You might think there are a large number of different religions in the world. There are actually only two: the religion of the Law and the religion of the Gospel. The religion of the Law is the endeavor to reconcile God through man’s own works. The religion of the Gospel, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, is belief wrought through the Gospel by the Holy Spirit that we have a gracious God through the reconciliation already effected by Christ, and not by our own works.
In order to get around the extremes of two religions, we often mix both and create a third religion that is actually the religion of the Law. We believe God is gracious, except when we don’t want God to be gracious. Take those who worked for twelve hours in the master’s vineyard. When it comes to receiving their agreed upon wage, they think perhaps they will receive more because they worked all day. Upon receiving one denarius, they murmur: These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
They insist on their merit. Their eyes are evil. They begrudge others the gift of the good master. The master, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with those who grumble about his goodness. He does not deal according to merit. So he tells those who worked all day: Go! You might say he told them to scram.
Be careful what you wish for when you wish there was a way you could have a say in the religion of the Gospel. You might be the one told to scram. You can’t have it both ways in the kingdom of God. You can’t believe in a gracious, loving, giving God and also want God not to be gracious to those who haven’t borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. Put another way, you can’t rejoice in God saving the worst of sinners, and then put the worst of sinners back under the burden of making a moral change before they can really apprehend Jesus’ merit. You can’t add more commandments than those given by God and expect that Jesus saves by grace alone AND by good, clean living.
You can’t work for the Gospel and bask in grace. You can’t just show up and expect God to bless you with forgiveness of sins and eternal life because you deserve it by your persistent church attendance or by keeping the property looking nice or by believing in pure doctrine. Grace and reward are two opposing terms. When you believe grace and reward work together, no wonder you look askance at God’s goodness to the worst of sinners, even sinners like you and me. You can’t do the work God prescribes in the Law. You can’t perfectly love God. You can’t perfectly love your neighbor as yourself. You can’t do justice to God by shedding your blood. As Saint Paul says in Philippians chapter three: Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Aha! There’s the loophole! I press on to make it my own. I get to do something at last! What you get to do is stand still and let God work His favor on you by sparing you from everlasting death. Whether you labor all your life in the vineyard or whether you labor mere minutes, the Master is gracious to all whom He calls. He alone is good. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good?
Jesus’ parable of the vineyard in Matthew chapter twenty is a picture of the heavenly kingdom. We are called by God into this spiritual vineyard. Though we Christians work, bear the burden and heat of the day, serve our neighbor, even if that service is hard, we don’t fear cross and tribulation. The way of delighting God, the way of salvation, is not how hard you work or how much you work or how nice you are to others. The way of salvation is the way of grace and favor of God on you. It is gift, pure gift, for Christ’s sake. You’re in because of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the Gracious Giver.
By grace God sent His only-begotten Son into the world for redemption of sinners. By Grace He lets the tidings of this redemption, the Gospel, be preached to all creation. By grace He awakens us from spiritual death by the power of the preached Word. This Word works in us true faith and a new life. By grace He forgives our sins. By grace He continually works in us a deep hatred for sins and zeal to love and serve our neighbor as God loves and serves us so that we work in His vineyard not for merit, but for love. By grace God gives us salvation.
God makes from grace and favor a Timothy, who from infancy was acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, and a thief who seeks forgiveness in the eleventh hour. Saint Paul cannot be saved than the penitent murder led to his execution can be saved. This is the only way that stands open to all sinners.
This is the way Adam and Eve are saved, who brought all sin and misery into the world by their fall. This is the way Moses is saved, who doubted God’s promise. This is the way David is saved, who laid murder and adultery on his conscience. This is the way Peter is saved, who denied His Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way you are saved, even if you have despised your Baptism and returned to the Lord in your dying breath.
“No sentence now reproves me, No guilt destroys my peace; For Christ, my Savior, loves me And shields me with His grace.”