[A sermon by Rev. David Fagrey, preached at our Reformation Conference, October 28, 2001, at Trinity Covenant Church]
“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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:8-10
Introduction: This Wednesday is the 484th anniversary of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, which began on October 31, 1517.
Sadly, if you ask the common person on the street today what the Reformation was all about, they will look at you as if you are from another planet.
When I Heard. The first time I heard of the Reformed church, the first thing I thought of was reform school. What in the world is a reformed church? I had no idea (this was as recent as 1987 – 14 years ago).
I didn’t find out about the reformation on CNN or from the newspaper. Someone told me.
Do we think the reformation is important enough to tell someone? Or are we being influenced by our culture that thinks one church is just as good (or bad) as another. “It doesn’t really matter what church you go to. They all want to go to the same place anyway.”
We live in a culture that thinks no one can be right when it comes to the Bible. “How dare you say that the reformed church is right! No one can be right. So quit talking about how important a reformed church is.” The next time that someone says, ‘no one can be right,’ just ask them if they believe their position to be right.
Reasons for the Reformation. The reformation was important for several reasons. I want to focus in on two of those reasons today. I will talk about the first reason this morning and the second reason in the second worship service. The first reason has to do with a proper understanding of the gospel (good news). The second reason has to do with how that gospel is to be communicated – through preaching.
We begin with a proper understanding of the gospel. What is the gospel? The dispute during the 16th century reformation was over that very issue. The very definition of the gospel was at stake. And no one can say that that is a minor issue.
Galatians 1:9: “As we said before, so I now say again, If any one preaches any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (eternally damned).” There is only one gospel. If anyone preaches a different one, let him be eternally damned. No minor issue.
If a church does not preach the one and only gospel, then that church is not a true church. One of the marks of the truth church is the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel (Belgic, art. 29).
One the Eve of the Reformation, the church was not preaching the one and only gospel. The very church that Martin Luther and John Calvin were born and raised in (the Roman Catholic Church) was not preaching the one and only gospel.
That is why Calvin and the reformers argued that the Roman Catholic Church needed to be reformed. And if it would not reform itself, then it could no longer be considered the true church.
The true church is the church that preaches the true gospel.
Calvin rejected the idea that a new church had been started at the Reformation. He argued that the Reformed Church was a continuation of the true church.
The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, had rejected the one true gospel and therefore could no longer be considered true. ‘If anyone preaches any other gospel, let him be accursed.’
What then is the one and only gospel? The answer is found in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
In a nutshell, here is the gospel: we are saved by grace. Salvation is a gift. It is not something we work for. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Eternal life is a gift from God. You do not work for a gift. You receive a gift. If you have to work for a gift, then it is not a gift; it’s a paycheck.
So here’s the choice. This was the choice during the Reformation. And it is still the choice today: Eternal life is either something a person has to work for or it is a gift that a person does not have to work for. Either getting to heaven depends on how well we live or getting to heaven does not depend on how well we live.
The Bible does not contradict itself by teaching both views. One of the views is right and the other is accursed. It’s either by God’s grace alone or it depends on something we do.
And just because a church says they believe we are saved by grace doesn’t mean they really do.
Catholics and Lutherans Together. Listen to this statement that Roman Catholics and some mainline Lutherans recently agreed to: ‘By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.’
Doesn’t that sound pretty good? ‘By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God.’ Can you find fault with that?
Watch the Meaning. This language sounds good until you realize how the Roman Catholics understand grace. They believe that no one is born with the ability to live well enough get to heaven (we believe that too). But God gives each person who is baptized the grace to live well enough to get to heaven.
God gives each person what I will call ‘enabling grace,’ that is, grace that enables a person to live well enough to get to heaven. God gives that to each person.
No person has to work for this enabling grace. It’s a gift. But once a person receives this gift of enabling grace, he must co-operate with it and live well enough to get to heaven. Getting to heaven depends on how well a person uses his gift of enabling grace.
Not let us read that statement again. ‘By grace alone [enabling grace], …and not because of any merit on our part [we don’t merit or earn enabling grace; it’s a gift], we are accepted by God [for the time being].’ Our continued acceptance depends on how well we co-operate with God’s grace.
That is what the Roman Catholics believe. Read their creeds. They believe that getting to heaven does depend on how well a person lives for Christ. They do not believe that we are saved apart from works.
Not Putting People Down. Now, I say these things not to put people down. If a doctor tells a person he has cancer, the doctor is not putting the person down. The doctor is warning about cancer. I am here to warn about the cancer of an accursed gospel – wherever it may be found.
I am here to proclaim the true gospel: Getting to heaven does not depend on my works or upon anything else I do. I am saved by grace alone.
Salvation is a gift that we do not have to work for. Salvation is a gift that we receive. And how do we receive it? Through faith; ‘by grace you have been saved through faith.’
When a person has faith in Christ, he receives eternal life as a gift. Jesus Christ earned eternal life for me by His perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross. Faith is simply the spiritual hand that reaches out and receives the gift of eternal life.
There is nothing else I have to do in order to get to heaven. He who believes in Christ “has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
When the Philippian jailer asked the Apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul did not say, ‘co-operate with enabling grace’ or ‘be sure to attend church every Sunday.’ He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”
The Lord wants to make it clear that we do nothing to contribute to our salvation. Even our faith in Christ is a gift from God: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that [that faith] not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”
Faith itself is a gift. John 6:65. Jesus said, “no one can come to Me unless it has been given to him by My Father.” The act of coming to Christ is itself a gift from God. The act of believing in Christ is a gift from God. Phil. 1:29: “For to you it has been granted …to believe in Him.” Faith is not something that we contribute to our salvation. Faith is itself part of God’s gift of salvation.
