Sermon Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 3:23,24
Everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.

Fragile grace

You might well ask, "Why do we need to hear another sermon about the grace of God? Isnít this topic a bit worn out? I know itís Reformation Sunday, but hey, the Reformation happened more than 500 years ago, the whole thing about the grace of God was important back then when doing good works obliterated any idea of God's grace, but today, well, we are looking for some practical things in todayís sermons. Topics like -
"How can I get close to Jesus?"
"What must I do so that Jesus is the ruler of my life?"
"How can I improve my prayer life, so that I am drawn nearer to God?"
"How can I worship God so that I can feel the warmth and excitement of Godís love?"

I have entitled todayís sermon "Fragile Grace" because it is just this focus on what "I" or "we" need to do to improve our relationship with God that grace is in danger. Grace is indeed a very fragile thing because it is can be easily overwhelmed by our human need to do something to get into God's good books.

Grace is God's undeserved love for each of us. Grace flows from God's nature and it is that love and forgiveness of God that makes it possible for us to be his dearly loved children. How can anything that is so wonderful and coming from the all-powerful God be called fragile?

God's grace in itself is not fragile, but it can become that way when our faith and our salvation are based on what we do for God rather than what God does for us.
The apostle Paul had to remind the early Christians frequently that God's grace is all they needed. They wanted to add rules about what to eat and drink, being sincere in their observation of the Sabbath and other festivals, circumcision etc and so Paul had to emphasise quite firmly that because of Jesus God freely accepts us Ė "It is by God's grace that you have been saved".
Luther had the same problems and called the church back to the biblical concept that salvation is given totally and only through the grace of God.
And today we are equally in danger of adding our sincerity, dedication, commitment, our worship, our prayers, our devotion to the church, to God's grace. When we do that, grace is no longer grace. Grace is only grace when it comes to us as a free gift Ė there is nothing we can add to it.

Let me say it again. There is nothing you can add to God's grace for your salvation. No matter how hard you work at it, how much faith you have, how long you spend in prayer, or how inspiring your worship is, there is nothing that will save you except the undeserved love of God. Your forgiveness, your eternal life in heaven is a free gift from God. Paul says to the Romans: "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (6:23).

On the other hand, it must also be said, that those who continue to reject Christ and his love and forgiveness, remain in their sin. And God is pretty tough on sin. Sin kills. Sin has taken such a hold on our lives that even our sincerity, our best intentions, even our desire to trust in Jesus, are all blemished with sin.

Thatís why it is essential and basic to the Christian faith that God deals with us according to his grace.
"Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more ... And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less" (P Yancey).
Grace is an over-the-top gift, free and for ever, and not asking the question whether we deserve it or not. This means that God will not withdraw his love from any of us because
our marriage is in trouble,
or we have lied to our friends,
or we dabble in drugs,
or we struggle with doubts or depression.
The love of God will not diminish but follow us wherever we are.

What I have said so far is not new to most of you. Especially if you have been in the church for many years you will know that the grace of God is central to understanding what the Bible has to say to us, and especially central to our understanding of God's relationship with us.

But you know, we find it hard to accept something for nothing. It is hard for us to accept a gift graciously - that is, to accept the fact that we have done nothing to deserve this gift but the giver wants to give it anyway without any strings and any thoughts of being paid back.

It is just this that makes grace so fragile. Without even trying we say, "If Iím sincere, God will bless me."

Even regular church going people find it difficult to accept that the grace of God is the solution to all of their problems, not only personally, but also in the life of the church. Here's a story to help us understand the grace of God.

There was once a young pastor who believed that the way to a life acceptable to God was through obedience and self denial. He would pound from the pulpit, "If you struggle against your sins, then God will accept you... If you turn away from your wicked ways God will welcome you into his kingdom ... If you are sincere God will be gracious to you... If you pray fervently God will give you what you want because of your sincerity ... When you truly believe, then your sins are forgiven."

One Sunday morning this young pastor was called to the bedside of a dying man called Frans. Frans was known for his piety. On the border of consciousness, Frans' mind began to wander and to the pastor's horror, he begins to speak of all kinds of sins, jealousy, revenge, self-righteousness, all interspersed with the foulest language and shouting at God and people in the room. The young man was shocked to hear of this old man's sinful nature and to witness it first hand. How could he be saved? Through faith? It seemed that this had completely deserted him as his consciousness clouded. What if he should die with curses on his lips?

And the young pastor began to think of his own salvation: If God accepts me because I am sincere, what do I do when I discover that I am no longer sincere, or sin gets in the way, or my faith is destroyed by my many doubts? If God accepts me because I am sincere then what happens when I discover that just beneath the veneer of pious sincerity there lurks evil of every kind? What happens when my failure means my judgement? Those were the terrible questions that this young pastor asked.

He found his answer that night and discovered the gospel. In his last moments the daughter of old Frans asked the old man, "You are still thinking of Jesus, aren't you father?" And he replied, "I'm not able to, Lena. I can't think any longer. But I know Jesus is thinking of me!"

Old Frans died in grace, in spite of the dirt in his heart! He knew that there was a loving Saviour and he saw no one but Jesus. Not sincerity, not obedience, not repentance, not piety, not devotion, not even faith are the way to God's heart - but Jesus only, he has done it all.

Sometimes you hear things like:
If you have faith, God will accept you.
If you give up this or that, you can be regarded as a true Christian.
If you really pray fervently, God will give what you ask.
If you really trusted in God your troubles/sickness/worries would be over.
If you are sincere and try to live a Christian life, God will bless you.

These ifs are the greatest threat to the gospel. When we begin to think along those lines, then grace all of a sudden becomes fragile and before long grace is in danger of being lost. God accepts us only and because of Jesus Christ. There is nothing more we can do! It has all been done for us!

Let me say that there are no objections to sincerity, obedience repentance, piety, devotion and faithfulness. But God does not accept us because of them. They come as the result of God's grace in our lives; they are not the part we must play in our salvation.

There is great advantage in having our salvation resting in Jesus only, and not on anything in ourselves. We find that our feelings, our trust, our sincerity, the genuineness of our repentance are very uncertain, the strength of these goes up and down from day to day and from difficulty to difficulty.

But in times of struggle and doubt there is One who remains unchanged in our lives. He is the One who has made a covenant of love with us and promised to be our heavenly Father and has accepted us. It is good to remind ourselves "I am baptised! God has accepted me in Jesus Christ. Jesus only is the one who can help me in my greatest needs. And that is all that counts.!"

This teaching of the unconditional acceptance of God is not just a nice piece of biblical understanding, but it is also a very practical teaching; it affects our whole outlook as Christians. We don't live according to a set of rules,
we don't give our offering because we MUST,
we donít come here to worship or are faithful in our marriage because there are commandments that say we MUST;
neither do we help other people because we are driven to it by a command and we feel that if we are true Christians we OUGHT carry these out.
We don't see our obedience, devotion, piety, and worship as a condition to being accepted by God.

We have been saved by grace and so we live by grace. Everything that happens in our life is now controlled by the fact that God loves us and we belong to God. Our worship, our offerings, our works of helping and caring and serving flow out of that indescribable amazing love that God has for us. God has been gracious to us and we are glad that God works through us to bring about changes in our world and to encourage others to love and serve God.

All by itself, without any additions, the grace of God is the ground out of which real life grows.

Everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
24th October, 2004

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