A certain man had the pleasure of spending a relaxing week in Florida with his son’s family. In addition to escaping briefly from the frigid Pennsylvania winter, a particular joy was observing his two young grandsons blossoming over the course of the week in their swimming skills and confidence. One of his enduring memories will be how the oldest began the week totally unable to do a back-float – how he thrashed frantically in the water every time he attempted it, and of course, promptly sank! But late in the week, he found the confidence to simply lie back trustingly on the water, and thereafter spent long periods floating serenely around the pool like a buoyant little twig bobbing on the ripples.
That seemed to the proud grandfather like a wonderful metaphor for how faith in God’s grace functions for our salvation.
As Lutherans, we talk a lot about faith: Sola Fide (by faith alone) is a key slogan in Luther’s theology (see also Sola). And, of course, Luther grounded his theology on clear scriptural teachings, like this reminder by St. Paul: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But what actually is meant by those words? Is it our ability to generate faith that earns our salvation? Not at all! That’s as silly as thinking that the body’s ability to float in water is a mental trick! The buoyancy that supports us in a pool is a matter of the physics of relative densities. But just knowing the principle doesn’t do the trick either; panicked physicists drown like everyone else! Floating requires trust. In the same way, a saving faith trusts fully in what already exists – it doesn’t produce our salvation, but it is necessary to it. We are not saved by our faith, but through our faith in God’s grace.
Does that sound like doubletalk? Think of the little boy who couldn’t float at the beginning of the week but could at the end. It wasn’t His buoyancy that changed, only his trust in it. That’s the way it is with a ‘saving faith’ too. God’s gracious gift of salvation through the sacrifice of His Son for our sins is freely given to all who will accept it in faith. But sadly, many will not or cannot bring themselves to trust in that fact.
Anyone who has mastered back-floating knows that there’s no ‘work’ involved — the hard part is to let go of the natural instinct for self-preservation and just trust that buoyancy will do the job. If you try to ‘help yourself’ by keeping your head out of the water, you will sink! And that’s why some people never learn to back-float — they just can’t get past their need to ‘save themselves.’
It’s like that with salvation too. It’s there for the taking for anyone who will put their total trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But like the little guy trying vainly to float while keeping his head out of the water, a halfhearted commitment doesn’t cut it! Surrendering oneself fully to Christ is what’s required – but that’s even more scary than trusting water to support our body weight! In both cases we need to trust in something that feels ‘unnatural’ and is out of our control. But the faith that saves us doesn’t originate within us – it too is God’s gift of grace!
Sometimes, like Peter who lost his nerve when he saw the danger he was in, any Christian will at times despair of his/her sins and try to compensate by ‘thrashing harder.’ But that only deepens the panic and puts us in greater danger. Rather, we must do as Peter did and call out for our Lord to rescue us with His strong grip. (Matthew 13:25-31) It is always Jesus that saves!
Of course, the real joy of learning to float is not just the security of being safe, but also that it enables us to swim. So too it is with faith and the Christian life. In the freedom of knowing that we are always rescued by our savior, we want to learn the ‘strokes of discipleship’ that can propel us to destinations otherwise unreachable. Most importantly, borne securely by God’s unfailing grace, we can reach out to others who are sinking and give them the Good News that they too can rest on God’s grace if they but trust.
“Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” (Luke 7:50)