Sola Gratia, by Grace Alone.

January 29, 2017

I was sixteen when Gary Gilmore died it was January 17 1977.  And maybe some of you are thinking:  That name sounds familiar.  Gilmore was a petty criminal from Texas who would have lived and died in complete obscurity except for one thing.  He became the first person in the United States to be executed after the supreme court reversed a 1972 decision that had ruled capital punishment to be a cruel and unusual punishment. 
In July of 1976 Gary Gilmore committed two armed robberies in the state of Utah and in both cases shot and killed the people he was robbing.  He was sentenced to death and because he refused to appeal his sentence he was executed six months later. So we only know about Gary Gilmore because of the medias fascination with him being the first American executed in five years. 
And even though it was forty years ago I still remember all the media hype that the case generated.  
As a side note the United States has executed 1444 people since then and if you kill a white person you are 3 times more likely to be executed than if you killed a person of colour. Just saying.  
The other thing that captured the attention of the media and society was that Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad. Which seemed to me as kind of strange at the time. 
Utah and Oklahoma are the only two states that allow execution by firing squad and in this case Gilmore actually requested that he be allowed to die that way.
And there was a reason, you see Gary Gilmore’s mother was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, that is she was a Mormon, and that had a profound effect on how Gary would choose to die.  
Gilmore’s brother Mikal would write that his brother’s decision was because he wanted “To spill his blood on Mormon soil, as an apology to God.”
Which might seem a little strange to us but was based on the LDS theology of Blood Atonement that had been taught by Brigham Young.  And while blood atonement is no longer required by the church in 1978 LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie, claiming to reflect the view of church leadership, wrote that he still believed that certain sins are beyond the atoning power of the blood of Christ.
And while we might not hold to the theology of Blood Atonement there are those who still believe that some sins are beyond the Grace of God.
This is week four of our “Old Foundation” series. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
In 1517 a catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther took the church to task for what he felt were theological errors that needed to be corrected.  He wrote a list of these errors and nailed them to the door of the largest church in the area, the Wittenberg Cathedral. 
Now a couple of things that we need to understand.  Martin Luther did not start down this road in order to start a new denomination.  His intention, as a priest and theologian was to start a healthy debate within the church which would ultimately bring the church back to its roots. It was “The Church”, after all.
The second thing is that the Catholic church of 500 years ago isn’t necessarily the Catholic church of today.  Any more than the Protestant Church of today is the Protestant Church of 500 years ago.  In both cases for better or for worse.  
When theolgians speak of the central teachings of the protestant reformation they refer to them as the “Five Solas”.
Sola is simply the Latin word for “One” or “Only”.   And while there was no attempt by men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other reformers to define what they were doing, church historians have gone back and kind of reverse engineered their beliefs and came up with the Five Solas.
And so, in week one we looked at Solas Fide, or By Faith Alone, and this was the belief that it is faith that is the main component of our salvation, not works or good deeds and certainly not a belief in purgatory.  So, we are saved by faith alone.
Then we looked at Solas Scriptura, or in the Scripture Alone.  And that was the belief that the final authority for our Christian life is the Bible.  And while the reformers would allow room at the table for tradition and the teaching of the church only the scriptures would be considered infallible and it would be by scripture that those other traditions and teachings would be measured.  
Last week we took some time with Solus Christus, through Christ Alone and looked at the power that is available only through the name of Christ.  And that power that was there for the church in the book of Acts is the same power that was there for the reformers 500 years ago and the same power that is there for us today.
And that brings us to Sola Gratia, by grace alone.  That is belief that our salvation comes completely by the grace of God, that it is not dependent on anything we do, other than believe in and accepting that Grace.  
And that is spelled out in the scripture that was read this morning was Ephesians 2:8-9  God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
There is no one scripture that sums up the teaching on grace more than these two verses.
Let’s personalize it and read it together: Ephesians 2:8-9  God saved me by his grace when I believed. And I can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things I have done, so I cannot boast about it.
