Again and Again:

God Loves us First (How Then Are We Saved?)

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | March 14, 2021

Ephesians 2: 4-10 | John 3: 16-21

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6and raised us up with God and seated us with God in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:16-21 This passage is part of the Nicodemus story, when the Jewish leader comes by night to quiz Jesus.  After the “born again” piece, Jesus continues:

16“For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

(Hold up sign with “John 3:16” written on it.)

Remember seeing these at every sporting event and other places?

John 3:16. Using the traditional language: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

One of the Church’s all-time favorite Bible verses.

The John passage and Ephesians passage are the recommended Second Testament lessons in our lectionary for today.  The editors of the lectionary naturally paired John 3:16 with the almost-equally famous Ephesians 2:8 “By grace you have been saved through faith…not the result of works.”

So… I have to say that I was not excited to see these passages show up in the lectionary on my Sunday to preach.  Because I have read the Second Testament a bunch of times, and I know that these passages are not the last word, or at least not the only word, on the subject of salvation.  So let’s probe together.  I will probably ask more questions than I answer today.  The older I get, it seems the less I am sure about.

Let us briefly consider four related questions:  What does it mean to be saved?  How are we saved?  Saved from what?  Saved for what?

What does it mean to be saved?  Normally, I would ask for congregational responses here, but that’s not possible.  We could spend several hours on this, but let’s simply note that in a religious sense, traditionally most have defined salvation as being saved from the effects of sin and thereby being granted access to heaven when we die. Which leads to the question about how to define heaven.  How about we just say “an intimate communion with God.”  That’s heaven.

Okay, HOW are we saved?  What do we have to do to gain salvation?  (Again, I would normally invite congregational participation, but I will just let you think about it a few seconds.)

As Protestants, many of us know that key passage in 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 the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   Saved by grace through faith, and not by works. Quintessential Protestant theology.   We are saved by grace, by belief.

But you ask a hundred people on the street “How are we saved?” a whole lot of them will say, “By being a good person,” right?  (Must be Catholics with their mistaken emphasis on works righteousness.)

Well, how mistaken are they? Let’s hear some other passages.  These are expanded upon in Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins.

Matthew 7:21:  Jesus said, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Matt 10:22  Again Jesus said, Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.

In the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, the cheating tax collector in Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to lunch at Zacchaeus’s house.  After their mealtime conversation Zacchaeus says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus responds: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Well.  In those three passages, our salvation is clearly the result of what we do:  the one who does the will of my Father in heaven, those who stand firm, and in Zaccheus’ case, those who treat others fairly in money matters.  It appears we can earn our salvation by good works that we do.  What the heck? (Maybe the Catholics are right.)

When there are competing ideas in scripture the theologians call this “dialectical tension.”   That won’t be on the final.  I just through that in so you know I went to seminary.

But we are not done.  Other Bible verses about salvation: 

A few verses before the famous John 3:16 verse, Jesus says to Nicodemus:  Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

Have you ever been accosted by someone with the question, “Are you born again?”  A pastor friend of mine gave me his response to that question.  He said, “When someone asks me if I’ve been born again, I look them straight in the eye and say, ‘Hell yes!’”  (I miss Dave.)

Here’s yet another path to salvation:  In I Corinthians 7 Paul urges those Christians married to unbelievers to stay with their partners for How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?  Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

So, I can be saved because my spouse is a believer, even if I am not?

And here’s the best: The author of I Timothy (2:15) writes that women will be saved through childbearing…provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.  Childbearing?  That’s clearly salvation through work!

Well well well.  The Bible is clearly multivocal, lots of voices.  Right?

What do we conclude from all of this?  (Invite congregation participation.)

Again, the older I get the less I have stuff figured out. 

Do you remember the astonishing conversation between Jesus and the man on the next cross, who said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”? (Luke 18) What was Jesus’ response? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”   The first “deathbed conversion” on record.  But the thief on the cross did not know “The Four Spiritual Laws;” did not pray “the Sinner’s Prayer;” he just asked Jesus to remember him.

Well.  How are we “saved”? 

Many people assert that we have to make some sort of “decision to accept Jesus as our personal savior.”  And then others will object, “What about people born before Jesus?  None of them in heaven?  Or what about people who have never had the opportunity even to learn about Jesus? How unfair would it be to consign them to …whatever.  Some people think that good people, even if they’ve never heard of Jesus, or if they are Jews or Muslims, or nothing, just by being good, they go to be with God after death.

Some people think everybody goes to heaven, whether they were good people or not, or even whether they want to or not.  An acquaintance of mine asserts, “If grace is true, then Hitler must be in heaven.”  We see an example of this universalism in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae: “For in (Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven….” (1:19f.)   ALL THINGS.  Not just the people who made a decision, and not just people.  As I understand it, the Orthodox branch of Christianity teaches that the entire creation was reconciled to God through the Cross and Resurrection.

What do you think?  The Bible is clear that God loves us FIRST.  But then what? 

This is difficult.  I’m given this a lot of thought.  Here’s where I come down today.  This might change in the future.

My sense is that if we are in some sort of a relationship with God in this life and we wish it to continue in the next, God grants that it will.  But if we choose not to be in a relationship with God in this life, then God will not force us to be in one in the next life.  The record of scripture is that God gives us free will.

The shorthand line that I have used since first hearing it from my pastor when I was in high school is this: “If we can trust God in life, we can trust God in death.”  (A few years later he drowned at age 45.)  If we can trust God in life, we can trust God in death.

Here’s a related question:  When does “eternal life” begin?  In scripture the concept of eternal life refers not so much to a length of time as to a quality of life.  And in the book of John the author emphasizes that eternal life, heaven and hell, begin in this life, in the here and now.  The theological term for this concept is realized eschatology. (Again, just so you know I went to seminary.)

But I think that idea is more than merely an assertion in the gospel of John.  Isn’t that, in fact, our experience—heaven and hell beginning right now? The classic definition of heaven is being in the presence of God and the classic definition of hell is being separated from God.  The more we open ourselves up to the Spirit the more we experience heaven right now. And the more we close ourselves of from the Spirit, the more we are in hell now.  We can choose to live in the light or in the darkness.

What are we saved for?  Right after we read in Ephesians 2 that we are saved by grace through faith we read this, in verse 10: we are created in Christ Jesus for good works.

Good works, in classic Protestant theology, are not to obtain our salvation, but in response to it. 

Friends, I declare unto you: “You are the beloved child of God.  You just are.  Nothing you can do to alter that.  Grace says that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and nothing you can do to make God love you less.

God loves you.  Nothing you can do about that.

Other than pass it on.

My favorite verse in the whole Bible is John 10:10.  Jesus says, “I have come that (my disciples) might have life, and have it abundantly.” 

Jesus has come that we might have the sort of life that Jesus embodied,

a life of compassion, forgiveness,

          self-giving, nonviolence,

                     and trust in God.

The promise is that that sort of life never ends.  Let us be resurrection people.

God loves you.     

Pass it on.

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