See Romans 3:21-26; 5:20 for this sermon’s text.
The Barna Group conducted a poll several years ago to see what some of the most widely known Bible verses are. The poll turned up some interesting results. Among the top Bible verses was this one: “God helps those who help themselves.” Does anyone here know what the problem is with this? It’s not in the Bible! Further studies from the Barna Group showed that a majority of Christians in America agreed with the statement and felt that the Bible teaches this idea.
If those statistics are representative of the congregation gathered here, then I may about to become very unpopular by what I’m going to say: Not only is “God helps those who help themselves” NOT in the Bible, it also goes against the very grain of the entire scriptural witness. In fact, I think that if we say God only helps those who help themselves, that is just an excuse to not offer help to anyone who needs it. But that’s another sermon for another day.
If it were true that God only helps those who help themselves, then friends, we’re all in a world of hurt because we’re all incapable of really “helping” ourselves. If it were true that God helps those who help themselves, then the grace we sing about that’s amazing to save a wretch like me, is really not so amazing after all. Think about it: how would the lyrics of that beloved hymn be different if it were true that “God helps those who help themselves”?
Here would be the first verse:
Mediocre grace, how pleasant the sound
That gave a little extra to such a self-reliant person like me,
I once was a little misguided, but I got myself out,
Had blurry vision, but took some Visine and now I see clearly.
Instead, it’s this:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.
What’s with this “wretch” theology? I think that’s the part that really disturbs us. Perhaps that brings up memories of the message of our depravity being drilled or hammered into our spirits by parents or teachers or preachers to make us feel awful, guilty to the point of being paralyzed. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”comes to mind as he describes sinful humans in this way:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Whew! Grace, anyone? Doesn’t that make us feel trapped in the belief that we will never be able to do anything good and will only be able to do everything wrong? Who wants to live in that sort of trapped existence?
Well, in an attempt to avoid this sort of wretched theology of hopeless depravity, we Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition have often glossed over a point that was right in the thick of Wesley’s understanding of grace. What I’ve witnessed is that some often move from the wonderful message of God’s prevenient, initiating, wooing grace directly to the message of God’s desire to sanctify us and renew the creation. The problem is that in narrative terms, this is like going straight from the beautiful message of Christmas directly to the empty tomb. But in the midst of that we have a bloody, torturous cross that bears an Innocent Redeemer who cries at the hour of his execution a piercing word – “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Who exactly is “them”? The religious authorities who put Jesus on trial? Pilate and the Roman soldiers who authorized his torture and execution? The crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”? Are we among the “them”? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Or is Paul wrong when he said “we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”? Was Paul mistaken when he said in the epistle to the Ephesians that we were all dead in trespasses and sin? “Well, he must not have been a good Methodist like us. He was too pessimistic!” Honestly, that’s an overcorrection. There’s truth in Paul’s message, there’s reality in the belief that we are among the “them” for whom Christ pleads forgiveness. If we desire that Christ brings us the grace to renew us and breathe new life into us, that admits quite simply that there is something about and in us that is old and dead and in need of being renewed. So, somehow, someway we must come to terms with that in ourselves which isn’t as it ought to be, and to admit that we are not able to make ourselves be what we ought to be on our own. We needn’t necessarily go down the road of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to get this message of realizing our deep and abiding need for saving grace from beyond ourselves, but we need to come to terms with our own need for forgiveness.
And regardless of whether or not we want to admit it, this is thoroughly Wesleyan. It is the movement of grace that we call justification. John Wesley had a very succinct definition of “justification” when in a sermon on the subject he said this: “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins.”
This sermon came across as quite counter to what was being proliferated among some in the church at the time. There were church leaders who were teaching that in order to be justified, or have the assurance of pardon, people would first have to be sanctified or purified. Said Wesley, “Who are they that are justified? The ungodly…for it is not a saint but a sinner that is forgiven, and under the notion of a sinner. God [justifies] not the godly, but the ungodly; not those that are holy already, but the unholy. Does then the Good Shepherd seek and save only those that are found already? No. He seeks and saves that which is lost. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy.”
Think of it this way – if sanctifying grace, the goal, is what God does in us, then before we can get there, we need to accept the grace that declares what God does for us. That is, forgiveness, or justifying grace.
Listen to our words of absolution that are offered prior to receiving the Lord’s Supper, in agreement with Paul in Romans 5 – “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us.”
