I’m a sinner.
I shared that last week. And I thank God that I now know I’m a sinner. That awareness was his gift to me that unblocked a logjam keeping me from faith. And who could have guessed that sin would be the gateway to relationship with God! What’s more, I now realize that by God’s grace my ongoing sin offers a pathway to greater spiritual maturity.
This sort of talk is counterintuitive, I know. Which is why we need to talk about it. Let me do that in two stages. First by recalling how salvation is accomplished. Second, by considering what grace is.
So how is salvation accomplished? A good place to go to for an answer is Ephesians 2:8-9.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
There’s lots to that. We see that faith is the basis for salvation, and faith depends on God’s grace. The entire event is not our doing, but a gift of God. And an important counterpoint Paul makes is that any human “boast” is precluded.
Let’s start with the issue of boasting. The word has a wide range of meaning and applications. My first thought when I hear the word is of a person who likes to broadcast his or her latest achievements—the student who waves around an “A” paper, or those who tell stories that make them the star of an event. But Paul normally uses the word in a distinctive spiritual sense—as anything that elevates human initiative over God’s initiative. We see that in his reference to “works” as a follow-up to “your own doing” in the Ephesians passage. That human-centered combination sets out a false alternative to God’s grace.
I wrote in an earlier post about what we mean by an identity. For Paul boasting is an identity indicator. Think, for instance, about the more subtle forms of boasting that come with the notion of having an identity. Just ask people to say something about themselves as an entry point to their identity.
“Oh, I do quilting” or “I’m a barista at Starbucks” or “I’m the assistant shift supervisor at the Portland Airport UPS airdock” or “I’m a mom.”
Some are more revealing than others. An identity has an outward form based on a complex set of priorities, duties, desires, and values—a constellation of motivations. And common to such motivations is a person’s sense of standing—their place in the pecking order of life. That standing might be measured by job awards, salary, bits of encouragement or praise from friends, offices held, and so on. So the outward identity—like a job title—is usually only the first step into a person’s deeper set of identity cues.
At the core of their identity is something they love or need—their source of defining security or pleasure. It’s what motivates them to take a job or to give up a job. It is what presses someone to take on remarkably demanding tasks or duties—as in the steps required of medical doctors. It’s not the joy of living on very little sleep while being pushed by work necessities. Rather it’s the outcome of a demanding residency that makes it worthwhile. Something inside the budding physician drives them to do it—is it status? A compassion for the needy? A parental expectation? Whatever it might be, it is this drive that Paul thinks of as boasting when someone answers, “I’m a doctor.” Even if the motives are complex—perhaps beyond finding out—the outcome is a product of their “own doing.”
Why does Paul exclude any of a person’s “own doing” from being a basis for their faith-and-salvation experience? Because the status of a person before salvation is one of spiritual death. He says as much in verses just before the text we’ve considered, in Ephesians 2:1-5, that concludes, “he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ”.
That death—a carryover from Adam’s declaration of independence from God who is, in himself, “life”—means that the basic identity of a non-saved person is always self-concerned. The imagery of a branch and vine connection in John 15 is crucial here. Salvation is the event of being grafted into the vine of life—into God’s life in Christ through the Spirit’s ministry of union with our own spirit. Of our being born not merely physically, “of the flesh” but of also being born “of the Spirit” as Jesus proclaimed to Nicodemus in John 3.
With that as context our “faith” is the renewal of what Adam abandoned in Eden when he decided to trust the serpent’s words rather than God’s words. Trust in God was lost and a new but ill-fated trust in self-accomplishments—of being “like God”—took over. That’s certainly what Paul had in mind when he dismissed any form of boasting. Boasting, at its core, is self-based and is antithetical to life as a branch that has all of its life flowing from its presence in the vine. Unless the boast is in Christ.
So my realization that I was and am a sinner became the basis for salvation. In sin all roads lead back to self. And the autonomous self is an empty cul-de-sac that God refuses to treat as a legitimate home. Instead he comes to us and draws us into relationship—first with himself and then with others. He calls to us, “I love you!” He tells us in a thousand ways, “Trust me, I made you for good works that will fulfill you and bless others!” It says as much in Ephesians 4:4—offering the motivation behind the verse, verse 5, that we cited above: “But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us . . .” Sin is a terribly lonely place to live. So in that aloneness the invitation of his love became compelling. He offered not just a simple love but the greatest and most satisfying of all loves—entry into God’s triune love! And it was only when I saw my self-concerned efforts as bankrupt that I looked away from myself to see his inviting arms.
This theme was made tangible in the disturbing yet winsome story of Jesus at Simon’s house for dinner in Luke 7. Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to his home for a meal and an interview. If we read between the lines it’s clear that Simon was not ready to offer Jesus the status of an equal—a pecking order issue—as seen in Simon’s oversights. He ignored the normal courtesies of giving Jesus a welcoming formal kiss and of having a servant offer Jesus a footwash. Then later in the event a prostitute carrying her trade perfume slipped into the house and started to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing them and dabbing her perfume on him before wiping his feet dry with her hair. Simon was appalled that Jesus allowed this to go on. In response Jesus gave an account of two indebted individuals—one modestly in debt and the other in a desperate state. Each is forgiven his debt by the gracious lender. Which one, Jesus asked, would be most responsive to the lender—“which one would love him more?”
By the end of the story it is clear that the prostitute—whom Jesus pronounces as forgiven of her sins—rather than Simon, is fit for eternal fellowship with Christ and his Father. Yet by any measure of cultural standing it was Simon rather than the prostitute who would be seen to be fit for heaven. The same point is made throughout the gospels—that Jesus came to heal those who are sick, to heal those who are blind, and not to rescue those who don’t see any need to be healed, rescued, or forgiven. It is in this sense that sin is the gateway to salvation. And it is in our continued awareness of remaining sin that we regularly flee back to him for more cleansing care.
Let me turn now, briefly, to the second point—what is grace? The answer comes in the story of Simon. Grace is Christ’s willingness to have his feet bathed in our tears, to be swabbed with the best fragrances of our broken life resources; and grace is his gift of drawing us into a status far above any position the world offers and exalts. It is to be forgiven even though we owe him everything.
Am I proud to be a sinner? No, it shames me. But in 1964 it made me aware of my deep need for salvation and now of my continuing need for cleansing. It gave me ears to hear the wonderful invitation out of the cul-de-sac of sin and into “the great love with which he loved us”. May many other sinners join me there!