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Sola gratia: By Grace Alone
Romans 3:21-26
Date: 
Sunday, May 10, 2020

Preperatory: Psalm 147

Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
    for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
    he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
    he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
    his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the humble;
    he casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
    make melody to our God on the lyre!
He covers the heavens with clouds;
    he prepares rain for the earth;
    he makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the beasts their food,
    and to the young ravens that cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
    nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
11 but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
    in those who hope in his steadfast love.

12 Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!
    Praise your God, O Zion!
13 For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
    he blesses your children within you.
14 He makes peace in your borders;
    he fills you with the finest of the wheat.
15 He sends out his command to the earth;
    his word runs swiftly.
16 He gives snow like wool;
    he scatters frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
    who can stand before his cold?
18 He sends out his word, and melts them;
    he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.
19 He declares his word to Jacob,
    his statutes and rules[c] to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
    they do not know his rules.
Praise the Lord!

 

Prayer:

Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
Holy God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.
We pray for the Church, the bride of the Lamb,
We pray for her joy,
                Her delight in the Lamb,
                Her faithfulness to him,
                Her purity and spotlessness in the world,

We pray for the Christian Church throughout the land,
                That it be true and faithful.

Almighty God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end,
                Who brought Israel out of Egypt,
                And sent your infant Son with Mary and Joseph
                Down into Egypt, and gave them refuge
                In the days of King Herod.
We pray for the leaders of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,
                Support them in their ministries of encouragement
                In this nation and throughout the world,
                Particularly those who are supporting Christians
                Under persecution in the world.

Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come,
                Who has promised us a new heaven and a new earth,
We pray for our own land, faced with a pandemic.
Grant to us as a people comfort in our loneliness,

                A heart at peace with separations that have arisen,
                A heart of generosity for those who are suffering,
                In so many ways.

Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
                King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
                To whom in the end all authority belongs,
We pray for the kings of this earth,
                The leaders of our nation
                The leaders of many other nations,
                Who this day face enormous challenges
                And fateful decisions.
Grant that the rulers of the lands
                Might provide justice among their people.

Lord God, Almighty, Everlasting, Eternal,
                Who was and is and is to come,
                In whose presence every tear will be wiped away,
                Death will be no more,
                And there will be no more mourning,
                No crying, nor pain,
                For all things will have passed away.
We pray your blessing on those who mourn,
                On those who are alone,
                On those who live in hope,
                On those who wander,
                On those who are homeless.

To you we make our prayers, Holy, Holy, Holy God,
                Who was and is and is to come,
                Claiming the intercession of him
                Who is at your right hand,
                Jesus Christ, the righteous,
Amen.

Confession: Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 29-30

Q. 29. How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Anthem: Grace of God

Hymn: Amazing Grace

 

Sermon Full-text

Sola gratia – By Grace Alone

Romans 3:21-26

Welcome back to another online sermon for us to use in home worship this week. Keep on praying, this may be the last week we have to do this, so keep praying that the situation continues to be improving in our state, but especially in our county, and also keep in your prayers those who are still struggling throughout the country, in the hot spots that are creeping up here and there. Also be in prayer for our church family, for the Michenzi’s in their time of grief, and the Hutchins family as they deal with new diagnosis—keep them all in your prayers, and we really sincerely hope that we can gather together next week. What a celebration that would be! And now, let’s go before the Lord in prayer as we prepare to open his Word this morning.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Spirit to open our minds, open our hearts, open our eyes to your truth that we find in your Word today. We know, as we saw with Jesus’s disciples here on earth and the people that were around him, listening to his preaching, we know that they only understood what you opened their hearts to understand. So we pray that as we handle these great truths of yours found in your Word that you would guide us to the truth, sink it deep into our souls, and with it provide comfort from you, awe of you, and cause us to worship you in spirit and in truth. In Jesus’s name, amen.

When we chose a new name for this church, this body of believers a few years ago, one of the primary purposes of that was to better identify to those around us what the beliefs of this church actually are. We recognized the serious negative baggage that the word “Presbyterian” had taken on in the last several decades and we wanted to reflect what we really believed with a name. And the name that we chose not only included the word “Reformed,” but also, say it with me, “Grace.”

I think that was well-chosen, and there is good reason that so many churches, when naming themselves, when choosing what word in theology is best representative of what we believe, there is good reason that so many of us settle on “grace.” Sure, it’s a nice-sounding word, it’s succinct and uncomplicated, but more than anything it points to the most foundational truth about how we are saved, and that is by grace.

