Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Grace, Faith, and Works (Eph. 2:8-10)
We had a special presentation at St. Joseph's yesterday, and as a result, the adult Sunday School class did not meet. So, I am now a week ahead on notes. Because of this, I will probably take a week off from doing my notes on St. John's Gospel. Instead, I'll post some other stuff. Here is the first part of the sermon that I preached yesterday. It's quite basic. Nothing special, but I pray that it will be helpful to you just the same.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
I have some good news for you. Do you think you could use a little good news? The good news is this: heaven is a free gift. That’s right--it’s absolutely free! We can’t earn or deserve it. For you see, the Bible says that “by grace that you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not by works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
This is the way that I used to kick off a canned Gospel presentation that I learned in seminary. Frustrated by my inability to explain what my fellow seminarians called “the plan of salvation,” I enrolled in a program in my church called Evangelism Explosion. Over time, I memorized the feature piece of the program, the Gospel presentation. And week after week, one or two others and I would go to the homes of church visitors, planning to share the presentation with them. When no one was home, my group and I would go to shopping malls, convenience stores, or other public places. Sometimes, we would even just start knocking on randomly chosen doors. But no matter where we were, our game plan was the same. After a few minutes of chit-chat, in which we supposedly “earned the right to be heard,” one of us would launch into the presentation by telling the person(s) with whom we were speaking that we had good news for them. Forty-five or so minutes later, we would challenge them to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and thus be “saved.”
Occasionally, we hit pay dirt: the person we were sharing with would admit that he was a sinner and that he needed Jesus in his life. Sometimes, she would even break into tears and make a very emotional profession of faith. Then she would pray the “sinner’s prayer,” after which we just knew she was saved. After all, salvation is by faith alone, right?
But nearly every time we snatched a perishing sinner from the jaws of Hell, we noticed that something peculiar would happen. We would make an appointment to come back and see them the next week, which they would agree to with enthusiasm. But when we actually returned a week later, they were nearly always gone or suddenly unable to receive us. When we did see them, we would ask them if we could come back again, they would usually say (in essence) “don’t call me; I’ll call you.” And we would never see them again.
Later, when I was on the mission field, I kept having similar experiences over and over again. I was very good at leading people to make decisions, but I rarely saw any lasting fruit. At first, these experiences convinced me that memorized Gospel presentations, no matter how slick or persuasive they are, seldom if ever result in eternal life, at least not in 45 minutes! But later, after seeing convert after convert fall away from their initial enthusiasm for Christ, I began to do the unthinkable for a Baptist. Yes, you guessed it: I began to question whether salvation really was by faith alone, at least by faith as I understood it—a one-time, once-for-all decision to follow Jesus.
And that brings us back to today’s Epistle passage, which to Protestants is the proof-text par excellence that salvation is by faith alone. After all, St. Paul clearly says “not by works,” doesn’t he? Tomorrow, we will examine what today’s passage says and what it does not say.