The Mathematics of Faith
Text: Eph. 2: 4-10
4 Lent, B
This morning you may have noticed that the title for my message seems somewhat unusual. All right, maybe it seems down right boring. Math is something that most people grudgingly put up with in their lives. Whether it was (or is) algebra and statistics in high school or making and keeping the cheque book and monthly budget, math is usually something that needs doing rather than something that is enjoyable. What does math have to do with Faith though? Perhaps you could say that in mathematical terms the faith response of a congregation is inversely proportional to the length of the Sunday morning service. In other words, the longer the service, the less positive the response! Perhaps it has more to do with a logic problem: The pastor has three major points to make in his sermon and fifteen minutes in which to make them; How much time can he spend on each point. The answer is of course 10 minutes.
Our text for this morning is related to mathematics in a very different way, however. The entire message of these seven verses could be summed up in a simple mathematical equation. The equation goes something like this: Faith minus good works = Faith plus good works. Now anyone who has had even a little bit of math could tell you that in the equation I just gave you “Faith - good works = Faith + good works” there is only one way for the two sides to be equal: good works would have to amount to nothing. At least that is what logic dictates. The workings of God, however, are not always logical. In fact, in this text we see quite the opposite.
What do I mean by Faith minus works? The first of the two major emphasis found in these verses of scripture is that our Faith, and thus our Salvation is a gift from God. Paul is very clear that we have no part in our being saved. “And this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works.” As clearly stated as this thought may be, it is one of the hardest for us to get past. Human beings have this crazy idea ingrained in their heads. “There must be some part that I have to play in all of this. There must be something that I have to do.” Adam and Eve’s original sin was just that, they wanted to be “in the loop”. They wanted to know what God knew. The way our world runs today just reinforces this idea naturally found in each of us. If you want food to eat, you have to work for it. If you want to have a secure retirement, you have to plan and save now. If you want to be successful in work or school, you have to put in the effort.
Over and over and over again, we are told that if it is important in our lives, then we must play some part in earning it. Imagine then, this message from God that your eternal salvation is won for you completely without any participation from you. Many people can’t handle it! And so they start inventing rules of their own making to follow, to give them some part in this whole process. In Jesus’ day you could see this most plainly in the Pharisees. Their entire lives were devoted to following rules. Man-made rules that helped them to feel like they were part of God’s plan. Rules that helped them feel like they were earning salvation in some small way. You can see it still today, in any group that says you must work toward your salvation. If you’re good enough, if your faith is strong enough, then God’s promises are yours. Yet, who here has not gone through days when they have felt as if they could never be good enough?
Likewise there are groups that say there are things that must be done in order to maintain one’s salvation; proper confession of sins committed, good deeds that prove the repentant state of the heart. As if we could make atonement for every sin we have committed! Finally there are other groups that say you must call Jesus into your heart, before God’s promises are truly yours. If this were really the case then God would only come to those whose faith is worthy of Him. What then happens on those days when you feel like your faith is gone? Must God have left too, or was He really even there?
The danger in all of these, no matter how insignificant they may seem, is that it puts the burden of our salvation upon ourselves. It robs God of the glory that is rightfully His. It renders His grace ineffective in our lives. It also leads to another danger that Paul clearly warns against; boasting. Just as natural as it is for us to want to play a part in all that happens to us, so too is it natural for us to boast over our accomplishments. We take pride in work well done. This pride lead the Pharisees to look down on other believers, those who weren’t as good as themselves. Have you ever felt you were a better Christian than someone else, even for a moment? Whose standards were you using to make that judgment?
Paul states in verse five that “we were dead in our transgressions.” As gruesome as it may seem, this is a wonderful picture of what sin has done to all mankind. A corpse may be the best looking, most life-like corpse there ever was. It may be the most well behaved of any cadaver ever. It could be the role model of all the other corpses, but it will never be alive. All of our works, get us no closer to heaven, they earn us nothing. Faith - works.
And yet, before we forget, you cannot take the works out of faith unless faith has already been made part of the equation. Paul also states in verse 5 “God who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.” Good works are not necessary for God comes to us where we are ... in sin, and in death. He came to us with new life. Notice the verb tense “made us alive with Christ; by grace you have been saved through faith.”
This salvation is a done deal. It is already signed sealed and delivered. No need to haggle, to bargain, there is no waiting, no background check into our character. We possess salvation right now! We possess it through faith, also a gift from God. We read in Titus 3:4-5 “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us not because of righteous things we had done but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Faith itself is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. It is the gift we receive in our Baptisms. It is the gift that is strengthened in the Lord’s Supper. It is a gift freely given. Faith minus Works. The gifts of God without any merit on our part.
Does that mean then that works have no place in the Christian life? Not a chance. Remember the equation: Faith minus works equals Faith plus works. Perhaps you can see where the second part is going. Having been given the Gifts of Faith and Salvation from our Lord the ONLY real outcome is that we will do good works. But this again is by the grace of God.
As verse 10 reads; “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are new creations in Christ Jesus, created specifically to do good works, they are a part of the very nature of being a believer. Think of it like a tractor. The grace of God in Christ Jesus is the engine, it supplies the raw power needed. That raw power needs to be converted into something we can use in our lives. In a tractor this is done by the transmission, or in us by the Holy Spirit, who gives us faith. We are the tractor itself a machine designed specifically for a purpose. Tractors are made to pull things. It’s what they do. They are not made to drag race, or take the family out to the movies. Christians are made to do good works. It’s what we do.
And these very works show the grace of God in our lives once again. He is not content to just let us stumble about blindly, trying to guess what would be a good work or not. He prepares them in advance for us. He not only makes us able but gives us every opportunity. Whether at work, or at home, at school or at church; whether with family, friends, neighbours, or fellow worshipers everything we do from the least to the greatest can be a good work if it is done in faith. 1 Co.10:31 reads; “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Faith plus works; the second part of the equation.
Faith minus works really does equal faith plus works. Salvation really does come from God alone through Christ on the cross. Having been brought to faith by the Holy Spirit then we cannot but help to do the good works God has laid out for us. Nowhere else in all of scripture will you find the true meaning of Christianity laid out so clearly as these verses in Ephesians 2. Perhaps you could sum them up in one final mathematical equation: Take one human remove all pretense of worthiness add the gifts of God, the death of his Son and Faith through the Holy Spirit and you get an equation that equals everlasting life, with a necessary by-product of many good works.