But I’ll also admit, and perhaps you would too, that that word rolls out of our mouths so easily and quickly that sometimes it loses the full weight of what it means, this pillar of our faith. So as we go through Biblical Reformed Theology for these few weeks, it’s important that we take the time to deepen our understanding of grace, make sure that we know what it is and the extent of it, how it operates in our salvation. And so to do that, we are going to turn again to Romans 3, and use for our text today the text that comes immediately after the text we used last week. It’s so nice that you don’t really have to go searching for Reformed theology, put together tiny little snippets from throughout the bible, it’s right here, laid out plainly by God through Paul in Romans. All we have to do is follow how he explains it. So we are going to pick up Romans 3 in verse 21, and we will read through verse 26 for our text today. Romans 3:21-26. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Thanks be to God for his Word.

I mentioned before we read the text that this word “grace” is something that comes into our ears and out of our mouths so often that it has an opportunity to lose the grandeur that it deserves. I suppose part of that is because we use the word “grace” for things far less lofty than the grace that is spoken of here in the text, the grace that God gives sinners.

The college semester is nearly over, and every time I arrive at the end of it, I like to sometimes use the word grace to describe what I give some of my students when I put in final grades for the term. Don’t tell them, but I always have been kind of a softy when it comes to grades—perhaps I should fix that. When the students miss a paper due date and ask for a little more time, and I give them grace and don’t always follow the law of the syllabus, that’s grace, right? And when a student has worked hard and is very close to getting that next higher final grade, and I look back over a semester of work, and even though the numbers don’t quite get the student there, I still might just give them that next higher grade. I admit it, I’ve done it. I’ve already told them that with all of the craziness this semester that there would be a measure of grace in all of our dealings.

Or another of the more common uses of that word, in agreements, or contracts, or usually as part of some purchase, there is often a grace period, where as long as you fulfill the bargain or agreement during that time, you won’t get a penalty. If you put in the work, if you satisfy what was agreed to, or paid, you receive grace. In a way that’s what I at times give my students, too, grace that works that way. You’ve done a good job on the course, and when I season your work with a little grace, boom, higher grade. I’ll give you grace on that due date, provided you actually get the work done.

Is that what’s going on here? Is this the kind of grace that Paul is talking about? Is that “grace” as the term is used in the bible? You fulfill your side of the bargain, do what you can, and then God will make up the rest with his grace, and then you’ll be saved, you will have salvation. Is that how salvation works?

Isn’t that the exact kind of thinking that leads to the “state of theology” survey I mentioned last week? What was the phrase that a majority of self-identified Christians agreed with? “Everyone sins a little, but people are basically good.” You may be saying to yourself that’s preposterous, especially after we went through the doctrine of total depravity last week. But isn’t this how a lot of people live their lives? How we sometimes behave even though we would confess something else?

Generally, my observations tell me that there are many people who call themselves Christians, and would agree that grace is necessary for salvation—you can’t get saved on your own (which is why you would agree with “everyone sins a little”). But the theology that many people have in their minds is that God’s grace in salvation is much like those little graces I was talking about before—that God’s grace is what makes up the difference between how good I’ve been and how good I have to be to be saved. Some of it’s my works, my goodness, and the rest is made up by Jesus.

But that’s not how it works. The big question that Paul is trying to answer for the Romans, and through that God to us, the big question is, who saves you and on what basis? Sola gratia. Grace alone. Not God’s grace plus me, not God’s grace plus my good works, not God’s grace plus my free will choice to follow him, not God’s grace plus anything. Only, ever, completely, your salvation is a grace from God.

And this is so completely logical when we get our doctrine of sin correct, right? That’s what I said last week, if we get our doctrine of the extent of our depravity, if we get that right, everything else falls into place. When we confess that there is absolutely nothing we can do to merit, to deserve the grace of God, then we are left with no other option, logically and actually, that our salvation is totally, 100%, an act of God on our behalf.

