Ephesians 2:8-10 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Paul has been describing for us that sovereign work of God which joins us to his Son Jesus Christ, delivering us from condemnation through his cross, and making us righteous in him. God has raised us up to new life in him and put us in the heavenly places with Christ right in the midst of the throne of God. God has done all that for his people. Why has he done this? What moved him? What motivated him? In these words of our text Paul provides us with the answer: “it is by grace you have been saved” (v.8).
1. BY GRACE WE HAVE BEEN SAVED.
There is no possibility, the apostle says, that it had anything to do with our good works. It is not that God looked at certain people and said, “Here’s a very beautiful, attractive, intelligent, hardworking, moral group men and women. I’m certainly going to save them.” God didn’t size them up and say, “Well, at least those people are trying; they are sincere; they are a little bit different from others. I like a bit of personality; I’ll have them.” It was not at all because of our efforts, or because we were interesting eccentrics, or that we had some character and that there was a bit of buzz or ‘go’ about us and because of those factors in us God saved us. God didn’t foresee all that we might offer the kingdom of God in the rest of our lives, our energy and our preaching, and for those reasons he invested in us his salvation. The apostle is making it clear that it had nothing to do with such works. That was not the reason at all for God putting us in Christ. We were as dead as anyone else, as much under the sway of the devil as anyone breathing God’s air. We followed the crowd just like the rest. There was no difference at all between us and the rest. It was not that we weren’t quite as dead as others; it was not that in us there was actually a little spark of life. We were as dead as mutton, just like them. We were as ugly as sin could make us, and God wasn’t moved at all by any moral difference, any promise or potential in us. There was nothing in our character at all that motivated God to give his salvation to us. We cannot look to any of those things as the reason for God saving us. We look simply at his grace.
I want you to be encouraged at that fact. Can I put it in this way? Nobody is disqualified from salvation because he is unattractive. I don’t know who amongst you suffers from moods of self-depreciation. I suppose there is one at least here who feels an utter failure, who is tempted to think that if the rest of us knew what he or she were really like that we would never speak to this person again. We would draw away from him in our pews and look in horror at him. When we stand before the glory of God’s law and gospel, and the Holy Spirit comes and convicts us of sin, it can be mighty difficult to believe that the Saviour could ever look down on us and save us. We are so inept, because you know far more eloquently that I can preach to you that your own life is crooked. It is an ugly and insincere life in its behaviour and weaknesses – in every possible area. You know that if your eternal salvation depended on your own sincerity, or your efforts, or integrity, or consistency, or goodness then you know that there would be no hope. Many many men and women put themselves into that situation and they say exactly this, “No hope . . . It’s no use.” And they imagine that because of what they are as unkind and hard men and women whose lives have displayed one key mistake after another that there is no hope for them.
Then they hear this, that there is such marvellous kindness in God. There is the measureless divine pity, and it is mercy for those who are worthless and witless and useless, and such language is not too strong for those who are ungodly men and women. That is the great message here, that God looked upon men and women who were dead in sin, whose lives were Satanic, who were children of wrath. What was the prognosis? What was their future? What was the possibility for them – these poor people with that kind of reputation? They were on the road to hell, and they deserved it, “but . . . God!”
Today those people in the Ephesus church to whom Paul was addressing in this letter, the slaves, and Christian children, and old people, and many illiterates – today those people are among the spirits of just men made perfect. They see the King in his beauty. They are with Christ where he is. God has wiped away every tear from their eyes. They were the offscouring of all things; they deserved nothing . . . “But God!” It may be that you feel worthless, and it may be that this is an accurate judgment in absolute terms – in terms of what we are by the invariable standards of Almighty God – that this is what we are before the God before whom the seraphim hide their eyes and cry Holy, Holy, Holy! We are worthless. Then God came in his grace to these very people, and God did the most amazing thing. He united these worthless people with his Son. He joined them to him. He placed them in the righteousness of his Son. He put them in the redemptive power of the Lord Jesus. He put them in the Sonship of Christ. He put them in the Spirit of his Son. He placed them in the prospects and the hopes and the eternal destiny of his Son.
We are talking about the most worthless people imaginable, and I would say, “It’s a great thing today to be worthless,” because that’s what God does to worthless people. From sinking sands he lifts them up, and with his own tender hands; from shades of night to planes of light he lifts them. He condemns his own dear Son, and he pardons contemptuous rebels. So none of us who have heard the good news of Jesus Christ is to despair. Where do I sit today as a Christian? In the midst of the throne of God. What did I do to deserve it? What did any sinner do to deserve that glory? Who can point to some works for which that is the reward? What were we like? Weren’t we just “like the rest” (v.3)? We weren’t any different in any identifiable way from others so as to explain the fact that we’ve become the sons of God. What made this distinction between us and those other people we admired – the teenagers we grew up with, some of them brilliant and moral, musical and athletic, intellectual and cultured, witty and good-looking – and yet they ended up lost sinners. Why should God have loved us in particular? It was his grace; it was not our deserving at all.