Yes, it is man’s duty to believe. Yes, we must call all men to repent and believe in Jesus. But when they do, we don’t pat them on the back. We say: you have nothing to brag about. The only reason why you believed is because God gave you faith (Matt. 16:17).
Most churches today would disagree with that statement. They will say that faith is not a gift. Man already possesses the ability to believe. All he has to do is exercise that ability. The fall did not destroy man’s ability to believe. So fallen man doesn’t need God to give him faith.
Other churches will admit that faith is a gift. They will say that no one is born with the ability to believe in Jesus (we believe that too).
But they believe in what I will call an ‘enabling faith.’ God gives every lost sinner who hears the gospel the ability to believe (he enables them to believe), but the lost sinner must say yes to that enabling faith. It is within his power to say no. If he says no, he remains unsaved.
So here’s the difference; and let me illustrate it by way of an analogy. The reformers said that grace is God turning the light on in our lives. Just about everybody else says that grace is God giving you the light switch but it is up to you to turn the light on. Your salvation depends upon you turning on the light in your life.
This makes man’s salvation depend ultimately on man’s choice and not God’s choice. And when it is all said and done, we are not really saved by grace alone. We are saved by grace plus our wonderful decision to turn the light switch on.
And if it’s my decision that makes the difference between being saved and being lost, then I will have something to boast and brag about on Judgment Day. I will be able to say to all unbelievers: “I co-operated with God’s grace and you did not.” “It was my choice that made the difference. That is why I am standing here and you’re standing over there.”
The Bible says that God doesn’t want anyone to boast. V.9: Salvation is “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” God doesn’t want anyone to boast. He wants to do all the boasting. He wants all the glory.
But if man’s salvation ultimately depends on man’s will – upon man’s choice, upon man’s efforts, then man should get the glory. If my decision made all the difference in the world, then I should get the glory. ‘God gets part of the credit for giving me the light-switch, but I turned the light on.’ But the Bible says that God gets all the credit for turning the light on in my life.
Isaiah 42:8: “I am the Lord, that is My name; and my glory I will not give to another.” God wants all the glory. The reformed faith is the only faith that gives Him all the glory.
It was God’s choice, not my choice that made the difference. And even my choice was a gift from God. To God alone be the glory!
Now, this seems like a nice place to say Amen and end the sermon. But there’s one more very important matter we must consider.
And here it is: if getting to heaven does not depend on how well we live, does that mean we don’t have to worry about living well?
The reformers were accused of promoting careless living. If you tell people that getting to heaven does not depend on how well they live, that will cause them to live any way they want. That will cause them to live carelessly.
“No it won’t,” said the reformers. Grace doesn’t make us careless. Grace makes us careful to live lives that are pleasing to Christ. The same grace that saved us apart from our works is the same grace that causes us to do good works for Christ.V.10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Notice: we have been created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing good works. A good work is anything that God commands. So we can say that doing good works is obeying God’s commands. God saved us not so that we can live any way we want but so that we can live the way He wants – the way that He has commanded us to live.
Grace doesn’t make us careless. Grace makes us careful to live lives that are pleasing to Christ.
Paul told Titus to tell his congregation “that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8). Don’t be careless. Be careful to maintain good works. God’s grace makes us careful, not careless.
Titus 2:14: Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”
God’s grace makes us zealous for good works. God will make His people obedient one way or the other. Jonah is going to Nineveh – either the easy way or the hard way. “The Holy Spirit makes me heartily willing and ready to live for Him.”
And even when we obey we have nothing to brag about. God planned that we would obey. V.10: We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
God prepared beforehand all the good works that we will do (cf. Eph. 1:5,11). Every good thing that I will ever do as a Christian has already been planned by God. God told Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I planned for you to be a prophet (Jer. 1:5).
Just as God prepared a fish to swallow Jonah, and a plant to provide Jonah shade, and worm to destroy the plant, so God has already prepared all the good works that we will do.
Yes, we are to strive to do good works, yes we are to work hard, yes we are to earnestly obey all the Lord’s commands. But when we do that, we are not to pat ourselves on the back. Rather, ‘I did what I did only by the grace of God.’
Paul said that he worked harder than all the other apostles did, “yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor 15:10).
Conclusion: That is what the Reformation was all about. It is not about what we do. It is about what God has done. We are saved by grace from start to finish. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). We don’t start by grace and finish by ourselves. We are saved by grace from start to finish.
And is that not good news? Getting to heaven does not depend on what we do. It is not good news to tell people that getting to heaven depends on how well they live. It is not good news to tell people that their salvation hangs in the balance.
You cannot truly be happy or worship God if you think God might one day put you in hell if you don’t live a good enough life. But you can be happy and you can worship God if you realize that God has saved you by His grace, through a faith that He supplied, resulting in a life of good works that He prepared for you to walk in.
That is good news. And I need to hear this not just once but every day. When someone invites you over for steak, you don’t say, ‘no thanks I’ve had steak before.’ We eat steak again and again because it’s good and it nourishes us. The gospel is spiritual steak for our soul. Forget chicken Soup for the soul. We’re talking spiritual steak.
This is spiritual steak worth fighting for and dying for, and passing on to the next generation and the next and the next.
May God grant another, and even more glorious, reformation ‘to the praise of the glory of His grace’! Amen.