Skip to content

The 4th Sunday in Lent; Ephesians 2:1-10

John Newton was born in 1725, in London, England. His father was a sailor, a shipmaster, and Newton’s early childhood was spent living with his mother during his father’s long voyages. When he was seven his mother died, and John’ was shuttled among relatives and had about two years of school before joining his father on his ship when he was eleven. He was press-ganged into the Royal Navy at age eighteen; he deserted, was caught, and flogged nearly to death in punishment.

At age twenty-two, he was able to transfer to a merchant ship in the Atlantic trade. These would carry goods from the east coast of America; tobacco, cotton, furs, to British ports. From there they transported trade goods; blankets, beads, cheap knives and other weapons to the west coast of Africa. There a different sort of cargo would be loaded; not goods, but humans, slaves, bound for America as cheap labour. John Newton was now a slaver!

He did not get along well with his new mates and officers, and they abandoned him on the African coast, where he was himself enslaved for three years. He was rescued by another British merchant vessel and worked his way back to England. Near the end of this voyage his vessel was caught in a severe storm and almost sank. Newton spent many hours at the pumps and at the helm to keep the ship afloat as the waves crashed around and over it. Several times he found himself crying aloud to God for protection. The storm eventually stopped, but Newton was permanently changed. Still on the ship, he began to read the Bible and other Christian literature. By the time he reached Britain, he had accepted the doctrines of evangelical Christianity. He was twenty-three. From then on he avoided profanity, gambling and drinking. But he continued to work in the slave trade, in time as Master of a ship, although he claimed to have gained sympathy for the slaves during his time in Africa.

Newton worked and invested in slaving for seven more years. If you think that hypocritical for a professed evangelical Christian, in the 18th century even some Anglican bishops invested in the slave trade. It was a severe stroke that forced him to give up the slave trade and seafaring, and Newton settled in Liverpool as surveyor of tides, a tax collector. He studied biblical languages, and the Bible, and became well known as an Evangelical lay minister. At age 32 he applied to be ordained an Anglican priest but it took another seven years of study and reflection on his previous life. In 1763, the year before his ordination, he wrote: “I was greatly deficient in many respects … I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.” In 1764 he was ordained, and became the curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. After 16 years in that parish he moved to a church in London, as one of only two Evangelical Rectors in that city. 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, at age 63, Newton broke a long silence with the publication of a forceful pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He apologised for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

While still in Olney, together with William Cowper the poet who was a parishioner, in 1779 Newton, age 54, published a collection of hymns, including 280 of his own composition. Three of these are still in the top 100 hymns of today; Glorious things of thee are spoken, and How sweet the name of Jesus sounds are two. The third and most popular of Newton’s hymns has had a remarkable history, including months on the pop charts being played on bagpipes! It is, of course, Amazing Grace, by Newton titled Faith’s Review and Expectation, the hymn he wrote about his own experience of conversion from the dissolute life of a sailor and slave trader to that of a priest of the Church and major religious leader of his time. He died in his 83rd year.

This Sunday’s theme is grace, God’s grace, the assistance God gives us toward our sanctification. Without it, all our own efforts to improve ourselves, to follow God, are in vain. With it, all barriers between ourselves and God are overcome.

Grace is one of those slippery theological words that, unfortunately, has a meaning very different from what it has in common English. God’s grace has nothing to do with being a good dancer! Perhaps the simplest definition is that grace is an absolutely undeserved, free gift. And even that definition can get us into trouble, because “free gift” in our society has taken on a meaning loaded with commercialism: free gift with every purchase! God’s grace, God’s free gift of salvation is different from this: it cannot be earned, nothing needs to be purchased, and no “thank-you” is required.

