Faith’s Review and Expectation
Normandy UMC — March 11, 2018
Ephesians 2:1–10 (CEB)
At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
John Newton was born in London in 1725. Later in life, he looked back at his young adulthood and described himself as having been “an infidel and libertine.” He generally thought of no one but John Newton, and as our scripture says, he followed a destructive spiritual power. He had an office job, with prospects of success, but lost it because of his own impulsiveness and lack of self-control. He tried to desert from the Royal Navy, and he was flogged for it.
He joined the crew of a slave ship, the Pegasus. The Pegasus would take dry goods to West Africa — to Sierra Leone, a country that I visited on a mission trip in 2016 — and exchange them for Africans who had been ripped away from their families. These Africans were then carried across the Atlantic to become slaves in the American colonies. But even among slave traders, John Newton was considered bad news. The Pegasus kicked him off the ship and left him with a slave trader named Amos Clowe, and Amos Clowe made Newton the slave of Clowe’s African wife. She nearly starved him to death, and treated him very poorly.
But while John Newton was at his lowest, he had a loving father who was trying to find him. Well, actually, he had two. His human father, John Newton Sr., had hired a ship captain to look for Newton, and that captain found Newton and rescued him.
On his trip back to England, there was a bad storm, and Newton awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the ship was taking on water and in danger of sinking. He prayed to God to save him, and that was the beginning of a process of conversion that led John Newton to become a spiritual leader. He became an admirer of both John Wesley and George Whitefield.
But this was a journey, a process, not a thunderclap. In fact, although John Newton immediately gave up profanity, gambling and drinking, he continued to work in the slave trade for a few years.
It’s interesting that we are sometimes obsessed by things like profanity or gambling as signifiers of good and evil, and ignore much deeper issues of good and evil that relate to the way that we treat other people, other children of God.
I don’t meant to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to those lifestyle issues, but Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, makes it clear that the first law is to love God and the very next is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It took a while for John Newton to learn that lesson, but God was working on his heart. First, he advocated for better treatment of the slaves. Then, as he continued to grow in his faith and understanding, he began to realize the evil of slavery and speak up against it, eventually becoming a great voice in the abolitionist movement.
By that time, he’d become an Anglican priest. Like John Wesley, who relied on his brother Charles, Newton needed hymns for his congregation to sing, with messages that would be as inspiring and influential as his sermons.
One of those hymns was originally titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” which Newton wrote to be sung at a service on New Year’s Day in 1773.
“Faith’s Review and Expectation” is not a very catchy title, and it’s not how we know the hymn today. We refer to the hymn by its first two words. It starts this way: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
John Newton never forgot his own story, and when he wrote, and sang, about “a wretch like me” being saved by God’s amazing grace, he knew what he was talking about.
Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus seem to echo the early life of John Newton. Let’s listen to those first two verses from the scripture passage again: “At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience.”
The Common English Bible, which is my favorite translation, uses the term “things you did wrong, and your offenses against God.” Other translations use “sins and trespasses.”
The word translated “sin,” in the original Greek, is “hamartia,” and it was actually a term from archery, or trying to hit a target. A “hamartia” meant you had missed the target. We sometimes think of sins as nasty things done by a villain or a degenerate, but in fact “sin” refers to every single time that we fall short of God’s standard. And a miss is as good as a mile. Jesus said that a man who looks lustfully at another man’s wife has committed the same sin as the man who actually acts on that lust. The real-world consequences may be different, but both men are sinners. Both are guilty.
In the Clint Eastwood western “Unforgiven,” a young gunslinger talks about killing a man and says “Well, I guess they had it coming.”
Clint Eastwood’s character answers that by saying, “We all got it coming, kid.”
Now, maybe he meant to say that we’re all going to die, sooner or later, but I think that — especially given the title of the movie, “Unforgiven,” there’s a sense that all of us are sinners, that none of us can claim to deserve life because none of us ever lives life perfectly. We all miss the mark.
