Sunday, January 29, 2023

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)


I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be the book of Revelation. But if you were to poll the average preacher on which book of the Bible they most want to avoid preaching through, the answer would be the book of Revelation! The problem is what readers of the Bible probably all know something about: this book is so different from the rest of the New Testament, that we just don’t know what to do with it. The symbolic language it employs seems to cast an impenetrable fog about its contents. In fact, the atheist Richard Dawkins uses the book of Revelation as a whipping boy to cast aspersions on the believability of the Bible and points to its bizarre figures and symbols as a reason why no one should take it seriously.

Unfortunately, its interpreters often don’t help the situation. One man quipped, “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his commentators.”There are just so many takes on the book of Revelation and many of them are seemingly incompatible. With so many competing interpretations, how can we profitably come to the book of Revelation?

But as Christians, it is simply not an option to avoid it. And one of the reasons we cannot avoid it is that we should absolutely want the blessing it offers: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophesy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (1:3). In this book, there are seven blessings scattered throughout its pages (see 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). The fact that there are seven of them is significant because, as we shall see as we work our way through this book, the number seven is a symbol in Revelation for Divine fulness and completeness. This is not therefore a haphazard coincidence; it is intentional on John’s part and meant to alert us to the fact that those who take up this book and read it and hear it and obey it will be certainly and assuredly blessed. But if you want the blessing, you have to take it with the book!

You may have heard someone say something like, “The book of Revelation says, ‘Blessed is he that readeth,’ not ‘Blessed is he that understandeth.’” However, this is not quite right. It doesn’t just say that those who read are blessed, but also those who hear and obey. You cannot hear and obey the book of Revelation if you don’t at some fundamental level understand what it is saying. In fact, the word which is translated hear in our Bibles often carries the connotation of hearing with understanding beyond just a bare hearing of the words. So the blessing is not for those who hear but walk away confused; it is for those who hear with at least some measure of understanding and then obey what they understand.

So the question is: how do we hear the message of this book so that we understand it, so that we can obey it and receive the blessing? What I want to do in this message is to try to help us get there by getting a big picture overview of this book and its contents. In particular, I want to ask three questions. First, What kind of book is Revelation? You don’t read poetry with the same expectations as history. Revelation is a different kind of book than the other New Testament epistles and gospels. Like the maps of old, it might be said of the book of Revelation, “There be dragons there” – yes – but what does all the symbolism tell us about what kinds of expectations we need to bring with us as we open this book and read it? The second thing we need to know is: what is its overall message? You might know that a book is a history book and not a poetry book, but you need to know what kind of history it is to profit from it. If you read a book on American history as if it were talking about Russian history you are going to be very confused!

So we not only need to know what kind of book Revelation is (that’s the first question) but we also need to know what message the book of Revelation is communicating (that’s the second question). Finally, I want to ask, How are we to apply the book of Revelation? For if the blessing is attached to obedience, that means that we are not meant to read this, put it down, and then go our ways unchanged. There is to be an application of this book to our lives. We want to consider how to do this.

What kind of book is Revelation?

What kind of book is the book of Revelation? What should we expect from it? Well, to answer these questions, look at the opening verses. In the first several verses we learn three things about this book.

It is an apocalypse.

The word that in our Bible is translated revelation – “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1) – is the word from which we get apocalypse. And though this word is not used in a technical sense by John (as it has come to be used by certain scholars), it still points us to a category of literature that is known as apocalyptic. It points us back especially to the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel and Zechariah (we will see that John draws much of his material and ideas from these books), as well as to a number of intertestamental books like Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, 4 Ezra, and The Apocalypse of Baruch. There are in fact a number of things these books have in common with Revelation, although Revelation is still in a category of its own.

What do these books have in common with Revelation? There are at least four things Revelation shares with them: (1) God’s ultimate purpose for human history is revealed through visions, (2) these visions give us a “transcendent, God-centered, heavenly perspective on reality,” (3) the visions are communicated through symbolic imagery much of which is drawn from the OT, and (4) these vision communicate the fact that despite present appearances, God is sovereign and will finally emerge decisively and universally triumphant over evil and his enemies.We should therefore expect that in this book John is going to communicate his message through visions that incorporate highly symbolic language, but that the purpose of this language is not to confuse us but to clearly communicate to us God’s ultimate purposes in judgment and salvation.

But why would John use symbols like dragons and locusts and beasts and so on? He does so I think to awaken our imagination as well as our affections to ultimate realities. These images communicate heaven’s perspective on things. So, for example, perhaps one of the reasons the Kings of the earth and the final Antichrist can be likened (as they are in the book of Daniel) to beasts, is because though they seem powerful and omnipotent and omniscient to us, they are no more than dumb animals to God Almighty and he will have no problem overthrowing them in the end. This symbol also reminds us that though the enemies of God’s people may be ferocious, nevertheless like Nebuchadnezzar of old, they are under the sovereignty of God.

I think one way to think about the book of Revelation is to compare it to the book of Ecclesiastes. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us an “under the sun” perspective on life and tells us that a life lived with this kind of perspective is vanity (see, for example, Eccl. 1:14). The book of Revelation, on the other hand, parts the heavens and helps us to see reality in view of heaven and eternity. The purpose of this book, in other words, is to help us change our perspective, from “under the sun” to “from the heavens.” In the short compass of Revelation’s twenty-two chapters, the curtain that separates heaven from earth is drawn back and we are allowed the privilege of viewing the events of human history from the vantage point of the throne of the Ruler of the kings of the earth (cf. Rev. 11:13). So you see, these pictures and images and symbols are not there to confuse but to communicate. As it was in these other apocalypses, the purpose in Revelation with all its symbols and pictures and images is through them to encourage the people of God who are suffering that God will be finally victorious and they with him.

Revelation is therefore not a puzzle book but a picture book.We err when we think that Revelation is just here to help us piece together a linear narrative of events as they are supposed to unfold right before the Second Coming of Christ. We are not to read this with a sort of “newspaper eschatology”so that every time someone sneezes in the Middle East we rush to our Bibles to figure out how that event fits in with the narrative of the book of Revelation. Rather, we are to read this in such a way that it changes our perspective right now from one of gloom and despair and sinful compromise to one of courageous obedience and faith and hope and triumph in Christ. The book of Revelation communicates the truth that God is sovereign and that the saints will finally persevere and will achieve ultimate victory and eternal life in Jesus Christ the Lord.

This is what we mean when we say that Revelation is an apocalypse. Because that’s what it is, we should expect in its pages to encounter visions conveyed in highly symbolic language rooted in the Old Testament. But this is not language to confuse – this is language that communicates through its pictures the sovereignty of God through Christ over all history and through whose sovereignty and salvation God’s people will ultimately and eternally triumph.

It is a prophesy.

In verse 3, we read, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the word of this prophesy.” Now this tells us several important things about this book as well.

First and most importantly of all, it tells us that this is God’s word. This is not just John’s word: it is God’s inspired and authoritative word to us. In fact, John is just at the end of the divine chain of communication. It comes ultimately from God the Father, who gave it to his Son, Jesus Christ, who then “sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John” (1). So you have God -> Jesus -> angel -> John. It is therefore explicitly called “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus Christ” in verse 2. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ not only because it is about him, but most importantly because it is from him.

And it is not just God’s word; it is God’s word to us: “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (1). Blessed are those who read, hear, and obey it (3). This is underlined and emphasized again at the very end of the book: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (22:18-19). You can’t add or take away from these words precisely because they are God’s word (cf. Deut. 4:2).

As God’s word, there are two functions that prophesy fulfills: forthtelling and foretelling. We sometimes forget that much of OT prophesy is not about predicting the future, but rather is about calling sinners to repentance and God’s people to hope in him. The book of Revelation functions in this way as well. It is a call to the patient obedience of faith (Rev. 13:10; 14:12). It is a call to overcome (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). It is not therefore just a prophesy about events pertaining to the end of human history but a forthtelling of God’s will for his people now.

