Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Salvation by Grace – Ephesians 2:4-10




Christianity is different from every other world religion in one very important sense.  It is the only world religion that is a religion of grace.  Every other religion tells you what you have to do to earn eternal life.  Christianity, on the other hand, puts a cross where every other religion puts a rule and says that Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.  Salvation is not  a work, it is a gift.  And no where is the gracious nature of salvation exhibited more clearly than in Ephesians 2:4-10. 

It is imperative however, as we look at the apostle’s words here in verses 4-10, that we keep the reality of verses 1-3 before our minds.  We will never truly appreciate what God has done for us until we really appreciate where we were at before God moved in to save us.  And Paul helps us here because at the beginning of verse 5 he himself reminds us that God saved us “even when we were dead in sins.”  To be dead in sin is not the state of a small minority of mankind.  It is not a description of the very worst of sinners.  No, it is a description of the world, of everyone who is yet outside of Christ.  You and I are by nature heirs of the wrath of God, even as the rest of mankind (3).  As such, we are slaves, slaves to the course of this world, slaves to the Prince of darkness, and slaves to the lusts of the mind and flesh (2-3).  The problem with mankind is not a lack of knowledge or a lack of resources or a lack of better opportunities.  The problem with mankind is that we are dead in sin, with hearts that are opposed to God, his law, and his gospel.

That doesn’t mean that men and women are as bad as they can get.  But it does mean that by nature we are unable, because we are unwilling, to move one inch toward God.  We can no more move toward God than a corpse can move toward a physician.  We are spiritually dead.

Until we get that, until we really believe that, we are not going to be able to grasp the significance of what the apostle is saying in these verses.  What we need in order to be regenerated and converted is life, spiritual life.  And life is not something that you and I can create.  George Washington Carver, the famous botanist, after dissecting a leaf, is said to have remarked: “There, I have taken it apart, but only God Almighty can put it back together.”  Or as the king of Israel responded to the message from the king of Syria demanding that Naaman be cured of his leprosy: “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (2 Kings 5:7).  Only God can give life to the dead.

Which is why when you look at how the apostle describes how we are saved, the focus is entirely upon God, not us.  We need to hear this because our great need is to be looking toward God.  Do you remember Paul’s prayer in the previous chapter?  It was that they might grow in the knowledge of God, and that they might know and experience God’s calling, God’s inheritance, and God’s power (1:15-19).  The Scriptures continually remind us that we are in constant need of God.  They tell us that apart from Christ, we are nothing and can do nothing pleasing to God.  They remind us of our desperate need of him. 

Of course, the purpose of such emphases is not to turn us into spiritual sloths who wait for God to do something for us.  We are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).  We are to strive with all our might against sin.  We cannot expect to make progress in holiness by just sitting around.  This is not a call to fatalism.  Rather, it is a reminder that as we work out our own salvation, we do so because it is God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).  I cannot expect to take one step apart from the grace of God.  And yet I am commanded to take that step in and through and because of the grace of God.  If I am making progress in holiness, it is not because I am better than the next person.  It is because God has given me life and sustains me in that life that I can make any progress in the life of obedience and faith. 

And we don’t just need God at the beginning of the Christian life.  We need him for every step that we take afterwards.  When Paul writes in verse 8, “for by grace are ye saved,” the Greek verb behind “you are saved” denotes action in the past with results continuing into the present.  We are saved by grace at the beginning in regeneration and conversion.  But God’s grace doesn’t stop there.  Like ripples in the water, it continues to radiate outward and operates in the life of the child of God from that point on, so that what God has begun in us he will also complete (Phil. 1:6).  The point is that the Christian life is lived with our faces constantly turned toward our gracious Father in heaven, trusting in his Son who saved us by his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead.  That is why we need to constantly remind ourselves of the truths of these verses.

So what does the apostle say, exactly, in these verses?  First of all, he points us to the source of our salvation, which is the mercy and love of God: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us” (4).  Mercy is kindness extended toward those who are in a miserable state.  And surely there is no worse or miserable condition than to be dead in sins.  Remember that Paul had just in the previous verse said that we were by nature children of wrath – that is, subject to the wrath of God on account of our sins.  God is rightly angry with us because of our rebellion against him.  And yet wrath and anger are not the only things that characterize God.  He is also merciful and loving.  To have a correct view of God, you have to hold both these things together – God’s holy wrath and his loving mercy.  God cannot but be angry with us over sin.  He would not be holy if we wasn’t.  And yet, the Bible tells us that God averts his own wrath by extending mercy to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. 

