By. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the Book of Ephesians, chapter two. The Augustinian monk and professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg, who wrote that paraphrase of Psalm 46 on October 31, 1517, went to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed ninety-five points of debate which he invited the leading pastors and theologians of his area to publicly discuss with him.
This great event, through the spreading of the news by an enterprising printer, has been indicated as the spark that led to the great Protestant Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century. There were several key emphases in all the reforming leaders in the church of the sixteenth century which are repeated over and over in their writings. The doctrine of the final authority of Scripture, Sola Scriptura, was one of the emphases that you find over and over in their writings. They wanted to make it clear that Scripture, not the church; Scripture, not the Pope; Scripture, not the councils of the church, was the final rule of faith and practice in the Christian life, and the church councils and all the pastors of the churches had to submit themselves to the final authority of Scripture. And so this great emphasis was heralded throughout the land during the Protestant Reformation.
Living life solely to the glory of God alone, Soli Deo Gloria, was another great emphasis of the Reformation. You’ll hear about that emphasis, by the way, tonight during Derek Thomas’ message as he takes us to that glorious doxology of Paul’s in Romans 11:30-33, and talks about living life for God’s glory alone.
Two other emphases that were experienced and heralded in the time of the Reformation were the doctrines of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And in the last two years we have looked at those latter two doctrinal emphases; we’ve looked at justification by faith alone, and we’ve looked at what it means to be saved by Christ alone.
Today I want us to look from this wonderful text in Ephesians 2 at the truth of salvation by grace alone: that we are saved by God’s grace alone. We do not contribute to our salvation through our own worthiness or works, but our whole hope is upon the Lord.
Now, this is an important thing to do. We’ve talked before here about how Vince Lombardi used to gather those professional football players at Green Bay, some of the finest players to ever play the game, and in their first practice of the spring, he would start by saying, “This is a football.” And then he would begin to describe to them the basic objectives of the game of football.
Now, why did Vince Lombardi do this with perfectly intelligent, very talented players who knew what a football was and what it looked like, and understood the objectives of the game? Because all of us need to ask ourselves from time to time the basic questions: Who are we? What are we here for? How are we supposed to do it? And it’s important for us to remember the fundamentals, the essentials, the basics; and that’s what we have an opportunity to do as we look at this passage today.
Just after the service this morning, one of our long-time members came to me and said it was fifteen years ago today, on a Reformation Sunday, after the choir had sung A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, that Dr. Jim Baird preached a sermon. It was actually a stewardship sermon, but the gospel was so clearly presented that this man came to saving faith in Jesus Christ fifteen years ago to this day. And he said it was wonderful to hear again of the basics of salvation. And that’s what we want to do as we go to this passage together today. Before we read God’s word and hear it proclaimed, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord God, we thank You for Your word. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. We pray that You would reveal Yourself to us as the God of grace; that You would reveal the way of salvation, which is the way of grace; that You would enable us to trust in the One who is the only hope of salvation, that is, Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; and that in all these things You would be glorified. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear God’s word.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant and authoritative word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Tom and Ben had known one another for many, many years. In fact, they had been friends since childhood. Ben was a nominal member of a local church. It was a gospel-preaching, Bible-believing church, but to be honest he had been only very occasional in his attendance for many, many years—really, since he graduated from college.
Tom was a very committed member, and a committed Christian, and Ben had been diagnosed with cancer. It was a virulent cancer, and the doctors had very frankly spoken with Ben and his family and said, “It won’t be many months.” Tom, though he had been friends for many years with Ben, had never really talked about the things of the Lord with him, and he wanted to talk about the gospel. He wanted to share the gospel, and he wanted to see his friend truly embrace Jesus Christ for salvation. And so Tom purposed to visit Ben and have that discussion.
They began to have that discussion. It was the first time they had talked about spiritual things, and when Tom asked Ben what he was trusting for his salvation, Ben said something like this: You know, Tom, when I stand before the Lord, I just hope that I’ve been good enough for Him to accept me.
Now, my guess is you’ve had conversations something like that with some friend or some relative, because it is inherent in human nature when we are asking ultimate questions, questions of ultimate eternal significance, to suggest that the way that we are accepted by God, the way that we stand right before God is by being a good person, or by doing more good things than we do bad things; or by our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds; or by doing more important good things than we do important bad things. Whatever way we formulate it, it is all about us. It is very typical to hear people express their hope, their assurance of salvation, in terms of hoping that they measure up in some particular way. And that’s what Ben had done. Very frankly, Ben wasn’t terribly concerned about sin. He wasn’t trembling before the prospect of divine judgment. He pretty much just wanted to brush Tom off. He didn’t want the conversation to go on. It wasn’t that he had been burdened by this particular struggle, at least in any outward way that Tom would have known it, but my guess is you have been in conversations like that before.
