Based on: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What if your boss handed you your paycheck and it had a little bow on it with a card attached and the card said, "Please accept this generous gift I am giving you. Signed, your boss." Would you be a little upset? Would you want to talk to your boss and make sure that he didn’t start thinking too highly about himself because of how generous he thought he was? You might want to explain to him that this check wasn’t a gift but it was what he owed you for the work you did. Or what if someone gave you a gift, but then said, "Now I want you to cut the grass and shovel the sidewalks around my house for a year in exchange for this gift." You might quickly give the gift back to him, because a gift that needs to be earned is not really a gift.
We know the difference between a gift and something that we receive in exchange for work done. Our eternal salvation is truly a gift. It is a gift that we receive only through faith, not in exchange for work done. Because salvation is a gift from God. We can be certain that it is ours.
Many Jews who lived at the time of Jesus and at the time Paul is writing this letter to the Romans didn’t understand salvation as God’s free gift. The Pharisees, in particular, believed that they had to earn God’s favor – that they had to do work so that God would give them their paycheck at the end of their lives. They especially looked to Abraham as their great patriarch. If anybody could earn that paycheck, Abraham could. But they didn’t understand that Abraham also trusted in his salvation as a gift from God.
Paul points out clearly that God gave Abraham the promise first. Abraham trusted God’s promise, and through that faith, God considered Abraham righteous. It was only after the promise that God gave the command of circumcision – for the Jews the command of circumcision was the symbol of everything that it meant to be a Jew and to live according to God’s law. The great patriarch Abraham did not earn his salvation but received it as a gift.
It is not only the Jews who have a problem accepting salvation as a free gift. The same problem exists in all human beings. It goes against human nature to except heaven as a gift. We want to work for it. After all, for most of our lives we have to work and pay for the things we want. It is not the norm to receive things for free and when you do get something for free, doesn’t the thought cross your mind, "Where’s the catch?" or, "I’ll have to pay him back somehow or do something for him in return." Finally, it comes down to this – if God forgives my sins and gives me salvation for free, then I can’t take any of the credit for my salvation. And it is human nature to want to say, "I helped God out."
This temptation to want to earn our own salvation runs deep. In catechism class there is occasionally on the quizzes a True or False statement such as, "We obey the 10 Commandments so that God will let us into heaven." or "We want to do good things so that God will love us." Both of those are false and yet they sound so right to our human reason. The just seem to make sense.
This thinking shows itself in a number of different ways. Why do you come to church? Do you come to church because God will be unhappy with you if you don’t? Do you come to church because it is one of God’s commands and if you do it he will be happy and let you into heaven? Are you trying to pay God for his gift? Don’t. It is a gift. We come to church so that we can hear about God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation.
Do you sometimes think of yourself as being more worthy of this gift than others? Because you do more work in the church does that make you a better Christian in the eyes of God? Do look down on other people because they just don’t seem to have their act together in the way that you do? If you think that somehow some people are more deserving of being saved that others, then it is no longer a gift, but something that needs to be earned – even if it’s in some small way.
No, this gift from God is a gift for everyone. God gives this gift equally to everyone. That means that you and the serial killer on death row are equally undeserving of this gift. It makes all people equally sinful in the eyes of God. Perhaps you find it difficult to believe that you’re just as deserving of hell as Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolph Hitler, and others?
This is the foundation of our Christian faith. When God opens his ledger book and looks at our account, he finds that we are in the red. We are deep in debt because of our sin. There is no way that any of us can pay back even a portion of this debt, but God points to Jesus Christ on the cross and says, “I give you this gift.” He credits this gift to our account, and our account is paid up. God now considers us righteous.
Think about it this way. If God were to ask you, when you die, "Why should I let you into heaven?" What will be your answer? It really doesn’t matter who you are or what sins you’ve committed, there really is only one answer whether it’s you standing there or the worst mass murderer of all time. The only answer that would carry any weight with God is, "Jesus died for my sins." If you mention anything about what you did or about the special qualities you have, you will not last long in God’s presence. When you point to Jesus and his work then you recognize that your works and your deeds have nothing to contribute. They are meaningless. God’s gift is all that matters.
This is a comfort. God’s gift is a gift of grace. Just imagine the uncertainty that would exist in our minds if this was not a gift and we had to earn God’s favor. We could never do enough. Doubt and uncertainty would always plague us. But because it is a gift of grace, it is a gift for everyone. It does not depend on us. Since it is a gift for everyone, then we can be certain it is a gift for us. This gift is already mine, and it is already yours.
God knows the difference between a gift and a payment for work done. He has given you a gift. He gives that same gift to everyone. The gift is his own son, Jesus Christ, and that gift is yours now. You can be sure of it.