St. Paul (or St. Paul’s disciple), strictly speaking, the Letter to the Ephesians, in the opinion of most scholars, is not from the mouth or pen of Paul himself (but it is nevertheless part of the Canon of the New Testament); anyways, in today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, writes insistently and emphatically that “by grace [we] have been saved,” and more, “by grace you have been saved through faith, …”

“Got you,” some will cry, or mutter under their breath. “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Obviously, faith is required for salvation, and faith is something over which I have control; faith is a matter of my choice. But, once again, faith is a slippery, theological word that doesn’t quite mean what it means in common English. We tend to equate faith and belief, and therefore put faith in God on the same intellectual level as believing that the distance to the sun averages roughly 150 million kilometres. Personally, we cannot verify either the existence of God nor the distance to the sun. But we can learn and understand how astronomical distances are measured, and hence believe them. But there is no act of the intellect by which we can demonstrate the existence of God, even though many better minds than mine have tried. Thus equating faith with belief is equating an understanding of the heart with demonstrable fact. And I used the word “heart” deliberately. Faith in the theological sense relates to the first phrase of the Creed, “I/We believe,” in its original Latin, Credo. Credo has the same linguistic root as cardia – heart, and thus the belief, the faith, which we confess in God relates much more to a feeling of the heart than to an effort of the intellect. From the beginning it has been the Christian understanding that faith is not an act of the will, but the work of the Holy Spirit within the human heart and mind and spirit. Thus, the faith by which we are saved is itself a gift of God to us, not our own doing.

The relationship between a Christian and their Lord does not depend on human actions; it depends totally on divine grace! But we need to say more than that, to bring out the most important truth in that statement. It is quite obvious to me, and most likely to you, that our actions do indeed affect our relationship with God. They cannot help but do so. For example, my actions can affect my awareness of my relationship with God. If I turn my will away from the Lord’s will, then I am conscious of being at a distance from God. If I stop praying, worshipping, studying scripture, even just thinking about God, then I cause great damage to the relationship with my God given to me at my baptism. It is even possible to deny it altogether.

But-and this is the whole point-our baptismal relationship with the Lord, with God, once made, is permanent and forever. Think for a moment of that other great relationship in our lives, that with our parents. We may be hopeless sons or daughters, or our parents may be a terrible mother or father. The parent-child relationship can die, in the sense of being active, or visible to others. We can stop meeting, we may not telephone, we can not write, we can even stop thinking about one another. And yet, nothing we can do changes the fact that a parent-child relationship exists. We will always be the children of our parents, and they will always be our mothers and fathers, no matter what.

Thus it is with the relationship into which we are brought with God in our baptism. Whatever we do, God remains deeply committed to us, we who God adopted as a beloved son or daughter at baptism. There needs to be only the slightest attempt on our part to turn again towards that love, and it reaches out to us, encouraging us, attracting us, desiring us. Even the wish to turn again to God is itself grace, given breath by God within us, so that in time the tiny spark of faith may burst into flame.

“By grace [we] have been saved through faith.” We need to hold this great truth before us at all times. It is so easy to fall into a way of thinking about our relationship with God that puts us in control. We use language like, “going to the church of my choice;” often followed by “whenever I choose!” Language like, “When I decided to become a Christian;” “When I chose the Lord.” We may hear someone say, “One of these days I’ll check out Christianity;” as if it were some kind of new product. We try to keep the initiative, to put the relationship with God on our terms. We will do God the wonderful favour of giving God our time, our allegiance, our support.

“By grace [we] have been saved.” The boot is on the other foot. We do not choose, we are chosen. It is we who have received the honour of being chosen by our God; it is not the other way around. Our God is not grateful that we are following him. We are to be grateful for having been chosen to follow.

But there is more! We are not saved because of some special quality or superiority. We are still human, just as prone to sin as anyone else. Being saved by the grace of God does not turn us into spiritual or moral super-beings. We need to be reminded always that while we were made saints in our baptism, our entire life is a process of struggling and growing towards what we already are. In the words of Martin Luther, who himself was very aware of his own imperfection and unworthiness, we are always simul justus et pecator – we are at the same time saints and sinners. John Newton would agree wholeheartedly!

Even knowing we are saved, we know we are not worthy of salvation. It is God, through grace, that saves us. God saves us as we are, warts and all, not as God wishes us to be. God saves us because he sees in us the potential which we ourselves cannot see. He saves us not as the person we are, but as the person we may become by the grace of God. It is God who has the initiative at every stage of our relationship with God.

By God we are saved. By God we are made for good works and the work of God in the world. By God we are strengthened. By God we are made worthy of being saved. And all this, by the grace of God.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.

Copyright ©2024 by Gerry Mueller