If I asked what one wish you had for Christs Church, what would it be? What would you want to see in the Body of Christ throughout the world? Most people would respond with "unity." A united Church is certainly an admirable desire. It is an understandable embarrassment that while we as Christians claim to serve one God, we are so divided among ourselves. It is for this reason that many have welcomed the movement among churches toward laying aside past disagreements, the most notable division being between Protestants and Catholics. For over 400 years a rift between the two has existed but in recent years dialogue has taken place to the delight of many. Most notable is the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) 1987 statement, "Salvation and the Church." But discussion is not limited to them. Evangelicals joined the bandwagon producing "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" and in 1997 "The Gift of Salvation" or ECT II. This October 31st, the day marking the beginning of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican will gather in Augsburg, Germany to sign the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" where both sides agree we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. It appears a momentous event has occurred; the joy expressed is not so much due to changes which have taken place in Rome, but by the ignorance of what God has said regarding the importance of our salvation being understood as occurring by grace alone through faith alone.
While we should salute the efforts of co-belligerency in the common sphere of cultural life, while we should work together to speak out against the effects of the Fall in our world, we must be cautious to remain well informed as to what we believe Gods Word says about our standing before God. An important place to be reminded of this task is before us in Ephesians 2:8-10.
We are saved by grace alone - verses 8-9
Our salvation is completed because of grace
Years ago, during a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world, debated what, if anything, is unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Is it the Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Is it the Resurrection? Once again, other religions had accounts of people rising from the dead. Eventually, the Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis, wandered into the room. "Whats all the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianitys unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, "Oh, thats easy. Its grace."
Grace is that term which we banter about in church. Whether we define it with the acrostic: "Gods Riches At Christs Expense" or simply as Gods unmerited favor, we need to be clear what we mean by this important term. What is grace? Grace is God carrying you because you are unable to walk. Grace is God giving you a priceless gift that you can't pay back. Grace is God giving you something good that you don't deserve. Notice how Paul describes grace in this passage.
Having begun this chapter describing the depths in which humanity finds itself, detailing our death due to sin, our domination by society and Satan, Paul describes how God makes the dead to live again. That is how he wants us to understand grace. As a dead man has no sense, is incapable of reason, unable to decide, so we are unable to do a thing with respect toward Gods perfect demands. But grace unlocks our soul.
What does this grace do? Look at the language of verse 8. Paul uses a perfect participle to describe an event that occurred in the past and is completed now. " you have been saved" he says. The action is complete. Grace has done it all. Paul sets forth here what the Reformers understood as "sola gratia" - grace alone!
"Grace alone" has always been a pivotal issue in the history of the Church. Virtually every error concerning man's salvation is an error that has its departure in the denial of "grace alone." And that denial is often a very subtle denial. No one would ever be so bold to claim that their standing before God was devoid of grace, but due solely to their own merit. Error sneaks in not with the bald faced lie of total personal effort, but whenever one neglects to see that our standing before God is by grace alone and that grace has secured our standing before God. If grace comes only when coupled with our effort, if grace is not the only factor, then we do not understand or believe the Gospel.
It is not uncommon for people to view Gods grace as a cooperative effort, that God will give grace as we do our part. What is the great axiom of American religion? "God helps those who help themselves." Pollster George Barna found that 86% of evangelicals believed that that statement was either a direct quote from the Bible or an excellent summation of what the Bible says. But that view is flatly contradicted by Scripture.
During the height of the Reformation Martin Luther debated the great Erasmus over freedom of the will and the nature of grace. Erasmus described grace with a common analogy of medieval Europe, but what is also generally accepted by people today. Erasmus said Gods grace is like the parent helping the baby to walk. He holds the hands, he steadies the body, he lets the child take a few faltering steps on his own and catches him if he falls. The picture sounds loving, but incorrect. (Footprints poster?) Luther responded that such a view thinks too highly of man and too lowly of God. Rather we are a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. There is no escape. Grace is the hand which reaches down and plucks the helpless creature from a certain holocaust.
Whats the difference then between these views?
The view espoused by Rome and adopted by many Protestants sees grace not as the power by which God declares us to be just because of the work of Christ, but rather grace is like a medicine, dispensed by the Church. Grace, it is thought, will transform us internally and morally. Justification becomes a process by which grace is imparted to us in baptism, in communion as well as other deeds deemed worthy by the Church. Grace is thus "infused" and salvation is seen only as a process. One could never say that "by grace you have been saved."
In response to this, we see that Scripture does not promote a progressive justification, but a declarative act by a just God. Rather than an infused righteousness, we have an imputed righteousness. This is because Gods grace is not set in cooperation with our will, but is given completely and absolutely because we can do nothing to effect our own salvation.
