Grace Alone: Grace Delivered

This time of year brings apprehension to young people who are around the age of 14. What generates this fear? The public catechization that marks the end of confirmation instruction.

For many young people, public catechization evokes fear of humiliation in front of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. No one wants to stand in front of the church tongue-tied, stumbling over words, or with a mind that has gone completely blank.

I recall hearing of a young man who at his confirmation was asked the question, “What is the meaning of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed?” This question and answer is on page 75 in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren’s Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism. I think it is the question with the longest answer.

The boy began the answer correctly. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel…” Suddenly the boy stopped, his mind blank. After reciting these words he just stood there, humiliated.

The pastor asked, “Is that all?” The boy nodded his head. Yes, that was all. “Well,” said the pastor. “That is the farthest your pastor has gotten as well.”

A Desperate Need:

“I believe… that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him!” No amount of reason or strength can or will change this. The “old sinner” in each of us is spiritually dead. We cannot come to God on our own. Ours is a hopeless condition that calls for divine intervention by the Holy Spirit.

Our Synod’s Statement of Faith expresses this hopeless condition: “God created Adam and Eve in His image to live in fellowship with Him. They fell into sin through the temptation of Satan and thereby lost fellowship with God. Through their disobedience the entire human race became totally depraved, that is, self-centered sinners who oppose God, and who by nature are unable to trust, fear or love Him. They are subject to the devil, and are condemned to death under the eternal wrath of God” (Constitution of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, Article II, D.).

A Gracious Provision

Our desperate need would leave us hopeless were it not for Jesus whom God sent. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s love finds its expression in Jesus’ suffering and death. He died on the cross and shed his blood in our place. Martin Luther called this the Great Exchange. Jesus took our sins; we receive his righteousness.

“This righteousness is called the righteousness of God. That is, it is a righteousness provided by God. What the Law demanded, God has provided and given to us in Christ Jesus. Here is revealed a righteousness which is given to us as a free gift in Christ Jesus” (Class notes on Romans 3:21-26, by Professor M.E. Sletta, former President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and former President of Lutheran Brethren Seminary).

A Living Word

The Word of God and the Sacraments are God’s way of showing us Jesus and speaking his grace to us. God does this primarily through the sacred Scriptures. These stand alone. All other books are man’s word, but the words of the Bible are God’s Word, which gives life to the spirit and enlightens the mind.

Jesus came as God’s Word in the flesh and has returned to the Father’s right hand. According to his promise he will come again. In the meantime, he comes to us through the words of Scripture, which are “…the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).

This is true for believers throughout the world who read the Bible in their own tongue. It is true for Christians who live in a country where meeting together has been banned and, of necessity, they meet secretly around the Word of God. It is true for anyone who gathers in the Name of Christ and hears his Word. “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17). We cannot overemphasize the power of this Word to change lives.

The Word of God is the primary way that God brings us the Good News. God, however, knowing our weakness, is not limited to the spoken or written Word. He also uses the Sacraments he established before Jesus’ ascension, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are visible means of grace. When connected to God’s written Word they are sign gifts that assure us of God’s promises.

Baptism, when connected to the Word of God, creates faith. Listen to the Apostle Paul’s testimony: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…” (Titus 3:4-6).

Similarly, the Lord’s Supper creates faith when connected to the Word of God. The Apostle Paul writes of this Sacrament to the believers at Corinth, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, NKJV).

A Visible Word

“Do you want to go to town?” my father asked my brother and me. Saturday night shopping was a regular event for nearly everyone in our farm community in northern Iowa. Of course we did. We looked forward to this Saturday night trip because that meant our father would buy us each a bag of popcorn from the street vendor.

This treat, however, was more than a bag of popcorn. This gift assured my brother and me that our earthly father loved us and cared for us. We belonged to him. It was something we could hold in our hands as evidence of our father’s love.

Our Heavenly Father has given us something tangible to show us his grace—the Sacraments. By themselves they are ordinary. But when connected to the Word of God they become vehicles proclaiming the Good News. Therefore we gladly go into all the world making disciples by baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). As we go, we will proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Rev. David Rinden served the Church of the Lutheran Brethren from 1979 to 2000 as editor of Faith & Fellowship magazine. He was vice-president of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren from 1991 to 2003 and retired from pastoral ministry in 2014.

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