But it is a prophesy also in the sense that it does predict future events. It tells us about the final judgment and the Second Coming of Christ. It tells us about a new heavens and new earth. It tells us about the kingdom of the Lord in its fulness. Over and over again, as can be seen especially clearly in the three cycles of judgment (seals, trumpets, and bowls), this book brings us to the threshold of the coming of Jesus back to this earth to save his people and to judge his enemies.

Revelation tells us about “things which must shortly come to pass” and that “the time is at hand” (1:1, 3). Now some read that language and take it to mean that Revelation just pertains to events at the time of the writing, that is, in the first century. However, we must remember that the fact that Revelation is prophesy points first and foremost to the fact that it is a word from God, and that it is the perspective of heaven, not man, that determines the connotation of words like “shortly” in verse 1 and phrases like “at hand” in verse 3. And since “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” is not incompatible with the fact that “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness” (2 Pet. 3:8-9), we must not wave off the possibility that from our perspective these things may still be far away, whereas from God’s perspective they are not. Remember, this book is to help us transcend an “under the sun” perspective and to see the events of human history from God’s perspective.

Nevertheless, we must also remember that when our Lord ascended into heaven, he ascended to be enthroned (cf. Dan. 7:13-14). The kingdom does not wait to be established; it has been established in Christ. Our Lord himself put it this way at the beginning of his earthly ministry in Galilee, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). And though the kingdom awaits the future for its fulness, the coming of the kingdom had already been inaugurated even in John’s time. We shall see that Revelation is not just about the very end, but about the last days, days which stretch from the first to the second coming of our Lord, and which encompass our own times as well. So in that sense, this book deals with what is already “at hand,” even for folks way back in the first century, as well as for us.

It is an epistle.

Letters (epistles) in the first century had a very definite form. They began by the author introducing himself, then naming the recipients of the letter, followed by a greeting. What we see here in Revelation is this same pattern. John identifies himself and the recipients and then gives the greeting all in verse 4: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you and peace” (1:4).

The fact that this is an epistle addressed to seven real churches in the Roman province of Asia (think southwest Turkey), means that this was meant to address specific people in specific churches at a specific time with specific problems. In other words, we should not think of this book as some kind of abstract teaching on the end times disconnected from the day-to-day problems that the believers in these churches were facing in the culture of their own day. In particular, we must avoid the temptation to think “that modern readers interpret Revelation better than the original hearers.”We must also avoid the temptation to think that the epistolary aspect of this book is limited to the first three chapters. Rather, the whole book is an epistle and the whole book functions as such.

Nevertheless, the fact that we are told in the direct addresses to each of the seven churches, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) is an indication that the message is meant for all believers of all time. It is a letter for us as well, and the exhortation to hear is to the church in every age.

Also the fact that John writes to seven churches is not an accident. Again, in the book of Revelation, seven is a symbolic number that carries the meaning of fulness and completeness. This then seems to be pointing through these particular churches to the whole church. Now I don’t think that means that these churches weren’t actually addressed; they were. But in choosing seven churches, it seems that John is indicating that the whole church in every age is also being addressed as well. And that means that this is just as relevant a letter to our church as it was to Ephesus or Smyrna or Pergamum or Thyatira or Sardis or Philadelphia or Laodicea.

So we need to see Revelation as a combination of these three things: an epistle, a prophesy, and an apocalypse. That it is an epistle means that it is not an abstract theological treatise but a letter to real people with real problems in the real world. It is a letter to the church. That it is a prophesy not only means that it foretells the future but most importantly that this is God’s authoritative and powerful word to us. That it is an apocalypse means that this word is communicated in a highly symbolic and figurative fashion in order to give us heaven’s perspective on reality. As an epistle, this is a practical word; as a prophesy, an authoritative word; as an apocalypse, it is a perspective-changing word. Together, they make Revelation to be a faith-building, hope-giving, and joy-filling word.

What message does Revelation communicate?

There have been several different ways Christians have read the book of Revelation over the years. The reason why they are different is simply because each of these ways looks differently at the overall message of Revelation and reads it accordingly. So we need to settle right now what is the overall message that John is trying to communicate, or we will be hopelessly confused about the details. As we look at these approaches, I want to consider both the advantages and the disadvantages of each.

One approachlooks at Revelation and sees all of it as dealing only with events in the first century. It sees the judgments and the coming of Christ as taking place in first century history, like the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It sees the beast of chapter 13 completely in terms of the Roman empire. The advantage of this approach is that it makes it very relevant to the first readers who were themselves situated in the first century. The problem with this approach is that Revelation doesn’t seem merely to be talking about the triumphs and tragedies of the church in the first century, but rather to the complete destruction of evil and the eternal triumph of his people in the real, personal, visible, and glorious coming of Christ to judge his enemies and save his people. Revelation does not leave us with a world still grappling with the dragon, Satan, but with Satan finally and eternally cast into the lake of fire. Revelation does not leave us with struggling believers but with saints who are in the very presence of God in a renewed heavens and earth, where all things are new, and where evil, pain, sorrow, and death are things of the past.7

Another approachlooks at Revelation as a linear narrative of church history between the two comings of Christ. This has been called the Protestant view because for a long time Protestant interpreters viewed Revelation as speaking about the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy through the symbols of the beast and the false prophet.The advantage of this view is that it looks at history through the lens of God’s providential direction of it. But there are a number of fatal problems with it. First, it is highly artificial and subjective in terms of which symbols point to which things in church history. It is also limited to Western church history, whereas the book of Revelation seems to be addressed to the whole church of every age. Finally, if this were so, Revelation would have been utterly incomprehensible to its original audience, and the call to hear and obey it would have necessarily fallen on deaf ears.

Yet another approach10 sees Revelation as dealing not with specific events in history per se but with ideas and principles that transcend history and that are true in every age. It doesn’t interpret the symbols of Revelation as referring to specific kings and empires and events in history but as referring to the spiritual realities that are always operating in and behind human history. So, for example, these folks don’t see the beast as referring explicitly to the Roman Empire or as the Roman papacy; rather, they interpret the beast as referring more generally to any kingdom in any time that oppresses God’s people and seeks to seduce them into sin. But hence it also follows that for them both the Roman empire and the Roman Catholic church might be a fulfillment of what the beast symbolizes, and so may many other nations that have used force and cruelty against God’s people.

The advantage of this view is that it makes the book of Revelation applicable to God’s people in every age. The symbols don’t refer merely to the past or the future but to spiritual realities which operate as much in the present as they have at any time. The problem with this view, as one commentator points out, is that “it denies to the book any historical fulfillment.”11 But surely the book of Revelation is not just about spiritual principles operating throughout history but also about the culmination of human history in the climatic return of the Savior and the final judgment of the wicked.

The last approach12 is the one I most sympathize with: it sees Revelation primarily as dealing with the events of the Second Coming of Christ. Those interpreters who take this view see this book as a prophesy primarily in terms of foretelling. All the events described, either from chapters 4, 6 or 8, are thought of as describing the events immediately preceding the Second Coming. Now some folks will decry this by saying that if this is the case, then it makes Revelation irrelevant for its original audience. But I have always found this objection to be weighed in the balances and found wanting. This is because the most relevant reality for the Christian in any age is to live in light of the Second Coming. So even if this book were entirely about the events surrounding the Second Coming, it would be nevertheless incredibly relevant. It is the Second Coming that gives us reason to hope, no matter the present circumstances. Note how the epistle begins and ends – on the theme of the Second Coming (1:7; 22:20). The identifying mark of those who love Jesus is loving his appearing, and Revelation was written as a means to enflame this love (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13). So I believe that Revelation was written to help us to living in light of this great reality, the coming of our Lord in glory and final judgment and salvation As you will see, it is a modification of this approach that I will generally adopt in this sermon series.

