Grace, Faith and Works
Updated: Feb 19
This sermon was given Sunday, February 17th by Bruce Fischer
Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV)
2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in 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 coming ages 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 a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Pastor Isaac has been doing this series on doctrine, or what we believe Scripture is telling us. He covered baptism two Sundays ago, and Communion or the Lord’s Supper last week. Both of those topics are ones which well-meaning Christians have disagreed on throughout the ages, and in which there is still a great deal of division. I encourage you to listen to those messages found under the "Media" tab.
This topic is a little bit different, in that in the modern church there is not an enormous amount of disagreement on this subject, although that was not always the case! There is, however, a great deal of confusion from a practical standpoint over the relationship between Grace, Faith, and Works.
First we should define the terms. We’ll start with the easiest one first,
The Greek word is érgon, which Strongs Concordance defines as: /érgon ("work") is a deed (action) that carries out (completes) an inner desire (intension, purpose).
So “works” are things we do, our actions.
Confident trust based on God’s promise as understood through his Word.
Faith is different from “belief”. You have to believe to have faith, that’s true! But as James reminds us: James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” You see, belief is only part of the equation of faith. The demons believe but they are not saved! Faith is a gift from God, and never something that can be produced by people! Faith is listed in 1 Corinthians 12:9 as one of the Spiritual Gifts, and while there are debates on whether faith as a Spiritual Gift is different from – and I hesitate to use the word “ordinary”, but let’s call it “ordinary faith”, the point is, Faith is not something we have on our own. It’s a gift. Again, we define Faith as “confident trust based on God’s promise as understood through his Word.”
The unmerited favor of God towards man.
Philip Yancey wrote a book called “What’s so Amazing About Grace” in which he describes a story about CS Lewis. Yancey describes the scene, “During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods' appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace. After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law -- each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional.”
Isn’t that interesting? No other religion in the world offers salvation as a Gift of God; in every other religion a person must earn their way to Heaven! As Christians we know that that is something we cannot do… we cannot earn the approval of God: Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But lets make it a little more personal. If you’re a parent, put your child’s name in this story. If you’re not a parent, imagine that this is your child. Chuck Swindoll in his book “The Grace Awakening” put it this way:
Let’s imagine you have a six-year-old son whom you love dearly.
Tragically, one day you discover that your son was horribly murdered.
After a lengthy search the investigator of the crime finds the killer. You have a choice. If you used every means in your power to kill the murderer for his crime, that would be VENGEANCE. If, however, you’re content to sit back and let the legal authorities take over and execute on him what is proper-a fair trial, a plea of guilty, capital punishment-that is JUSTICE.
But if you should plead for the pardon of the murderer, forgive him completely, invite him into your home and adopt him as your own son, that is GRACE.
Let that sink in for a minute… This person horribly, brutally murdered your son.. Your son who has his whole life in front of him. Your son whom you love dearly, who you would gladly die for yourself so that he might live. The person who took that son away from you… It would only be by the grace of God that you could even see fit to forgivehis killer! But to adopt him as your own son?!?
A number of years ago our small group did Swindoll’s “The Grace Awakening” as a study. One of the Mother’s in our group said in all sincerity: if that’s what grace is, I can’t do it! But don’t you see, that’s the point? This is something we can’t do without God.
But God does that every day....
It was me who nailed His Son on the cross! It was MY SIN that flogged him, MY SIN that drove the spikes into His hands… His feet… It was ME who stuck Him with the spear. It was me… and you… We killed His son with our sin. In the most brutal and painful way possible, hanging on a cross.
And yet… He forgives us. Not only does He forgive us, but He invites us into His home, Heaven. He offers us a way to be called His children. And again I say that’s the point of grace. It isn’t supposed to be easy.
So when we hear that definition: “unmerited favor” it’s so clinical, so dry, so easy
When it applies directly to us... to me, to you… then it becomes hard. When we try to do the impossible and try to put ourselves in God’s shoes, try to see an example in our own lives where we might be called upon to offer grace…. Then it’s hard….
We have no recorded example of Jesus saying the word ‘grace’, but He lived it… and more importantly, He died it.
So that’s the terms. That’s what we’re talking about when we say the words grace, faith, and works.
So what’s hard about this?
We started with Ephesians 2:1-10, as a reminder Ephesians 2:8-9 “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 a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Seems pretty clear that works don’t get us to Heaven!
Regrettably that was not always the case! Beginning as early as the 11thCentury, a doctrine of penance began to be developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Fully developed by the 13thCentury, the idea was that it was not sufficient to have the guilt of sin forgiven through absolution, there also needed to be punishment, or penance. In my mind this is what happens when Fallen, Fallible human beings begin to try to understand the Mind of God. Because to us, grace doesn’t make sense.
Did you see the Liam Neeson movie “Taken”? It came out in 2008, so it’s been out a while… It‘s a thriller about retired CIA agent whose daughter is abducted by sex traffickers. Even if you didn’t see the movie – or it’s two sequels – I’m guessing you can figure out the plot! Using Chuck Swindoll’s analogy, which path do you think Liam Neeson’s character follows?
Hmmmmmm….. Does he invite the abductors into his home, forgive them, and adopt them as sons?