Even people who seem from outward appearances to be living a virtuous life may be doing it for the wrong reasons, with the wrong motivations and attitudes. And, as we’ve seen over the past few months with the ongoing sexual harassment scandals, there are people who were respected and admired in their public lives who still treated others badly in private.
The idea that all of us are sinners, that none of us is worthy, sounds cruel, and arbitrary, but it’s part of the mystery of who God is. God is a God of holiness, who cannot abide sin, cannot tolerate sin, cannot have any part of sin. And yet God is a God of love, who loves all of us, even though we are sinners. Like John Newton’s father, God looks to rescue us, to save us from the depravity and bondage into which we have fallen.
One of our other passages in the lectionary today is from the third chapter of John, and it includes one of the best-known verses in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
God, by God’s very holy nature, cannot ignore sin. But God, by God’s very loving nature, loves us enough to offer us a way out of sin.
Paul, here in today’s passage, says that God is, as the Common English Bible translates it, “rich in mercy.”
The amazing thing about God’s grace is that it is a miraculous free gift. All we have to do is open the door.
John Wesley wrote about three types of grace that have become part and parcel of our Methodist theology: prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace.
Prevenient grace is the grace of God that has always existed in our lives, even before we were introduced to the gospel message.
Justifying grace is the grace that offers us forgiveness of our sins and restoration of our relationship with God. Now, in the United Methodist tradition we acknowledge that some people experience this justifying grace in different ways. It’s not always a thunderbolt moment; sometimes, as in the case of John Newton, it takes time. But it’s a recognizable transformation. Paul wrote to the Philippians that we should “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Sanctifying grace is the ongoing presence of God that allows us to live lives of holiness. Wesley used the often-misunderstood term “Christian perfection.” Wesley did not mean to say or imply that Christians are without sin. But he believed that once you have given yourself over to a relationship with Christ, your life is re-prioritized, and your heart becomes dedicated to obedience, to love of God and love of your fellow human beings.
This Christian lifestyle is not anything that we can accomplish through our own efforts. Paul puts it this way: “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”
I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the late Keith Green. He was a Christian singer and songwriter, who was taken from us, far too early, in a plane crash in the summer of 1982, just a year or two after I started listening to his records. Keith had a song called “If You Love The Lord,” and the chorus was partly based on this Bible passage — “We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ.
In fact, Wesley would say that if our lives don’t reflect our faith, it’s debatable whether we are really saved at all.
It sounds like a paradox — Paul is telling us that we’re not capable of doing good or saving ourselves, yet he tells us that we’re created to do good works. It’s that sanctifying grace of God, working through us, that allows us to live transformed lives. We have to constantly open ourselves to it, and we have to constantly be aware of it, because if we don’t recognize the role played by that sanctifying grace, we fall in danger of spiritual pride. We forget that our good works are God’s doing, and we start patting ourselves on the back for what holy people we are.
Much of Church history has been occupied by this debate between faith and works. It is absolutely true that we have been saved by grace, not by our own works, and we can never earn God’s favor through our own works, which are always going to miss the mark.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that they were earning God’s favor through their good works. And that’s why they were on the wrong end of some of Jesus’ sharpest rebukes. It’s impossible to be in a right relationship to God if we are suffering from spiritual pride. Only from a position of spiritual humility — only when we recognize our need for God’s grace — can we move forward on our journeys.
In John Wesley’s Sermon Number One, he wrote, “For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. ‘All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us.’ These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy; and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God.”
And yet it’s also true that the way we live our lives in response to God’s free grace is important. If we are truly saved by God, we will be truly transformed by God, and our lives should show evidence of that. If we truly love God, and if we truly listen to God, then that love will be reflected as a love for other people, as a desire for holiness, as a call to follow Jesus more completely today than we did yesterday.
We cannot make those changes on our own — it is that sanctifying grace working through us which makes them. Our job is to focus ourselves on God, and to open ourselves up to that grace and obedience.
John Newton realized that it was, and is, amazing grace which saves a wretch like me.