Nevertheless, we must resist the temptation to see all of Revelation purely in terms of the future. The imagery of the book of Revelation does seem to point not only to a distant future but also to present realities. We shall see that the imagery of the beast would have reminded the original audience of various aspects of the Roman empire. And the call to endurance was a call to endure through the present tribulation that the believers in the seven churches were then experiencing.

So as we survey these different approaches, it seems to me that any one of them on their own is not enough. Rather, we should read the book of Revelation through a combination of each of these approaches.13 It is right to say that Revelation deals with issues that first century Christians were dealing with, and it appeals to them even in the imagery it employs through symbols they would have easily recognized, not only from their familiarity with the Old Testament but also from their familiarity with the culture in which they lived. Revelation also gives us spiritual principles that are always true no matter when you live, principles that can find multiple fulfilments throughout church history. So though I believe that Revelation is primarily about the Second Coming of Christ and the culmination of all things in the final judgment and New Jerusalem, this doesn’t need to take away from the insights that these other approaches give us.

To give you an idea of how this works, and anticipating future messages, let me take the beast of chapter 13 as an example. I personally believe that the beast is ultimately fulfilled in the Antichrist whom our Lord will personally overthrow at his Return. But the beast is also prefigured in every power and prince that persecutes the people of God. And so it should not surprise us that the way John describes the beast in Revelation would have reminded his readers of the Roman empire and the way it was at that time persecuting God’s people by its government and tempting God’s people by its idolatry. I think this is the outworking of the principle of 1 John 2:18, where the apostle writes, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” The Antichrist is prefigured and preceded by many antichrists. It is the same thing with the symbolism of the beast. Does the beast point to this final, eschatological figure, the Antichrist? Yes, I believe it does. But does it also find fulfillment in the many antichrists throughout history who prefigure the final antichrist, whether they be hateful persons or hostile powers? Again, yes, I think it does.

With all this in mind, let me try, as broadly as possible, to give you a quick overview of the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is structured around four visions, in each case introduced by the phrase, “I was in the Spirit” (1:10) or something similar. So you have the vision of Christ in chapters 1-3. In this vision, the risen Christ appears to John and gives him messages to the seven churches. Then you have the vision in heaven (see 4:2) in chapters 4-16. In this vision, John sees three cycles of judgment (seals, trumpets, and bowls) which come from the risen Christ as he sits enthroned at his Father’s right hand. In these chapters, you also see the present struggle between the people of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and his enemies who are led by an unholy trinity (dragon, beast, and false prophet) who seek to mimic the holy, tempt the saints, and kill those who refuse to join them in their rebellion against God. The third vision is a vision in the wilderness (see 17:3) in 17-21:8. In these chapters, you see the fall of Babylon, the symbolic seat of beast, and the return of the King, Jesus our Lord. Finally, in 21:9-22:5, you have the vision in the great and high mountain (see 21:10), where we are shown “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (21:9), and we see the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven where there will be no more tears or death and where God’s people will forever enjoy his immediate presence. In the final verses (22:10-21) we have the conclusion of the book which in many ways mirrors the introduction in chapter1, together forming bookends for the total message of the book.

How then do we summarize all this? What is John trying to communicate to us through these four visions? Just this: he is telling us that though the devil is our enemy and is doing and will do terrible things to God’s people on the earth, yet his time is short (cf. 12:12). John is reminding us that the events on the earth are not determined by the dragon but by the Lamb slain, by the Lion of the tribe of Judah. God is sovereign. He will save his people and judge his enemies. No matter how bad things look now, there is hope because God, the Almighty, reigns. Jesus is coming, Babylon will fall, the New Jerusalem will descend, and God’s people will enjoy him forever. That is the message of Revelation.

What is the application of the book of Revelation?

Well, we are to hear it and obey it (1:3). What are we to obey? We are to obey the summons to overcome. We are to obey the call for the endurance of faith. We are to obey the call to recover our first love, to repent of any lukewarmness and to come to Christ as our great treasure. We are to obey the implicit call throughout this epistle to resist the temptation to love this world and rather to love the Lord our God with all our hearts. We are to see the visions given here and to correspondingly calibrate our hopes thereby. We are to live life in light not only of Christ’s future distant coming but also in light of his present rule. He is not just going to be in some far future King of kings, but he is right now “the prince of the kings of the earth” (1:5). It means above all that our relationship to Christ is far more precious than all the riches and the power that could possibly be accumulated in this world.

Where are you at this morning? What is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Is he your Savior? Or have you plotted a course for your life that doesn’t include Jesus at all? Is he your Lord? Revelation tells us that Jesus is your Lord whether you want him to be or not. And one day he will be your Judge. And let me tell you that at the last day, you will want the Judge to be on your side. The book of Revelation tells us that Jesus Christ will certainly save his people and destroy his enemies. Are you one of his people or one of his enemies? There is no third category! To be careless about him is to be against him. To treat Christ with indifference is to treat him with contempt.

If you see that you are a sinner before God and need to be saved from future judgment, let me tell you the good news. The good news is that the rebel doesn’t get saved by placating the King through good works. Because we can’t. Every sinner that is saved is saved by free grace, grace that is given because the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is the Lamb slain. What John means by that imagery in chapter 5 is that Christ effects salvation for his people by dying for them, by taking their punishment upon himself. We aren’t justified before God by trying but by trusting, not by looking to ourselves but by looking to Christ, not by relying on ourselves but upon Jesus alone. You can find peace today, not in your good works but in the redemptive work of Christ.

So what is Revelation about? It is about helping us to gain a heavenly perspective on reality. It is about calling us to put our faith in King Jesus. It is about giving the saint real comfort and hope and courage in a world that is dominated by beastly empires because above and over them all God reigns in Christ for the eternal good of his people. I like this quote from Matt Smethurst that I recently read. He says that in the Bible, Jesus is called a Lion and Satan is called a lion. But the differences is crucial: one is on a throne and the other is on a leash. This is what Revelation reminds us.

And so in hearing we are blessed. Blessed indeed, for this is not man’s blessing but God’s, and the blessing of God is a blessing that makes rich and with absolutely no sorrow added to it (Prov. 10:22).

Qtd. in Thomas R. Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing (Crossway, 2021), p. 17.

Brian J. Tabb, All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone (IVP Academic, 2019), p. 5-6.

This is the way Vern Poythress describes Revelation in his interview with Nancy Guthrie in her Blessed podcast. See https://www.crossway.org/articles/the-blessed-the-organization-of-revelation-with-vern-poythress-episode- 6/

Schreiner, p. 22.

Schreiner, p. 22.

Called the preterist approach.

“It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign of God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer [John] was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so hopelessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.”Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Revised), (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 27.

Called the historicist approach.

George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Eerdmans, 1972), p. 11. 

10 Called the idealist approach.

11 Mounce, p. 29.

12 Called the futurist approach.

13 I think Robert Mounce summarizes this nicely when he writes, “The author himself could without contradiction be preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist. He wrote out of his own immediate situation, his prophesies would have a historical fulfillment, he anticipated a future consummation, and he revealed principles that operated beneath the course of history.” Mounce, p. 29.

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Gathering (Acts 2:41-47)


What is the church? What is its purpose? How does it function? If we claim to be a true church, then it behooves us to be able to answer these questions. How would you answer them? Could you back up what you had to say with the Bible? What are we to be about as a church?