The apostle is actually saying that God extends mercy and love toward those who are spiritual corpses.  Now, there are some who think they are too far gone.  They look at their life and think there is nothing God could do for them.  They think that God would never have mercy upon them for what they have done.  And yet that is exactly what Paul is saying here.  Again, you cannot get any worse than dead.  Your specific sins may be worse in some sense than the sins of someone else.  But that doesn’t really matter.  What you have to remember is that it’s not specific sins that is the problem, it’s the spiritual deadness behind those sins that is the problem.  And it doesn’t matter whether you were raised in a Christian home or not.  It doesn’t matter if you burned up your youth doing depraved things.  What does matter is that your past can stay in the past forever because God raises dead people to life through his Son Jesus Christ.  He is rich in mercy and great in love towards us.
The implication of this verse is that if you are saved, you didn’t have make yourself good enough for God.  You are not saved because you got your ducks in a row.  You are not saved because you cleaned yourself up first.  Rather, you are saved because God is rich in mercy and great in love.  And that is true of everyone in this room who is saved.  We should be very careful looking down on others.  None of us has the right to do so, because all of us, no matter what our background was, were dead in sins before God gave us life.  It’s God’s mercy and love that made the difference, not us.

Another implication of this verse is that if you are saved, you don’t have to live in continual fear that God is somehow going to regret what he has done and take back what he has given.  You were dead once; now you are alive – and you are going to stay that way!  You may mess up really badly.  But that doesn’t take away the life God has given.  Just as putting make-up on a dead person doesn’t give them life, even so throwing mud on a living person doesn’t make them dead.  Spiritually dead people can do good things, but that doesn’t mean they are saved.  At the same time, those who are alive in Christ can do bad things, but that doesn’t mean they are now dead.  And the reason is that God is not just merciful; he is rich in mercy.  He is not just loving; his love is great toward his elect.

This love and mercy that Paul is describing here is God’s saving love and mercy.  God does have a general love for all mankind.  God does not desire the death of the wicked but rather that they should live (Ezek. 18:31-32).  But the love that the apostle is describing in these verses is a love that moves God, not merely to make salvation possible, but to make it a reality in the lives of those whom he chose before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).  This is a love that does not merely desire life, but moves God to “quicken us together with Christ” (2:5).  God the Father, before the foundation of the world, chose a people in Christ.  Now, in time, he moves in his great love and mercy for them to quicken them and give them life in Christ. 

Which brings us to the next thing the apostle does in these verses: he gives us a description of our salvation: “Even when we were dead in sins, [God] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (5-6).  The difference between being lost and being saved, between being under the wrath of God and embraced in his love, between being unforgiven and forgiven, is the difference between life and death.  Simply put, Paul’s description of salvation is of a person being raised from the dead.
Which means that there is a real difference between being lost and being saved.  A person cannot say they are saved and yet go on in bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil.  That was a description of lostness and deadness.  If you are lost, if you are unsaved, then you are a slave to the general direction that the world is going, a slave to the devil, and a slave to the lusts of the flesh.  If that still describes you, then you are still dead.  Those who are alive in Christ are in a different state altogether.  They have gone from being dead in sin to being dead to sin.  I love the way the apostle put it to the Corinthians: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?  Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, not revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).  Before a person is saved, they might have been all those things and more.  But now things are different.  They have been washed, sanctified, and justified.  There is new life and a corresponding new way of living.  The old has past and the new has come.

Being saved doesn’t just mean that you have identified as a Christian.  Anyone can do that.  Fundamentally, it means that you have new life and with this new life comes new desires after God, after Christ, for prayer and fellowship with God, and for the word of God.  There is a new desire for holiness; whereas once keeping God’s commandments was a burden to you, now it is a delight.  Nor is it some effervescent experience that wears off after a few days or months or years.  The life that God gives has staying power.
Which is why Paul not only says that God gives to his people new life and resurrection, but also that they are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, “the unseen world of spiritual reality.”  That description would not be true of any believer unless their final salvation was guaranteed.  How could I said to be seated in heavenly places if I eventually end up in hell?  In that case, the apostle’s words would just be a sick joke.  Rather, Paul is saying here what he said, in different words, in Romans 8:29-30.  Those who are called are justified and glorified, past tense.  Why?  Because what God has begun in us he will complete.  Christ is even now glorified at the Father’s right hand.  In Christ, every believer even now shares his glorification; he or she is seated with him at the Father’s right hand.

And all of this is “in Christ,” or in union with Christ.  We are given new life with him, raised with him, and seated with him.  Many commentators believe that Paul is thinking about Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father’s right hand.  What Paul is saying is that when Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sat down in victory, he did not do this as a private individual.  He did this for those he came to save.  It is in virtue of what Christ has done for me that I can have new life.  Another way to put this is that union with Christ is the basis for salvation by grace.