God’s grace is his undeserved favour. God’s grace is his kindness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s G.R.A.C.E. spells out this phrase, “Great Riches At Christ’s Expense.” When the New Testament talks about salvation by grace it means salvation by God. Every religion offers its own salvation. One says that it comes to men and women by meditation, another is by five times of prayer a day and deeds of charity; another salvation is by visits to a temple and sacrifices to the gods there; another that it’s by knocking on doors and selling literature; another is by baptisms and ceremonies. But the Bible tells us that salvation is not what we do but through what Jesus Christ has done, by his wonderful grace alone. The Scripture turns us away from our own actions or works and makes us look at the gracious achievements of God. It tells us that in its conception, and continuance, and consummation salvation is all because of the divine pity and initiative. Were we the ones who sent Jesus into the world? No, that was God. Did we put him under the law? No, that was God. Did we lay our sins on him on the cross? No that was God. The Lord laid on him the iniquities of us all. Did we send for Christians to come into our lives to share with us the knowledge of the Saviour? No, God brought them into our lives. Did we change our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh? No, that was God. Grace is God acting omnipotently to redeem and glorify sinners so that because of his love alone they find themselves seated with Christ in heaven. They say, “‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, and O, my God, it found out me!”
Why it was me who was found out by the Lord he never tells any of us. I haven’t the least idea why his grace homed in on me and saved me, but one thing I am sure of is that it was not by my works. I know that I have nothing to boast of (v.9). It was not that I was good living, or religious, or smart in choosing heaven rather than hell – “I knew a bargain when I saw one.” No! No one at all will boast in heaven that they are spending eternity in the presence of God with pleasures for evermore because of their works. No one will say, “I’m here because of me.” We are not going to preen ourselves like peacocks as we strut around heaven. No one would dare put his arm around Jesus and say, “We did it, you and I!” Each one will point away from self to the Lord Jesus and say, “He did it all.” The Lamb is all the glory in Immanuel’s land. It’s grace alone that has brought us here to this junction today on our journey to heaven so that at this moment we are not in the flames of hell shrieking in agony but we are meeting with Jesus Christ and hearing of his pity to sinners. That same grace we trust will take us home. It is not our works, and we are not boasting in anything except in the Son of God who saved us.
I watched televised transcripts of the trial of three men in South Africa who had entered a church service with rifles and hand-grenades and had killed a number in that big congregation. I listened with a lump in my throat as the Christian husband of one of the murdered women said weeping to the men in the dock sitting ten feet away from him, “I offer you forgiveness for killing my wife.” That is grace. That same forgiveness for far worse crimes God has shown to all his people, some of whom murdered his own beloved Son. God saved those Jerusalem sinners. God’s grace saves us.
2. THROUGH FAITH THAT SALVATION BECOMES OURS.
See the careful balance Paul maintains here? “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (v.8). He doesn’t write that because it is by grace all anyone can do is to sit back and wait; “Wait for that grace to reach you!” No. He says that it’s through our faith that God’s grace saves us. When this pure vertical sovereign saving grace touches us we show that it has actually done so by the fact that we are now trusting in Jesus Christ for all our salvation. In other words, once we start to hear anything true about Jesus Christ we are under an obligation to believe it. Not to believe it is a sin. When the Philippian jailer in the deepest fear and despair cries out, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul tells him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Entrust yourself to the Saviour. That was the New Testament message. It is not the entire New Testament message, but it is one indispensable part of it. It is God who shows his grace, not me, while I am the one who has to believe right into Jesus Christ to be saved. Faith is not the act of God. It is not God who believes in Christ for salvation, it is the sinner. What does this ‘faith’ mean? Three things:
i] I must know about Jesus Christ. How can you say to a contemporary child whose only knowledge of Jesus is that that is a swear word, “Come to Jesus!” Who or what is Jesus? What do you mean to come to him? You must explain to them who Jesus is. There has to be knowledge. Paul says it so very plainly, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (Roms. 10:14). So we explain who Jesus is. That is why every Sunday morning I am taking you through the gospel of Mark and explaining to you what Jesus Christ did and said, and so showing to you who he is. I am giving you knowledge so that can intelligently entrust yourself to someone you know. Paul Simon sings in his song, “Slip slidin’ away” these words, “Well, God only knows, and God makes his plan; the information’s unavailable to the mortal man.” Untrue! The Lord Jesus has come into the world to make God’s plan of redemption spectacularly clear to us. I am giving you this knowledge again today, as are preachers all over the world in a million pulpits!
