Preached by Ben Bechtel
Today we are going to be looking at the third of the five solas of the Reformation, grace alone. As we have noted several times already, the real catalyst for this movement of the Reformation was Martin Luther, the German monk who through his study of the Scriptures came to note many ways in which the Roman church was corrupt and needed to be purified. Luther was a man who took his faith and his sin very seriously. There are stories of him lashing himself in the back with a whip or scrubbing the floors of the monastery until his fingers bled in order to do penance for his sin. He saw the reality of his sin and it left him dejected with his only comfort being his own ability to make it up to God per se.
Does this sound familiar to our lives? On the surface, it seems like it doesn’t at all! We are not monks living in a monastery nor does our Protestant Christianity require penance. However, we all suffer from the same problem as Luther. When we are faced with the ugly reality of sin, we try to make it up to God, we try to pay God back. When faced with our sin, we may try to attend church more regularly or read the Bible more or become a better, more spiritual person. These seem like great things on the surface but they ultimately will leave us dejected and discouraged if we don’t do them well or puffed up in pride if we feel like we are doing well. In Ephesians 2:1-10, the apostle Paul is attacking this same mindset. As we read this text, we will discover what Luther discovered: that when we humbly accept God’s free gift of grace alone, we will be freed from discouragement and pride to do the work of God in the world. Read Ephesians 2:1-10:
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
As we study the beautiful gospel of grace in these verses, our thoughts will be organized into 3 categories: who we were (v. 1-3), who we are (v. 4-9), and what we ought to do (v. 10).
1. Who We Were (v. 1-3)
As we jump into chapter 2 of Ephesians, it is important to note where we are situated in the letter. In chapter 1, Paul has discussed the great salvation which we have in Christ and has prayed an astounding prayer of encouragement for his readers to grow in this salvation. He is starting his letter in a major key! Then, in a moment in 2:1-3 he says they are dead in sins, children of wrath, sons of disobedience, and under the influence of Satan (the prince of the power of the air). He switches quickly to a minor key. It is clear here, at the beginning of chapter 2, that Paul wants to present the Ephesians and us with a clear picture of who we used to be before salvation. And that picture is not photo-shopped or flattering.
First of all, he talks about the external evils that influenced us. We were both influenced by the “course of this world,” which simply means the current evil age and the sinful influences that come from living in this world, and the spiritual beings of darkness. Both the world and the spiritual forces of darkness held us captive prior to our salvation. Satan and his forces and the world in which you live want nothing more than for you to not believe in the gospel. He is real and working in the world contrary to God’s plan.
But Paul doesn’t stop at the external forces of evil. He also stresses that all people are evil in their hearts. All people are dead in sin, sons of disobedience, and are by nature, by virtue of who they are in opposition to God, children of wrath. Paul isn’t pulling any punches. He is telling us all that we are evil to our very core, carrying out our own evil desires as it says in verse 3. We all seek after our own interests before the interests of others. We all define good and evil for ourselves. We are all inherently dead and sinful. And because of our sin, we have all earned the just punishment of God for our sin. Because of our sinful natures, the pressures of an evil system, and the spiritual forces of darkness, we are all doomed to live a life of unfulfilled self-seeking and to ultimately suffer the consequences of our rebellion against our King.
At this point I think it’s fair to stop and ask the question why. Why would Paul remind this church, who has experienced this amazing salvation in Christ, of their former life of sin? This church was a good church, whom Paul was thankful for (1:15). This church was very similar to Community Evangelical Free Church! Why would Paul switch so quickly from his major key, celebratory song in chapter 1 to the minor blues here in chapter 2? Paul is doing something very intentional with his structure here. Even though his readers have experienced salvation, he reminds them of their sin in order to keep the good news in perspective. If you don’t know how bad you had it, then you won’t appreciate the goodness of his gift of salvation. In the same way that those who grow up poor can better appreciate the pleasure in everyday luxuries, the believer who remembers the depths of his/her past and present sin can appreciate the luxuries of salvation in Christ.
