At the end of June, my family gathered together in Minot, North Dakota to celebrate the marriage of one of my uncles. It was a small ceremony in the Gol Stave Church in the Scandinavian Heritage Park, a really beautiful setting. My extended family has moved all over the country; some of us are still in Minot, others in Fargo, the Twin Cities, Seattle, Las Vegas, and I am in Montana. It is unfortunate that the only things that gather my whole family together anymore are weddings and funerals. So when we get everybody in the same city, we take advantage of the time together.
The night before the wedding, we went to one of the Mexican restaurants in town for some good food and good fellowship with one another. It was a really great time, and everyone enjoyed themselves. They enjoyed themselves, that is, until the check came. My great-aunt quickly snatched up the check and handed the waiter cash. No one else even had a chance to offer. As quickly as the bill came, the bill was paid, and paid in full. It was purely a gift from her; there were no expectations, no demands. She just wanted to bless us with a good meal of free food.
What do you think the reaction of my family was to this wonderful gift of free delicious food? You likely guessed wrong—the reaction of my family was anger, even rage. One family member said, “You can’t do that!” Another piped up louder than the crowd, “What did you just do? I can’t believe you just did that!” Still another: “No, no, no, do not pay for everything!”
What could possibly have caused my family to respond to a free and good gift with such negativity?
Sola Gratia, Grace Alone. This is one of the major tenets of the Reformation, but what does it really mean? Grace is a free and undeserved gift. It is receiving something without having to make any sort of payment in return. “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, ESV). While we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we were made alive with Christ. This happened not because we in any way deserved to be made alive, to be forgiven, or to be given eternal life, but simply as a free and undeserved gift of God. Because he is rich in mercy, because of his incredible love for us, he has, while we were still sinners, saved us.
This is great news! God, in his great love for us, sent Jesus to live, suffer, die, and rise again so that we might have life eternal. Not only that, the forgiveness that Jesus won for us on the cross comes to us freely. It is given freely through God’s holy Word, through the waters of baptism, and through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. It is freely offered, freely given and received by faith.
This is not just great news, but the best news ever proclaimed! But for some reason, this wonderful news makes us all a little bit uneasy and a little bit uncomfortable. When we hear, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9a, ESV, my emphasis added)—a part of us responds a lot like my family at the table of the Mexican restaurant in Minot: “You can’t do that!” “What did you just do, I can’t believe you just did that!” and “No, no, no, do not pay for everything!” There is a part of us that simply can’t accept the free gift of God, a part of us that doesn’t want it, a part of us that just wants to earn our own salvation, and have it our own way in our own timing. The grace of God runs contrary to our sinful nature, and our sinful nature doesn’t want anything to do with it.
Did you notice that the Apostle Paul wrote, “…even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins”? Paul didn’t say, “…while we were sick in our trespasses and sins” or “…while we had a sin problem, a trespass issue, or a sin struggle.” He said, “…when we were dead.” That’s D-E-A-D—dead. What hope does a dead man have of saving himself? That’s right, none. A dead man has no hope to ever make himself alive. But God, in his great love for us, while we were still sinners, sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to live the sinless life we could not. He sent Jesus to die the death that we deserved to die, bearing our sins and experiencing the full wrath of hell for them, so that we would never have to. On that cross sin, death, and Satan were conquered; forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and eternal life were won.
What Jesus accomplished there on the cross is what God freely offers through his Word and sacraments. These are all given by grace alone and received through faith. Even though our sinful nature wants nothing to do with these free gifts, these free gifts are the only way that we may be saved.
So rest. Rest, knowing that the finished work of Jesus Christ was enough for all your sins, and there is nothing you can do to earn it. It is yours simply by the free gift of God.
Pastor Michael Hussey serves Sidney Lutheran Brethren Church in Sidney, Montana.