When Albert Fallaize was a missionary working in Morocco in the first part of the last century he had some dealings with the Jewish community there. One friend asked him to Rachel, his sister’s wedding. They were in the synagogue for ages as Rachel sat in the front in clothes covered with jewels borrowed for the occasion. Her eyes were tightly shut through the whole service, and then she was led out of the synagogue into a wagon drawn by some mules to her new home down the street. She was carried inside on a chair and placed on a cushion behind a curtain. Then, finally, her husband would enter and draw the curtain aside and she would open her eyes and the first person she would see in her new life, sometimes for the first time, would be her husband. Now none of you would choose to marry in that way. You would desire to get to know the one you were going to spend the rest of your life with. What were his values? Was he kind and gentle and loving? Would he encourage and support you? What sort of man was he? Even so with Jesus Christ, you must find out about him before you spend the rest of your life walking with him and serving him.
If I should ask the Dutch members of our congregation this most important of all questions, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Then they would answer immediately these words (but of course they know them in the Dutch language), “That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father, not a hair can fall from my head; that all things must be subservient to my salvation; and, therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.” That is our only comfort in life and death. That is the great opening question and answer to the Heidelberg Catechism. They know that truth because that they have been given knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is what they have heard from their parents and their congregations. They have been taught the Bible; they have been catechised. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. So in order to have saving faith first of all there has to be knowledge through words and preaching and books and prayers and example and so on.
ii] Secondly, I must believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is true. The bare information will not save anyone. In the 18th century there was a sailor who, on returning from a long voyage, visited a shop to buy his wife a gift. He noticed a Bible on the counter and he bought it for her though neither of them could read. He thought it would be a symbol of respectability and learning and might bring them good luck. His wife wasn’t pleased and thought it rather a waste of money, but within a couple of weeks two men from the Bible Society knocked on her door. They spoke kindly to her and told her how valuable the Bible was. She told them that indeed she had a Bible, but she was thinking that they meant it was valuable financially. The men urged her to attend a local school where adults were taught to read. She had a ready mind and soon could read. When her husband was home she showed her newly acquired skill by reading aloud a chapter of the Bible to him each night. He was impressed and decided he would learn to read too. Soon they had reached stage one, they had knowledge of Jesus Christ, but the more they read the more they were convinced that what they were reading was true. They began to go to church and there they learned more and more about themselves and the Saviour. This sailor had bought a Bible for the sake of respectability and good luck, but as they heard the message of the Bible they came to believe that what it contained was true. They were convinced and convicted that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had died on the cross to save sinners and that he lived to receive all who came to him. They had past from ignorance to knowledge, and then they had passed from knowledge to conviction. They had reached stage two, but they still were not Christians. There is another step in full saving faith:
iii] Thirdly I must entrust myself to Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. You cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ. You must stop relying on yourself and your own resources and rely on Christ alone for salvation. That is the message of the Bible. That is saving faith. These are the words found in the hymn Rock of Ages, one of the greatest of all hymns ever written:
“Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul I to the fountain fly:
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.” (Augustus Toplady, 1740-1778).
That perfectly captures the Bible’s description of saving faith. Augustus Toplady confesses to us that he is resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He came as a naked lost helpless sinner to a Saviour who was willing to receive him. He is not satisfied to have information about Jesus Christ. He is not satisfied to believe those things are true. He is now trusting in everything Jesus said and everything he did as the Son of God and the Saviour of the lost. He has come into direct personal contact with the Saviour himself as he is freely and fully offered to him in the gospel. That is saving faith.
Why are we saved through faith? The answer is clear. If we are saved because of God’s grace which is totally unmerited then there is only one human attitude appropriate as a means of receiving such grace and that is faith. Faith is the one human attitude that is the opposite of depending on yourself, because you are trusting in another, what he is and what he has done. There is no self-reliance here, and no attempt to gain some merit by your effort. If the Bible had said we were saved by love then you know that love works, it suffers long and is kind and endures everything and so on. But faith is not like that at all; it receives what another has done in our place, his life of love and good works. Faith looks away to the life and death of the Son of God. “I am saved because of him,” faith says. So God’s grace saves us, and that becomes ours through faith.