This is precisely what the gospel does to the proud, to those who think they have it all together, who think they worked hard for what they deserve. God breaks the prideful person up against the rocks with the piercing diagnosis the gospel gives of the human condition. We are utterly lost and dead. We cannot save ourselves. We are desperately in need of a Savior. Friends, do you see yourselves this way? Are you aware of your own sin in deep ways? Do you see and ponder your own sins in order to see your desperate need for a Savior? Do you see the futility of your efforts to save yourself and the pride that creates? Let the gospel put you under a microscope and do the painful surgery of laying bare the sickness with which we all are infected. Do not pretend you are well when you are dying of cancer. Who were we? We were sinners without hope in the world, influenced on all fronts to do evil, dead and needing to be resurrected.
2. Who We Are (v. 4-9)
There is a hinge between these two realities of who we were and who we are now. Not only were we children of wrath and dead in sin, but we also were simultaneously loved by God. Look at verses 4-5:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ
What is the cause for our being made alive with Christ? It is because God loved us. And this love with which God loved us, is not the wishy-washy version of love that we are so used to today. In the Bible, love is defined as a faithful commitment to another. Look back to chapter 1:3-6 where we see this love of God defined for us:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
God’s love here in Ephesians is rooted in his commitment to see us saved from our sin and live as children in his family forever for the praise of his glory. You see, simultaneously, while we were in our sin, we were both children of wrath and yet loved by God. From the outset, God’s commitment was to love us faithfully through to the end. This means that our salvation does not lie in us but from the very beginning lies in the gracious and loving character of our God! This is good news for us! Even though we were dead and unable to seek God, God already loved us and sought us out in Christ to rescue us! It is this joyous news that causes him to exclaim there at the end of verse 5, “by grace you have been saved!”
What exactly does God’s grace and love give to us? We read of this in verses 5-7:
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
God gives to us freely life, resurrection, and an exalted status in heaven. These glorious truths hinge on an important teaching in Christianity—if you believe in Christ, what is true of Christ is true of you. We were crucified with Christ, raised with Christ, and are now seated in heaven with Christ. The words of the hymn “Christ For Us” by Horatius Bonar illustrate this truth beautifully:
Upon a Life I have not lived,
Upon a Death I did not die,
Another’s Life; Another’s Death,
I stake my whole eternity.
Not on the tears which I have shed,
Not on the sorrows I have known,
Another’s tears; Another’s griefs,
On these I rest, on these alone
O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what Thy cross has done for me;
There both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see.1
We are totally dependent upon the work of another in our place. We look to Christ and in him we see our very death and life. The riches of his life and death accrue to use solely by virtue of his grace. And notice that all of these things are ours now by virtue of Christ. These are all past tense verbs used here—made alive, raised, seated. We have life spiritually and are exalted and ruling with Christ in the present! What grace has been given to us.
This story of our salvation in Christ is not like the typical American success story. The typical American Dream-esque story begins with a child in poverty being taught the value of hard work and through the course of his/her life they raise themselves to an exalted place of power and money by their own hard work. In a sense, they merit their own salvation. The gospel is the exact opposite! We weren’t just poor, but we were dead in the coffin when God raised us to life, lavished his riches upon us, and exalted us—all because of his love and grace. Do you see how different these are? One is something that we worked hard to achieve and that we in some sense deserved. The other is a free and undeserved gift. This is what Christ gives to us.
So here again, let’s ask ourselves the same question we asked after our first point—do we see ourselves this way? Do we see ourselves as having been resurrected and seated with Christ already? Do we see ourselves as recipients of grace and forgiveness who are exalted with Christ to the throne of the universe? Think about how this changes us on a daily basis! Our true self, Paul is saying, is no longer identified by sin, death, wrath, and slavery as it once was. Rather, our true self is seated in heaven with Christ. Our resurrection has creeped into the present! We have been given salvation from sin and death. Friends, why is it then that we are continually downcast beyond measure by our sin? Why is it that we feel as if we have to punish ourselves or run from God when we fall into sin? We do these things because we forget the gospel! We forget that our salvation is by grace alone, not our own efforts or doing. We forget that by his grace, God has raised us to life out of our spiritual deadness and that we are sons and daughters of him who are exalted in authority. Let this identity define you, not your sinful, old self. Identify with Christ and his work for you and not your own ability to earn God’s favor. He loved you even while you were in sin! What makes you think he will abandon you now in Christ? Lift up your head from guilt, shame, and discouragement and see him!
