“Sola Gratia”

Ephesians 2:1-10

October 28, 2001

Text Comment

This is our third reading of vv. 1-5, and our second reading of vv. 1-7.  Today we add vv. 8-10 to our reading of this great text.

v.8       Verse 8 begins with a repetition of the statement already made in v.5.  The “For” with which the verse begins indicates that he is now supporting the statement he just made in v. 7 about the riches of God’s grace that have been lavished on Christians.

            There has been, as you may know, a long debate concerning the antecedent of “this” in the phrase, “and this not from yourselves…”  Many have held that it refers to the nearest noun, viz. “faith.”  Even this faith is not from yourselves, it too is God’s gift.  Others have held that the “this” refers to the entire previous clause, “by grace you have been saved through faith” and this, that is, this salvation by grace through faith, is not from yourselves.  It is a smallish point unless one tries to maintain, as some have, that what Paul means is that the grace comes from God but the faith comes from us.  In any reasonable reading of Paul’s words the faith is included in the “this” and in any understanding of Paul’s words he is taking the origin of even our faith in Christ out of our hands and putting it into God’s hands.  We owe to God the entirety of our salvation, both its provision by God and Christ and its appropriation by ourselves.

v.9       What was just said positively, is now said negatively.  It is all by grace or, in other words, it is not by our achievement.  “Works” here, in a letter mostly to Gentiles and without any of the polemics against judaizers that we find in Galatians or Romans, means simply human effort or human achievement.  From beginning to end it is God’s doing, not ours.  That is why the gospel excludes boasting:  there is nothing of ours in it that we can make the basis for self-congratulations.  As William Temple put it, “The only thing of my very own that I can contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed.”  [Nature, Man, and God, 401]

v.10     There is one more argument in support of the proposition that salvation is God’s gift to us from first to last.  We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus, and being his creation, we were created to do good works.  In other words, the good works are the result of our salvation not its cause.  No one exists until he is created.  He does not act before he is.  Creation makes possible his acting.  But God is the creator of the believer, he creates a believer out of an unbeliever in the same way he created life out of nothing at the beginning.  God saved us to be good, he did not save us because we were good or even partly good or even a little bit good.  We were, he has already emphatically said, “dead in transgressions and sins.”  We had nothing to offer and wouldn’t have offered it if we had!

            “In Christ Jesus” is Paul’s shorthand for “what God has accomplished for us and in us through Jesus Christ.”  [Lincoln, WBC, 114]

            The “prepared in advance” means he ordained all of this before the foundation of the world, the salvation of each believer and the good works they would perform.  It harks back to 1:4:  “For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

It is a happy providence that we came to Ephesians 2:8-10 on Reformation Sunday.  For in this great text we have, in truth, the manifesto of the Protestant Reformation, perhaps the greatest, most consequential movement in human history since our Lord’s ascension to heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The Reformation was nothing if it was not a rediscovery of the grace of God.  All great revivals in Christian history have been rediscoveries of the grace of God, rediscoveries of salvation as God’s free gift to undeserving sinners.  Times without number this fact about salvation has been lost to the church, buried in indifference, in self-confidence, and in false teaching.  In ways first subtle and then public and defiant salvation comes to be thought of instead as a cooperative effort between God and man with man playing the decisive role.  This is what happened over and again in the history of Israel.  This is what had happened again in the time of the Lord Jesus himself.  Jesus came teaching salvation by divine grace alone and the church murdered him for it.  Such is the natural antipathy of the human heart to this message.   It was this same view of salvation, based on human achievement and merit, that Paul had been raised in and had been taught in the Judaism of his day.  It was this view he championed until he became a Christian himself.  And it was this same beggarly view of salvation – that it is a reward for man’s works, his religious devotions, his conformity to the requirements of the church – that had once again become the theology of the Christian Church in the age prior to the Reformation.

It was against this heresy that man is, in some significant part, his own savior – it was never put that way, of course, but that is the substance of all of these forms of the view that God makes salvation a possibility but man must make it an actuality by his own efforts – I say, it was against that heresy that the prophets of the OT protested, that Jesus himself protested, that the Apostle Paul came to protest, and that the Reformers protested following him.  That this cycle so regularly repeats itself is proof positive that the natural theology of the human heart, the default theological position of the human heart is salvation by works, and that this tendency to self-confidence before God will always reassert itself unless held at bay by strong conviction founded on the clear and faithful preaching of the Word of God.  Men love themselves – deeply! – and salvation by works is the form self-love takes in the theology of salvation.

