WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE ALONE.
In the name + of Jesus.
“You better be good for goodness' sake.” We know it from a Christmas jingle, and it sounds like pretty good motivation to make children behave. But in reality, we don't really mean what it says. We don't really mean that being good is its own reward. We mean, “You better be good if you want to see presents.”
Sometimes we attach rewards to good behavior. Usually, we don't. You don't get a reward for obeying the speed limit. If you obey the law, you avoid a penalty. But no police officer pulls you over to commend you for observeing the posted speed limit or for coming to a complete stop at an intersection. Utility companies don't give prizes because you pay your bill on time. By obeying the law, you avoid punishment. You spare yourself pain and punishment, but rarely does anyone celebrate you because you have done what you are supposed to do.
St. John wrote, “The law was given through Moses.” (John 1:17) Through Moses, God gave the Ten Commandments, which express God's will for all people of all time. With the Law, the Lord both threatens punishment on the wrong doer and reward for the obedient. What does God say about all these commandments? He says, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6; Luther's Small Catechism) For the wrong-doer, there is wrath and punishment. For the obedient, there is blessing. For the guilty, there is death and hell. For the righteous, there is life and heavenly bliss. So, the Lord gives us every incentive to obey the commandments in order to receive blessing, and he gives every incentive to avoid sin so that we do not suffer divine wrath and damnation.
“The law was given through Moses.” (John 1:17) The Law is good, because it shows us what is good. But if you think that God's Law is not good—if, in fact, you hate God's Law—it is because that Law shows you you are not good. We believe God's Law is good when it directs how others are to treat us. We believe we deserve the first place in line, the assistance of others, and the benefit of the doubt. But we hate God's Law when it shows us we are wrong. We hate being convicted for rude behavior, for selfish ambition, for snarky words, for jealousies, for pettiness, and for perverse preferences. God also denies us when we try to excuse our behavior by insisting that other people had it coming, that we have the right to do what makes us happy, or that no one is the judge of us. Since God is the giver of life, God holds the right to judge it. He decides what is good and what is evil, and he enforces his commandments.
“The law was given through Moses.” (John 1:17) Even when it damns us, the Law is good. For, the Law is not the problem. We are the ones who have disobeyed it. We are the ones who despise it. We are the ones who defy the God who gave it. We are the ones who sin against our fellowmen by living as if they are not worth the effort to do the good that God prescribes or by suggesting that it is okay if we or our friends persist in the evil God forbids. The Law of God is good; it condemns us because we are not. Repent.
No matter how much you strive to be good—whether it is for the sake of gaining a reward, for the sake of avoiding punishment, or just for goodness' sake—no one is good enough to save himself. God does not demand an earnest effort. God demands perfect obedience. The Law cannot save you, even though it is good.
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17) What God's Law demands, Jesus Christ supplies. Jesus did not enter the world to show us how to keep the Law. Jesus did keep God's Law perfectly, but that does not mean we can do what he did. Jesus came precisely because we could not do it. We are not saved because we have been good, or even good enough. We are saved by grace alone.
The Scriptures declare: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We are saved by grace alone. That means salvation is a gift. Unfortunately, Americans don't really get what it means that something is a gift. In just over a week, there will be Christmas Eve and Day family gatherings. Family members will swarm around the Christmas tree to shred wrapping paper and to tear into packages. So we think we know what a gift is. But how many parents will look at their children on Christmas morning and say, “Why are you looking for anything under the tree? We don't owe you anything!” You know the moaning and wailing that would ensue. Or your children might reply, “Very funny! Where are the gifts?” Commercials are playing which inform husbands that it is not enough to get your wife a gift; it had better be the right gift. If you feel ripped off because you did not get a gift or insulted because you did not get the right gift, then how much of a gift is it? When we expect gifts, they are not gifts. They are obligations.
It is important to understand this: God owes you nothing. The fact that God gives generously to you does not mean he was obligated to. Grace means that God gives you what you do not deserve. What you and I deserve is God's wrath and punishment. We have earned that because of our sins. But that is not what God gives us. God gives us his Son to save sinners. Jesus gives a life of perfect obedience to fulfill what you and I have not done, and then Jesus gives you the credit for it in your baptism. Jesus gives his innocent life in exchange for your sin and guilt. Jesus gives himself over to judgment so that you are pardoned. Jesus gives himself into death so that you can have eternal life. The eternal Son of God endured the pains of hell so that you could receive the eternal joys of heaven. Jesus did not owe this to you. He did not do this because you have been good. He did this because he is good, and his love endures forever.
You are saved by grace alone. Jesus continues to be gracious to you. Even though we still sin in our weakness, Jesus does not respond to you with snark. He speaks tender words of mercy. Even though he knows all our secrets, Jesus does not expose our shame. He covers it. He deals patiently with repeat offenders of his Law. He does not slam shut the door of heaven because you had a bad day. He continues to assure you that you are children of a forgiving God. This is grace. God gives us what we do not deserve. He speaks and acts for your benefit. Jesus did not go to the cross for his glory—though that is where his glory is revealed; he went there for yours. God's good is for your good.
You are saved by grace alone. Your salvation is God's doing from beginning to end. That means your salvation was done to perfection by a perfect God. And that means that your salvation is not in doubt.
The Law shows you that you need to be saved. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17), who has shown himself to the Savior of mankind. He gives you what you do not deserve, but he gives it gladly. You are saved by grace alone.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.