We are not just sick, in need of taking the right medication, getting plenty of rest and will gradually get better. Rather we are dead and in need of a resurrection. The only hope you and I have is grace and grace alone.
Grace alone means we leave boasting alone
When we understand that we do not deserve this grace, when we realize that we can not cooperate with grace, then we will be able to maintain a sane picture of ourselves. In "The Sound of Music," Maria, bewildered by the captain's sudden attraction to her, rhapsodizes, "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good." Deep down, human nature is convinced that there is a way for us to save ourselves. We may indeed require divine assistance. Perhaps God will have to show us the way, but when push comes to shove, we have at least a part to play.
But Paul wants us to be sure that there can be no boasting. If it is grace alone, there is no patting ourselves on the back. If it is grace alone, we must leave boasting alone.
Paul repeatedly returns to this conclusion. In Romans 3, after describing how we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, Paul asks the obvious question in verse 27: "Where, then, is boasting?" It is cut off at the knees. Where is our boasting to be? In 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 Paul is clear that our only boasting is to be in what the Father has done for us.
The triumphing in what we have done is removed. Why? Because to imagine that we have anything to do with our standing before God, to think that we contribute even the slightest minutia of work or even faith is to deceive ourselves. It is to steal from God the glory that belongs to Him and Him alone.
We are saved through faith alone - verses 8-9
Dr. John Gerstner, a well-known Presbyterian theologian, was approached by a critic of his preaching, a woman who objected strenuously to his holding forth this truth and the associated truth of our depravity. That woman did not like to hear that. She came up to him after the service and, holding her fingers about an inch apart, complained, "You make me feel so big."
Dr. Gerstner responded, "Lady, that is too big; much too big, fatally big. You and I are a minus quantity, and all fallen mankind with us. Justification can be by faith alone."
Faith alone tells me the means God uses to make me His own
First Paul tells us how God saves us - by grace, then he tells us the means: through faith. We need to understand what Paul means by "faith" here. When we read that we are saved by grace through faith we must understand that to have faith does not so much say something about you, but about God, that He is trustworthy.
Faith has an adhesive quality to it; it binds the believer to the one who is believed. Salvation does not come from believing ideas or an emotional decision, but from being bound to Christ.
It is imperative we understand the nature of biblical faith. When someone asks why God has given you eternal life, if you answer because you believe, do you mean to say that you were saved by the work of your faith? Hopefully not. Where is Christ in that equation? It is not faith per se, but Christ, the object of faith, who justifies and saves. Dont look within to see if we believe strongly enough, but biblical faith looks without: to Christ.
Faith is the conduit through which Gods grace comes to us. It is the means by which grace is given to us. Faith is the outstretched hand which receives the gift. Grace is the reservoir; faith is the pipe through which the flood of mercy flows down to refresh us.
The good news is that the weakness of your faith will not destroy you. A trembling hand may receive a golden gift. The Lords salvation can come to us though we have only faith as a grain of mustard seed. The power lies in the grace of God and not in our faith.
Faith alone is given to us by God alone
It is a common error to imagine that God gives grace and we give our faith and together we are saved. But as we saw with grace any view of cooperation is wrong. Salvation is monergystic; the power comes from one, rather than viewing our salvation as synergistic, where we work together with God.
The construction of this verse makes it clear that God is the author from beginning to end. Look again at the passage. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" We see grace alone and faith alone, but how can we have faith to receive if we are dead in our transgressions and sins? Paul describes all this as a gift. Our entire salvation, both the grace by which we are saved and the faith through which we receive salvation.
In Greek when a pronoun modifies the noun it will agree with its gender. But here both grace and faith are feminine but the pronoun "this" is neuter. If a feminine form of the pronoun would be used, the reader would be unsure whether "this" refers to grace or faith. With the neuter, it modifies both. All this is not from us. Even the faith to believe is part of Gods gift.
Imagine you are at the beach and you see some fool go in the water in October. He struggles and splashes about. Soon he slips below the surface of the water. You jump in to pull him out, but by the time you find him hes at the lakes bottom. You could try to entice him to swim to shore, but you know that this fellow is going nowhere. So you pull him to the beach and stretch him out. You could stand over him yelling at him to breath. But having swallowed half the lake, you know that is impossible. The only way to get him breathing is for you to breath for him. You give him mouth to mouth. Then he can breathe. God, by His grace, gives us the faith to believe. He makes us alive so that we can live.
We are saved for God alone - verse 10
We are saved to be Gods Masterpiece
Once again Paul centers all salvation around Gods work in our life. But here as Paul directs our attention to Gods working in our lives, rather than finding ourselves marginalized by such a theocentric view of salvation, we are held up as those wonderful trophies of Gods grace.