You see, even if we don’t like the term “wretch,” I think deep down if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are helpless on our own and we need the type of help that comes from a source from on high. We need that amazing, justifying grace. Forgiveness. Oh, it sounds so delightful to be forgiven, to be found because we had been lost. Even Charles Wesley got this when in the third verse of “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” he wrote beautifully:
He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
Tis mercy all immense and free;
for O my God, it found out me!
Tis mercy all immense and free;
for O my God, it found out me!
Forgiveness. How generously we want it for ourselves. How sparingly we are tempted to be in dispersing it to others. Johnny Jeffords, who serves as pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis put it this way recently: “We sing ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,’ with such passion and meaning. And I’m truly thankful to realize that there’s a measure of grace that imparts mercy and love at my most wretched. The problem is that while I’m ever thankful for grace that ‘saved a wretch like me,’ I’m not so sure I’m glad that the same grace ‘saved a wretch’ like you.”
Miroslav Volf was born and raised in Croatia and teaches theological studies at Yale Divinity School. He wrote this recently, “According to a Croatian saying, ‘people talk about what they don’t have.’ We talk about forgiveness because we live in a sentimental but unforgiving culture.”
Volf wrote this amidst telling the story of his older brother Daniel. When Miroslav was but one year old and Daniel was five, they were being watched by their nanny whom they called Aunt Milica. Volf tells the story that one day Daniel,
slipped through the large gate in the courtyard where we had an apartment. He went to the nearby small military base – just two blocks away – to play with ‘his’ soldiers. On earlier walks through the neighborhood, he had found some friends there – soldiers in training, bored and in a need of diversion even if it came from an energetic five-year-old.
On that fateful day in 1957, one of them put him on a horse-drawn bread wagon. As they were passing through the gate on a bumpy cobblestone road, Daniel leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the door post and the wagon. The horses kept going. He died on the way to the hospital – a son lost to parents who adored him, and an older brother that I would never know.
He would go on to say, “Aunt Milica should have watched him. But she didn’t. She let him slip out, she didn’t look for him, and he was killed. But my parents never blamed her.” And they certainly could have blamed the nearest soldier who could have been put on trial, but they didn’t. In fact, he said, “the soldier felt terrible, so terrible in fact that he had to be admitted to the hospital. My father, with a wound in his heart that would never quite heal, went to visit him, to comfort the one whose carelessness had caused him so much grief, and tell him that my mother and he forgave him…they wouldn’t press charges, he said. Why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because the life of her son, a good boy but careless in a crucial moment, was ruined by the hands of justice?”
They forgave essentially because of one integral belief – that they themselves were forgiven people. They knew amazing grace couldn’t be begrudging. Forgiveness, real forgiveness, is so costly. Yet there is a mystery and paradox in that while this amazing grace of forgiveness cost so much, yet it comes to us, as the title of Volf’s book suggests, “Free of Charge”; Wesley called it “free grace,” affirming what Paul said in that we are justified freely by God’s grace that comes through the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ.
I was ten years old when I began to understand a bit of what it means to be justified, when asking my parents one Sunday morning before church what it means to be saved, they acknowledged that to have faith and trust in Christ in salvation I would need to make that decision to own it. Now granted, I was raised in a grace-filled home, but I remember the conviction of needing God’s forgiving, justifying grace when later that morning the song was sung,
Come every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord;
and he will surely give you rest, by trusting in his word.
Only trust him, only trust him, only trust him now.
He will save you; he will save you; he will save you now.
Let us now reflect a moment on our need of forgiveness. Here’s where we are: prevenient grace is God’s “yes!” to us long before we could ever say “yes!” to God. We know pardon, we know justification, when enabled to respond, we say “yes!” to where God has already said “yes!” to us.
That is but the beginning of the journey, and is when we start to experience the process of God’s sanctifying grace working in our lives. But in this moment, in this space, let us acknowledge our deep need for God’s grace in offering this confession:
We confess to you, all-knowing God, what we are. We are not the people we like others to think we are. We are afraid to admit, even to ourselves, what lies in the depths of our souls. But we cannot hide our true selves from you. You know us as we are, and yet you love us. Help us not to shrink from self-knowledge. Teach us to respect ourselves for your sake. Give us the courage to put our trust in your guiding power. Raise us out of the paralysis of guilt into the freedom and energy of forgiven people. And for those who through long habit find forgiveness hard to accept, we ask you to break their bondage and set them free; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. If any one sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, the just One; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Thanks be to God!