Not-So-Secret Formula

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 4
March 14, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: God's formula for salvation includes grace and faith. When you put the two together, the result is good works.

A German monk named Martin Luther really wanted to be a good and righteous person, so he confessed his sins frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. But after confessing his sins, he would leave the church and remember additional sins that he needed to confess. This frustrated him, and he realized that he could not become righteous by human effort alone.

Then he read the line in Paul's letter to the Romans that says, "the one who is righteous will live by faith."1 In a flash, Luther realized that he was not made righteous by his good efforts, but by his faith in Jesus Christ. " I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise," said Luther. "This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven." The Protestant Reformation began when Luther made this discovery about the role of faith in making us right with God. "If you have true faith that Christ is your Savior," he said, "then at once you have a gracious God, [and] you should see pure grace and overflowing love." 2

For Luther, the secret formula for salvation was perfectly summarized by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: "For by grace you have been saved through faith." For hundreds of years, this insight caused a rift between Lutherans and Catholics, but then in 1999 the two groups signed a joint declaration that stated that the churches now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." 3 This declaration resolved the 500-year conflict over justification that had kicked off the Protestant Reformation.

Saved by grace

Grace and faith. They should have been ingredients in a not-so-secret formula when Luther talked about them, because they had their roots in the writings of the apostle Paul. Like Luther, Paul was tormented by his sinfulness, and he found hope only in the God "who is rich in mercy." Writing to the Ephesians, Paul said, "even when we were dead through our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved." This same God "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." For Paul, salvation was an act of God, not an act of human beings. It came from the God who was rich in mercy, who loved us with a "great love," who made us "alive together with Christ," and who showed us "the immeasurable riches of his grace."

But what is grace? The Christian writer Philip Yancey was asked to give a definition of grace and he answered, "I don't even try." But he did tell a story. "I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, 'How much do I owe?' The woman says, 'Nothing. You're all clear.' I said I was late and she smiled, 'Yes, but there's a one-hour grace period.' So I asked, 'Oh really, what is grace?' And she said, 'I don't know ... I guess what it means is that even though you're supposed to pay, you don't have to.'" 4 That's a pretty good definition of grace, isn't it? Paul was supposed to pay for his trespasses, but he didn't have to. Instead, by grace he was saved and seated "in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." Grace is the first ingredient in God's not-so-secret formula. It means that even though we're supposed to pay, we don't have to.

Saved through faith

Grace is hard to find in our world today, and so is faith. The same situation existed in the city of Ephesus, back in the first century. Located on the west coast of what is now Turkey, Ephesus was a Greek seaport city that had existed for hundreds of years before being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. Under the rule of the Emperor Augustus, it grew into a prominent, prosperous and powerful city, expanding through the first century until it reached a population of more than 400,000 people.

Paul took the Gospel to the synagogue in Ephesus and "for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God." 5 He then moved to a lecture hall and continued speaking for two years, until all of the residents heard the word of the Lord. Later, he wrote his letter to the Ephesians and reminded them that "by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." Paul's words about grace and faith were life-changing for the Ephesians, because this formula was so surprising to them. They lived in a powerful and prosperous city in which people weren't showing much grace or having much faith.

The lives of many Ephesians were changed by Paul's preaching of the gospel. Once they began to have faith in Jesus, they became "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God." 6 Through their faith, they became "alive together with Christ." Through their trust in Jesus, they gained access to "the immeasurable riches of [God's] grace in kindness toward [them] in Christ Jesus." Faith changed their lives, because it was the second ingredient in God's not-so-secret formula. In his letter, Paul said, "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you." 7 Paul was thankful that the Ephesians had been saved through faith.

Created for good works

Grace and faith are the keys to our salvation, and they come to us from God. This "is not your own doing," said Paul to the Ephesians; "it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast." When we receive the grace of God and put our faith in Jesus Christ, there is really nothing we can do except give thanks to God. Our salvation comes to us as a gift from the God who is "rich in mercy" and loves us with a "great love."

But God's not-so-secret formula includes more than grace and faith. When you put the two together, the result is good works. "For we are what he has made us," said Paul to the Ephesians, "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." Good works are a critical part of the Christian life, even though they are not what save us or make us right with God. "Good works do not make a good man," said Martin Luther in the year 1520, "but a good man does good works." 8 A person who is saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ is naturally going to live a life that is full of good works.

So, what does such a life look like? Catherine Rohr, a private-equity investor, visited a prison in Texas and discovered inmates who had faith in God and were turning their lives around. She decided that prison was a "storehouse of untapped potential," full of men who were brimming with business savvy. Rohr launched the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which offers business training to prisoners. According to Christianity Today , the program has graduated hundreds of students with business plans they can use on their release, in fields such as landscaping and real estate. Rohr tells them, "You've taken so much from the community; it's time for you to give back." And it works - one former inmate formed a faith-based moving company called "Moved by Love." 9

But you don't have to go into a prison to do good works. In the late 1980s, Bob Muzikowski moved to Chicago and landed in a working-class neighborhood near the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects. After seeing an abandoned lot that had old backstops, he began to work with neighbors to organize an official Little League. His motivation was quite simple: "I was reading this old book, the Bible," he says, "and it says to love your neighbor as yourself." He has worked to get three Little Leagues going, and in each of these places the restored baseball parks have become vital centers for youth sports, and social hubs as well. "I had no doubt that God wanted me to play baseball with the kids of Cabrini-Green," says Muzikowski. "They were, after all, my neighbors." He shuns the label of social reformer, believing that he is simply trying to be a good neighbor. 10

Good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works. The not-so-secret formula for Christian living is that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and also "created in Christ Jesus for good works." Let's not keep this formula to ourselves, but instead share it in both words and actions.