later, when he had made some progress in recovering, he was moved to a Critical Care Unit, which was very similar except that one nurse would watch two patients. As a result of what I experienced back then, when reports come out during the pandemic indicating how many people in hospital are in intensive care, I have some idea what that is about. 

Those ICU and CCU nurses are focused on making sure that their patients have the essentials they need for life, things like oxygen, nutrition, medicine, and a heart that is beating as it should. And I have a lot of love and respect for the very important work that they are doing. But there is more to human life than fulfilling our physical needs. As important as that is, human beings are more than a collection of minerals and water. The Bible tells us that humans are spiritual beings contained within a physical body. Each one of us is a body and a soul together in one person who was created in the likeness of God. Our soul is the essence of who we are and for our soul to be healthy, there are key things that it needs.

So what are the essentials that we need for our soul? That’s the question that we are thinking about today as we begin a new series called Essentials. During this series, we will be reflecting on five essentials that were brought to the forefront during a time of great change 500 years ago called The Reformation. These five things are essential because they are the critical elements that our soul needs to be full of life, hope, joy, courage and peace.

Each of these five essentials stands in opposition to something that we don’t need, something that we are naturally drawn to, but is poisonous to our soul and damaging to our relationship with God. So we will also be identifying the five toxins that we need to avoid. 

Let’s begin by reflecting on our Bible passage for today, which is Ephesians 2:1-10. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now. As you do that, here is a bit of background to help you understand the context. Ephesus was a city on the west coast of present-day Turkey. In Paul’s time, it was one of the most prominent cities in the Roman empire. And Paul knew the people of Ephesus well. He made a brief stop there on his second missionary journey. He stopped there again on his third missionary journey, this time staying for about three years. During this time, he helped the Christian church in Ephesus to organize and flourish and the people there grew to know and love Paul. A few years later, in about AD 60, while he was under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote a letter to these people he loved so much.  It is from this letter that our passage today is taken. And the key points that we can draw from it are: the greatness of our need, the generosity of God’s rescue and the grander purpose of God’s grace. 

The Greatness of Our Need

First, the greatness of our need. Paul writes, 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 flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3) I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to read these verses and apply them to myself. It says that I was dead in my transgressions and sins when I used to follow the ways of this world, and that I am deserving of wrath. What does all that mean?

It means that the default posture of every human being is to turn their back on God and what he wants for our life and instead to seek to gratify our own selfish desires. This is because of what theologians call original sin, the Biblical teaching that ever since Adam and Eve first turned their back on God and disobeyed him, every human being ever since has inherited a sinful human nature. We see that sinful human nature in a two-year old child who says “No!” to every command, a 30 year old parent who chooses fun with friends over looking after their kids, and the 60 year old worker who leaves God entirely out of their future retirement plans. 

What is so wrong with a child saying “no”, or having fun with friends, or wanting to do your own thing in retirement? Nothing, from a human perspective. But it wasn’t human beings that created us and all things, it isn’t human beings that keep the earth on its axis and sustain life with energy from the sun and rain from the clouds, and it won’t be human beings that measure what is right and wrong over the span of human history so that all the wrongs can be made right. It’s God that has done, is doing and will do those things. So God is the one who gets to define what is right and wrong and God’s standard is perfection. And God’s perfection is the only hope that this world has for a brighter future to come.

We human beings like to bend reality to make it suit our desires, even if our logic for doing so doesn’t make any sense. There is an episode of Modern Family that illustrates this (Season 2, episode 3, titled: Earthquake). Near the beginning, there is an earthquake and after that, Gloria invites Jay to go to church with her and Manny. Jay tells her that he doesn’t believe that he needs to go to church to commune with God, that he can do that just as well in nature. So he decides to go golfing instead of going to church. Manny finds this philosophy attractive and decides to go with Jay and be his caddy. (S150 – Golf putt) On the golf course, Manny asks Jay, “So you are not worried about hell?” Jay tells Manny that there is no hell. Manny thinks that is fantastic. Then he asks, “So everyone just goes to heaven?” Jay agrees. “Even bad people?” Manny wonders. Jay says, “Yeah, they’re in a different section.”

Jay then misses his putt and he blames Manny for distracting him. Manny said he didn’t say anything. Jay said, “I can hear you thinking.” 

Manny says, “I am thinking about this heaven of yours that is full of bad people.”

“Not full. Just the tiniest fraction. They’re walled in.” Jay responds.

“What if they break out?” Manny exclaims.

“They’re surrounded by a lake of fire,” Jay says quietly.

“There are fiery lakes in heaven?” Manny interjects. “This is turning into hell.” Then Jay misses his putt again, and whispers, “Tell me about it.”

Later, Manny asks Jay “So what happens after you die? There’s just nothing?” Jay admits that what he said previously was just a hunch. Manny starts hyperventilating and exclaims, “A hunch? I’m skipping church based on a hunch?”

In many ways, you and I are like Jay in that we would rather make up our own way of being right with God, even if it doesn’t make sense. But, if we listen carefully, deep down inside of us, we might hear the annoying Manny-like voice of our conscience asking, “How do we know that we are okay with God? Is our stance based on a hunch?” 

When we turn to the Bible, the truth about our condition without God is hard to take because the bad news is far worse than we ever thought it was. On our own, we are spiritually dead and destined to spend an eternity apart from God when our earthly life comes to an end. The ways of this world seem attractive to the human heart, but those ways are infected and led by the ruler of the kingdom of the air. This is a nickname for Satan, who is God and humanity’s greatest enemy, and this enemy works uninhibited in the lives of those who go their own way. Because God hates evil and the harm it does to his creation, we deserve God’s wrath for the bad things we have said, thought and done and all the good things that we failed to say, think and do. 

