In its 2000-year history, Christianity has almost destroyed itself numerous times. It really is amazing the church is around at all. Jesus must have been telling the truth when he promised, “The gates of hell will not prevail [against the church].” Its problems have not only been caused by enemies from without, but also by enemies from within (as Paul himself predicted would happen to the Ephesian church in Acts 20). One of the things that has plagued the church from the very beginning is the attempt to redefine the church in ways that end up evacuating the church of its power and real influence. Often the way this comes about is through people who argue to convince Christians that the only way they can stay relevant is by changing who they are in ways that conform to society and culture. We’re seeing that today, with the effect that the church is losing relevance instead of becoming relevant.
Christianity has been redefined in multiple ways. Some try to redefine it as a political movement. I’ve been reading a lot of church history lately, and one of the things that has stood out to me is how unfortunate it was that the church became allied to the state in ways that made the church inherently political. Think about the terrible things that happened as a result. We wouldn’t have had the Crusades or the Inquisition or a million other evils if the church had stayed away from politics. Of course, that doesn’t mean that individual Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. But it does mean that the church, as such, should never identify itself with a particular political party, and we need to hear this as much today as ever. And the church should certainly never, ever use political power to advance its mission. This may gain short term advantages, but it is a terrible long-term strategy.
Others have tried to redefine the church as a cultural movement. If the former is a temptation for the religious right, this is a temptation for the religious left in our day. In this scenario, the church is seen to be a cheerleader for the current cultural trends. I remember what a former famous baseball player said when he was asked if he was a Christian: “Of course I’m a Christian – I’m American!” As if these were one and the same. But the church was never meant to be a shadow for the national ethos. It was never meant to be an echo-chamber for the values of the times. Instead, the church is supposed to be radically counter-cultural in ways that make the Sermon on the Mount incarnational in a society that is ultimately under the power of the Prince of Darkness. And what its advocates don’t realize is that this is fundamentally lethal for the church. When the church in Europe during the first world war (on both sides) acted as God’s voice for their governments advocating for war, this led to wide-spread disillusionment in the wake of the war and to the waning of the church’s influence in Europe. In any case, God will not bless the church that advocates the values of fallen and sinful society – the purpose of the church is to call society to repentance, not to cheer it on. The role of the church is not that of a cheerleader, it is that of a prophet.
Still others have tried to redefine Christianity as a moral movement. In this way, the Christian religion is redefined and reduced to law. Though the religion of Christ is not lawless, and though the apostle Paul speaks of being under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21), it is not law but gospel that defines what is unique and central to Christianity. More importantly, the danger here is defining Christianity so that it is primarily about “being good” and about what you can do for God so that you can somehow earn your way into heaven. The focus is off God and onto man. And although many who advocate for this view would hate to be in the same room as an atheist, their view of salvation is not so different from that espoused in the Secular Humanist Manifesto: “No god can save us; we must save ourselves.”
It is this latter redefinition of Christianity that I primarily want to take aim at as we step back and look again at the first ten verses of Ephesians 2. We must beware of any view of salvation that assigns the ultimate and decisive factor to man that brings a person from being under the wrath of God to being accepted by him. This can be very subtle. You can talk about grace and yet think that something you did made the decisive difference when it came to being saved. But there is little, if any, difference between that and advocating for salvation by works.
The problem with this view, from a Biblical standpoint, is that the Bible never speaks of salvation in this sense. It doesn’t say that man has nothing to do with salvation (we are to believe and repent), but it never, ever ascribes the decisive step in the order of salvation to man. Rather, it ascribes it to God and to God alone. Salvation is of the Lord. In fact, Paul would say this to the Corinthian believers: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Ask yourself the same question: What makes you different from an unbeliever? The fact that you are saved and someone else is not is not explained by something you did as it is by something you received. We are saved by grace through faith.
Now it is true that we are justified and forgiven by faith. If you would be saved, you must repent of your sins and trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior. But we must not think that our faith is something that we can take credit for. Faith does not come out of thin air. More to the point, faith in Christ is created in the heart of rebels. It is created in the heart of a person who was dead in sin. Being dead in sin means that your heart was turned against God, his law, and his Son. Faith in Christ is unthinkable in someone who is in this state, who is hostile to God. It is therefore out of spiritual life that faith comes, so that even faith itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). There is nothing that we can take credit for, not even our faith, so that there is absolutely no ground for boasting (Eph. 2:9).
Look again at Ephesians 2. In verse 1-3, we are told the state that we are in by nature. We are dead in sins, alienated from the life of God. And as such we will never take one step toward God because we are enslaved to the course of this world, in lock-step with the devil, the world, and our own lusts. How is this condition to be reversed? How are we to be saved?
The answer to this question comes in verses 4-10. But it is summed up with the first two words of verse 4: “But God.” The bridge between depravity and sainthood is not to be found in the warped will of man. Rather it is found in the sovereign grace of God. Paul does not see the answer to man’s predicament in something that we do, but in something that God does.
