By Paul Koch –
We believe, teach and confess that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Our fellowship has made its stand, time and time again, on the firm belief that the church stands or falls on this teaching: it is never our works, never our effort or desire, but only the precious blood of Christ that saves us. Yet even with all that, even with this center of our confession resting on the Gospel, people are still hesitant to speak about our God choosing us. That is, we talk a big game until we deal with the issue that St. Paul presents at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians. We go along without a care until we come to the discussion of our God being an electing God, a God that chooses without any merit or worthiness in us, and a God whose great work renders us passive in our righteousness. Then we begin to wonder and doubt if there isn’t some things we must do to ensure our salvation. While we certainly aren’t the Author and Creator of our faith, don’t we at least put on the finishing touches?
I want to share with you a story, a parable if you will, that might help us understand the dynamic of what is going on. I’ve adapted it from one I first encountered from the great theologian, Gerhard Forde, in a little book called Justification by Faith.
There was a young peasant boy who, one day as he was working in the field, saw a royal carriage moving along the road. As it came near to where he was working, he caught a clear glimpse of its precious cargo: the princess of the land. The moment was just that, a moment. But in that moment she glanced out of the window and their eyes locked. He knew that he would never be the same, for he was in love. Now this love seemed hopeless. It was a lost love. He feared that he could not actually have her, so he loved her only from afar. He was just a face in the crowd who worshipped from a distance.
But he is a man. He is proud and not a fool, so he constructs for himself a sort of fiction that enables him to defend his hopeless love. In fact, if we think about it, we know people that do this all the time. For this man, though, he constructs a narrative for her. She is too vain and proud for her own good. She hangs out only with the rich and wealthy, and she would never give a peasant a second thought. Whether it’s true or not isn’t the point. It is reasonable, so it works. Now he hopes and dreams that he can overcome this separation. He sets out to be worthy of her, to become rich and powerful, and to look like a prince. He sets standards for himself. He works long and hard to see they come to fruition.
But then something terrible happens. He hears that she has already chosen someone. She has already decided to whom she would give her love. Now this might completely halt other suiters but not this man. He refuses to believe the rumors and doubles his efforts. As he pursues his ideals, he grows angry and frustrated and even cruel in his actions. However one day, completely unannounced, the royal carriage pulls up at his door. The princess steps out and says to the man, “What in the world are you doing? Why are you making such a fool of yourself? Don’t you see? You are the one that I have chosen to love!”
And so as St. Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians, he begins by launching an attack on their best laid plans and schemes to win the God they worship from afar. Now it certainly isn’t what we might be used to imagining when we think of an attack, but nonetheless that is what it remains. Paul offers up a prayer of blessing to our God. In his prayer, the hearers slowly have their hands emptied of any claim that they have earned or maintained their salvation. He says that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” He goes on to say of God’s grace, “In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ.” And again, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
As Paul praises God for His great work of salvation through Christ alone, he speaks clearly about the church and about the faithful. In fact he speaks about you; he says that you have been chosen, you have been predestined in love from the foundation of the world for such a blessing. According to Paul, the teaching that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone is not just some quant little doctrine that we can embrace or ignore, it is actually the very center of the gospel itself. Our salvation, all of it, rests solely in the divine working of God through Christ.
Now we may well wonder, how? How do the merits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection become our own? How do we know that we have, in fact, been chosen by God? Where does our confidence come from? Well, as the old song goes “They will know we are Christians by our love.” So we begin to look to our behavior, our discipleship, our faithfulness as proof of our salvation. If sin is restrained in our lives, if we at least strive to stay on the narrow road, then we can be sure that the merits of Christ are ours. But this is like the man in the story who has heard that the princess has already chosen. He refuses to believe and redoubles his efforts to be worthy. We hear that our work does not save us, yet we still look within for assurance that we are saved.
But Paul will not leave us consumed with our own effort. He preaches a word of hope, a word of assurance and confidence in the work of Calvary for you. That work of Calvary is not made sure in your life by your effort. It is not dependent upon your strength or ability. Rather Paul speaks of something that has happened to the chosen ones of God. He says, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
He says that those who have heard the good news, those who have believed in the Word of truth, they have been sealed. To be sealed is to show to whom you belong; think of it as branding cattle or staking your claim. This sealing is the assurance of being chosen, this marking by God is the means by which we know that we have been chosen. He says that they are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit: the guarantee of our inheritance. This, my friend, is the washing of Holy Baptism. This is the moment when you joined your Lord on Calvary’s cross, when He took all your sinful deeds and exchanged them for His righteous garments. The sealing of your baptism is the moment that the royal carriage rolled up at your front door. There is no more doubt, no more confusion, for the one you worshipped from afar arrived right there and said, “I chose you. You are mine. You are loved. You are forgiven all of your sins.”
Now to be sure, our parable is a bit romantic. For in reality it gets much darker, doesn’t it? For God’s electing pulls us out of utter darkness, pride, and hatred. When the royal carriage arrived, man was not overjoyed but furious. For it meant that all our plans and ideals, all our effort and work, had been for nothing. And we didn’t simply collapse in joy, but in our rage we rose up and killed the royal lover. We crucified Him on a cross outside the holy city. We had one last grasp at doing it our way. But he did not stay dead. He rose from the grave. He embraced you in water and Word. He looks you in the eyes, again and again, and says, “I still choose you!”