If you don’t remember why that is true, just back up a few verses and read again Paul’s compendium of Old Testament scriptures that remind us that we, as fallen people, cannot do good. We are incapable of choosing good. Even the choices that look good, the service that an unregenerate person may do to their neighbor is sullied by bad motives (because the only motive that can make something truly good is that it is done in thankfulness to God and for his glory). If you don’t remember, the main point from last week is that dead people can’t choose God. They are spiritually dead in sin, not sick in sin. This is how Paul lays out his argument. If I cannot choose God in my condition—if my nature doesn’t allow it—then my being saved, then my being declared just, must be entirely the work of God. It is only, then, by grace, by God’s being gracious to me, that I can possibly be saved. And this is exactly how Paul explains it in our text for today. He just got done talking about how sin has infected the entire human race and made them incapable of doing good, saying “no one does good, no, not one,” and “no one seeks God.” And then in verse 21 it’s the turning point, and he says:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

At this point, we, reading this letter, know that we have to be righteous in order to be saved. Only a spotless person with respect to the law can be saved, that is the bar. And then Paul just told us how completely incapable we are of being righteous, so where does that leave us? We need righteousness, where are we going to get it? So Paul says “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested, it’s here, apart from the law.” All the rest of the basics of Reformed theology are right here in the next phrase, ones that we’ll go into detail about in later sermons, but look, they’re all here, verse 22:

The righteousness of God – the righteousness you need? It’s not from you, it’s from God and it is of God, it’s his. The next two words show how to get it: through faith. The righteousness is God’s, and it becomes yours through faith. Next three words, faith in what? In Jesus Christ. And then who has this faith, who gets it? For all who believe. That’s the roadmap to salvation: God’s righteousness, given to you through faith, and only through faith in Jesus Christ, and that is waiting for all who believe. Hallelujah, there’s the gospel! Isn’t it amazing how we have it all tied up in a little package right there, in one verse?

If we would stop there, we might think, OK, all I’ve got to do is believe and then all of those puzzle pieces fall into place! Great, I will believe! But God knows that is the way we always deal with things, we make it about us. Which is why the next verse, after that mountaintop of gospel in verse 22, the next verse is actually a little jarring, but because we almost always hear it as a standalone verse, it isn’t as much. Instead of extrapolating further on the gospel that he just delivered, Paul says this:

For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

In his commentary, James Montgomery Boice admitted that that verse for a long time seemed out of place. Why would you go back and bring up all of that depravity stuff from verses 9-20? Didn’t we put that behind us when you said “But now?” But like I said, Paul, and God through him knows how we operate, we want to make everything about us, and salvation is no different in that respect. We naturally want it to be something that we cooperate with God in, or that we supply at least part of what makes us holy. No, Paul shuts the door on that. He reminds, no one deserves any of this for any reason. And he continues as 23 goes into verse 24.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift,

Your justification is a gift, always a gift. It is grace. It is not earned, it is not merited, it is not deserved, even in the tiniest little way. We contribute nothing to our salvation, or it would not be called grace. The depth of this grace, who can fathom! I go back to a few minutes ago when I brought up some of our other uses of the word—how unbelievably miniscule those look next to the grace of God shown in our salvation! He did not look favorably on something we did and offer grace, no! He looked at a person, spiritually dead, incapable of pleasing him, and he breathed new life into them.

This is such an important point, the magnitude and totality of God’s grace in our salvation, that I have to belabor the point, because we are constantly trying by the way we live our lives to see it a different way, and it creeps into our theology so easily.

As an example, you’ve probably heard at one point or another a kind of altar call or evangelistic delivery that goes something like this: “You’re a sinner, you are in need of a savior, it’s like you are drowning in the ocean, your head keeps bobbing up and down and you’re getting to where you can’t take any more breaths, and Jesus is there. And he tosses you one of those white rings with a line on it, and he wants to pull you to the boat and rescue you. All you have to do is grab on! Have you heard that?

Is that biblical? No! That’s not how it works! Go back to Ephesians 2, where Paul actually says it even more clearly:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—

And skipping to verse 8:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

No, if we want to get that metaphor right, you’re not drowning in the ocean. You’re not flailing about with your arms. You’re dead! You’re at the bottom of the ocean, dead as a rock. And Jesus, your Savior, goes down to the bottom of the ocean, lifts you up off the ground, carries you to shore, and breathes new life into you. That’s how salvation works! So we have to get our story straight. In fact, if what we said in the last two messages was true—that God is sovereign over all of history, and when we are unregenerate we are incapable of choosing him—then this is the only way that salvation can happen. All a work of God. Christianity is the only religion that describes a salvation this way. In any other religion, there is something you can do to appease, to win favor, to earn something from the deity. Not so in Christianity. You contribute nothing to your salvation.