3. THAT THIS FAITH AND ALL OF SALVATION IS THE GIFT OF GOD.
You notice what Paul says, ” – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (v.8). Now what does that little word ‘this’ refer to? There are two grammatical options, the first is that it refers to saving faith as being a gift of God. Certainly that is true. Salvation is not some kind of transaction between sinners and God in which God contributes his grace and sinners contribute their faith. We were dead and had to be made alive before we could believe. Saving faith is granted to us by God. This is what Paul says in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” It was their faith as well as their trials which had been granted to them by God, Paul tells them. Again, Luke tells us that Apollos goes to Achaia and that “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed” (Acts 18:27). How do we experience saving faith? By the grace of God. So it is possible grammatically that Paul is referring to saving faith as God’s gift.
The other grammatical option is that it refers to all of God’s salvation, everything Paul has been speaking about in the previous sentence. In other words, the whole event and experience, everything that has saved these people by grace is God’s free gift to them. Salvation has not been their achievement, nor a reward for any of their works. The whole of salvation is not from ourselves but it is the gift of God. That is the grace of God. When I lived in Philadelphia I was a member in the church pastored by Donald Grey Barnhouse, a preacher famous for his booming voice and fund of illustrations in his many books. He wrote a booklet entitled, “How God Saves Men,” in which he illustrates the grace of God. There he told this story:
During the last century, in the worst slum district of London, there was a social worker whose name was Henry Moorehouse. One evening as he was walking along the street he saw a little girl come out of a basement shop carrying a pitcher of milk. She was taking it home. She was only a few yards from Moorehouse she slipped and fell. The pitcher fell on the pavement and broke into ten pieces pouring the milk into the gutter. The little girl began to cry as if her heart would break. Moorehouse quickly stepped up to see if she was hurt. He helped her to her feet, saying, “Don’t cry, little girl.” But there was no stopping her tears. She kept repeating, “My mammy’ll whip me; my mammy’ll whip me.”
Moorehouse said, “No, little girl, your mother won’t whip you. I’ll see to that. Look, the pitcher isn’t broken in many pieces.” As he stooped down beside her, picked up the pieces, and began to work as if he were putting the pitcher back together, the little girl stopped crying. She had hope. She came from a family in which pitchers had been mended before. Maybe this stranger could repair the damage. She watched as Moorehouse fitted several of the pieces together until, working too roughly, he knocked it apart again. Once more she began to cry, and Moorehouse had to repeat, “Don’t cry, little girl. I promise you that your mother won’t whip you.”
Once more they began the task of restoration, getting it all together except for the handle. Moorehouse gave it to the little girl, and she tried to attach the handle, but, naturally, all she did was knock it down again. This time there was no stopping her tears. She would not even look at the broken pieces lying on the pavement.
Finally Moorehouse picked the little girl up in his arms, carried her down the street to a shop that sold crockery, and he bought her a new pitcher. Then, still carrying her, he went back to where the girl had bought the milk and had the new pitcher filled. He asked her where she lived. When she told him, he carried her to the house, set her down on the step, and placed the full pitcher of milk in her hands. Then he opened the door for her. As she stepped in, he asked one more question, “Now, do you think your mother will whip you?” He was rewarded for his trouble by a smile as she said to him, “Oh, no, sir, because it’s a lot better pitcher than the one we had before.”
That illustrates the gift of God. We had been made in the image of God, but that image has been shattered in the fall of our father Adam. When the Lord Jesus came into the world it was not to help us stick together the broken parts of our lives but by his free gift of grace to give us new hearts and make us new creations – new wineskins able to contain his new wine. We have gained more blessings than our father lost. That little girl had done nothing to gain the kindness of Henry Moorehouse. She could pay him nothing. He helped her solely because it pleased him to do so. He expected no reward from her nor from her parents. All he did was of his grace, and what she got was far better than what she’d lost. Some of you are reluctant to become Christians because you fear you are going to give up something precious and are going to get something inferior in its place. No! You are going to give up only your sin and its dominion over your life and instead of that you are going to get a new wonderful loving Master, Jesus Christ! Salvation is by the free gift of God.
4. THIS GRACE HAS BEEN ORDAINED TO RESULT IN GOOD WORKS.
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v.10). You see how these words meet a familiar objection which some men raise. “If all this were true,” they say, “if salvation were in fact all of God’s grace and not because of our earnestness and morality, then you Christians can live just as you please. Let’s continue in sin! Let’s give God’s mercy plenty of scope, if the Christian life has nothing to do with a man’s merit.” But then we meet this great statement of why God brought these people and Christ together, making us new creations. We have been created in Christ Jesus for this purpose that we do good works, or as the Authorised Version translates it, “saved unto good works.” I remember my Professor John Murray preaching on this theme and saying at one point, “saved by good works, or saved unto good works.” What’s the difference? Just two little prepositions, what’s the difference between them? They represent all the difference between heaven and hell. “Saved by our good works,” and we are lost people. “Saved unto good works,” and there is hope for the vilest.