In our proposed church constitution, we say that the purpose of the church is as follows:

“This church exists by the grace of God, for the glory of God, which shall be the ultimate purpose in all its activities. This church glorifies God by loving Him and obeying His commands through:

1. Worshipping Him;

2. Equipping the saints through Bible instruction and study;

3. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through preaching and personal evangelism, and any other means consistent with the teaching of Scripture;

4. Administering and participating in the ordinances of our Lord, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper;

5. Encouraging, supporting, and participating in missions work, local, domestic, and international;

6. Administering Biblical fellowship and accountability among believers; and

7. Serving other individuals, families, and churches by providing for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in the name of Jesus Christ.”1

I think this is a pretty good purpose statement for a church. Here is another one:

Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:41-47)

In fact, any purpose statement for a church needs to line up with what the Bible has to say about the purpose and function of a church, and that means that it needs to line up with passages like Acts 2. And though Acts 2 doesn’t say everything that the Bible says about the church, it does say some pretty important things. And I think that our purpose statement does line up with it. In fact, one of the main things I want to do in this message is to point us to the Biblical underpinnings of the purpose statement of the proposed constitution.

The Glory of God

What is the purpose of the church? What are we to be about? Well, notice that the main purpose above all other purposes is the glory of God: “This church exists by the grace of God, for the glory of God, which shall be the ultimate purpose in all its activities.” The church doesn’t exist to exalt itself. It doesn’t exist to exalt man. It exists to bring glory to God, that is, to bring honor to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus Paul writes to the Ephesians that the purpose of the church is the display of God’s manifold wisdom: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10). So it should not surprise us that he would write just a few verses later: “Unto him [God] be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Eph. 3:21). What was true of God’s people under the Old Covenant is true also of God’s people under the New Covenant: “Fear not: for I am the with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:5-7).

So the main purpose of the church is not focused on man or his problems. That’s not to say that the church doesn’t exist to bring help to mankind, but it is possible to so focus on the horizontal aspect of our mission that we forget that the primary mission is the glory of God. How then do we glorify God, both as individuals and as a church?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that right before Paul prays that God’s glory might be in the church through Jesus Christ in Eph. 3:21, he had just prayed that the saints might be able “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (19). The church glorifies God primarily in knowing God’s love for them and then loving God back for who he is. It is the reason why, though our Lord later praised the Ephesian church for being doctrinally faithful, he nevertheless threatened to take away the church because they had stopped loving him as they once had (Rev. 2:4-5). It is the reason why the first commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind.

And we show our love to Christ concretely by obeying his commandments. You cannot say that you love God if you refuse to obey his commandments. For our Lord put it this way to his disciples, “If ye love me, keep my commandments. . . . He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (Jn. 15:15, 21). So we glorify God by loving him and we show that we love him by keeping his commandments. Thus, in the purpose statement, we read, “This church glorifies God by loving Him and obeying His commands.”

Of course behind this love to God and obedience to God is the knowledge of God, a knowledge that is rooted and based upon his word. It is not love to a god of our own making. God is not glorified or loved or obeyed when you replace him with an idol. There is therefore this emphasis in the NT on knowledge and wisdom: “We ... pray for you, and . . . desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). Hence, we should put it this way: we glorify God when we grow in our knowledge of him as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture so that we love and obey him more and more.

The church exists so that this happens. God gave us the church so that we will grow in the knowledge of God so that we love and obey him more and more. We see this in the Acts passage. If we ask, how does the church function to make this happen, Acts 2:41-47 helps us to see how. It tells us that the church exists to promote the glory of God by doing three things: discipleship, worship, and evangelism.

Discipleship

Conversion

I put this first because it is first in the passage above. First of all, we read that “they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). The first thing a disciple does is to gladly receive the gospel. It means that you believe what the gospel says. It means that you believe Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and then three days later rose from the dead, and that this is not some kind of religious metaphor but a fact of history, a fact that was witnessed and attested to by multiple, independent witnesses (1 Cor. 15:1-9). But receiving the word is not merely an intellectual thing. Note the word gladly. They “gladly received the word.” It resonated with them. It means that you don’t just acknowledge the literal reality of Christ’s work as Savior and Lord (even the devils do that, Jam. 2:19), but that you actually trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. And it means that you repent of your sins against him.

Having done that, you get baptized. Being baptized means to put on Christ (Gal. 3:27), it means to identify with him and his church. It is part of publicly identifying with Jesus and confessing him before men. This is important, not only because it is a part of our obedience to the Lord (Mt. 28:18-20), but also because our Lord himself said, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32-33). Those who refuse to be baptized in the name of Christ are in the same category of those who deny Christ before men, and that is a very serious sin indeed.

Teaching

But being a disciple is not just about becoming a Christian. It is also about growing as a Christian. In fact, you really cannot separate the two. A true Christian is a growing Christian. A true Christian is a good fruit- bearing Christian. How does that happen? Well, it happens the same way you become a Christian: by receiving the word. Hence, we go on to read, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine” (Acts 2:42). How was it that they became Christians? They became Christians by receiving the apostles’ doctrine. And they continue as Christians by continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. This is not a description of extraordinary Christianity; it is a description of ordinary Christianity. This is what a disciple is supposed to do. As our Lord put it, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (Jn. 8:31).

Now one of the main ways that happens in the church today is through the teaching of pastors. Paul writes to the Ephesian church in Eph. 4:11-12, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Note that the work of pastors is to continue and to build upon the work of the apostles. It’s why Paul, as he was passing from the scene, wrote to Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (2 Tim. 4:2-5).

So we are to attend to the teaching of the pastors, the elders. Not YouTube pastors, by the way. Not men we occasionally watch on our iPads or TVs, but through in-person attendance at the church services, as far as possible. This means that we ought to prioritize our times around the public gathering of the church, especially Sunday mornings. This is how we grow. The disciples in the book of Acts didn’t get discipled from afar – they were there in person. I think this is partly communicated in the phrase “apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (42). Also, “And all that believed were together” (44). “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (46). You might be able to watch a church service from a distance on TV, but you can’t “break bread from house to house” if you’re not actually physically present! But the point is that this was the context for “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship.”

I also want to note the formal/informal dimension here. This is very important. You have the disciples together in the temple (there’s the formal dimension of church gathering and discipleship), and then they are “house to house” (there’s the informal dimension of church gathering and discipleship). In other words, the disciples didn’t just wait until the formal gathering to do discipleship. They were constantly in each other’s lives – in a good way, and not as busybodies. In other words, they were applying Heb. 3:13 to the life of the church: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

And that also means that it is not just the pastors who do discipleship. They of course are the overseers (this is what a “bishop” is) – not in the sense of micromanaging everything, but in the sense of making sure that the discipleship that’s happening is Biblical. But we all have a role in this; surely, Heb. 3:13 says that if it says anything. And so I want to encourage all of you to look for opportunities to disciple and be discipled in this church.

Let me give you some examples that are happening right now outside our Sunday morning gathering. Of course, we have the Bible doctrines studies that we are doing on the Sunday afternoons that we have a fellowship meal. This is very important because understanding systematic theology is important, and I appreciate the help that Brother David is giving on that. Also, we have the Bible ethics studies which David and I will recommence in March. On Friday mornings, a few of us men have been getting together to encourage each other as fathers. And to help us be purposeful, we’ve been reading through a book together (Parenting with Words of Grace by William Smith). Brother Adam is leading it, and I appreciate his willingness to do that. The ladies have been getting together for prayer at the T’s home. Again, so important that we pray together and fellowship together. Notice the emphasis on prayer in Acts 2:42.

Here I want to encourage us to do something else that I’m not sure is currently happening in our church in a systematic way, but which needs to happen if we are going to be Biblical about discipleship – and that is older women teaching younger women. This is what Paul says in Titus 2: “The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (3-5).

Now I think that something has happened over the years in PB churches, which has come about as the result of wanting to rightly safeguard the Biblical insistence of male leadership in the churches and the fact that the apostle Paul says that women are not to teach or usurp authority over the men (1 Tim. 2:11- 12). But we have gone way too far, and we have ended up in a place where women don’t think they are

supposed to teach the Bible in any context. My friends, this ought not so to be! What Paul is saying in the passage we just read in Titus, is that it is important that we have godly and spiritually mature women doing Biblical teaching in the context of the church – older women teaching the younger women. It bothers me that we are so quick to pounce on certain aspects of this text (for example, that women are to be workers at home and obedient to their own husbands), but to completely neglect other aspects of it (like the teaching part of that text).