But Zach, if the lifeline thing isn’t true, what about evangelism. Doesn’t that make evangelism unnecessary? If God’s just going to scoop up off the ocean floor whoever he feels like, why even preach the gospel? Why even make the offer of grace? Well, we’ll get into that more next week when we take up the doctrine of predestination, but the short answer is because God has chosen to accomplish his purposes through people, and he evangelizes unbelievers through his Word, often brought to them and expounded by other people!

So we should invite people to grab hold of Christ, believe in their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, ask them to take hold of this free offer of grace, because it is there and freely offered. But Zach, isn’t that a choice, then? Don’t I choose God?

You do, you do choose God. The question is, what is your state, what is your standing with God when you make that real choice. If you’ve followed the logic this far, there is another reality regarding the process of salvation that we need to understand. Regeneration precedes Faith. I’ll say it again, regeneration precedes faith. Because an unbeliever cannot choose God, it is only because God has regenerated you that you choose him. For many people, their choosing God is their first act of obedience that their spiritual regeneration has made possible!

Sola gratia, it’s all God. I’ve mentioned before that I really think, deep down, Reformed Theology (that is, biblical theology) is extremely simple. It’s all God. Theology gets very complicated when we start to try to make it about us, and overemphasize the importance of free will, and think that our actions do something to move God toward something. That’s when it gets complicated. But when we take this scripture and know that it’s all God—for him, and to him, and through him are all things—these complex doctrines aren’t complex, they’re actually simple and freeing!

I’ll close with this application, the points of which I took from James Montgomery Boice who I mentioned earlier. Because it’s all God, and not you at all, there are three amazing, incredible truths that you can rest in and go out in confidence with for the rest of your life.

The first is this: Since salvation is a gift, all of the grace of God, then we can be saved now. We don’t have to start our Christian walk, hoping that if we do the right things or attain some level of sanctification, that then we can be sure of our salvation. No! If God has made you alive, he’s made you alive. Romans 8: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Now, not future. It is finished. Boice wrote, “It is only in Christianity that this future element moves into the present. And the reason it can is that salvation is not based on our ability to accumulate acceptable merits with God, but rather on what God has already done for us.” We are saved now.

And the second comfort is this: Since salvation is a gift, all of God’s grace, then your being saved is certain! I remember years ago, before Meagan and I had kids, we were with some coworkers at a Village Inn after a retail shift. One of them was Mormon, and two of them were sisters that were Catholic. And we were talking about theology and they wanted to know what was distinct between Reformed Theology and theirs, and in the course of that I shared the story of the life ring and grabbing on and all that. And the response from all of them, which actually shows what’s wrong with both of those theologies is that they said in response, “not only do you have to grab on, you have to kick.” What if I don’t kick hard enough? There is no certainty of salvation, though. And the Catholic view isn’t much different. Are you saved? To that question, a Roman Catholic must answer “yes, if I….” We’ll get into why more in a later message, but they basically see God doling out saving grace in little thimblefuls through your life in the sacraments, but you keep losing your salvation over and over again, which is why you need more little thimbles of grace. So they have to say, “yes, if I….” But it isn’t that way! You can be certain of your salvation, because when God gave you faith he applied all of his grace to you then. You’re saved now, and you can be sure.

And the third comfort is this: Because salvation is entirely a work of God, his gracious gift, there is no room for human boasting. It’s exactly what Paul said to the Ephesians: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” When we walk around heaven someday, we will all have gotten there because of God and only because of him, not resting on any of our works. You want to know the really good news that is the flip side of that? Just like there is nothing that you can do to earn your salvation through good works, there is also nothing about you, nothing that you’ve done, that the blood of Christ could not pay for. There is nothing in your negative column that could keep you from God’s grace. Take hold of it, because it’s the only chance any of us have.

Sola gratia. Amazing, incredible, unfathomable grace, how sweet the sound, to save a wretch like me. Thank God for his grace. Dwell on the promise that it brings. Because it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s all him, we can say:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, what can we say? Our mouths are stopped, our minds overwhelmed with the depth of your love and the immensity of the grace that you have shown to us, lowly sinful creatures. What can we do, but worship you, and praise you. Thank you for your Word today, but thank you especially for the promises it contains. Help us to grow in our love for and knowledge of you, and rest more every day in your grace, our only hope. By the blood and in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

Sunday Morning Worship @ 8:30am

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