Now, there are a variety of reasons why people think that way. One is that people don’t take sin very seriously in our culture. You know, if you took sin seriously and you recognized that you are a sinner, then you wouldn’t be inclined to point to yourself and your deeds and your worthiness and your deserving as the way in which you were going to experience eternal communion and salvation with the living God. And we live in a day and age that has downplayed sin.
We also live in a day and age that downplays judgment. A lot of people don’t believe that there is a judgment to come. Have you ever asked the question to a person, “What would you say if you were to stand before God and He were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’” Have you ever heard this answer, as I have? I’ve had people say, “Well, God won’t ask that question.” We live in a day and age where a lot of people don’t believe in judgment. But I want to make it very clear to you that the teaching of the Bible about salvation, the teaching of Paul on salvation, is very antithetical to all those thoughts that float around there in the world today.
And there are three things in particular in this passage that I’d like to draw your attention to. And the first is simply this: What is salvation and why do we need it? You’ll see that emphasized in verse eight, and also in verse nine.
The second is Why do we need to be saved by grace? Again, you’ll see that especially in verses eight and nine.
And then, thirdly, Where do works fit in? Where does godliness fit in? Where does obedience to God’s word and love to God fit into the Christian life? Paul answers all three of those clusters of questions in this glorious passage.
I. Why do we need to be saved, and, from whom?
Let’s look at it together, first asking the question “What is salvation, and why do we need to be saved anyway?” Paul begins this passage by saying, “For by grace you have been saved through faith…..” Now we use the word saved all the time, but let me ask you a question: “What does it mean, when you say you’ve been saved, what do you mean?” What does the Bible mean when it talks about the need to be saved, or people who have been saved?
Well, when Christians say that we are saved, we mean that we have been spared, rescued, reclaimed and re-enfolded into the family of God. When we say that we have been saved, we mean first of all that we’ve been spared the penalty of sin. We believe that sin, all sin, deserves its wages, and Paul says in Romans 6 that the wages of sin is death. And so when a Christian speaks of someone being saved, we mean in the first place that that person has been spared the due penalty for their sin. They have been spared the judgment, the just judgment, of God against ourselves and against our sins.
Secondly, we mean that we have been rescued from the power and consequences of sin. Sin inherently wants to have dominion over us. We are, before we trust in Jesus Christ, enslaved to sin. And one of the things that Jesus does when He saves us is, in the words of the hymn, “He breaks the power of reigning sin.” Jesus causes no longer sin to be master over us, but He becomes our Master as well as Savior.
Thirdly, we are reclaimed in salvation. When we speak of someone being saved we mean that they are reclaimed, that we are redeemed. Literally, the language of redemption in the Bible is “being bought back.” That God purchases us at a price, reclaiming us for Himself. He created us in the first place, but “all we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way.” And because the Lord laid the iniquity of us all on Him, because the Lord Jesus Christ paid the price, He redeemed us back.
And to experience salvation means as well to be re-enfolded into the family of God. Salvation is something that God does one heart by one heart, one home by one home. But it is also something that brings us into a family. It’s a work that God must do in the individual’s heart, but when God saves us, He redeems us into a family, and so there is a corporate dimension to our experience of salvation.
Now if this is salvation, if these are some of the aspects of salvation, how does the New Testament talk about this salvation? Well, the New Testament talks about various aspects of what is entailed in being saved. For instance, the New Testament talks about our being justified. That’s one thing that is entailed in being saved. Being justified means being declared right with God even though we are sinners. Martin Luther, who wrote A Mighty Fortress Is Our God based on Psalm 46, reveled in the truth that though we are sinners, yet we have been declared right with God. That is a glorious truth, and it’s one of the things that we mean when we speak of salvation. If God has saved you, then one of the things that God has done for you is He’s justified you. He’s declared you to be right with Him, not because of anything in you, but because of what Jesus Christ has done.
Another way the New Testament talks about one aspect of salvation is regeneration, or new life, or new birth. The New Testament indicates that when you are saved God gives you a new heart, a new spirit, new desires, new priorities in life. He renews you from the inside out. John talks about this in John, chapter three. You remember when Jesus is meeting with Nicodemus, and Jesus says to this man who is one of the greatest teachers in Israel, ‘You must be born again. And if you’re not born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.’ He’s talking about an interior renovation of our hearts and lives that has to be done by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul talks about something very similar in Romans, chapter six. And so, justification and regeneration are two aspects of what God does in salvation.
