A fun game my fellow trainee priests and I like to play is ‘What’s Your Favourite Heresy?’ I’m quite a fan of Pelagianism myself. This is the heresy that original sin did not corrupt human beings and that we don’t need God’s help in knowing good from evil. It’s since evolved to become the view that human beings can earn salvation by ourselves. Sounds pretty good, if you ask me. That way, I can either do all I can to be good enough. Or, so paralysed by fear of not being good enough, that I’ll never be able to do enough to earn God’s grace, or make it up the fictitious ladder to Heaven, I can give up and my self-sabotage can reinforce my view that I’m just not good enough.
I don’t know whether any of this resonates; and, actually, I really hope it doesn’t. But just in case, let’s go trick-or-treating together this evening. Today, the Church of England remembers Martin Luther and his publication on this day in 1517 of his ’95 Theses,’ a pivotal moment in the Reformation. One of Luther’s great frustrations was that people’s fear of not being good enough was being exploited; people were working and paying for God’s love, his grace, and their salvation, through the practice of indulgences. This gift of grace that we heard in our reading from Romans was being spun as not the treat it is, but a trick. ‘Oh, you thought grace was a gift freely given? Not on your life, mate. You’ve got to earn it, better hope you’re good enough.’
For Luther, as with the Apostle Paul in our passage from Romans, God’s grace is not dependent on our works because it is a gift. In his 1537 Schmalkald Articles, Luther states, ‘The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification. He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood… This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us.’
God’s grace is no trick, it comes with no hidden agenda or any strings attached. It’s not ‘you can have this gift if you behave yourself,’ it’s not ‘I can take this gift away from you at any time.’ And it’s certainly not, as I saw on Twitter earlier, what looks like a chocolate truffle but is actually a chocolate-coated Brussel sprout. It really is a gift.
God’s stunning gift of grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus is a gift open to all of us. Or, to quote another preacher, ‘grace is unconditional acceptance, given to an undeserving person, by an unobligated giver.’ It is a gift which sets us free from striving for divine acceptance, from earning our way into God’s love, and from believing the lies we have had said over us and say over ourselves.
Grace is not, however, a cosmic get out of jail free card. As Luther once said, God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbour does. Good works cannot save us, but they matter, for they are the evidence of a life transformed; a life that extends the love of God to others. If we truly, deeply grasp how extraordinary, how amazing, how irresistible grace is; if we are really brave and accept the divine ‘I love you’ at the heart of the gift, then our good works are transformed from futile striving into promiscuous benevolence.
God’s grace in Jesus is no trick, it’s all treat.