Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nothing to Brag About

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

                        Ephesians 2.8-9

Breaking It Down

After wrapping up my college studies mid-winter, some family friends offered an open-ended invitation to “decompress” in their Orange County, California home. I barely adjusted to the climate change when bizarre events—straight out of “90210” or “The OC”—led to my first job as a Christian high school English teacher. My predecessor, it seems, had more interest in his female students than their mastery of language and literature. It fell my lot to get a group of surfers and mallrats up to speed. Seeing their reading skills barely exceeded simple sentences, we put the lit books down and picked up grammar, starting with sentence diagrams. I left Ephesians 2.8-9 on the chalkboard as our holy grail. “When better than half of you can diagram this, we’ll move on,” I said. Honestly, I couldn’t begin to untangle Paul’s grammatical snarl all these years later. (If anyone feels so inclined, email it and I’ll post it with pleasure.) Yet the primary reason I chose this over other convoluted verses remains. The best way to fully appreciate Ephesians 2.8-9 is breaking it down, phrase by phrase.

Saved by Grace

“You’ve been saved by grace” is the core message. In classic fashion, however, Paul introduces complexity with two tenses: present (“it is”) and past (“you have been saved”). That’s not so hard. Grace is. Day in and day out, it exists for anyone to access God’s forgiveness and acceptance now like we did in the past. Hang on, though. Both phrases are passive, focusing on a shared object—you. Paul wants us to stop and marvel at two incontrovertible truths. God’s grace is ours for the taking, freely, without qualification. And salvation is more for our benefit than His pleasure. We need His grace and forgiveness more than He needs us. When we come to Christ, or lead others to Him, we do God no favors. He opens His favor to us. Our best interests please Him. Our happiness makes Him happy. The generosity of this overwhelms and humbles us. It is too marvelous to overlook—a given we never minimize as a given. In Romans 6.1-2, Paul writes: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” The prevalence of God’s grace belies its rare value. It and the salvation it affords must not be cheaply regarded as disposable things. Grace is. But we have been saved. We hold salvation most dear, protecting and prizing it day after day, rather than whimsically tossing it off when it’s convenient (or inconvenient, in some cases), since there’s always more where that came from.

Faith, Not Works

Once he sets us straight about grace and salvation, Paul tacks on a cleverly nested pair of modifying statements and a sobering coda. Grace and salvation come through faith, not works. We claim them simply by believing they’re available. Nothing we do—or can do—entitles us to either one. And here’s why: the price of both surpasses our means. This is essential for us to understand and accept, particularly we who have been misled to think we don’t conform to God’s acceptance standards. There are no standards because if there were, no one could attain them. Those who teach we have to give or give up anything to gain grace and salvation have things turned around. Look at Paul’s interjection. God is the Giver; we are the recipients. Faith enables us to accept acceptance. No prior qualification is necessary and no tangible proof is available. Hence, the key to prizing grace and salvation is protecting our faith in them from unfounded doubt.

When others try to convince us we’re unworthy of grace or unfit for salvation, we listen politely while dismissing their words. Their argument lacks Scriptural truth. At the same time, we don’t defend ourselves with counterclaims. Because grace is a gift and salvation can’t be earned, there’s nothing to brag about. All we have is faith—belief substantiated by hope backed with invisible evidence. Since we can’t prove God’s grace or our salvation, boasting is downright silly, almost as silly as attempting to explain why God gives them to us in the first place. Challenges to our faith end with meek thank-you’s, immediately followed by soaring gratitude to God for His marvelous gifts to us.

If not Dylan's finest album, it's most definitely his greatest album cover.

(Tomorrow: Keep Faith Alive)


Marcus Goodyear said...

When I was teaching public school, they told me to stop teaching sentence diagramming. Boy, did I love it though.

I couldn't diagram Paul easily this afternoon. Maybe for fun later.

Everything in my experience points toward the insane idea that kids learn to read... by reading a lot.

That's why parents MUST read to their kids every night!

Tim said...

Marcus, welcome to Straight-Friendly! Yeah, my story took place over 25 years ago, and even then, diagramming was looked down on as archaic, etc.

So why I am wincing at every turn, reading mangled language in print, hearing mangled language on the air and in the street?

My dad always said the best way to understand something is by pulling it apart and putting it back together. I've been out of teaching for a long, long time and don't know what kids have been learning, but it sure ain't what I learned.

You're so right about reading. Parents who read to their children plant love of reading in them. As far as I can tell video games, toys, and TV have not yet adequately figured out how to do that--or, for that matter, how to replicate the intimate joys of parents and children sharing a great book!

Thanks for dropping by; it's great to see you! Happy New Year.

john said...

Another amazing post!!
You always leave me with something to think about, something to ponder and something that makes me realize that I'm glad I found your blog. And you've given me new understanding about Christianity and my faith in it.

Tim said...

John, Happy New Year--and glad to see you in 2009!

I am glad you found S-F, too, as you and everyone else here are unbelievably inspiring people. The love of Christ and the passion for understanding we share among us keeps us digging, looking at what we believe in fresh ways, etc.

Thanks so much for your kind words; they mean everything to me!

Blessings and peace always