The words come from the book of Ephesians which was a letter written to the church in Ephesus by the Apostle Paul.  But Paul’s teaching on grace wasn’t limited to this one letter. Grace is mentioned in every book that Paul was the author of in the New Testament, which would kind of make us think that grace must have been fairly important to Paul and that he wanted it to be important for the early church.  
And that sentiment is reflected in Martin Luther’s statement “This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.”
So the first thing we discover is,  For Paul, Grace was Personal  You have to know Paul’s story to really appreciate this.  The first time we see Paul is in the book of Acts and when we first meet him he isn’t called Paul he’s called Saul.  The first mention of Saul is when Stephen becomes the church’s first martyr.  
And if you know the story an angry crowd stones Stephen for preaching the gospel and before they stone him we read that they took off their coats, sounds a little strange but I’m not really up on stoning etiquette, and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.  In the next chapter we read this Acts 8:1-3  Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.  (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.)  But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. 
I repeat it over and over again, Justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is getting less then you deserve and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.  
If I was God, Saul would have died a long and painful death, lonely and scared.  Just saying.  His mission in life was to destroy the church, if he didn’t throw the stones that killed Stephen he was certain complicit in what happened that day.
In many jurisdictions, there is something called Felony Murder and if you are involved in a criminal activity and someone dies, you are guilty of their death, even if you didn’t actually kill them.  So if you and two of your buddies were robbing a convenience store and you were driving the getaway car and one of the guys inside accidentally shot and killed the clerk.  You would all be guilty of murder, even though only one of you pulled the trigger.
And understand, there was nothing legal about the stoning of Stephen, nothing.  He was killed for being annoying.  And although Saul didn’t pick up a stone he was still guilty of Stephen’s death.   
And so, justice for Paul would have been to answer for his crime and two thousand years ago the penalty for murder was death.
Mercy would have been that Paul wouldn’t have been executed for Stephen’s death, but he would have had to answer to God for his crime.
Instead God reaches down and offers Saul a new beginning and a new life.  The church’s greatest enemy becomes its greatest ambassador.  The man who was at least complicit in the death of Stephen would become instrumental in bringing thousands of people to a saving knowledge of Christ and whose teachings would shape the church for two thousand years. 
And that’s not an anomaly, it’s not just one bad person who is offered God’s grace.   If it was just Paul, we’d write it off and say:  Sure but you don’t know what I’ve done.   
There was Peter, you know Peter who denied knowing Christ, not once but three times.  When Jesus had been arrested and put on trial and needed the support of his friends, there was Peter cursing and swearing that he had never even met Jesus.  And that same Peter became in many ways the father of the church.
And remember Thomas?  The one who is called Doubting Thomas because he doubted the resurrection?  Tradition tells us that it was doubting Thomas who started the church in India.
And the book of Matthew was written by a man who had been a corrupt tax collector.  And the Gospel of Mark was written by a young man who Paul took under his wing as a protégée, but halfway through their journey John Mark got homesick and bailed and went home.
Time and time again God reaches down to the ones who are the least deserving and offer them what they deserve the least, his grace, his unmerited favour. 
But God’s grace wasn’t something that Paul just experienced once.  For Paul, Grace Was Something that was Ongoing  
Sometimes folks seem to see Grace simply as a ticket to eternal life; as so they sing “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  But they never seem get beyond the first verse.  And then it’s almost as if they put the grace of God up on a shelf and don’t think about it again.  
And yet Paul was always reminding his readers of how God’s Grace was at work in his life.  For example, we read in  2 Corinthians 12:7 . . . So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.   
And we don’t know what the thorn was that Paul is talking about.  All kinds of theories, the temptation to sin or doubt, head-aches, the persecution that he was always facing, his eye sight and even malaria.  One Scottish commentator even suggested it was his wife, I have no idea where he came up with that idea.  
A friend of mine recently wondered if it was just a thorn, a really nasty splinter that Paul couldn’t get out of his flesh.  But we don’t know.  But if we keep reading we discover this.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.  
Whatever the thorn was it was by God’s grace that Paul was able to rise above it.  And when Paul wrote to the church from prison he said it was only God’s grace that allowed him to endure prison.  
