Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost / Thirteenth Sunday of Luke, November 28, 2021
Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 16:19-31
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
God, being rich in mercy, through His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through the trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved—and raised us up together with Him, and made us to sit together with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages He would show the exceeding riches of His grace, in kindness toward us, in Christ Jesus.
That rather long sentence is the beginning of today’s epistle reading. What comes after that is this:
For by grace you are saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
You heard, no doubt, that these two halves of the reading are connected by the repetition of “by grace are you saved.” Since a certain interpretation of these passages has had such an influence on American Christianity, I thought we should take a close look at them this morning.
First, what is that interpretation? Well, since the Protestant Reformation, many theologians have said that when St. Paul says, “by grace you are saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast,” what he means is that there is nothing you need to do to be saved. “By grace you are saved through faith,” especially paired with “not of works, lest anyone should boast,” means you just have to agree with the gospel, and God does everything. You don’t have to do anything.
Usually that is then explained by saying that the Pharisees thought that you could be saved by doing the good works of the Law of Moses, but Jesus is throwing all that out, proving that you can’t earn your way into salvation. Well, it is true that you can’t earn your way to salvation. But this epistle wasn’t written to Pharisees or even to Jewish Christians. It was written to the Ephesian Christians, who were mostly former pagans. Context is important here.
In paganism, the very small handful of people who could attain to salvation in the sense that St. Paul is talking about here—and we will discuss what that means in a moment—got there by impressing the gods with great achievements of heroism. This is why this handful could boast about it, because almost no one could do it. St. Paul is telling these former pagans that that is not how this works. Salvation in Christ is a free gift offered to all, not a reward for cleaning out the Augean stables or cutting all the heads off the Hydra or defeating the Minotaur.
So, if it’s not performing great feats of heroism, how do you get it? If “believing” and “faith” here (which are the same word in the underlying Greek, by the way) are understood simply as agreeing with the gospel, then why aren’t the demons saved? They agree with the gospel (James 2:19). And what does it mean in other places where St. Paul talks about faith increasing (2 Thess. 1:3)? Does he mean that Christians agree even harder with the gospel?
No, it is clear that this is not what is intended, because, as the very next verse says, God created us for good works. This isn’t disconnected. The sentence begins with for: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” That is, we are saved by grace through faith, because God created us for good works.
So that means that faith isn’t merely about agreeing. The Greek word usually translated in English Bibles as “faith” or “believing” should actually almost always be translated as “faithfulness.” By grace are you saved through faithfulness, because God created us for good works.
Now, does that loop us around to mean that we actually really do teach that salvation is earned by doing good works? Not at all. Again, it’s not a reward for being heroic. It is a free gift. But faithfulness is the means through which we receive that free gift.
The difference between Christians and demons is not what they agree is true—in fact, the demons’ grasp of the gospel and the dogma of the Church is probably better than most of us have. Rather, the difference is whether one is faithful or not. The same is true when comparing Christians with pagans. Pagans—such as the Christians in Ephesus had been—were faithful to the demons they worshiped as gods, but Christians are faithful to the Most High God, the only One worthy of worship.
So what does this mean about what salvation itself is? Remember that pagans thought that people could become gods. But this was possible only for a very small handful of people—usually kings and princes, including sons of gods—and of them, only a few actually achieved it by doing great feats of heroism. For the pagan, this was salvation, and it meant not only being rescued from a gloomy dwindling away in Hades, eventually to be forgotten and wither away to almost nothing, but to be counted among the gods themselves. If you were a Greek pagan, this meant being enthroned in bliss on Mount Olympus.
Christ says, however, that His path of salvation is available to everyone, if they will be faithful to Him.
St. Paul defines salvation here. He says that God “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved—and raised us up together with Him, and made us to sit together with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” When he puts that “by grace are you saved” in there, you know he’s talking about salvation. And what is salvation? It is to be made alive together with Christ, to be raised up together with Him, to sit together with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
So pagans did get some things right. Salvation does mean rescue from Hades, and it does mean being seated together with the Most High God. But they were wrong when they thought you could get it by impressing the gods with great feats of heroism, and they were wrong when they thought it was available only to certain people born into powerful places on earth.
When St. Paul talks about being seated in the heavenly places with Christ, this is indeed an image of the Most High God in His divine council, surrounded by the angels and saints who together with Him reign in the cosmos and take care of it. That is what salvation means, adoption as sons of God to be equal to the angels and share in their ministry of God’s works (Luke 20:36).
Salvation in Christ is a free gift from God by grace. Grace is the action of God. But its benefits come with a condition placed upon us—faithfulness. Salvation is not a reward because God is impressed by our faithfulness—we have no reason to boast. But faithfulness is the means through which the benefit of God’s grace comes to us. We must live in loyalty to Christ, which means that whenever we are disloyal by sinning, we turn back and repent.
When we understand that salvation is being brought up to the heavenly places with Christ, to be made equal to the angels, to be given this ministry of participation in God’s works, then we can understand why it is that faithfulness—which is not just agreeing with the gospel but actually obeying the gospel (Rom. 10:16, 2 Thess. 1:8, 1 Pet. 4:17)—is the vehicle through which God’s gift of salvation comes to us.
The three verses immediately before our epistle reading today, the beginning of Ephesians 2, is St. Paul talking about how the Ephesian Christians, when they were pagan, lived in sin and were faithful to “the prince of the power of the air,” that is, the Devil. Because they were faithful to that demon, they participated in the works of demons and became like demons.
That is why the first verse in the Biblical text of our reading in verse 4 starts with “But.” “But God, being rich in mercy,” has saved the Ephesian Christians and brought them to the heavenly places. So we, like those Ephesians, are also called to turn our faithfulness away from demons, to break faith with them. And then we repent, which means that we turn our faithfulness to the Most High God, to keep faith with Him and Him alone.
And so, “in the coming ages He [will] show the exceeding riches of His grace, in kindness toward us, in Christ Jesus.”
To the Lord Most High above all gods therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.