What am I getting at? I would love to see the women of our church teaching and learning the Bible from one another, and I want to help. I know we have women who are qualified and capable. I want to help equip you and give you my support, so you feel equipped and ready and able to do this. There is no one right way for this to happen. Both formal and informal teaching is needed and valuable. The pastor cannot do everything, so I want us to work together to establish a church culture where women are teaching each other in accordance with the instructions from Titus 2, etc. The instruction is given to women, but women are not left without the support of the pastors and the church as they carry it out. I know this may sound intimidating and something outside of our comfort zone, but I'm confident that the Lord will give wisdom to carry out what we are told to do. The church will come alongside you and support you. The pastors will come alongside you and support you. The resources of the church will be made available for you to do this. This ought to be a regular part of our church. It is needed and it is important.

If you are unsure how to go about this, please come talk to me. I am more than happy and eager to support a ladies’ study. It is an important part of the discipleship process.

Fellowship

But teaching is not the only aspect to discipleship. Fellowship is an integral part of discipleship. I think this is why you see teaching and fellowship together in verse 42. And throughout this passage there is an obvious emphasis on breaking bread together and being together. The church is not merely a school; it is more like a family. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we need to act that way. We need to get to know each other, so that we can encourage each other and sympathize with each other.

Part of this is also helping with the physical needs the church members. You see this in verses 44-45, especially. By the way, this is not a prescription for communism, and to make this about economics and politics is to completely miss the point of the passage. The Bible never supposes that private property is somehow sinful. In 1 Tim. 6, Paul doesn’t tell the rich to become poor, but to be generous. What you see here, rather, is the willing parting of property in order to meet real needs that were in the church at that time. The members of the church wanted to do this; they were eager to do so, because they loved the brethren. They weren’t content to simply say, “Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled” without giving and meeting real needs.

But of course meeting financial and physical needs doesn’t exhaust what fellowship is. Sometimes this is just being present physically and emotionally. It means weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. It means bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It means “administering Biblical fellowship and accountability among believers; and serving other individuals, families, and churches by providing for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in the name of Jesus Christ.”

We need to be intentional about fellowship, brothers and sisters. It needs to be cultivated, or it can wilt and whither. The devil would like nothing better than to create coldness and distance between us. Let

us do all that we can to prevent such a thing from happening. We are one body and one family in Christ. Let us live like it and act like it. I want 1 Peter 1:22 to be a reality in our church: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” Love is the glue that will create fellowship. It is what will make the teaching meaningful and impactful. You’ve heard it said that folks don’t care what you know until they know that you care. In other words, meaningful fellowship makes for meaningful teaching. And together they make for meaningful discipleship.

Worship

Some of you might be wondering why I put discipleship first and not worship. I mean, after all, if the main purpose of the church is to glorify God, shouldn’t worship be first on the list of priorities of the church? Well, worship is certainly important. But let me tell you why I led out with discipleship.

It’s not just that it’s first in the text – it is. It’s also that you cannot have meaningful worship apart from meaningful teaching about God. I’m a firm believer that systematic theology should begin, not with the doctrine of God, but with the doctrine of Scripture. And the reason is that you can’t know God apart from his revelation in the Scriptures. And you can’t worship God if you don’t worship him in Spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:24). For that to happen, discipleship on some level has to have happened before real worship can happen.

But the knowledge of God ought to lead to the worship of God. So you see it here in the book of Acts. Surely the “gladness and singleness of heart” in verse 46 is not just a result of fellowship over food but the outflow of hearts full of the love of God. They were together, “Praising God, and having favour with all the people” (47). I think also the “fear” that came upon every soul in verse 43 was also a product of the reverential and worshipful atmosphere that persisted in the early church. The early church was a worshiping church. Are we?

We said earlier that the main purpose of the church is the glory of God. But to give glory to God we must first see and taste the glory and goodness of God (Ps. 34:8). We must truly believe that God deserves this, that it is not something we give to him because we have to, but we glorify God because we are compelled to by an inner sense of the majesty and the worth of God in Christ. We must feel what the psalmist expressed: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 48:1). We need to be able to sincerely say: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:1-3). We need to be able to say, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name” (Ps. 96:8), and to feel the obligation arising, not from an external force compelling us to do so, but from an inner delight in the glory of God. We need to be able to say, with the apostle Paul, “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14) to worship and serve him.

Everything we do as a church ought to have the glory of God as its aim. Everything! “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Our singing ought to be for the glory of God, and the delight we feel in it ought to be a delight, not merely in the tune or the sounds of our voices, but in the truths about our Lord we are singing.

Our praying ought to be for the glory of God. Strange as it might sound, but even in our prayers we can start glorifying ourselves rather than Christ, as the Pharisees did (Mt. 6:5). We shouldn’t pray to men but

to God. But when we pray with God as our audience, in faith and hope and love, and when the content of our prayers are filled up by the teaching of the Scriptures, and we are looking for his reward, then our prayers glorify God. God is praised when he is approached as the only one who can meet our needs, when we approach his throne in prayer as a throne of grace where we can find mercy and help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). And on the other hand, a prayerless church is a Christless church. Not so the early church. It was a praying church. They continued in prayers, and so should we (Acts 2:42).

Our preaching and teaching ought to be for the glory of God. We don’t preach the word to glorify the preacher. That does no one any good. The preacher is not here to give you himself; at least, he ought not to be. Rather, we must be like the apostles, who said, “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:5-7). In hearing the preaching, we should not only be gathering new information but rejoicing in the old and the new, and rejoicing in the Lord who reveals himself to us in his word.

Our fellowship ought to be for the glory of God. And it will when our fellowship with each other springs from our fellowship with God, when we can say with the apostle John, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:3). We ought not just to think of fellowship in terms of what we get out of it. We ought to think of it as an expression of our unity in Christ, as a natural outflow of being in the same family. Christians who want nothing to do with each other are not glorifying Christ! Christians who can barely stand to be around each other are not glorifying Christ. Rather, we glorify him when we are excited to fellowship with one another. And though it is true that it doesn’t have to be limited to our own local congregation, surely it must start here. Brothers and sisters, let us glorify God in our fellowship.

Evangelism

Now you may be wondering where evangelism is in the text. Well, I would say that the text is bracketed by evangelism. How is it that 3000 people heard the gospel and responded to it? They did so because Peter and the other apostles were bold enough to preach the word to them. Evangelism! And then you read in the very last verse of our text that this evangelism wasn’t a one-off thing. Rather, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).

Now some may look at that verse and say the wrong thing. The wrong thing is to say, “Well, the Lord is the one who added to the church, so nothing for me to do!” It is true, of course that the Lord is the one who does the adding. But it is false to think that therefore we have nothing to do. Listen to what the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians: “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:5-7). Yes, at the end of the day, those who share the word aren’t the decisive agents in the process: God is. He alone is the one who gives the increase. But that does not mean that Paul didn’t need to plant or that Apollos didn’t need to water. They did!

Nor is evangelism just for the preacher. Here is something that might surprise you, but it is true: you are the evangelists of this church. What is our program for evangelism? Just this, that you be salt and light in the places where God has put you. You are to carry the seeds of the gospel where you go, as they did in the book of Acts: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This is how the early church did it. How did guys like Justin Martyr, the second century church father, become Christians? Justin wasn’t raised in the church; he was a pagan. He had been searching fruitlessly in the pagan philosophies for truth. And then one day as he was walking along a beach, he met an old man. And this old man happened to be a Christian who was happy to visit with Justin about his faith. The result? Justin became a Christian, and not only a Christian but an outstanding and great leader in the early church. That’s what we are talking about. Be willing to be like that old man and be willing to share your faith in Christ with searching pagans!

