READ : Ephesians 2:8-9
Let’s think today about the most important question you could ever ask or have to answer!
The Bible is really not a difficult book to understand. It’s true it has some deep passages, and there are a few spots where its meaning doesn’t exactly jump out at you, but the basic message is clear and simple. In fact, the whole message of the Bible boils down to answering this question: “How can I get right with God?”
Have you ever thought about that question? Do you have an answer for it? It’s the most important thing you could ever know. You might not know very many things. You may not have any answers for questions of science and technology, you may not know the solutions for difficult personal problems. But if you know the answer to this one question, the Bible says you already have eternal life and someday you will live forever in the unimaginable glory of the presence of God. On the other hand, you may have the I.Q. of a genius and be able to answer all sorts of questions about the universe. But if you don’t know the answer to this one, according to the Bible you are lost, your life is wasted, and someday you will be separated from God forever. That’s what makes this the single most important question in the world: “How can I get right with God?”
Let’s begin by considering the question for a bit. You see what it implies – that we are not right with God as things naturally stand. The underlying assumption to the question “How can I get right with God?” is that somehow things have gone wrong between God and me. This is how God’s Word, the Bible, describes it: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That brief statement of the problem has two parts: a declaration and a definition. The declaration is that “all have sinned.” “All,” that’s every single one of us, each human being without exception. The Bible isn’t just talking about notorious criminals or obviously wicked people here. When it says “all have sinned,” that includes you and me. It includes those who have been baptized as well as those who come from a totally non-Christian environment. It includes those who worship God as well as those who never think about God at all. It was to Nicodemus, a very devout and religious man, that Jesus said, “You must be born again.” What he meant was, “Even you, Nicodemus, you have to get right with God. All your religion, all your morality, all your knowledge cannot save you unless you are born again.”
Next comes the definition: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Just in case you don’t think you’re included in that “all have sinned” part, we’re given also a definition of the nature of sin. “The glory of God” means the image of God, the reflection of what God is like. We know from the Bible that we were originally created to be the image of God, a reflection of God himself. So whenever we fail to measure up to that image, we are sinning. Sin does not just mean to do a particular wrong thing. It means to fail to be what God is, to fail to do what God does. Just to remind us what exactly that is, God has given us his perfect image – Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus Christ, we see the exact likeness of God himself. So if you want to assess your own life, don’t compare yourself to your neighbor, let alone to some criminal or terrorist. Measure your life against the standard of Christ’s life. If you think of it that way, you have to agree with the truth of the Bible’s declaration: “All have sinned” because we fall short of the glory of God.
Sin has two results. In the first place it cuts us off from God. Do you remember what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden after they disobeyed God? The garden of Eden was a place of perfect fellowship and communion with God. While they lived there, Adam and Eve talked with God, they knew him and they knew each other and they knew themselves perfectly. They lived in complete harmony with both God and his creation. But sin shattered all of that. The relationship with God was broken, and an impenetrable barrier was erected between God and humans, symbolized by the angel guarding Eden’s door with a sword of fire.
The second result of sin is that it makes us guilty in God’s eyes. When we sin we incur guilt, and there is nothing we can do to get rid of it. Nothing removes guilt – not time, not remorse, not our attempts to make amends – nothing removes our guilt. Are you familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth? Lady Macbeth convinced her husband to murder the king in order to seize the throne of Scotland. At the end of the play we see her in an eerie scene, sleep-walking. Lady Macbeth is tormented by the guilt of what she has done, and in her sleep as she walks about the castle she sees bloodstains on her hands. She rubs and rubs but can’t get the stains out. “What!” she says, “Will these hands ne’er be clean? . . . All the perfume of Arabia cannot cleanse this little hand . . . what’s done cannot be undone.”
That’s our problem. That’s our condition. The wrong things we have done cannot be undone. In our sin we are cut off from God and we’re loaded down with guilt, and unless we can find some way of becoming right with God, our sin and guilt will go with us into an eternal hell of separation from God. And as if that isn’t bad enough, there is nothing we can do to get rid of our sin or to alleviate our guilt.