Are you beginning to see what the gospel of grace does to us? The gospel is both the scalpel and the healing ointment. The gospel both breaks the ship upon the rocks and pieces it back together. To the person who is proud, who believes that he/she is doing a fairly good job at following God, the gospel exposes their deep failure. To the religious person, the one who thinks that because they attend church regularly, give consistently, and read their Bible frequently they earn the favor of God, the gospel exposes the deep sinfulness of their heart. It shows that no matter how well you may do in keeping God’s law, you are never going to be good enough. It exposes the life of pride and religious performance as a sham.
On the flip side of that, the gospel also lifts up the person who is downcast. For the one who realistically sees the depths of his/her own sin, who rightly assesses the relational and spiritual damage that their sin has caused, and who is despondent and fearful of God’s judgment, the gospel lifts their head to see Christ. The gospel speaks to this person that their failed performance does not nullify the grace and love of God for them. The gospel tells them that there is no wrath for them and that they are seated in the heavenly places in Christ. The gospel frees us to drop our tired efforts of trying hard and feeling guilty and to run to Jesus anew today. When we do this, when we see our salvation in the grace of Christ, we like Luther will discover that the gospel is the best news we could ever want to hear.
What the gospel ends up producing in us, rather than discouragement or pride, is true humility. Look at verses 8-9:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
How do we respond when we receive a gift? This is like boot-camp training for Christmas morning for you kids in here, so pay special attention. We shouldn’t respond by attempting to pay the person back nor should we respond by saying, “yeah I deserved this. In fact, I think I deserved a little bit better.” We respond by opening our hands and receiving the gift. We respond with humility.
One of the characters in the biblical story who so beautifully illustrates this is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is a nobody. She is a teenage girl from out in the sticks who is just excited to marry a good man and live a normal life. And yet, God calls her favored and chooses her to be the mother of the Messiah. In response to this news, this is what Mary sings in Luke 1:46-55. Listen to her great humility:
46 “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel,in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Listen to the joy in her words! She knows both that she doesn’t deserve this gift and the exponential greatness of this gift and it results in joy, worship, and humility. Friends, let that be our response to the gift of salvation in Christ! May we rightly see our own lack of merit, our own rebellion and deadness, and God’s provision for our condition in Christ. And may this news cause us to humbly bow before our God in joy and worship.
3. What We Ought to Do (v. 10)
The text does not end there though. There is something else Paul has in mind. Much like Benjamin pointed out several weeks ago that Scripture alone does not mean that Scripture is our only authority but our highest, so this week it is right to point out that grace alone is necessary for our initial salvation but our own good works are a necessary part of the Christian life. Paul says as much in the final verse of our chapter:
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We were recreated in Christ for the purpose of doing good works. God saved us by grace for good works. It is necessary for the Christian to follow the will of God and do his work in the world. Notice again though, how even this for Paul is saturated with grace. These works themselves are prepared beforehand by God. God in his grace paved the way for you and I to obey him. This means that even our church attendance, our work for the poor and marginalized, our work in education, our patience with the annoying neighbor that we can’t stand, or any number of our good works are all ultimately due to the grace of God. And it is precisely because of the grace of God in Christ that we are motivated to do good works. Our works are not done in order to earn the favor of God but spring up from the well of joy which comes from receiving the favor of God.
Church, let’s be a people who specializes in grace-motivated good works! Let’s be people who do many, many good works for our neighbors and the city of Harrisburg because we recognize that we ourselves have been given the most grace. May we be a church that is made up of people who get the gospel, that we have received grace and love in Jesus even in our darkest moments, and who share that same type of grace with others through our works! Only the humility produced by the good news of Jesus’ work can truly sustain and propel us to do the work of God in the world. Church, may we as a bunch of misfits and outlaws, be those through whom the glory of God’s grace shines brightly to the city of Harrisburg and the whole world.2