Another way of seeing this history, history repeated in biblical times and many times since and being repeated in our day, is as a controversy about what it means to be a Christian.  When the church is healthy it knows that a Christian is someone who knows himself a sinner and deserving of God’s wrath and who, in consequence, has turned in living faith and trust to Jesus Christ to receive forgiveness of his sins and strength to live a new life pleasing to God, a life he now wants to live with all his heart in thanksgiving to God for his great gift to someone so undeserving as himself.  But, when the church drifts from this clear and simple understanding of the gospel, then it means something else to be a Christian.   To be a Christian can then mean nothing more than to be a member of the Church – without regard to the sincerity of one’s faith in Christ – (that is largely what it meant in Europe at the time of the Reformation); it can come to mean nothing more than that someone is a reasonably good person, which is what it means in many so-called Christian churches today.  The grand, life-transforming realities of divine grace to dead sinners, of new life being given to the spiritually dead, of faith in Christ now working itself out in love through every part of a believer’s life, all of these are forgotten, if not positively dismissed in unbelief.  Rather the attention falls on outward acts, on conformity to certain standards of behavior, on the meeting of the expectations of other human beings.  God, Jesus Christ, the cross, the resurrection, true and living faith, the surrender of oneself to Christ, love for him ruling one’s life, all of this fades into obscurity and is then forgotten.  Then, when someone has the temerity to point out that the Bible in fact teaches salvation by grace alone, as Luther did, for example, he is regarded by supposedly Christian people as a crank, a misfit, a zealot, and a troubler of the church.

But, then, thanks be to God, by the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit the truth about salvation begins once again to dawn in the heart of the church.  Saul of Tarsus thought he was a Christian – if I may use that language – he thought he was right with God.  He then learned he was not.  He came to realize that all of his religious life and activity was a false trail, taking him away from God.  His discovery of that fact revolutionized his life and then the world.

And it was precisely the same 1500 years later with Martin Luther.  He thought he was a Christian.  The church told him he was.  But he learned by his study of God’s Word that he was not: that all the things he had been counting on – all the things he had been taught to count on – had nothing to do with obtaining peace with God.  His discovery of the grace of God, of salvation as God’s gift, revolutionized his life and, through him, revolutionized the world.  He began preaching the message that Paul taught with all the zeal of a man who had found the truth and had been set free by it and countless others encountered the grace of God through his writings and, in turn, began preaching it to others.

There was stiff opposition, of course.  No one likes to be told that they are wrong and bishops and priests like it even less than ordinary folk.  They had a stake in maintaining the status quo.  Their authority was derived from the place they occupied in the system of salvation that was then practiced in the church.  They accused Luther, just as others had accused Paul, of undermining good works and moral living by claiming that we are saved by grace alone and our works do not contribute to our peace with God.  Imagine that, that corrupt church in that corrupt age accusing Martin Luther of undermining good works! But Luther’s answer was the same that Paul had given.  The true gospel does not undermine good works, it produces them, but not as the way of salvation but as the fruit of salvation, not in order to obtain peace with God, but as a loving response to that peace freely given.

At the time and ever since, the Roman Catholics and others have accused the grace oriented churches of a neurotic monomania or one-sidedness.  Sola fide, by faith alone; sola gratia, by grace alone; solus Christus, Christ alone, sola Scriptura, by the Scripture alone!  No, they said and still say, let’s have balance.  Let’s be moderate.  Surely faith is important, but let’s not forget works.  Surely the Bible is important, but let us not forget the traditions of the church.  Surely grace is important – don’t anyone think that we are minimizing grace – but let us not forget human effort.  But this reply, seemingly so reasonable, utterly fails to do justice to the burden of Paul’s ferocious polemic against any view of salvation that suspends it, to any degree, on human effort. 

Here in Ephesians 2 that is what Paul most wants to say and be heard to say:  salvation is by grace and not by works he says in several different ways.  It is by faith and not by works.  And this faith by which salvation is received as a gift from the hand of God, even this faith is God’s gift, even this faith is by no means to be thought of as man’s contribution, as that one thing that we contribute to our salvation, that one thing that was not God’s free gift to undeserving and helpless sinners.  “No!” says Paul, it is all of God, it is all his gift, it is all of grace, and grace alone.  The good works, the Christian obedience, the serving of God, it all comes after, it all comes from, it all comes as a result of God’s election and Christ’s sacrifice and the Holy Spirit’s work within us.  Take note how many times Paul says this same thing in different ways in these few verses.  As Richard Baxter, the English puritan, summed up Paul’s point, so emphatically made, “Let ‘deserved,’ be written on the door of hell, but on the door of heaven and life, ‘The Free Gift.’”  [Practical Works, pb vol., 15.]