So these are the three things we see in this text. We glorify God by loving him and obeying his commandments and we do this through discipleship, worship, and evangelism. Brothers and sisters, let us therefore be doing these things. Let us do them with faith, hope, and love. Let us do them with enthusiasm. Let us do them better. Let us, like the early church, continue steadfastly in these things. And may the Lord add to this church such as should be saved.

_______________

This is for the most part a verbatim reduplication of the purpose statement in the church constitution of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., with slight modifications.

Monday, January 2, 2023

God’s Sovereign Grace (Ephesians 2:1-10)

We are continuing our series on “Back to the Basics.” So far, we’ve looked at some basic truths about God and the gospel. But another very basic truth that we need to hold with clarity and with confidence is the truth of God’s sovereign grace. That is what we want to look at this morning.

Why is this important? It’s important because you can’t really understand God or the gospel if you don’t understand grace. For God is the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10), and the gospel is the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24). And this means that you can’t relate to God in any way other than by grace. If you do, you are going to end up at one of two places. Either you will end up in despair as you try to measure up to God’s standard and then inevitably fail again and again. Or you will end up in self-righteous presumption, thinking that you’ve somehow arrived because you’ve managed to replace God’s standard of holiness with your own. Either way, such people end up failing to see the Biblical solution to our greatest need: the gospel of the grace of God. We need grace, grace which is given to us in Jesus Christ.

However, I think it could also be rightfully said that most of the population in the West is neither despairing of salvation nor in the strictest sense are they preening in their self-righteous confidence of law-keeping. And the reason for this is because most folks now don’t really even think about their relationship with God. Secularism has trained us to live our lives as if God doesn’t even exist. But this is where a message on grace can be jarring in a very good way. It is jarring because the Biblical reminder that we need grace is a counter-cultural reminder that God is holy and that we need to be saved from his just wrath and that we cannot save ourselves. So this morning, whether you are despairing, or self- righteous, or just plain careless, this is a message you need to hear.

But even if you understand your need for grace, this is something that we need to come back to again and again. We need to because our sinful hearts get out of alignment so easily and can start pulling in the direction of pride or despair or carelessness. We need to be reminded again and again of the simple message of the grace of God.

That’s what we want to do this morning. As we look at this subject of grace, I don’t think there is a better place to do that than to look at Ephesians 2, where the apostle Paul declares quite explicitly, “For by grace are ye saved” (8). But what does he mean by that? I think most Christians would say that God is a God of grace and that he saves people by grace. Even many non-Christians would say that God is gracious. However, the Bible is very precise about this grace that saves. We need to understand it Biblically. And as we look at it here in the second chapter of Ephesians, we will discern not only what it means to be saved by grace, but also just how amazing it really is.

It is also a good thing to begin the year this way. A lot of times we begin the year with lots of resolutions to change. And that’s a good thing. But the thing is that this can feed into a legalistic mentality. We begin to put on ourselves burdens that we were never meant to carry. Now don’t get me wrong. We all need to change. There is always something in our lives that we need to repent of. But the very first place to start is not by looking inward for the strength to change. The very first place to start is with God and with his grace, and to recognize that the strength to change and repent doesn’t come ultimately from within or because we deserve God’s help. Rather, it comes from grace, the grace of God. This is the reason why the Sermon on the Mount begins this way it does: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Only the poor in spirit will recognize their need for the grace of God. And that is where changes really begins. Do you want to draw closer to God this year? Do you want to be more Christlike? Do you want to know God better? Do you want to love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself? Do you want to strengthen your marriage? Do you want to be a better parent? Do you want to do something great for the Lord and his kingdom this year? Well, look to the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, grace which pardons and heals and strengthens and supplies every need. It is this grace that we want to talk about this morning.

In fact, let me give you five facts about this grace which also give us five reasons why the grace of God about which Paul is writing in Ephesians 2 is amazing. These five facts are the fallenness behind grace, the fountain of grace, the foundation for grace, the fruit from grace, and the finality of grace.

The fallenness behind grace

You can’t really understand what is meant when the Bible says that salvation is by grace if you don’t believe what the Scriptures say about the fallenness of mankind. We are not what we are supposed to be. You will sometimes hear people say that God loves you just as you are. Well, I can tell you on the basis of the Bible, that is not true, not by a long shot. That’s the whole reason God is in the business of saving people – he saves us from, not in, our sin (Mt. 1:21). If you are saved, you are being changed. And if you do not change, you will spend eternity in hell because of it. God does not like the way we are apart from his saving intervention in our lives; he hates it.

The fact of the matter is that we are miserable sinners, and we can’t merit salvation because we are miserable sinners, justly exposed to the wrath of God. The Bible clearly teaches, not that we are a little off the right track, but that we are wholly depraved by nature. We “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (3). What Paul means by that is that we were born this way. It is why our Lord would tell Nicodemus that he had to be born again. Why born again? Because what we are by our first birth does not recommend us to God; indeed, as Paul puts it here we are all “dead in trespasses and in sins” (1).

What does that mean? What does it mean to be dead in sin? To understand what the apostle is saying here, let’s look more carefully at verses 1-3. In these three verses, he argues that by nature we are enslaved to the world, to the devil, and then to our own sinful desires.

We are by nature enslaved to the world

“Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world” (2). Paul is talking about what the Ephesian Christians were before they became followers of Jesus. He is talking to men and women, many of whom had been pagans before their conversion to Christ. As such, they had been walking according to the course of the world. In those times, paganism was the order of the day. That’s what everyone did, and it took a long time for it to die out, even though it eventually did.

This description of their past is a pointer to the reality that most people don’t really think for themselves. That is the way we like to think of ourselves of course. But most people are not that thoughtful. The reality is that when someone claims to be independently minded, if you examine their thinking carefully, they are really just doing what everyone around them is doing. Today, you hear a lot about deconversion stories. But folks who deconvert from Christianity are not being different from the world; they are just blending into the world around them. They are becoming more like the world, not less like it.

And that is what Paul is saying here. This is the natural state of us all. Now that doesn’t mean, however, that non-Christian people can’t ever be independent minded. One thinks of Churchill, who certainly marched to the beat of his own drum most of the time. What we mean is that most people in this world are just like everyone else – even those who march to the beat of their own tune – in that they are in rebellion against God and his world. The course of this world is not the worship of God; it is the worship of self. We are by nature unthankful and idolatrous. And we are idolators because we don’t want a god who is going to cramp our style. We will be religious, sure; but only so far as the god we serve ultimately serves us. We walk according to the course of this world.

We are by nature enslaved to Satan

“In time past ye walked . . . according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (2). Paul is talking about the devil here. Now he doesn’t mean that everyone is by nature a Satanist or a devil-worshiper. What he is saying is that those who are not born again are servants of the devil in that they do his bidding. They please the devil by living in unbelief and sin. This was true even of the Pharisees, those most religious of people. Our Lord said of them, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44).

We are by nature enslaved to our own sinful desires

“Among whom also we all had our conversation in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (3). Not only are we by nature enslaved to the world and to Satan, but our main problem is within. The only reason why we would join a world in rebellion against God is because we are first of all in rebellion against God. It is the reason also why we are subject to and blinded by the devil (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3). The reason we are bad is not outside of us primarily; it is within us. We are corrupt in our minds, affections, and wills. Note that Paul doesn’t just say “lusts of the flesh.” It is also “lusts of the mind.” In other words, Paul isn’t just talking about debauched people here; he is also talking about civilized people whose lives are consumed by things like pride and ambition and greed.

What the apostle is describing here is what theologians mean by total depravity. They mean that there is not a faculty of our soul that is not touched and corrupted and broken by sin. It means our thinking has been affected by sin; our affections have been affected by sin; our wills have been corrupted by sin. We are totally depraved in the sense that our total being is broken by sin. We are not just sick; we are dead in trespasses and in sins.