Martin Luther was a young man who had every reason to trust in his good works. This is what he once said, “I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could claim that if ever a monk were able to reach heaven by monkish discipline I should have found my way there. All my fellows in the house who knew me, would bear me out in this. For if it had continued much longer I would, what with vigils, prayers, readings and other such works, have done myself to death.” He spent hours in prayer and in confessing all the sins he could think of and wore a cruel hair shirt that irritated all his skin, and he lashed himself with a whip. Yet by all this he could not find a rest. He was in despair until he grasped the gospel. He was saved by the blood of Christ alone. He saw that his righteousness was in heaven.
God’s purpose in pouring out his grace into our lives is that ever afterwards we, with the energy of grace, and constrained by the love of Jesus Christ for us, are abundant in the good works we do. You remember the great descriptions of the Day of Judgment given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ. Haven’t you noticed that all of them overwhelmingly emphasise the centrality of good works? Here is a cruel man who wouldn’t show mercy to a man who owed him a paltry sum of money though this man’s vast debt had been all cleared. What a terrible judgment came upon that harsh man! Jesus the Good Shepherd welcomes the sheep in the Great Day, and what he will talk to them about so appreciatively is their good works, that they fed the hungry, they gave the thirsty something to drink, they clothed the naked, they visited the sick, and went to prison to help those locked up behind bars for Christ, they invited people into their homes all in the name of Christ. They were devoted to one another in brotherly love; they honoured one another above themselves; they were patient in affliction and faithful in prayer. They shared with God’s people in need. They practised hospitality. They mourned with them that mourn. They lived in harmony with every other Christian. They associated with people of low position. They did not repay evil for evil. They did what was right in everyone’s eyes. They lived at peace with everyone. They did not take revenge. They overcame evil with good. They bore the burdens of the weak. They were good Samaritans. They submitted themselves to the higher authorities. Because they had been made new creations they lived lives of good works. Christ will say to them, “Because you did these things to the least of these my brethren you have done them to me.” That is what grace does in all who have true saving faith. There can be no true doctrine of assurance that does not contain some element of self-examination to check whether my life matches up in good works to those described by the Bible as characteristically Christian.
But you see how Paul puts it here, that these good works, “God prepared in advance for us to do” (v.10). ‘Us’ – that is, we Christians from the smallest to the greatest. God has prepared in advance lives of good works for every one of us. Because of the sovereignty of God we know that there are certain things that the Lord has prepared in advance. We think of our conversions being prepared in advance, and our life’s vocations having been prepared in advance, or our husbands or wives being prepared in advance for us. Sometimes we think of the great problems that loom up before us, walking through the valley of the shadow of death when we experience bereavement and sorrow, and we find comfort from the fact that it wasn’t an accident. It didn’t occur by chance or bad luck but God had prepared it in advance and gave it to us. Everyone must walk through these foreordained sufferings. That is true.
Yet there is something else that God has prepared in advance for us, and that is our good works. Everyone who has been saved by grace, and given saving faith in Christ, has been created to do God-prepared good works. If this is not true of you then what spiritual prospects do you have? It is absolutely integral to this redemption that those lives have been touched by the grace of God are going to come across works to do this day and this week, prepared for them by God. They are going to walk in them, because if they have been prepared in advance for conversion they have also been prepared in advance for good works. The connection is inseparable. Faith without works is dead.
Now this means that every day as we arise in the morning we think to ourselves, “I wonder what good works God has prepared in advance for me to do today?” Because if we have been saved by grace and through faith then we are have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works. I had a letter from a woman last week who was going into hospital for a major operation, and she was saying that when she was thinking about going into that ward and preparing for her operation she was praying for opportunities to serve other people and speak to them during the time she was there, staff and fellow patients. Soon after the operation she wrote again to tell me of the women she had met there and the conversations she had had. That is the mentality that Paul writes of here, that if we are God’s workmanship then God has prepared us for a life of good works. There is no escape, and if you think that means your life is going to be full of sacrifice then I say, of course it is. Our bodies are to be presented to God daily as living sacrifices. That’s what life is all about. In sacrifice there is fullness of joy. Nowhere will God put you where is grace cannot keep you, and that is the discovery of joy. The most satisfying life is the one in which the Lord’s people, his workmanship, are zealous in doing good works.
9th May 2004 GEOFF THOMAS