The New Testament also talks about adoption. One of the most blessed privileges of those who are saved is that they are welcomed into the family of God. Though we were once enemies in rebellion against God’s rule, in salvation we are welcomed into His family as children. We are made part of God’s family, and that is one of the great blessings of salvation.
You remember just a couple of weeks ago at communion we quoted one of the wonderful, final stanzas of Isaac Watts’ rendition of the Twenty-third Psalm, where he expressed those final words of the Twenty-third Psalm “that surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He renders them this way:
“There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
Not as a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”
And that is the beauty of the doctrine of adoption. We are welcomed into God’s family as a child who has come home.
And so, salvation in the New Testament entails being justified by grace through faith in Christ alone. It entails being regenerated, being given a new heart and a new spirit; being adopted into the family of God.
But it also entails our being sanctified. Do you remember how Paul speaks to the Christians in both Corinth and in Ephesus, that they have been washed and sanctified? That once they were sinners, but now they have been cleansed. They are being cleansed, they are growing in grace. Sanctification means being made like Jesus Christ, being reformed in His image, morally speaking.
And of course, salvation also entails communion, being brought into fellowship and friendship with God. How do we respond to and receive this gift of salvation? Well, the New Testament makes it clear: through faith in Christ, through trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Through faith alone in Christ alone, that’s how we receive this gracious salvation.
Well, all this talk of salvation needs to raise a question in your mind. Why do we need to be saved in the first place? Why do Christians talk about the relationship of a redeemed sinner to God in terms of salvation?
Well, if you’ll allow your eyes to look back to Ephesians 2:1-3, you’ll see Paul’s immediate answer in this context. He tells you three things about yourself apart from Christ. He tells you three things about himself apart from Christ. He says that you’re dead in sins; that you’re in slavery to sin; and that you are under the wrath of God by your very nature. Look at what he says in verses 1,2,3:
“You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the price of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
You see what Paul says there? Here’s the situation of a person apart from Jesus Christ: Dead in sins. Here’s the situation of a person apart from Jesus Christ: Enslaved to sin; walking in the way of the world and of the flesh, and of the prince of the power of the air (of Satan); and under the just wrath and condemnation of God. That’s why we need to be saved! You know, if you reject Christian teaching at that point, if you say, ‘You know, you Christians have gone just a little too far on this sin thing,” then you know, it’s really no sense in us going further in the conversation because you won’t appreciate the good news until you appreciate the bad news first. If you don’t understand the problem, the solution will be lost on you. And so if you’re sticking at that point, please talk to a Christian that you know understands the Bible’s answer to that question. Talk to a Christian about that until you understand that, because all the good news preached from all the faithful pulpits in the land won’t make sense to you until you know that you need to be saved in the first place, and from what.
And of course—ah! that leads us to the other part of that question about what do we mean by salvation: what are we saved from in salvation? Let me put this a little provocatively. We are saved from God, by God, for God.
We are saved from God in this sense: God’s just judgment ought to rest upon us. When Israel was condemned for her sins in the Old Testament, who was it that Israel really needed to worry about? The Edomites? The Egyptians? The Amalakites? The Syrians? The Assyrians? The Babylonians? The Medes? The Persians? No! God is who Israel really need to worry about, because those nations what hated Israel were simply His instruments to bring His judgment against Israel. Israel’s fundamental issue was with God. In salvation, we’re saved from God. God ought justly to judge us for that sin, but the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is that this God who has every right to judge us, from whom we need to be saved, is the God who saves us Himself.
We are not only saved from God, we are saved by God. He is the one who saves us. And we’re saved for God. We’re saved for His glory and for eternal fellowship with Him.
So when we look at the question of salvation in the New Testament, we see all those entailments, and we see the answers to the question, Why do we need to be saved? Because of sin. From whom do we need to be saved? From God and His just judgment.
II. Saved by grace – God’s divine favor.
Now that leads us to the second point–and that’s Paul’s emphasis here in Ephesians 2:8,9–and that is, this salvation is by grace, and it is by grace alone, it is not by God’s grace plus something that we do. It is not by God’s grace as long as we do some sort of prior work in order to receive it, or to be worthy of it. It is not grace plus works, or works plus grace. It’s God’s grace alone. We are saved by grace, Paul says. We are saved by God’s divine favor.