By the way, we need to acknowledge that by total depravity we don’t mean utter depravity.We are not saying that death in sin means that people are as bad as they can get. Not everyone is a Hitler, and we should be thankful for that. Even the lost are still made in the image of God and still capable of being kind and performing praiseworthy acts of virtue and heroism.

But that isn’t the same thing as pleasing God. You can be nice and still be dead in sins. Your mind and heart are still idol-factories; you are not living by faith in the true and living God. Your life does not please God. Remember that the first commandment is not to love your neighbor as yourself; the first commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind. And by nature we do not do that. We love ourselves, not God. And we do so because we are dead in trespasses and in sins. The result of it all is that we are under the wrath of God (3). I cannot imagine a more fearful place to be. It would be utterly horrifying if that is where we stayed.

But here is why this shows us how amazing grace is. These are the kinds of people God saves. He doesn’t save the righteous and self-satisfied; he saved those who are dead in trespasses and in sins. He saves slaves, people who are servants to the world, the devil, and their own lusts. For Paul doesn’t stay here. Verse 3 is followed by verse 4, and for that we should thank God.

The fountain of grace

But if we are so bad, from where does grace come? From which fountain does this grace spring? What could possibly motivate God to show grace to the spiritually dead and depraved? The answer comes in verse 4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say that the dead made themselves alive and then God started loving them. Nor does this say that God loved them and made a way for them to make themselves alive. That’s not at all what this says. It says that because God loved these people who were dead in their sins, he stepped in and made them alive. Now I am not saying that we don’t act in our salvation. We do. What I am saying is that our action and willing is not the decisive cause of our being saved; it was God’s action and willing and love that is the decisive reason anyone is saved. As the apostle put it to the Romans, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

Note that God’s love for them didn’t just make salvation possible; God’s love for them actually led to their salvation. “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (5). And it came from God and God alone. As the hymn puts it,

My Lord, I did not choose you, 

For that could never be; 

My heart would still refuse you 

Had you not chosen me.

This is pointing us to God’s unconditional election of the believers to salvation. Paul had already reminded them about this in chapter 1. He reminded them that every spiritual blessing in Christ is theirs “according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (1:4). To say that God chose them to be saved is just to say that before the foundation of the world, God sovereignly and unconditionally set his saving love upon them, so that they would not remain dead in sins but be made alive together in Christ.

This election is unconditional (cf. Rom. 9:11) because God didn’t choose them on the basis of foreseen faith or works. Their faith is the fruit of God’s election, not the cause of it. I mean, how could dead people recommend themselves to God anyway? This is why we read this in the book of Acts, explaining why certain people embraced the gospel by faith: “And when the Gentiles heard this [the gospel], they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). I don’t see how you can get any clearer than that. They weren’t ordained to eternal life because they believed; they believed because they were ordained to eternal life!

It is true to say that God has a general love for all mankind (cf. Mt. 5:43-48). God is not a sadist; he does not desire the death of the wicked. But that is not the same thing as the saving love that God sovereignly and unconditionally places upon his elect from all eternity. God is under no obligation to save anyone.

We are all dead in sins. We all deserve his wrath. It is not unjust for God to set his saving love upon some, not all, of the human race. His love and his salvation are sovereign. What is amazing is not that he didn’t save everyone; what is amazing is that God saved anyone at all, especially when we consider the cost at which he did this.

Which brings us to our next point.

The foundation for grace

The question here is how exactly can God show love to sinful men and women? For God is holy. How can he retain his holiness and justice and show mercy and grace to those who are wicked? The answer is found all throughout this passage. It is found in phrases like “in Christ” or “with Christ” (5-7). The apostle is saying that we are made spiritually alive in Christ and seated with him in heavenly places. What he means is that every saving blessing comes to us because of what Christ did for us (cf. 1:3, ff) and because we are united to him. You need to understand that just because God chose a people to be saved, that in itself isn’t salvation. Election is not salvation; it is to salvation. So once a people were chosen to be saved, something had to be done about their sins. And that is why you have this repeated phrase all throughout this epistle, “in Christ.” Because it is in Christ alone that our sin is dealt with.

We need to be released from the grip of sin; we also need to be released from the guilt of sin. And this is why there is this emphasis upon union with Christ. He is the one who dealt with sin upon the cross: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7). He took upon himself the punishment due to us: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross, there was a great exchange: our sins for his righteousness. It is because Christ stood in our place that we can have the forgiveness of all our sins and acceptance with God.

And will all for whom Christ died be saved? Yes. Think about it like this. God chose his elect in Christ. In Christ, God raises his elect from a spiritual death. The salvation of the elect is sure because Christ died for them. All whom God has chosen to be saved will be saved because of the redemption purchased by Christ. That’s what Paul is saying here. The salvation of the elect is a certain salvation. Christ is a successful redeemer.

As a church, we confess a belief in what is sometimes called limited atonement. Now I don’t like that phrase because it implies our Lord’s redemptive work is somehow deficient. But it isn’t. The phrase is unfortunate, but it just means that since the number of the elect is limited, the number of those who are embraced by the saving benefits of Christ’s death is also limited. It means that the purpose of our Lord in dying was not to save some unknown mass of humanity who may or may not be saved, but to certainly save his elect. He came to give his life for his sheep (John 10:15) and for the church (Eph. 5:25-27). As Jesus put it in John 6, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn. 6:37-39). In those verses, our Lord is saying that his will in salvation is the same as the will of his Father. And that means that the elect are the ones for whom the atonement was meant to save.

Now we have to be careful that we don’t take that doctrine in directions the NT does not allow. There are some who take that and say that because election is limited and the atonement is limited, therefore our preaching should be limited. But the same Scriptures that teach us about unconditional election and limited atonement also teach us that the gospel is to be preached to all, “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Lk. 24:48). You don’t see the doctrines of sovereign grace cramping Paul’s preaching in the book of Acts. And this is why I think we also need to hear verses like John 3:16, 1 Jn. 2:2, 1 Tim. 2:4, and so on. They remind us that the preaching of the cross is a message for all the world to hear. And God will draw his elect to faith through this message so that they too will find the forgiveness of sins. In the final analysis, we can be confident that there is no contradiction between the full preaching of the gospel and sovereign grace.

But how does this show us how amazing grace is? Well, you see it, don’t you? Is it not breathtakingly amazing that God would die for sinners? That the Son of God would lay aside his glory and enter into a sin-cursed earth and live among rebels and die an infinitely inglorious and awful death at their hands? This is the amazement of grace: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Or as Paul would put it to the Corinthians, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). What riches forsaken! What poverty endured! Yes, this is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fruit from grace

What happens when God shows grace to sinners though Christ? These verses tell us this as well and explain for us what is the fruit that comes from grace.

Now we’ve noticed the work of the Father who out of love chose some to everlasting life. We’ve seen the work of the Son, the Lord, who died for the elect so that through union with him they might be given eternal life. What about the work of the Spirit? It is true that the Spirit isn’t explicitly mentioned in these verses. But this is why it is important to read passages in light of the larger context of a book, and then in light of the overall context of the Bible. In Ephesians, we learn that God’s people are sealed (Eph. 1:13; 4:30) and filled (5:18) and strengthened (3:16) by the Holy Spirit. If it is true that the Spirit strengthens us, it should not surprise us that the Spirit give us life. And this is exactly what our Lord said to Nicodemus, when he spoke to him about the new birth in John 3: “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (5-8). The new birth in John 3 is almost certainly the same thing as being made alive, or quickened, in Ephesians 2. And since the new birth is a work of the Spirit, that means that this quickening from a death in sins is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the great fruit of grace that is put on display in this text.