Does he help the authorities to bring the abductors to trial and justice?
Or does he take matters into his own hands and seek vengeance?
I hope I didn’t ruin the movie for anyone. The point is, I think just about every Dad who watched that movie would like to see themselves as Liam Neeson: the avenging angel, if you will! Because grace is not natural to us. We think we need to do something, to earn our way, to have a list of good things that we’ve done that somehow outweighs the bad things. And so I don’t think it’s surprising that the church of the middle ages would go down a slippery slope that resulted in a doctrine – and actually in the Roman Catholic church it became a sacrament– of penance. And while there’s much more to it than this, the end result was that at a time that the church needed money to finance things: such as leprosarium’s, Cathedrals, eventually the Sistine Chapel and yes, the Crusades – at that time the church needed money to finance these things, and conveniently enough, one way to fulfill your penance eventually became the sale of papal indulgences. Pay your way, or a family member’s way, out of Purgatory – an integral part of the idea of penance. So the church needs funds… and a person can buy their way out of their sins… just buy a Papal Indulgence, good to go! By the way, depending upon how much money you give, you can get a full or partial remission of your sins…. Do you see any potential for abuse here?!?
Pastor Isaac talked last week about the 95 theses of Martin Luther… one of them addressed this papal “Treasury of Merit.” Luther asked the question:
Why does not the pope liberate everyone from Purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.
Interestingly, overall Luther didn’t criticize the Papal Indulgences because they was being abused, but rather because he was so concerned about the question of “how do I know that I am saved?” And that is the heart of the matter of works-based salvation: how much is enough? What Luther came to realize, and a large number of other people too, is that there’s no amount of money that can buy salvation. There is no list of works that can be done to earn salvation. Salvation can’t be earned. Salvation is a gift, a free gift. And not only that, but that gift all that is necessary! The battle cry of the Reformation was Sole Fide! By faith alone! Despite what our feeble minds think, there is no need for penance! Repentance? Absolutely! Forgiveness, yes definitely. But not penance. Christ’s death on the cross was not only necessary for our salvation, but it was also sufficient! For all sins, for all time. Nothing more needs to be done! That’s not Luther saying that, that’s just me saying that!
Hebrews 10:12 “12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
So does that mean that works, or what we do, is meaningless? Not at all! There are a couple of aspects here to look at. Remember Ephesians 2:10? It says “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Good works do not precede salvation. Good works do not earn salvation. Good works are a result of salvation. We do not do good works in order to be saved, we do good works because we aresaved!
The Book of James is probably the greatest testament to the importance of works. James 2:14-18 says it bluntly. For crying out loud, in the ESV this section is titled “Faith without works is dead”!!
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
What James is telling us is that if you have faith, you will do good works! A person who says he or she has faith, but that faith has no impact on their daily life… That person’s faith, says James, is dead – it doesn’t exist. Note that James never equates works with salvation! But he does equate our deeds with a legitimate faith. Works are the evidence that faith is real.
Interestingly, Martin Luther himself didn’t care for the Book of James, even questioning whether it should be in the Canon. But remember where Luther came from: a very works-based-salvation belief in which grace had been forgotten. I think we can forgive him for letting the pendulum swing too far over to the side of grace! But we cannot ourselves for make the same mistake. Or another mistake, thinking that because we have Grace, therefore we can do -- or not do -- whatever we want. That gets into the realm of Cheap Grace, where we feel like we can do whatever we want, because God will forgive us anyway… Grace is never cheap. Freedom is not free. The cost is blood. His blood. On a cross.
And there’s another aspect to works as well… Philippians 2:12-13
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Wait just a minute here, doesn’t that make it sound like my salvation is my responsibility?!? “Work out your own salvation!” What are you telling me Bruce? I thought you just spent all that time talking about how works don’t save and now you show me a Scripture that says I’m supposed to work out my own salvation!
This is where the church has these big words to help us to understand these different concepts. In this case, the words are “Justification” and “sanctification.” Justification is what happens the moment you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and give your life to Him. You are made right in God’s eyes. Justification is when God pronounces or declares a person to be righteous, not because of what they have done but because of Who He is. In the words of Romans 4:5, God justifies the ungodly. Sanctification is different. It means to make holy or be made holy. It is the lifelong process that happens after you accept Jesus. It’s the process of becoming more Christlike:
1 John 2:6 (ESV)
6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
1 Peter 2:21 (ESV)
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
But even then it’s not us, but God working in us:
1 Thessalonians 5:23 “23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely,
So yes, there is a place for works, even in our own salvation. But it’s in allowing God to work within us, as He sanctifies us.
Back to Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Boasting is the opposite of Humility. It’s the opposite of what God desires in our lives.
James 2:10 says “10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
All of it. Which is why we CANNOT earn our way to Heaven. Thankfully, at the judgment seat of God, He does not weigh our good deeds against our bad deeds on a cosmic scale. He looks to His son, and says “Did you pay the price for this man’s sin, this woman’s sin?” And for all who have accepted Jesus’ as Lord and Savior, the answer is a resounding YES!
God be praised! He paid the penalty for My sin… and yours…