The Generosity of God’s Rescue

However, as bad as the bad news is, the Bible also tells us that the Good News is far greater than we ever thought it could be. Starting in verse four of our passage, the generosity of God’s rescue displayed for us in all of its full array. We read, 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, (Ephesians 2:4-6) Here we see the foundation and the grandeur of God’s rescue for us through Jesus Christ. It is because of his great love for us that God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to become one of us in order to save us. It was because of his great love for us that God the Son, Jesus Christ, took our place on the cross and suffered the penalty for all sin for all people for all time so that we could be set free. It is because of his great love for us that the Holy Spirit worked through God’s Word, the Bible, and the sacred acts of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion to create and nurture faith in our hearts. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all worked together to give us new life in Jesus even before we had ever taken one step toward God. And as a new person brought to life by Jesus, we are already living in the parallel dimension of heaven, resting in the presence of our wonderful Lord and Saviour, Jesus, and basking in his love.  

What an amazing rescue God has given us! To go from being spiritually dead and an object of God’s wrath to being alive in the heavenly realms and an object of God’s infinite forgiveness and unconditional love is an incredible change in status. And what makes it even more incredible is that this reversal of fortune comes to us as a totally free gift from God. 

Right in the middle of these three verses, we have this phrase: For it is by grace you have been saved. God’s generous rescue is not on the basis of merit, it isn’t something that we deserve or earn in any way. This is an important distinction because when we think that we do somehow earn God’s love or favor, we will always end up in a ditch on one side of the other of God’s highway of grace. We will either stumble into the ditch of pride if we think we are deserving of being rescued by God. Or we will fall into the ditch of despair when we lose hope that we will ever be good enough to earn God’s love and favor. Both ditches are deadly because both ditches separate us from God, and Satan would like nothing better than for us to be forever torn apart from God. It makes no difference to Satan whether we never step onto the path of grace or whether we stumble into a ditch along the way because we thought we had some part to play in our own salvation. He only wants to separate us from God and destroy us. 

This is why grace is so very, very important. Only grace will keep our heart and soul in a right relationship with God. Grace alone moves us to cling with gratitude to the forgiveness, salvation and eternal life Jesus gives us. Grace alone moves our heart to abandon our love for the things of this world and fall fully in love with Jesus, following him forever into the new heaven and earth to come.

The Grander Purpose of God’s Grace

As great and wonderful a gift God has given to us when he rescued us through Jesus, there’s a grander purpose to God’s grace. In verse 7, we read that God gives us life and raises us up through 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 2:7) When I was in my first year of agricultural college, my Mom and Dad took me and my four siblings to Hawaii for Christmas. Why did they do that? They didn’t have to. It was something that cost them a lot of money and me and my siblings didn’t contribute at all to the cost. We could have had our traditional Christmas at home gathered around our usual Yuletide feast. They did it because they wanted to demonstrate the incomparable riches of their grace, kindness and love towards me and my sisters and brothers. They didn’t care what other people thought. They wanted to do this extravagant thing to show that they loved their family.

  In an infinitely greater way, God wants to show all of creation his incredible love for broken, sinful, hard-hearted human beings like us by giving his one and only Son, whom he loved so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Our hope is that people will see the generosity of God’s grace at work in us and be drawn towards Jesus so that they too can experience new life with him. But regardless of whether that happens or not, all of history is inevitably headed towards the grandest of all parties when Jesus will come to heal every broken heart, overturn every injustice, banish all evil, restore his broken creation and reconnect it with heaven. In that new world, what the Bible calls the new heaven and earth, the incomparable riches of God’s grace will be on full display. We will have all of eternity to ponder God’s grace and we still won’t have enough time to fully grasp it.  God doesn’t care what anyone else may think. He only wants to show the fullness of his grace to the fullness of his creation.

What does this mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? It means that we must constantly be aware of two opposing truths at the same time. First, without Jesus, we are as good as dead and destined to spend eternity apart from God and all his goodness. Second, with Jesus, we are beloved, forgiven children of God whose flaws and brokenness become evidence to the world of God’s unsurpassed grace. It is to this latter truth that we cling, for we know that it is by God’s grace alone that we have a new identity, a new perspective and a new trajectory to life. God’s grace is good and true and we know that we can trust it as the foundation of our life. God’s grace is what enables us to live as salt and light, reflecting his love and hope into the broken and hurting world around us.

God’s Grace in Action

In their “I am Second” testimony, which you can find by searching for “I am Second David Tamela Mann”, David and Tamela talk about the family brokenness they experienced while growing up. When he was little, David’s mom was physically abused by various partners and David swore that he would protect her. He even tried to kill one abuser three times, but it never happened. Tamela grew up experiencing abandonment because she had a different dad than her 13 older siblings and her dad didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Both David and Tamela grew to hate men because of what they and their mothers experienced. 

David and Tamela met in high school and got married a few years later. As David says in the video, “When you bring all of that baggage together under one roof, eventually an explosion is going to happen.” They had a lot of rocky times in their marriage relationship, but they continued to look to Jesus for the help that they needed and eventually they both experienced healing. Now they have been married for over 30 years and they share the incomparable riches of God’s grace with others by sharing a message of hope for families and couples going through hard times. As David says, “If we can make it through and God’s grace can get us through, it can help anybody.”

Our passage for today ends with these words: 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. (Ephesians 2:8-10). The challenge that I am setting before you today is to let those words settle in your soul until they define who you are. Then live as a person of grace in this world. That’s who Jesus created and redeemed you to be. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley, BC on October 31, 2021. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)

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