And this work is effectual. What I mean by that is just that those whom God makes alive are actually made alive. They are not put in a state where they can possibly, if they want to, make themselves alive. No, they are in fact brought from a state of death in sin to a state of death to sin (cf. Rom. 6). Paul put it this way to the Colossians: “[God] hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13). This is an effectual work in the sense that everyone whom God calls in this way is brought to newness of life (cf. Rom. 8:30). Our Lord said, “It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (Jn. 6:45). Note the emphasis here on every man. . . comes to me. Those whom the Father draws to himself through the Spirit comes to faith in Christ, no exceptions.

Now this doesn’t mean that we are like robots in this process. God doesn’t remove our will in this process or make an end-run around it. He doesn’t force us against our wills to embrace his Son by faith and to trust him for salvation and to repent of our sins. God doesn’t work against us; he works in us so that we willingly and freely embrace him. He gives us a new heart and takes away the heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26). For this reason it shouldn’t surprise us that every person’s experience coming to life in Christ will different, since each person is different. But whatever our personality and whatever our background, God is able through the sovereign Spirit to effectually bring his chosen ones to faith and repentance.

This is sometimes called irresistible grace. But what about those in Scripture who are said to resist the Sprit? Doesn’t that mean that grace is resistible? Yes, it is true that the Bible speaks of people resisting the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51). Every time someone rejects God’s word, that is what they are doing, for the word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). But not every work of the Spirit is resistible and that is what our text teaches. When God regenerates a sinner, he moves him/her from death to life, irresistibly, just as Jesus called Lazarus from the dead.

One of the implications of this is that God, not us, is the decisive mover in our salvation. We do respond. We do willingly embrace Jesus by faith and repent of our sins. Believing and trusting in Jesus our Lord and Savior is something we do and something we must do if we will be saved. But what Paul is saying here in Ephesians 2 and what the Bible says in many other places is that we do all these things because of God’s effectual grace, because of the work of Spirit in our hearts, giving us life and bringing us into God’s kingdom and family. The answer to the question, “Who makes you to differ from another?” is not, “Me!” The answer is, and must be, God, and God alone (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:27-31).

This is amazing grace because it can take the most depraved sinner and make him or her a child of God, can take away the stoniest heart and make it a heart of flesh. God can take the most stiff-necked rebels and make them into the happiest and holiest followers of Jesus. Think about the apostle Paul himself, who wrote this. To Timothy he would write, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:12-16).

Brothers and sisters, let this amaze us. Let it give us hope. Let it humble us, God’s effectual grace.

The finality of grace

But can God’s grace be in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10)? Will it stick? The answer is yes. I must confess that it always surprises me when I hear of people who embrace the doctrines of grace, but who waffle on the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. They contradict themselves by implying that God’s grace to get a sinner born again is effective, but God’s grace somehow loses its effectiveness after that. They think a born-again person can lose their faith (although not their salvation). But this is not what the Scriptures teach. Hopefully, our recent messages on Hebrews has shown not only the importance but also the necessity of persevering in the faith to the end. But what I want to point out here is that it is the fruit of God’s grace that keeps us.

You see it in verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” This is a purpose of grace (8-10). What we see in these verses is that God’s gracious purpose for us is not just to bring us to faith (8), but also to create a life of good works. God ordained that we should walk in them. This is not talking about a one-off thing. This is talking about a life of good works. God doesn’t plant rotten trees; he plants good trees and good trees produce good fruit. If God has ordained that his elect walk in good works, you can be sure that they will do so.

This doesn’t mean that the elect don’t or can’t sin. The doctrine of perseverance is not a doctrine of sinless perfection. It doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes do really bad things. That is not what the doctrine teaches. We do sin and sometimes grievously (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). Just as we are not robots when God draws us to himself, so we are not robots after God draws us to himself. And that means at least partly that we can make choices that are less than admirable.

However, there is a limit to this, and this is what it means that God preserves us so that we persevere. We are God’s workmanship, not just in terms of the new birth, but also in terms of the life that follows. God doesn’t give up on us so that we will not give up on him. Christ prays for us Peters that our faith fail not (Lk. 22:31-32). He will not let us slip away. Indeed, he is the one who “is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24). If he is able, do you not think he will also do it?

Saved by grace through faith

This then – the eternal love of the Father who unites his chosen ones to Christ who sends his Spirit and raises them from a death in sins to newness of life and creates in them a life of good works – this is the context for verses 8 and 9: “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.” The “for” points us to verses 1-7 and the “for” of verse 10 points us back to verses 8-9. Together, this text illustrates and defines for us what it means to be saved by grace.

  • To be saved by grace, to be given this unmerited favor by God, means that we fundamentally don’t deserve salvation, for we were dead in trespasses and in sins. That is the truth to which the fallenness behind grace (total depravity) points us.

  • To be saved by grace means that the source of our salvation didn’t originate in ourselves – how could it, for we were dead! – but rather in God’s surprising, eternal, unchangeable, and unconditional love by which he chose some of the human race to be saved in Christ. This is the truth to which the fountain of grace (unconditional election) points us.

  • To be saved by grace means that we don’t merit our salvation but rather that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the God-Man, merited it for us on the cross by suffering the punishment due to our sin. He accomplished redemption for his elect so that his death is the death of death. This is the truth to which the foundation for grace (particular redemption, or limited atonement) points us.

  • To be saved by grace means that in time God sends his Spirit to regenerate his elect and to bring them effectually from a death in sin to newness of life in Christ, so that they willingly and freely embrace Jesus Christ by faith as he is presented to them in the gospel so that their sins are forgiven, and they are justified and accepted before God. That is the truth to which the fruit from grace (irresistible grace) points us.
  • To be saved by grace means that God keeps what he created, that his elect are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed on the Final Day. This is the truth to which the finality of grace (final perseverance of the saints) points us.

Now how should you respond to this? What is the only way to respond to a message of grace from God? And there is only one answer: as verse 8 indicates, you must respond by faith in Jesus Christ, by embracing him as your Lord and Savior and by trusting him and him alone for your salvation. As we close, I want you to notice in verse 8 how grace and faith go together. You see this all over Paul’s writings. In fact, he puts it this way to the Romans: “Therefore it [God’s saving promise] is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (4:16). We are saved by faith in order that we might be saved by grace. To be saved by faith means that we personally appropriate the gift of salvation when we put our trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The Bible teaches that all who believe will be saved, will have their sins forgiven and enjoy eternal life in the presence of God forever.

And this is by grace because faith is the empty hand of the beggar. Faith is the open mouth of the starving soul. It is the empty pocket of the morally and spiritually bankrupt sinner. When we come in faith to Christ, we are saying that we are looking to him and to him alone for our salvation. Faith is the plea to God to save us by grace alone through Christ alone. Have you? Do you? Are you? If you are staying away from Christ because you think he won’t receive you, and if you think he won’t receive you because you are just too bad, then you are waiting for something to boast in. But salvation is not for boasters. It is for people who recognize that they cannot save themselves. And the good news is that God saves sinners. Not the righteous but the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

On the other hand, if you are staying away because you don’t think you need to be saved by Jesus Christ, if you think you are good enough, that you can stand on your own two feet before God, then go ahead. But you have made a tragic choice. You can make yourself believe that you are as good as others, but the standard is not others, the standard is God and his perfect holiness. You won’t stand before God without a perfect righteousness, and you can only get that righteousness through faith in Christ alone. He is the only hope for you or for any sinner. May the Spirit of grace open your eyes to see your need of him! Repent of your self-righteousness and trust in Christ alone for your salvation and you will find grace upon grace!

So, brothers and sisters, let this year be marked by a renewed embrace on our parts of the grace of God. Let us trust in him through our Lord Jesus Christ for every spiritual blessing. Let us hope in his grace. Let his grace empower lives of happy holiness. And let it flavor the way we interact with others, beginning in our own homes. Do you embrace of the grace of God? Then let it show in the way you love your wife oryour husband, your children, your brothers and sisters, your co-workers, the church, and the lost. Receive the free grace of God by faith in Christ. And then live out the grace of God by faith in Christ.

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-five-not-points-of-calvinism

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