John Bunyan, in his second great allegory, The Holy War, has a character Mr. Loth-to-Stoop.  Mr. Loth-to-Stoop enters into a conversation with Prince Emmanuel about the conditions of salvation.  He is quite happy he says if Emmanuel can have almost everything so long as he is permitted to keep a small part to himself.  And on and on he seeks to bargain with Emmanuel.  And just like that the largest part of human beings are always trying to get God to offer us his peace on their terms, leaving us some part of our pride, some part of our independence intact.  That is what Paul is after when he speaks about God’s salvation being so much a free gift that no one can boast.  It is not that men will publicly praise themselves for their salvation, that is not what Paul means.  After all, the Pharisees still talked about the grace of God.  He means that down deep, if somehow a part of salvation remains their doing, men will not have had to forsake their pride, will not have had to admit the hopelessness of their situation when they are left to themselves, will not have had to admit to themselves or others that they really are dead in transgressions and sins, that they really are as bad and sinful and guilty and rebellious as God says they are.  Paul knows precisely of what he is speaking because before he became a Christian, before the grace of God changed him, he boasted in just this way.  He was self-satisfied.  He was self-confident.  He was proud of his morality, proud of his knowledge.  [Lloyd-Jones, ii, 133]  But Christ taught him that all of his pretended goodness, all of his accomplishments were “dung” – that is the word he used – because rather than impress God, he offended God because he thought himself so much better than he was.

No, says Paul and said Luther after him:  Salvation is God’s doing from beginning to end.  It was God’s plan, as Paul said in chapter 1 verses 4-5, and no one is ever saved unless he or she was included in that divine plan before the world was made.  It was Christ’s achievement and no one is ever saved unless he or she was in Christ when he went to the cross and when he came out of the grave.  It is the Holy Spirit’s doing and no one ever comes to Christ and obtains salvation unless the Holy Spirit comes and conquers a rebellious human heart and makes it submit to Jesus Christ.  “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts,” a Puritan said, “but the Spirit comes with the key and opens the door.”  [In Packer, Quest, 295]

You remember the Southern aphorisms I have sometimes quoted to you.  “When you find a dog playing checkers you don’t criticize his game; you are just surprised and delighted that he is playing at all.”  And another:  “When you find a turtle on top of a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

Well, that is Paul’s point here and so often in his letters.  When you find a dead sinner, a rebel against God, alive and in love with God, gratefully trusting not to himself or herself but to Jesus Christ for peace with God, wanting and striving to do his will, you don’t criticize his game, you are just surprised and delighted that he is playing at all; and you know good and well she didn’t get to the top of this fence post by climbing it herself.

This conviction is the foundation of everything in the Christian faith as it is defined in Holy Scripture: that we owe our salvation from sin and death and judgment to God entirely, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Everything else comes from that. Here we are told how it is that we ever became Christians and that knowledge is the foundation of everything else in the Christian life.  The whole purpose of the terrible description of man dead in sin, corrupted in his thoughts and attitudes, is precisely to show that we were deserving of God’s judgment and incapable ourselves of evading it.  The reason Paul says that God made us alive with Christ and in Christ is precisely to demonstrate that it is what Christ did and not what we do that has brought us life.  The reason “faith” is said to be the instrument of salvation is because faith in its very nature is a looking away from ourselves to God and to Jesus Christ; faith, as defined in Holy Scripture, involves the abandonment of any effort to justify oneself and a reliance instead on what Christ has done for you.  And, lest anyone mistake the point, Paul is careful to add here that even the faith by which we receive Christ is God’s gift.  The reason love figures so large in this great text, both God’s for us and ours in turn for him, is precisely because the Christian life is a response to the great love with which we were loved by God.  We love him because he first loved us.  The reason Paul’s language is so emphatic and extravagant in speaking about salvation is because the salvation he describes is so wonderful and so utterly unexpected and unpredictable.  No religion invented by men ever laid man so low and made him so utterly dependent upon the good pleasure of God as does the gospel of God.  But no man-made religion ever calls a person to so much in return.  As C.T. Studd, the famous 19th century missionary put it:  “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then there is no sacrifice too great for me to make for him.”

All of this, Paul never tires of saying, means that our salvation from start to finish is God’s doing, is God’s gift, is God’s love, is God’s power, is God’s decision.  That is, salvation is sola gratia, by grace alone!

Listen to this from the great theologian of an earlier generation, Benjamin Warfield.

“There is often a confusion between redemption itself, which is objective and takes place outside of us, with its subjective effects, which take place in us and are wrought in us gradually and in a definite order.  Ideally all of Christ’s children were saved before the foundation of the world, when they were set upon by God’s love, and given by the Father to the Son to be saved by him.  Objectively they were saved when Christ died for them on the tree, purchasing them to himself by his own precious blood.  This salvation was made their personal possession in principle when they were regenerated by the Holy Spirit…. It was made over to them judicially on their believing in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit thus given to them.  But it is completed in them in its full effects only when at the Judgment Day they stand, sanctified souls, clothed in glorified bodies, before the throne of God, [fit] for the inheritance of the saints in light.  Here, you perceive is a process.”  [Counterfeit Miracles, 176]

Paul would agree completely with that.  He has already spoken in the first chapter and a half of Ephesians of all of these stages of salvation:  God setting his love and choice upon the elect before the foundation of the world; Christ winning for them their deliverance from sin and death on the cross; and the Holy Spirit bringing them into the actual possession of this great gift by working faith in Christ in their hearts.  And his point in mentioning all of this is precisely to demonstrate that from the very beginning of our salvation to its completion on the great day, our salvation is God’s work, God’s gift, and God’s achievement.  He sees God saying to us:

                        From the first breath of life divine,

                        Down to the last expiring hour,

                        The gracious work shall all be mine,

                        Begun and ended in my power.