The thing that God has done corresponds to our condition: we were dead in sins and so God raises us from a spiritual death (4-6). This happened “even when we were dead in sins” (5) so that we cannot take credit for being quickened (made alive), for being raised up, or for being seated with Christ in the heavenly place. The subject of each of these actions is God, not man, who is being acted upon.
Paul makes it clear here that this is the decisive action that brings us from being “children of wrath” to being saved. The decisive action is God giving us spiritual life. This is what makes the difference. It is out of this spiritual life that faith comes by which we receive justification and acceptance before God (cf. Rom. 5:1). We would never make the journey from death to life had not God intervened in Christ by grace to save us from sin.
Throughout eternity we will not be praising ourselves for the good decision that we made. We will be praising God for the “exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (7). There will be no room for self-worship. God will be the only one who will be praised for endless ages.
Thus, when Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (8), we should not exclude the “faith” as that to which “it” is pointing as part of the gift of God. Faith is part of the gift of God, something which has its origin in the life that God gives his elect. This is supported by the observation that if faith was not part of God’s gift to us but something entirely of ourselves, then we would have something to boast in, namely, our faith. But Paul says that we are not saved by works, “lest any man should boast” (9). It does not do to say that faith is different from work. That is true. Nevertheless, the observation still holds: a faith which originates in our hearts apart from God’s prior and effectual work in our hearts would still be a ground of boasting in us. There would be some part of our salvation that we could take credit for, and this would undermine the reality of salvation by grace.
And when Paul finishes this section by saying that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (10), he is again underlining the fact we are not self-created spiritually. We do not give ourselves life. God did that. We do not raise ourselves from the dead. God did that. We do not seat ourselves in the heavenly places in Christ. God did that. We are his workmanship, not our own. And therefore to God alone the glory.
Now I don’t want to deny that at the same time our faith is our faith. Our repentance is our repentance. We believe. We repent. And if we don’t believe and don’t repent we will not be saved. I’m not arguing, and the apostle was not arguing, that we are robots or puppets. Rather, what I believe the apostle is saying is that everything good in us spiritually is a gift of God, including our faith (cf. Eph. 1:3). We exercise what he gives us. As Saint Augustine prayed: “God, give what you command, and command what you will.” The apostle James put it this way, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jam. 1:17-18). Or, as Paul would say to the Corinthians, our faith does not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5).
In other words, Ephesians 2:1-10 emphasizes the reality that the Christian religion is supernatural. It is not a political, or a cultural, or even a moral phenomenon. It is fundamentally a supernatural reality. I think that is one of the major takeaways from this passage. And I believe this is something that we need to constantly remind ourselves of, because in our day Christianity has been in many ways reduced to a formula, to an algorithm. Books come out with the promise, “Here is the secret for ____________!” The underlying message is that if you follow these steps, you will achieve the hoped-for end. The danger in many of these books is that sanctification becomes a matter entirely of what you do. The supernatural element has been removed from our walk with God.
I’m not saying that there are no steps to sanctification or salvation. “Believe, and you shall be saved” is a fundamental step we must all take. There are things we must do, without which we will never grow in grace. But what we have to be careful about is that salvation and sanctification becomes primarily about what you do. At that point, we need to remind ourselves that salvation in all its aspects is not something that we are doing on our own. Salvation is first of all something God has done in us and for us. And then as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we do so knowing that it is God who is working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phi. 2:12-13). Salvation and sanctification are supernatural processes in our lives.
Yes, the point of Ephesians 2 is that salvation is by grace. But whose grace? God’s grace! Salvation is therefore supernatural in its origin (in the giving of spiritual life, verses 4-6), in its continuance (in the sustaining of spiritual life, verses 8-10), and throughout eternity (in the celebration of God’s grace in giving and supporting us in spiritual life, verse 7).
Now what are some of the implications of this fact? What should our lives look like in light of this reality? It means primarily that our lives ought to be oriented toward God. It means that we ought to live out our sanctification in dependence upon God in Christ. God is doing a thousand things in your life to make you more like his Son. And every one of us is different. No one of our stories is going to be exactly the same. There is no cookie-cutter Christianity. The things and truths and events and circumstances that God uses to sanctify us may be different for each of us. But there is one unifying reality: we are all sanctified by the work of God because of what Christ has done for us and because of what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. And that means that no matter what our path to holiness looks like, it must be characterized by a life of dependence upon the Triune God.
But what I want to drill down on is what this dependence looks like in light of the truths of Ephesians 2:1-10. There are at least six features that our dependence upon God ought to be characterized by.
First of all, our dependence upon God ought to be Christ-focused. If Ephesians 2 reminds us that we owe our spiritual life to God the Father, it also reminds us that the Father gives us this life in his Son. We are “quickened together with Christ” (5), and when Paul uses the word “together” with “raised up together” and “seated together” the implication is that we are raised and seated together with Christ (5-6). The riches of God’s grace in his kindness comes to us “through Christ Jesus” (7). We are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (10). This is Paul filling out what he meant in 1:3 when he said that God “hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”
The dependence that characterizes a Christian is not therefore some general and vague notion of a merciful and kind Creator who occasionally intervenes in the lives of his creatures. It is not the belief that God helps those who help themselves. Rather, it is trust in the redemptive work of Christ upon the cross. It is depending on the fact that Christ by his death purchased for us “all things” necessary for life and godliness (Rom. 8:32). It is relying on the reality that Christ was my substitute, taking my sin upon himself so that I could have his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). It is understanding that the basis of my relationship with God is not dependent upon my being good for God but upon Christ being righteous for me. It means relating to God through Christ as my Mediator, knowing that in him I can do all things that God expects me to do, but without him I can do nothing (Jn. 15:5; Phil. 4:13).