Here is the reality, when you don’t think you can’t handle it, whatever “it” is, you are probably right.  But God gives us what we need, through his Grace.  Not because we deserve it because God doesn’t just want us to survive he wants us to thrive.  
None of us will get out of life unscathed.  And we don’t always know or understand what people have gone through or are going through.  We look at folks and think, “Well sure they are great Christians but they haven’t had to deal with what I deal with.”  Really, do you really believe that you have it so much worse than everybody else?
And whether we grow through our troubles or simply go through our troubles will be determined by God’s grace.  And if we come out the other end better or bitter it will be determined by God’s grace. 
And that grace is available to all of us, not because we deserve it but because we are God’s children.
And if you’ve tasted of God’s grace and turned your back on it, here’s the good news it’s still there.  It is a gift and like all gifts it needs to be received.  But understand, the grace of God isn’t something that is only needed at the beginning of your Christian journey, if you are going to make it to the end, it will only be as you lean on God’s grace.
For Paul, Grace Wasn’t Something to be Abused  Paul asks an interesting question in  Romans 6:1 Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?
This seemed to be an ongoing discussion in the church at Rome because Paul had addressed it earlier in Romans 3:7-8 “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.
It is a twisted logic that leads us to the rationale that our sinful behaviour actually becomes a public service by introducing more of God’s grace into the world.  And so Paul asks the question: Romans 6:1 Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?  And then he answers it in the very next verse by stating Romans 6:2 Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?
This type of argument and debate was common in the era that Paul was writing and was referred in Latin as: Reductio ad Absurdum  And the definition of that term is: The process of refuting an argument on the grounds that absurd – and patently untenable consequences would ensue from accepting the item at issue. In other words, reducing the argument to the absurd.  
For example, sometimes someone will say something that just doesn’t make sense or is unlikely to happen.  “If I won the lottery, all my money problems would be over.”  And I will respond one of two ways, both of which fall into the class of Reductio ad Absurdum.  So I will either say “And if wishes were horses beggars would ride.” Or I will respond “And if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a wagon.”
So taking it to the extreme, if we do continue to sin it is an opportunity for God to demonstrate his grace over and over again, however we are told that God hates sin and the ultimate consequence of sin is spiritual death and so while sin provides the opportunity for grace it ultimately leads to our destruction.  
We fall into the same trap when we are intentionally disobedient, counting on God’s grace to cover that sin.  Father forgive me for what I’m about to do.
But we are told that we are to avoid temptation, that if we love Jesus then we are going to want to obey him.
For Paul, Grace Something to be Shared  And Paul wanted everybody to share in God’s grace.  It was his life’s mission and why he travelled across the known world.  He had tasted this marvellous grace and wanted others to taste it as well.
Over and over again through Paul’s writing we hear him telling people about the grace that had been offered to him and urging them to accept God’s Grace.
And Paul was the first to admit that he didn’t deserve it at all. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:12-14  I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him,  even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief.  Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. 
And until we realize just how much we need God’s grace it’s difficult to share that grace with others.   
There are times that I hear people ask,  “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone?”  What they are asking for is universal salvation.  
But that really creates a different problem with fairness.  That means that God wouldn’t care about injustice and evil.  How good would you have to be to get in? And how bad would you have to be to be kept out?
I was listening to some old country music the other day, don’t judge me, and I heard a line in a Statler Brother’s song that said “Maybe she ain’t good enough to go to heaven, But heaven knows she’s too good to go to hell.”  
And if the truth was known most of us feel that way about ourselves and the ones we love.  That we might be bad but we aren’t that bad. 
And to prove I’m not a complete Philistine when it comes to music, the same day that I heard the Statler Brothers’ song I heard a U2 song that said “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred, I get so many things I don’t deserve”
Remember, Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.  That is the gift that God offers, that regardless of how good or how bad you are, God’s grace is offered to you.
Someone once said that evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.    And we have a responsibility to share the grace we have received.  
If I buy a pizza and share some with you then I have less pizza for Denn, but when I share God’s grace with you, then I have even more.  It’s kind of like new math.  
So, where you at?  Have you accepted the Grace of God in your life?