Allow me to illustrate.  One of my favorite Dickens’ stories is Little Dorritt.  One of the main characters is Arthur Clennam, who in the course of the story becomes a business partner with another character, named Daniel Doyce.  While Doyce travels to Russia to pursue their business interests over there, Arthur decides to invest in a speculative banking scheme and ends up losing all his money, thereby unable to pay off the business’ creditors.  As a result, he ends up in the debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea.  However, while Arthur languished in prison, his partner Daniel Doyce had become rich.  And when he comes back from Russia, he uses his wealth to free Arthur from prison.  Of course we understand why.  Clennam and Doyce were partners: what one lost for the business the other made up, and even more.  All the creditors were paid off and Arthur was free.  Now of course we are not strictly partners with Christ.  However, just as there was a sort of union between Clennam and Doyce, there is an even better and more wonderful union between Christ and the believer.  Through our sin, we have lost everything and languish in the prison of our slavery to sin.  And we would stay there if it had been left to us; however, Christ has acted for his people, so that all who belong to him by faith can look, not to their own gain but to the riches of Christ who has paid all our debts for us and set us free.
Why would God do this?  Why would he act for disgraceful sinners as we are?  The apostle answers in verse 7 by giving us the goal of our salvation: “that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”  The goal of our salvation is not to make a spectacle out of us; it is to direct our attention forever to the glory of the exceeding riches of the grace of God in his kindness in Christ.  And I think a good way to check ourselves to see whether we are in the faith is to ask yourself: does this excite you?  Does this not thrill your heart?  For the believer, the display of the glory of God forever is the essence of heaven and of the delight that will fill our cups brim full for eternity. 

Verses like this are also the reason why I don’t think heaven is some stagnant experience.  “In the ages to come” is an age without an end.  And through these endless ages, God will be showing us the exceeding riches of his grace.  But this is not like looking at a single display forever, like sitting in front of a painting at a museum.  That would get boring.  Rather, the glory of God’s grace is so infinitely vast, that it will take eternity for us to enjoy it.  There will be fresh displays of God’s glory and grace forever and ever.  The focus will not be on us, it will be on God!  And the saints will enjoy it, forever.

Now I think what the apostle does at this point in verses 8-10 is to point out the implications of our salvation, which he has written about in the previous verses. 

The overall implication of course is that we are saved by grace.  He has said this already in verse 5, and reminded us of God’s grace in verse 7.  Now, in verses 8-9, he sums up it all up: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”  Salvation is the gift of God, not the work of man.  It is something that God gives us, which we receive by faith.  It is not something that we work for.  It is not something that we merit.  It is not something we deserve.  It is of grace, pure and simple.

And you can see how this follows from all Paul has said in the previous 7 verses.  How could it be otherwise?  We were dead in sin; how could we save ourselves?  It was God who gave us life – we did not give it to ourselves.  It was God who raised us up and God who seated us with his Son at his right hand.  And it was all accomplished in Christ, in virtue of his righteousness and his sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection.  And thus it is that the entirety of salvation is “not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” 

The next implication follows directly from the previous one: “lest any man should boast.”  If salvation is by grace, there is not place of boasting for any of the saved.  John Stott recounts that when he was a divinity student, one of his teachers was honored by having his portrait painted and put on display on campus.  His teacher responded that he liked the painting very much because no one would be asking who was the man in the portrait, but rather who was the painter?  In the same way, no one in heaven will be looking at any saint and wondering how great a Christian they must have been.  Rather, they will look at them and see only a prize of the grace of God.  And if we are tempted at any time to think that we are great stuff, we need immediately to check such a spirit.  Any spirit of imagined superiority is a false and sinful spirit and needs to be squelched.

In any case, it is impossible to glory in God and glory in ourselves.  It has to be one or the other.  One is right and the other is wrong.  “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17).

Finally, we cannot be saved by works because we are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (10).  It’s always good to get your prepositions right!  We are not saved by good works, we are saved unto good works.  The final implication here is that works are not the basis of our salvation, they are the fruit of our salvation.  So although it is right to look for good works as the evidence of salvation, it is not right to require good works in order for salvation. 

Some people will get upset with you if you doubt their profession of faith because they are living in sin.  “Hey, I put my faith in Jesus, so I am saved; I am eternally secure!” they say.  The problem is that they have misunderstood the theology of salvation by grace.  It is not an excuse for sin.  For if you have been truly saved, your life will be different.  If you have been given life, you are not going to keep acting like a dead man.  Don’t condemn someone for burying you if you aren’t breathing and stink.  Don’t condemn someone for questioning the reality of your faith when you continue to act like a spiritually dead man.  There is such a thing as false faith.  False faith is a different from saving faith as death is from life.  Our Lord said this: “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mt. 7:17-20).  Or as James put it: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.  But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (Jam. 2:19-20).  As it has been often put: we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.

When God works on a man or woman, boy or girl, the craftsmanship is obvious.  God creates beautiful things.  He brings life out of death, he gives “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified” (Isa. 61:3).  And the amazing thing is that he does it out of his sheer mercy and grace.  Thank God for his grace through Christ!  It ought to cause all of us to love the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ more, to depend upon him, to cling to him, to trust in him, to admire him, to look to him, and to obey him.

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