Second, our dependence upon God ought to be active and obedient. We are not saved by works (9) but we are saved unto good works (10). The dependence we are talking about is not that of a spiritual sloth or of the fatalist. It is not drawing the implication that since God’s works for me, I don’t have to do anything. Rather, the knowledge that God is working in us and for us ought to energize us to work for God. God gives us life and raises us from the dead, not so that we can go on doing nothing for God but so that we will walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
And it is absolutely necessary for us to understand this if we are going to be truly productive in God’s kingdom. If you think you can obey God in your own strength, it is because you don’t really understand the depth and breadth of God’s commands. There is a lot of superficiality in religion, especially among those who define Christianity purely in terms of law. God asks of us things that we cannot do in ourselves. We are like the apostles who were commanded to take five loaves and two small fishes and use them to feed 5000+ people. It was impossible! And yet they did it, not in their own power, but through the power of Christ. In the same way, we are to live out our lives in active and obedient service because we are not dependent upon our own resources, but upon the power and grace of God which is freely given to those who trust in him. It follows that true obedience, the obedience that takes in all that God commands, is dependent upon the grace and power of God.
Third, our dependence upon God ought to be confident and courageous. Do you hear the note of confidence in Eph. 2:1-10? This may seem like a contradiction to dependence. But we are not talking about self-confidence here. We are talking about confidence that God can and will do what he says he will do. In fact, one of the major obstacles to obedience is a lack of confidence in God. Why do we sin? Why do we fail to do what we ought to do? Is it not often because we simply do not believe that God will follow through with his promises?
But if we recognize that God has been at work in us from the very beginning, that he is the one who has made the decisive difference in our lives, and that he is continuing this work in us to the present day, then that ought to give us confidence and great courage. If moreover, we recognize that God’s work in us is not dependent upon our goodness but upon his grace, then we have no reason to rest fully upon his promises that he will continue the work he has begun in us.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons in us to cause us to be frightened and to step back from obedience. We are weak. We often feel ill-equipped to the task. But this is not a reason for the Christian to step back from obedience. For we know our weakness is not obstacle to God. In fact, God loves to work through our weaknesses. Remember the apostle Paul? “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). We are to know “the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (Eph. 1:19).
Fourth, our dependence upon God ought to be a humble dependence. There is no room for boasting (Eph. 2:9). Our victories are not accomplished in our own strength. “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). When Peter healed the lame man at the temple gates, and the people began to praise him for this miracle, he responded, “Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? Or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?” (Acts 3:12). Peter then pointed them to Jesus (13, ff). In the same way, none of us have any ground for praise. All the good that we have done, we have done through Christ. It is his life that animates us. It is his grace that empowers us. And therefore it is his glory that ought to be praised.
Fifth, our dependence upon God ought to be a prayerful dependence. To say that we depend upon God and yet do not pray to him is a contradiction. Those who depend upon God must pray and will pray. Prayer is not something they have to do, it is something they feel that they must do. I read recently someone who likened prayer to eating food. You don’t force yourself to eat food. Nor do you beat yourself up if you sometimes miss a meal. You eat because you need to. In the same way, the Christian who understands just how dependent they are upon God doesn’t have to be forced to pray. Nor do they beat themselves up if they haven’t prayed as much as they should have because they know that God is gracious. But one thing they will not do: they cannot not pray. We need God more than we need the air that we breathe. In him we live, and move, and have our being. He gave us life, we are his workmanship, and we need him for every step that we take. Show me a dependent Christian, and I will show you a praying one.
Finally, our dependence upon God ought to be a worshipful dependence. In Ephesians 2, Paul is worshiping God as much as he is teaching about him. How can you not worship God who has given you life, raised you from a death in sins, and seated you in the heavenly places in Christ? God has not only been good to us, he has been eternally gracious to us, delivering us from what we deserved to give us what we do not. Worship and prayer flavor the lives of those who are conscious of what God has done, is doing, and will do for them.
My friends, the world wants to tell you how to feel empowered. What they mean by this is that you can look inside yourself and find the strength and power and confidence to make something of yourself in this life. This is not what Paul or the gospel or our Lord promises his followers. Instead, it calls us to look outside of ourselves to Christ and find his strength and power and grace that makes dead men into living men not only in this life but for all eternity. Don’t believe the fake and cheap lie that the world is peddling. Believe the gospel. Believe the word of God. Look, not to yourself, but to Christ and in him find life and grace and power and joy forever.
 In the Greek, the word “it” is neuter, whereas “faith” is feminine. So “it is the gift of God” does not refer only to faith. Rather, it must refer to the entirety of our salvation which is by grace and of which faith is a part.