A brilliant pink and purple sunset over a pristine island beach–a hardwood ridge on a crisp, sunny autumn day, audaciously popping with every imaginable hue–a baby’s laughter–when all is said and done, the old adage rings true, the best things in life are free.
The same could be said of salvation through God’s grace.
As a member of a Lutheran church, I’ve been hearing a lot of messages on this topic. The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is upon us and Martin Luther has been getting a lot of press, not just from Lutheran church pulpits, I suspect, but in all protestant denominations. It was Luther who found a message in the bible that had gotten lost over time. That message was that the best things in life are free, that salvation through God’s grace costs nothing–that it was a gift that only needed to be believed and received. Luther pointed out that there is nothing that has to be done to earn salvation–that it, in fact, would be impossible to do enough good deeds to be deserving. The Church, in Luther’s time, had fallen into the trap that people had to do something in order earn God’s grace. Often, that meant paying indulgences. When money became involved in earning salvation, corruption took over. Luther saw through it and had had enough. The 95 Thesis were nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and the next half a millennium of history was changed.
During a message to the children at our church on Sunday, the pastor said something that stuck with me. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George were writing a sitcom that was to be a show about nothing. The pastor was speaking to the children about the Reformation and why we were celebrating it. He said that, in a way, the Reformation was about nothing. He explained how Luther had found the message in the bible that had been overlooked–that there is nothing we have to do, even nothing that we can do to earn our salvation–that it is a gift given freely that we could never be good enough to deserve. As he came to the conclusion of his brief little lesson to the children, he closed with prayer. At the end of that prayer, he said “Thanks for nothing, God.”
That line drew a chuckle from the adults out in the pews. On the surface, it sounded like a joke, but that line stayed with me. In fact, it probably caused me to miss much of his subsequent sermon to the adults because I was still mentally chewing on what he had said to the children.
Thanks for nothing.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
Being covered by the blood of the cross, our sins paid for by Christ, is a gift no one could ever earn or deserve. Yet, that gift is offered to all who would believe it and receive it. That message to the children helped me see how vital it is to understand the significance of the free nature of that gift–that there is nothing required of us to receive it.
Earning something comes with a sense of pride. It feels good to work hard and earn a reward. But that makes the reward about us–it’s ours because we earned it.
Salvation is not about us–there is no pride in it–it’s all about Jesus. Humility should be the only feeling attached to the reward we are given. We did nothing to earn it and nothing to deserve it.
But, too often, we act as the guardians of the gift. We adorn it with the trappings of our own understandings. We act as if we can decide who is or is not worthy of it–forgetting that simple truth that none of us is.
We constantly lose sight of the fact that the gift is free–that there is nothing we must or can do to deserve it–and we demand that others pay indulgences so that they might earn their salvation. We single out certain sins using our own interpretations of scriptures and hold them up, like ransom, as we kidnap the very gift we could never hope to deserve ourselves.
All the while, we go on sinning, proving daily that we don’t deserve the gift we attempt to hoard.
I used the word “we” very intentionally. As you read the last couple of sentences, you may have been picturing specific branches of the Church alienating specific groups of people and, truth be told, I started to go down that road. But I stopped myself because it became clear to me that I’m guilty of it, too. And, I’m guessing, so are you.
If I’m being honest here, I have to admit that I can be as guilty as anyone of acting like I somehow earned grace. I often stand in judgment of others with my self-righteous indignation. Indignation in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing–sometimes we must speak up and point out injustice–it’s that self-righteous part about which we need to be careful.
Sometimes, we all need to hear a children’s message and go back to being thankful for nothing.