And he emphasizes this in at least two ways in verses eight and nine. Look at this passage again: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one can boast.” Notice what he says? How do you see that this is all of God’s grace?
Well, first of all, this salvation is not of yourselves. Not a bit of it comes from something that you have contributed. It’s not about your worthiness; it’s not about your character; it’s not about your integrity; it’s not about your lack of sin; it’s not about the ample good works that you do. It is not of yourselves. It is a gift. It’s a gift of God.
And, it is not a result of works! Paul goes on, just in case you missed him the first time, to say it’s not a result of works so that no one could boast. If you and I were contributing something to our salvation, we would have some reason to say, “Lord, I have done something that has caused myself to be saved, and that person has not. Therefore, I have a reason to boast.” And we’d end up being just like the Pharisee who went into the temple to pray, along with the tax collector, and prayed “O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people.” But Paul says salvation is of grace, and so we have no room for boasting, because it’s all of God.
Why is that so important? Well, we go back to the first point again. We’re dead in sin. What can we contribute to our salvation? If our salvation depends upon us and we’re enslaved to sin and dead in sin and under God’s just judgment, what can we do to save ourselves? The answer is: Nothing! And so salvation is wholly of God’s grace. And those who confuse this by saying that we must cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved are qualifying something that Paul says is absolute here. We are saved by grace, by God’s grace. We don’t contribute to a gift.
Have you heard the story of James Herriott? I know some of you have read his wonderful series as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales, All Creatures Great and Small, or All Things Bright and Beautiful. There are a whole series of those stories. But he tells the story of wanting to take his wife out to a birthday dinner, and he gets to the restaurant and he realizes in the middle of the meal that he does not have his wallet. And he’s horrified. He wanted to splurge on his wife and take her to this wonderful meal. And the waiter pulls him aside and says, “Someone else has paid for your meal.” His partner had wanted, as a show of love for him, to provide that meal for him and for his wife, and so he had paid for the meal. You can imagine the relief which spread across this man, as he had no means to pay for what he had just partaken! It had been provided for him by someone else.
Well, that’s salvation. We have no means whereby to pay for this blessing! We don’t have it in ourselves; we can’t be deserving enough. We can’t do enough to earn this: it must be a gift of God, by His grace. And that’s what Paul is emphasizing here. You have been saved by grace.
Where, then, does obedience come in? Where does works come in? Wouldn’t this lead us to live a life of sin? If we’re saved by grace, wouldn’t we say with the heretical Russian monk that we ought to sin all the more, that grace might abound? No. Why? Because of what Paul says in verse ten: “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, so that we should walk in them.”
You see where Paul puts works in the equation? Works don’t factor in as a means or a cause of our salvation. They are the goal and the result of God’s saving work to us. We do not work to be saved, but God saves us so that we would be like His Son. Do you remember how Paul puts it in Romans 8:29? It’s right after that favorite verse of so many of us, that God causes all things to work together for our good. And he goes on to say that “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to…” –what? “…to be conformed to the image of His Son.”
Now, what does it mean to be conformed to the image of Christ? It means to become morally like Him. We love the things that He loves; we have the things He hates. We live the way that He lived. And what does Jesus say the essence of living life with God is? He says, “It is my food to do the will of Him who sent Me.” So Jesus’ disciples are going to feel the same way. We’re going to want to do the will of Him who sent me. We were created for God’s glory, and we glorify God by doing His will.
Children, in the Children’s Catechism when it asks the question “Why did God create you and everything else?” what’s the answer? “For His own glory.”
Now what does the Children’s Catechism tell you the answer is to the question, “How do you glorify God?” “By loving Him and doing what He commands.” And that’s exactly what Paul is saying here. We’re saved by God, by His grace, for His glory; and the way that we glorify Him is through our good works, through obedience, through love to God, love to one another. But those good works do not contribute to our being saved.
May God help us to understand that simple but vital truth. If you are here today and you haven’t understood that grace, that salvation is a gift if God’s grace, make it a point to do business with God until you understand the freeness and the entirety of salvation by grace. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and our God, it is not what our hands have done that can cleanse our guilty souls. It is only the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the provision of Your grace. This is such a simple message, but it is so hard for us to believe. We always want to interject our own works, to make our own contribution into our acceptance by You. But we pray, O God, that we would listen to Paul and heed him and recognize that our hope is only in the Lord and in His grace. And so, when we sing “Marvelous Grace of Our Loving Lord,” we would sing it understanding it and believing it. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father, and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Amen.