The reason Paul makes so much of this and goes on and on about this and attacks so furiously all contrary teaching in his letters, is precisely because this is the foundation of everything. This is the great truth to be known, this is the great discovery to made.  Compared to this knowledge no other knowledge matters.  The path and the only path to everlasting life, to the true fulfillment and satisfaction of human life, begins right here:  with the heart felt, with the amazed acknowledgement that “when we were dead in transgressions and sins God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ – it is by grace we have been saved.”

If that is the bottom principle of your life, if that is the engine of your daily living, if that is the defining conviction of your existence, then you are a Christian.  If it is not, then you are not.  If salvation by grace alone is the foundation of your thinking and living as a Christian then you will, you must go on in love, obedience and cheerful service of God.  Because the man or woman who knows that he or she was once dead in sin and that God made him or her alive with Christ cannot help but love God and love Jesus greatly and cannot help but show that love by living for him.

Charles Spurgeon, the great Victorian preacher, said, “When I was coming to Christ [as a young man of 16] I thought I was doing it all myself.  [But when I learned differently, when I learned that everything that happened to me was God’s doing and God’s gift] “I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man – that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God.”  [BOT 362, 23]

No wonder the world was turned upside down when Paul discovered that salvation was by grace alone and no wonder that it was turned upside down once again when Martin Luther discovered that salvation was by grace alone, and no wonder that untold multitudes of lives have been turned upside down by this one discovery, that salvation is of the Lord that we, and every Christian, are God’s workmanship, people in whom God has created something new and living out of what was old and dead.  It makes God exceedingly great in a human mind and heart.  It makes his love surpassingly wonderful, his plan and purpose amazing and marvelous.  It makes Christ supremely beautiful and the Holy Spirit precious beyond words.  It makes the divine power over the dead and stony hearts of sinful men and women incomprehensibly and breathtakingly glorious.

When a person grasps the grace of God his or her whole life must change, will change.  To realize that before the foundation of the world God loved me, thatthousands of years ago, Christ Jesus gave himself for me, and that the Holy Spirit came to me and awakened me from the spiritual death in which I lived and would have lived forever, is to see one’s life in utterly different terms, to see one’s purpose now to give glory to God, to see one’s daily calling to live so as to honor and please the one who loved me and gave himself for me.  When one person grasps the grace of God a life is transformed; when many grasp it at the same time the world is transformed.

In the 17th century they understood the grace of God better than it is understood by many Christians today.  The flower of the Reformation was still blooming.  And they wrote a prayer to be used by a new Christian, a way of teaching a new Christian how to think about both his or her salvation and the life that comes from it.  It is, I think, an almost perfect application of these 10 verses from Ephesians chapter 2.  As I read it, test yourself to be sure that it expresses your own mind and your heart about your salvation and about your life.  It is entitled “A Christian’s First Prayer” [The Valley of Vision, 53]

“I could never have sought my happiness in your love, unless you had first loved me.  Your Spirit has encouraged me by grace to seek you, has made known to me your reconciliation in Jesus, has taught me to believe it, has helped me to take you for my God and portion.  May he grant me to grow in the knowledge and experience of you love, and walk in it all the way to glory.  Blessed forever be your fatherly affection, which chose me to be one of your children by faith in Jesus:  I thank you for giving me the desire to live as such.  In Jesus, my brother, I have my new birth, every restraining power, every renewing grace.  It is by your Spirit I call you Father, believe in you, love you; strengthen me inwardly for every purpose of my Christian life; let the Spirit continually reveal to me my interest in Christ, and open to me the riches of your love in him; may he abide in me that I may know my union with Jesus, and enter into constant fellowship with him; by the Spirit may I daily live to you, rejoice in your love, find it the same to me as to your Son, and become rooted and grounded in it as a house on a rock; I know but little – increase my knowledge of your love in Jesus, keep me pressing forward for clearer discoveries of it so that I may find its eternal fullness; magnify your love to me according to its greatness, and not according to my deserts…, and whatever increase you give, let it draw out [of me] greater love to you.”

That is what Paul meant by saying that we must know and never forget that it is by grace that we are saved, that, when we were dead, God made us alive with Christ, and that we are his workmanship.