The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, you know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’
… prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.’”
(ESV: Ezekiel 37:1-6,12-14)
These words of the prophet Ezekiel record a vision he received from God during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the mid-6th century B.C. His vision includes this fairly graphic image of the dead being raised back to life. The key to this image of the resurrection of the dead is the initiator of the action. The word that is repeated most often is “I,” referring to God himself. He continually repeats “I will,” “I will,” “I will…” It is clear from these words that it is God performing the action and not the dead bodies of mankind. This resurrection is not due to any merit or worthiness on the part of the dead, but due to God’s grace and for his own glory and purposes.
Likewise, in the New Testament the Apostle Paul makes the same point as recorded in his epistle to the Ephesians:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in 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, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV: Ephesians 2:4-10)
Paul is very clear, both in this epistle and in his other writings that the salvation of mankind is effected entirely by God’s grace. This epistle touches on a related point as well, however. For not only by God’s grace are we saved, but also by the faith that comprehends this grace. This very faith, however, is also a gift of God, bestowed upon us by his grace. For it is not in our own power to believe in the Gospel. As Paul states “…this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” If it were in our own unaided power and abilities to believe the Gospel and have faith, then this too would be a work. We would essentially by trying to “earn” God’s grace and salvation through our good work of faith, making God out to be a debtor to us. God’s salvation would then no longer be an act of grace, but rather a payment for our good works. However, God does not bestow his saving grace upon us because of our faith; rather, He freely grants us his saving grace and enables us to believe his promise of salvation. This belief in God’s promise is faith.
An example from the New Testament will help to illustrate this point that even our faith is a work of God and not of men:
And behold, a man came up to [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
He said to him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
(ESV: Matthew 19:16-26)
The point of this exchange between Jesus and the rich young man is not that rich people can not enter heaven; to believe this would be to miss the point of the passage and the entire Gospel message. Rather, the point is that it is not possible to earn one’s salvation through good works. The young man believed that by keeping the commandments he could gain God’s favor and earn his place in heaven. Jesus, however, gave him an additional commandment that the young man could not fulfill. In this man’s case the unfulfilled commandment was to sell all that he had. However, no one is able to truly and completely fulfill all of God’s commandments. Jesus makes this clear when he says “There is only one who is good” and “With man this [i.e. saving oneself through works] is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The only good one is God, who bestows his grace upon mankind.
God’s grace encompasses the entirety of our salvation. Christ incarnate came to dwell with mankind so as to lead men to faith in Him and to suffer and die on the cross for the redemption of mankind. Through his death he took upon himself the wages of our sin, and through his resurrection he defeated death. Just as Christ died and rose again to life, we too will rise again at the last day to new life in glory with Him. For this great gift God does not demand payment or our works, but freely offers this salvation and redemption by His divine grace. We have only to have faith in His promise of our salvation through Jesus Christ; Christ is the ladder of which Jacob dreamed that unites men with God (cf. Genesis 28:10-17). Faith is the passive vessel that receives God’s grace and believes his promises.
But, more than that, since it is impossible to believe in Christ by our own power and abilities, God gives us this faith through His Word and Sacraments. The incarnate Word, the preached Word, and the written Word as Scripture serve to generate faith in us so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing we may have eternal life (cf. John 20:31). In addition, His saving sacraments of Baptism and Communion serve to impart faith in us as well. Thus, God accomplishes the totality of our redemption for us out of his divine love, despite our unworthiness and sinful natures.
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.
Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts. Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”