From the Pastor’s Desk March 2014

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

These words by the Apostle Paul may be so familiar to us as evangelical Christians that we assume that we have a complete grasp on what Paul is seeking to convey. I have come to the conclusion over the years that this is seldom the case with any passage of Scripture, given the fact that not only are we dealing with the words of a man, but also the words of God.

Congregationalists, like Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and numerous others, are traditionally adherents of what we call a Reformed expression of the Christian faith. We trace our heritage back through the American and English Puritans, through John Calvin and Martin Luther during the Reformation (where the word “Reformed” comes from) through St. Augustine to the teachings of the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself. Part of what that means is that we believe that God has Sovereignly predestined those who will eventually come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

This conviction was much more commonplace among Christians in previous centuries (e.g. Spurgeon, Whitfield, Edwards) but often elicits a reaction from both those in the faith and outside of it today. “Isn’t this unfair of God?” “What about man’s free will?” “Doesn’t it negate the call to evangelism?”

None of us would deny that human beings have a will and exercise that will every day of the week- which socks to put on in the morning, what school to attend, who to marry, what job to take. But it begs the question, what is it that motivates us to make the choices we make? And, why do some joyfully accept the gospel (good news) of Jesus and others want nothing to do with it? To say that our will is entirely free from outside influences is not possible. Many things influence the decisions we make. Biblically speaking, it seems to me that what people are really talking about when we use the words “free will” is really autonomy; that is, that we as humans have the ability to think thoughts or make decisions apart from any influence, and especially God.

Now, this is where Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 apply to what we are saying here. Paul had previously written a few verses earlier, “.you were dead in your trespasses and sins.. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loves us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved-.. (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5) What this says to us is that we cannot divorce the teachings of God’s Sovereignty from the message of his grace. His grace was of course manifested to us on Calvary, but it is also applied to us individually by his Holy Spirit in the immediate context of our lives. How is it that a person decides to repent and believe the gospel? How is it that a person chooses to follow Christ? It is by the inner working of the Holy Spirit.

You see, for us to say that a person needs to accept Jesus apart from the gracious work of God is to say that we accept Jesus because of some lurking moral character in our heart, and that God extends his grace to us because of that moral character. Thus “grace” is spelled with small letters and faith really becomes a “work”. That will lead us to a moralistic approach to the gospel – “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just accept Jesus. If you don’t then there is something wrong with you (i.e. a moral deficiency).” Well, I hate to say it, but there is a moral deficiency in all of us. Paul tells us that we were “dead” in our sins. To tell someone to “just believe in Jesus” when he is spiritually dead is like asking a corpse to get out of his coffin and drive his car. It takes a work of God’s GRACE in capital letters. Thus “grace” really becomes the operative word for us.

Now, lest I be accused of preaching to the choir, I have to say that there is a challenge for all of us here. Paul, remember, was a converted Pharisee. He knew what it was like to focus all his energy on working for salvation. I have found that it is possible to reach Phariseeism by traveling around both sides of the circle- in the moralistic direction or in the presumptuous direction- “I’m of the elect, therefore there is no moral deficiency in me.” ( It’s too easy to translate that into, “I’m of the elect because there is no moral deficiency in me.”) Both diminish God’s Grace, and that is not good.Pastor Tom Bridgman

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Grace Church Congregational

1055 Williams Street

Pittsfield, MA 01201