Gracious Goodness by Rev. L. John Gable
February 26, 2017
If you were with us last week in worship you will recall that we talked about the concept of God’s extraordinary “unfairness” we call grace. We came to the conclusion that God’s inherent goodness shows itself toward us in graciousness. Looking at texts such as “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…and the wages of sin is death” convict us in our understanding that without Christ we are “dead in our sin”, helpless and hopeless; but then God, in His tender mercy, responds to our need and cry by acting for our deliverance. Recall this glorious proclamation, “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came in to the world to save sinners” and “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” This is the heart of the Gospel and the truth of the Christian faith. God loves us, unconditionally, not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. He has claimed us in His love and saved us by His grace alone. God’s goodness shows itself to us in God’s graciousness. This is the whole Gospel and surely our response to this extraordinary “unfairness” of God is “goodness gracious.”
But even as we come to fully accept this truth still we find ourselves saying, “Yeah, but…” Yeah, but is that really all there is to it? If our salvation really is all up to God, what’s our part? Where does faith come in? Don’t we have to do something? Yes, we do. We have to accept it. We have to accept the fact that we really are accepted by God in this way, which means we have to give up trying to win or earn God’s favor in any other way, because there is no other way. We are saved by God’s grace alone, or we are not saved at all. We are saved by grace through faith, faith being the “channel” or “means” by which we access or accept God’s grace. And, lest there be any confusion, much less pride or boasting as if we had actually done anything to earn our salvation, we need to be reminded that faith is not something we do, rather it is simply our way of responding to God and His gracious goodness.
So, let’s unpack how that actually works in our lives. If last week we talked about God’s goodness which shows itself in God’s graciousness to us, then this morning we need to understand that God’s graciousness, freely given to us, must be put into practice and lived out in our acts of goodness toward others. Simply put, “goodness gracious” on God’s part demands or requires “gracious goodness” on ours.
In the second chapter of Ephesians we hear about our life “before and after” Christ. Plainly, bluntly, before Christ, we “are dead”, dead in our sins and trespasses, without God and without any hope in the world. Of course we are helpless to help ourselves if we are dead, in our sins. But then in verse 4 we hear the Good News, “but God, who is rich in mercy, out 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.” What we could not do for ourselves God has done for us, namely, save us.
Several weeks ago I used an illustration of our need and God’s grace as told by theologian Karl Barth. Imagine you are swimming in the middle of the ocean or a large lake and suddenly you begin to go under, so you cry out for help. Your friends on the shore shout out words of encouragement but are helpless to help you, but then miraculously someone gets in to a boat and comes to your rescue. They toss you a lifesaving ring which you cling to as they drag you to shore.
This is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Hearing our cry and recognizing our need He has come to be our Rescuer, our Deliverer, our Savior. That is what God has done for us, but the story doesn’t necessarily end there. R.C. Sproul has added to Barth’s famous story by inserting that God didn’t just toss us a lifesaving ring that we could grab hold of and hang on to, remember we are dead in our sins, helpless to help ourselves. Rather, Christ got in to the water with us and lifted us out. He did mouth to mouth resuscitation on us and breathed new life back in to our lifeless bodies before bringing us safely to shore. Goodness gracious!
Clearly that story of our salvation is all God, all grace, but still we ask, “Yeah, but…” Yeah, but once we have been saved in this way, don’t we have to somehow respond? Don’t we have some responsibility? Isn’t there something we have to do? And the answer is “yes”.
Barth finishes his story in this way. Once back on shore, after having been so miraculously and graciously saved, we are given a choice. What will we do with this new life we have now been given? Will we get up, dust the sand off our our shorts and say, “Thanks, Jesus!” as we head for home? Heaven’s no! Out of sheer gratitude we will say, “What can I do? There are still others out there who are drowning. I want to go out and help in some way!” Out of sheer gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ we want to be a part of sharing that Good News with others. Not that we have to. No, this is what we want to do. This is what we are privileged to do. This is what only makes sense for us to do with this new life we have been given.
This is what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10. After telling this “before and after” story, he writes, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” God’s gracious act of goodness toward us is then intended to be translated into our gracious acts of goodness toward others. We were created for good works. The gift of our salvation is a call to action, borne of gratitude. What God has done for us, He intends for us to do for others as well, and of course we want to be a part of doing that. We are called to work out, or to put into practice, what God is working in to us, namely His gracious goodness. So how do we do that?
In our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy Moses is giving his last instructions to the Children of Israel before they enter into the Promised Land. In this his closing sermon, he rehearses their entire 40 year history since God brought them out of bondage in Egypt. He reminds them of God’s gift to them of the 10 Commandments and of all of the rules and regulations God has given them so that it will go well for them in this new land. In short, he reminds them that God has chosen them to be His people because He loves them, so he charges them to live in to and out of that love.
Then he asks this question, “What does the Lord require of us?” That same question is asked, more famously, centuries later by the prophet Micah. Recall his answer, “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. This is what we are called to do, not in order to win God’s favor, we already have that, but in response to God’s favor. In the same way, Moses, reminding the people of God’s favor and choosing, asks, “What does God require of us?” and then answers in this way: “Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and to keep His commandments for your own well-being.” Why has God given us these guidelines? Why do we have to do anything at all if God has already done all for us? Why does God even give us any requirements if He has already assured us of His love and salvation? These commandments are given neither in order for us to earn our salvation nor out of punishment for our disobedience, but because He loves us and desires what is best for us; we are told He has “set His heart in love on us”, I love that phrase.
God gives us these commands and instructions so that we can begin to align our lives with His life, to conform who we are with who He is, to square our way of doing things with His way of doing things. “So, circumcise the foreskin of your heart and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger. You shall fear the Lord your God; and Him alone shall you worship. He is your praise; He is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your eyes have seen.”
Since God has done these “great and awesome things” for us out of His gracious goodness, then we, as His children, ought also to do such “great and awesome things” for others for the same reasons. This gracious goodness is the way God intends us to live, not simply basking in God’s goodness to us, but extending that same goodness to others. As Paul writes, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” This is God’s will and purpose for us, that we will do good works for others because He has done a good work for us. As Jesus will teach in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to “let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in Heaven.” Good works are intended to be our way of life, not in order to earn God’s favor but simply because we already have it. John Calvin addresses this “grace/works” dilemma by saying, “We are not saved by good works, but neither are we saved without them.” Our good works are in response to God’s graciousness. When we do good works it means that we get it; it means that we get what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and so desire to share it with others.
Since God has been good to us, we also are to be good to others.
Since God has been kind to us, we also are to be kind to others.
Since God has been forgiving of us, we also are to be forgiving of others.
Since God has been generous and caring to us, we also are to be generous and caring to others.
Since God has been patient with us, we also are to be patient with others.
Since God has been merciful to us, we also are to be merciful to others.
Since God has welcomed us, we also are to welcome others, the widow, the outcast, the stranger, the alien in our land.
Since God has accepted us, we also are to accept others.
Since God has been gracious in His goodness to us, we also are to be gracious in our goodness to others.
Why? Because it means we get what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. And conversely, when we neglect or refuse to do these things it means we still don’t get it. It means we still haven’t come to understand or accept or embrace or be thankful for God’s goodness and graciousness toward us.
Friends, this is the Gospel message. While there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s favor or our salvation, either we are saved by God’s grace or we are not saved at all, there is something we can and must do in response to it. We must accept it. We must accept the fact that we have been accepted. We must accept the fact that God’s goodness has been poured out in to us in graciousness. And then we must live in to and out of that grace in goodness to others. In short, God’s “goodness gracious” requires our “gracious goodness”, and may it be so for us. Amen.