Rich in the Love, Mercy, and Grace of God
Here is the message I prepared for the opening devotions at our October 1, 2011 Lutherans For Life of SD board of directors meeting based upon Ephesians 2:1-10
paints a grim, but realistic picture. All of us are by nature spiritually
dead. Not only are we unable to improve
our lot, but we are enemies, the objects of an offended God’s wrath. We should expect nothing but the harshest of
punishment—and that for all eternity. This
would be a terrifying thought, if not for the fact that Paul can continue with one
little word: “but.” I’ve heard it said
that the word “but” is a verbal eraser; it automatically wipes out everything
that was said previous to it. You know,
like: “I’m personally pro-life, but
I believe that a woman should have the right to choose.” St. Paul
There’s a very basic doctrine of Christianity that your sinful flesh wars against. The truth is that God is merciful to you solely because of who He is, not because of who you are or what you do. And that’s a good thing because you’ve done nothing to deserve God’s mercy, nor could you, because mercy is, by definition, not treating someone as harshly as they deserve.
Spiritually speaking, you were a still birth. You were born dead in your trespasses and sins. You were sinful from the moment your mother conceived you. You were unrighteous, an enemy of God, altogether worthless, unable to do good, unwilling to understand, unable to seek after God. Such was your desperate plight, and really the universal plight of mankind.
Whether they are open or secret, blatant or subtle, sinful actions, thoughts, and desires infect every man, woman, and child since the fall into sin. Sin is an inherited condition. We are conceived in it. We bring it with us from birth. And it justly earns us the anger of a holy and righteous God. With Paul, we too, need to say, “We were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).
But: That three-letter conjunction is the pivotal point of this passage, yes of the whole epistle—in fact, of all Scripture. Mankind as a group has made a terrible mess of things. We are certainly—as we regularly confess—poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. But… “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
These verses contain three enormously important words that give us a look into the heart and mind of our God: mercy, love, and grace.
The first great term describing our Savior-God is “mercy.” Paul speaks of Him as “God, being rich in mercy.” Mercy is a positive quality that certainly has much in common with love. But it is also somewhat different. Mercy is the attitude in the mind and heart of God that moves Him to take pity on us when He sees our lost and wretched state. Mercy prompts Him to action.
Paul can speak of a momentous change in our situation. Why? “Because of the great love with which [God] loved us.” The Greek term for love used here, agape, is not the word that speaks of friendship between two people—people who see endearing qualities in each other and on that basis like each other. Instead, it speaks of a love and affection that is totally one way. It all comes from God. Nothing in man the sinner, the God-hater, the spiritual corpse, drew God to him. Love resided only in the heart of God. Love prompts Him to action.
And what did God’s love and mercy prompt Him to do? We were rightly the objects of divine wrath, “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
Earlier in his epistle, Paul tells us about the incomparably great power God used to raise Christ from the dead. But that use of God’s power has far-reaching implications also for the whole human race. Raising Christ from physical death signaled the completion of Christ’s saving work and sealed our redemption. It made possible our resurrection from spiritual death. Paul is referring to the miracle of conversion. When we could not lift a finger to help ourselves, the Holy Spirit worked faith in us, creating life where formerly there had been none. In this way God made us alive together in Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses.
This is such a marvelous and amazing thing that Paul spontaneously exclaims, “By grace you have been saved.” Together with love and mercy, “grace” gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of God. The essential aspect of God’s grace is that it speaks of a quality in God that makes Him willing—yes, even eager—to give us undeserving sinners great and precious gifts. Substitute “undeserved gift” for the term “grace” and you catch the sense of what Paul is saying. “It is an undeserved gift that through faith you have been saved, for God gave you even saving faith as a gift.”
As a Lutheran For Life, you know all of this. You have heard over and over again that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” You know that salvation is an undeserved gift freely given by God without the contribution of any human works. But I fear that we have too often left out the last part of Paul’s thought, the verse that follows immediately: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
No, we are not saved by our good works. We are saved for good works. A life of good works is what God has in mind for every Christian. It is a part of that creative, life-giving process that God set in motion when, in His kindness, He called us to faith in His Son who redeemed us with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross, and who rose again on the third day.
With our new God-given spiritual life, we are now indeed able to respond to God’s will. We are able, albeit imperfectly, to do what God wants. It is not that we have to but, rather, that we want to, we get to, do God’s will. The good works that flow from faith are simply an opportunity to show our appreciation for all that God in Christ has done for us.
But even these good works are no basis for boasting. Our works are not the cause of our salvation, but its result. We cannot even lay claim to these, for God created them for us to do in Christ. We’re simply being given the opportunity to do good things, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
It would be hard to improve on the apostle John’s concise analysis: “Beloved let us love on another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God… In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins… If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us… We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:7, 10, 12, 19).
Jesus said: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). That is addressed specifically and particularly only to Christians. In God’s great love, mercy, and grace, He has adopted us as His children in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Christ invites us to join Him at His Table for the family meal where He gives us His very body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.
What a privilege it is to be God’s child! Only God’s children get to experience His love, mercy, and grace in it’s fullest in Jesus Christ. Only God’s children get to do good works that are pleasing to God. Only God’s children get to do acts of mercy that are done unto Christ when they are done for our needy neighbor. Only God’s children get to reflect God’s love to others through our acts of love. Only God’s children need not worry if we have done enough to please Him, but have the assurance that we are saved by God’s grace through faith.
So go out in the world to serve your neighbor with acts of mercy and love.
“How?” you might ask.
As the Lord leads you through your daily vocations and as the opportunities present themselves. Remember, God has already prepared those good works for you in advance. You just need to keep your eyes open for the situations—simple and big—where you can share the mercy, love, and grace of God.
As Lutherans For Life that might include things like volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. Visiting patients who are in hospice care. Speaking up for those defenseless little ones who are in the womb. Sharing the forgiveness of Christ with those women and men burdened by the guilt of an abortion. Becoming educated and providing sound advice to those loved ones who are facing difficult end of life decisions. Providing support and comfort for those who are barren and those who have lost little ones before birth. Promoting the worth and sanctity of all human life through conferences and promotional activities like “Life: A Better Choice.”
The more we do these kind of these things… the more we freely live in our baptismal grace… the more we will come to realize that the opportunity to share God’s mercy, love, and grace is not an onerous burden or thankless task, but a joyous privilege and undeserved honor.
So, go “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” As you do, take comfort in knowing that your performance will not change God’s attitude toward you one bit. God could not love you any more. He will not love you any less. When He looks at you, His baptized child, He sees His Son Jesus Christ—His perfect righteousness, His perfect works of mercy, His love, and His perfect sacrifice for your sins. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.