So there’s the problem; as the Bible defines it. Now what is the answer? How can I get right with God if there is nothing I can do myself about that problem? The Bible says that there is a way, not because of what we do but because of what God has done for us. Listen to one of the most important verses in all of scripture:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest anyone should boast
There are three nouns in that first sentence which are the key to understanding salvation itself. Here they are: grace, faith, and works. If we can understand how those three words are related, we will know God’s solution to the problem of sin.
Take the last word first: works. What does the apostle say? “Not because of works.” We are not put right with God because of anything that we do. Now that is hard to believe. It is so counter-intuitive, so contrary to our natural inclination, that we find it almost impossible to accept. So we still try to make our claim. How do you get right with God? “Well,” we say, “I try to live a good life, I go to church sometimes, I’m a pretty decent person.” We offer to God our occasional good works, our somewhat feeble attempts to justify ourselves, and that’s what we say. If we are honest, we cannot even claim to be good; we can only say “I try.” And we hope that will be good enough for God. But listen to what the Bible says:
For no human being will be justified in his sight by the works of the law (when Paul wrote that, he meant all the good deeds that we do, including our religion even and our morality), since through the law comes the knowledge of sin . . . For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
Romans 3:20,28, rsv
And the conclusion of it is that every mouth will be stopped. No one will have anything to say at the last judgment, there will be no boasting about what I am or what I have done. So I repeat: we do not, we cannot, do anything to save ourselves; not because of our works.
So what is the answer? The answer is that God saves us. God puts us right with himself apart from any of our own efforts. God saves us regardless of who we are, regardless of what we have done, regardless of what we have failed to do. Do you remember the thief who died beside Jesus Christ on the cross? He was justly sentenced and condemned, probably as a terrorist and a murderer. He was not a good person. And what could he do now to save himself, hanging there on that cross? He could not reform himself, he could not start going to church, he could not turn over a new leaf – he couldn’t even move! His legs and arms were nailed in place. All he could do was turn his head to Jesus Christ and ask for mercy, “Lord, remember me,” he prayed. And that was enough.
Here is why. Listen to the other two words from that verse I read a few moments ago: grace and faith. “By grace you are saved through faith not because of works.” So grace is the cause, and faith is the means, of getting right with God; we are saved by grace, through faith. We need to think clearly and carefully about these words. We are not saved because of our faith. Even our faith is not something we do; it is not a work that justifies us or earns God’s forgiveness. Our faith is not the reason for our salvation; it is only the means by which we receive the gift of salvation. The reason is God’s free love – or grace.
One classic Christian confession of faith puts it this way:
“Without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God . . . credits to me . . . the perfect holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned . . . All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.”
(Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 60).
That acceptance is what we mean by faith. Faith is like an empty cup that we hold out to receive a precious gift. When someone who is dying of thirst is given a cup of water, it’s not the cup that saves his life, but the water in it. So it is not our faith that saves us, but God’s grace. Faith is necessary – be clear on that. We must have faith, we must believe the gospel and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. But our faith is still just the instrument. Grace is the cause – God’s extravagant love, God’s undeserved favor, God’s astonishing gift of forgiveness given in Jesus Christ.
So this is how we are made right with God. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. It is free to us, though not to him. God had to pay for that gift. And it cost him Jesus Christ, and it cost Jesus Christ his very life. When the Bible speaks of the blood of Christ it means his death on the cross as a sacrifice for sin.
So there it is, the answer to our original question, the most important question you will ever face. How are you made right with God? Answer: we are justified, we are made right, by God’s free gift of grace, the forgiveness which he paid for with the death of his Son Jesus. “All I need to do is accept this gift of God.” But have you done that? It’s all you need to do. Have you done it?
Will you pray this prayer with me right now? “Lord Jesus, I agree with you that I am a sinner, that I fall short of your glory every day. But I accept your gift of grace by faith, I believe with all my heart that your death on the cross puts me right with God. Come into my life, take control of me by your Holy Spirit. Amen.”