Salvation by Grace Alone
Septuagesima Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 9, 2020| Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
When God made Adam in the beginning, he put him in Paradise. He put him there to work. Work is a gift from God. I remember hearing this when I was thirteen years old. Work a gift? I thought it was a pain. Sure, work is necessary. After all, the Bible says, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b) But I thought it was a necessary evil, not a positive good. What normal and healthy thirteen year old boy would not rather goof off than work? Working is hard, tiring, and often frustrating. One good thing about working, though, is that you get paid.
The deal was a denarius a day. That was the typical wage for a day’s work. A day’s work was twelve hours. They did not work for eight hours in air-conditioned offices. They worked hard and long for twelve hours through the heat of the day. They made a deal. They worked for twelve hours. The landowner would give them a denarius for their work. That was the deal.
For most people, religion is a deal that we make with God. I’ll do this for you, God, if you do that for me. This is what is known as quid pro quo: this for that. We do this and God does that. That’s the deal. When you make a deal with God you resent the other fellow who appears to have gotten a much better deal than you did. Is it fair? You work for twelve long hours and get a denarius. The other guy works one hour and gets the same. Is that fair? Those who make deals with God say he is unfair. But God is always fair.
You work in the vineyard and you get a denarius. Twelve hours or one hour – it makes no difference. Everybody is treated the same. If you say that that’s not fair you take away from the owner of the vineyard his right to do as he wants with what belongs to him. You may not do that. You have no right to judge him for his generosity. What are you saying to God when you resent him for his kindness? What kind of a god do you want?
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a wonderful picture of God’s grace. A simple acronym explains what the word grace means. Each letter of the word begins another word. G-R-A-C-E: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. God gives you riches, eternal treasures, but you didn’t pay for them. Christ did. God’s riches at Christ’s expense. He paid for what God freely gave to you.
The word grace means favor. Sometimes the word grace is used in the Bible to refer to a spiritual quality that God works within us. For example, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation about the grace of God that he gave among the churches of Macedonia. He was talking about God moving their hearts to give generously and willingly to help their fellow Christians who were in need.
When speaking of our salvation on the other hand, God’s grace is not a quality within us. It is an attitude within God. It is God’s favor, his undeserved kindness. Here is how St. Paul describes this grace in Ephesians 2:8-10,
For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Grace is the opposite of works. If God rescues us from the perils of our sins, the power of the devil, the fear of death, and the punishment of hell because of our works, then he does not save us by his grace. It is either his grace or our works. It cannot be both. St. Paul writes in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
Here in this parable where our Lord Jesus so vividly teaches us this precious doctrine of salvation by grace alone, apart from our works, he does so by talking about our works! Works don’t contribute to your salvation, dear Christian, but God has called you to do good works: to love him with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. You tell me. Is the work that God has given to you to do a pain for you to do? Or is it a joy? Is it a burden? Or do the hours of your labor fly by lightly as birds on the wing?
In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon laments the vanity of all of the work we do under the sun. He writes:
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)
Solomon writes that all our hard work is nothing but vanity. Then later on, he writes:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19)
Which is it? Is work vanity? Or is it a gift of God? It depends on whether you made a deal with God or whether you trusted in his grace in Christ. Those who make the deal get what they bargained for. A day’s wage is earned one day and spent the next. You can’t take it with you. The work we work apart from God’s grace isn’t worth the money we are paid. It will be blown away with the wind.
The work we work when covered by God’s grace is altogether different. The workers in the vineyard who relied, not on a deal they made with God, but on God’s grace, found their labor a joy. When you rely on your good works to gain God’s favor your works are a burden. When you rely on God’s favor to do good works your works are a joy. Jesus says:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Those who trust in their own good deeds to make them righteous before God are incapable of doing good deeds. The Bible says: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23b) You cannot have faith in Jesus your Savior if you’re determined to save yourself by the good works you do. As long as you insist on saving yourself you cannot be saved.
The vineyard is the church as we see it. Call it the visible church. Those who are in the visible church are either believers or unbelievers. The believers are the true church. They trust in the blood and righteousness of Jesus. They don’t trust in their own good deeds. They know that they cannot work their way to heaven. They confess that they are sinners in need of a Savior. They look to Jesus as their Savior. The unbelievers are attached to the church outwardly, but since they are trusting in what they do for God to get them to heaven they are not trusting in Jesus. They don’t really belong to the church, even though you can see them working in the vineyard.
Then there are those standing on the outside looking in. “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” the landowner asks them. “Because no one hired us,” they reply. He invites them in. God sends out his invitation to all. No one is excluded. Those who accept his invitation in faith receive the forgiveness of sins, freely given by God for Jesus’ sake. They aren’t working for pay. They are working for love. God see inside the heart. He knows who are working for pay and who are working for love.
We do not earn our status in God’s vineyard. God gives it freely by his grace alone. Those who put themselves last, humbly confessing their sins, claiming no goodness of their own, but trusting in God’s grace in Christ, are placed first by God. They are chosen by God’s grace. Grace elevates the lowly. Those who promote themselves and demand a deal from God are given the religious respectability they worked for and are then told to leave. Christ’s church is for those who rely on God’s invitation. It is not for the self-righteous. It is for sinners who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Christ gives them his righteousness. He takes away their sins. He quenches their thirst and satisfies their hunger. He chooses them for salvation in Christ by grace alone before they have done any good work. He makes work a joy for them. He graciously rewards them for what they do in his name. Amen.