There are a few stand-out passages in our scriptures that sum up the cornerstone of Christian faith, and one of them is in the letter to the Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). This is not our doing; it is the gift of God (v. 8).
But even many Christians find the gospel of Jesus hard to believe. Surely it can’t be that simple, we think; surely there’s something we must do; surely we must at least repent and ask forgiveness. But the good news is, we are saved – our relationship with God is made whole – not by anything we do but only through the grace of God (Eph. 2:8). The salvation of your soul and of all creation is pure, unmerited gift; there is nothing you can do to gain it, and there is nothing you can do to lose it.
In his letter to the Romans, where he lays out his most mature and fully developed theology, St. Paul asserts there is no distinction between those who are under God’s law and those who are not, no distinction between those who are bound by God’s rules for living and those who are not. Everyone – everyone – is now made right with God as a gift (Rom 3:21-24). Eugene Peterson paraphrased it this way: “Since we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift” (The Message).
Paul summed up the good news differently to the Corinthians. In Christ, he wrote, God was “reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19 NLT). God took the initiative to do for us what we could not do for ourselves; God forgave all of us even before we knew to seek forgiveness; God restored an original relationship with us and with all people even before we knew to ask for it. God made an unbreakable, irrevocable covenant to be our God; all that’s left for us is to work out how to live gratefully in that relationship.
In the 1986 film The Mission, about the work of Jesuits in South America in the eighteenth century, Robert De Niro plays a former soldier named Rodrigo who would ride into the highlands, capture natives, and sell them into slavery. After killing his own brother, Rodrigo turns to the Jesuits for refuge and forgiveness. As penance, he must join the Jesuits as they climb into the highlands to live among the natives and share the gospel with them – the same natives Rodrigo was hunting and selling into slavery. As part of his penance, Rodrigo drags his weapons and armor, the metal remnants of his former life, behind him in a massive rope net, in order to make the journey even more painful and difficult.
After a long, grueling journey, they arrive in a jungle village, with Rodrigo slowly bringing up the rear, exhausted, knowing he will probably be killed by the natives once they recognize him. One villager does grab Rodrigo by the hair and puts a knife to his throat, but on a signal from the chief, the native removes the knife from Rodrigo’s neck and slowly, methodically cuts the ropes binding Rodrigo to his net of weapons and armor. As his burden falls into the river, Rodrigo breaks down sobbing. Villagers and Jesuit brothers surround him with hugs, tears, and laughter and lead him into a life of living out his forgiveness in freedom.
The good news is that, whatever burden we carry in life, God has cut the ropes that bind it to us, and it has fallen away. What is the burden of regret or shame that’s tied around your neck? What insult, failure, or pain have you been unable to leave behind? In the covenant God has made with us and with all people, that burden has fallen away, and we are free at last. Now, how are we going to live in response to that gift?