Paul calls us Gods poiema, meaning a masterpiece, a special creation. What God began in Genesis 1:1 with creation He now culminates with our regeneration. We reach the crescendo of our new creation as we are described as the zenith of Gods creative work.
With good reason we should enjoy the beauty of Gods handiwork in nature. During this time of year as the verdant trees mutate into hues of magenta and saffron against an azure sky we are in awe of the creation. The majesty of great mountains, the expanse and depth of the seas leave us speechless. But what Augustine said is true, that "men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the season, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering."
If we turn our gaze toward something equally marvelous and hold a little baby we will marvel at human life. The design is beyond comprehension. We can be amazed how light passes through the cornea, then through the focusing lens where it strikes the retina, simultaneously stimulating 125 million nerve endings. Millions of microswitches process this information and funnel it down the optic nerve. The optic nerve itself contains one million separate insulated fibers. The image finally reaches the brain where an incredibly complex process translates these impulses into the picture of what we see. All this happens in less than a millisecond. (Hughes, Ephesians, 82-83) What a wonder God has created. But even that is not His masterpiece; rather His greatest work is rescuing us from our sin and creating us as new men and women in His Son, Jesus Christ.
We are saved to do Gods workSo why does God do all this for us? While Paul is clear that we are not saved by means of our good works, we are saved to do good works. God worked out not only how we should be saved, but also how we should live in light of that great salvation. Good works are indispensable to salvation - not as its ground or means but as its consequence and evidence." (Stott, Gods New Society, 84-85) What James makes clear in James 2, that faith without works is dead, is explained further here. Works are not an incidental aspect, a nice tag-on. Rather works are a necessary consequence of justification. While we reject the notion that we receive grace as we combine faith and works, we affirm that we are justified by faith and the evidence of our faith will be how we live. Here at Cornerstone we uphold preaching that is focused on grace alone through faith alone. But at times we are accused of not caring about Gods Law. I take solace in what one wise sage said: "If, when you preach the gospel, people accuse you of letting people off too easy, that the good news sounds too good to be true then youre probably doing a good job." I know that as some hear the preaching at Cornerstone they mistakenly conclude we dont care how you live, that we neglect Gods commands for the Christian life. There is a side affect of preaching grace that people begin to stop feeling guilty. The trouble is, most of us are only motivated by guilt, so when we latch onto grace we foolishly think obedience is now optional. The trouble with grace is that it becomes hard to get people to volunteer for the nursery. People see church attendance as optional, devotional life a personal preference. But Scripture does not let us off the hook. The motivation from guilt is gone, yes. But the motivation because of grace must be present if we are to understand the nature of the Gospel. Once you feel the freedom of the Gospel, if you do not then find yourself responding with joy to its message and seeing the effects of Gods grace in your life each and every day, then you are not understanding the nature of the Gospel. Paul here says that we are Gods workmanship to do good works. There is to be an evidence of Gods grace in our lives. If there is no evidence, you had better begin to ask the tough questions about your standing before God. Are you "in Christ" or not? Paul then describes those good works as that which God prepared in advance for us to do. That is a comfort. It is not as though God saves us by His grace and then demands we produce but does not give us a clue as to what we should do. Rather God has gone before us, just as He did in our salvation, and is at work in us, preparing us to do that which would please Him. Yet you should be asking the obvious question: "What is it we are to do?"
Some people make this question a lot harder than it need to be. Rather than trying to rack your brain to figure out some special thing God wants you to do the answer is right in front of your nose. The answer is found here in Ephesians as well as throughout Gods Word. What are the works? Turn to Ephesians 4:17.As it is often Pauls habit, he begins with the indicative, the statement of fact of what God has done for us. He lays out how God by His grace alone received by faith alone has made us His children. We must never forget that. But then Paul goes on to tell us how this should impact our lives. Paul follows this up the indicative with the imperative; the statement of fact is followed by the command. Look at verse 17: "you must no longer live as the Gentiles, in the futility of their thinking." Verse 25: "Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor In your anger do not sin do not give the devil a foothold . Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs " There is so much for us to do. So let us get busy, but not forget how we are to begin. The means by which all this can be put into effect is not through any means other than Gods grace at work in your life as you in faith and faith alone place all your hope and trust in Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ has for all its history struggled with these truths, at times shifting the emphasis from Gods sovereign grace to mans own power, but has done so always to its peril. While we may agree that it is so important the body of Christ be unified, let us unite around the Gospel. Let us not dilute it with our own sinful activity, not adulterate it with the works we can do, but rather, point to Gods merciful work in saving us by grace alone through faith alone so that we can then do Gods work.