God’s Sovereign Sustaining Grace

This week our church is in a study of ‘Grace’ – an apropos topic leading up to the Easter holiday.  One of my favorite passages on grace is Ephesians 2:1-10, and that’s what we’ll be looking at in class on Sunday morning.  Here are the notes, enjoy!

Ephesians 2:1-10 God’s Sovereign Grace

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

For thousands of years mankind has rebelled against the idea that he is sinful, or immoral, or in anyway imperfect – at least as long as that “imperfection” is measured against an absolute standard. He’d be perfectly willing to admit he’s not perfect, but by his own independent subjective standard.  One of the champions of this kind of thinking was 18th century philosopher Jean Jaque Rousseau whose romanticism philosophy declared that man is basically “good” until corrupted by outside influencers. This humanistic philosophy is alive and well in or own day as well.  In high school I remember a popular song by Sarah Mclachlan called ‘Adia’ whose refrain was “we are born innocent, believe me Adia, we are still innocent.”

Contrary to this, the Bible tells us that we are born in sin (Ps. 51:5), and it is not unintentional that Paul begins this section of his letter by pronouncing very clearly the true state of mankind before the intervention of God.

Paul surely realized the nature of what he was about to convey, more than a theory of being and nature, it was the very essence of truth.  In fact Paul was painting here a picture of reality that is so dark, so bleak, so scary, that only against the blackness of this backdrop will he lay forth the most precious light and purity of the gospel.

Steven Lawson, in his series on the Doctrines of Grace in John, gives the analogy of the black velvet display case you would see at a jeweler.  The jeweler uses the black velvet as a contrast against which he can lay the diamonds he’s selling you. Certainly the diamonds are intrinsically glorious and beautiful, but when set against he rich blackness of the velvet their worth and brilliance seems to shine all the more brightly.  So it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ when set against the darkness of our sin riddled lives.

I wish that the only people arguing for man’s innocence were the humanists, but historically, and contemporarily, there have been many in the church who see man as not completely fallen.  They argue for an “island of righteousness” in which man’s will and mind have the power to make moral decisions – most particularly these same thinkers reserve this power of right moral action for the most important “decision” one can make, the choice to follow Jesus.

Paul’s theology cannot be reconciled with such thinking.

The way I like to think of our pre-Christ situation is similar to a scene from the Matrix, where the inhabitants of the Matrix were “living in a dream world.” We thought that certain things were true, they seemed true, but until we took the red pill we were unable to see reality for what it really is/was. We were living in a world, which was mostly a lie – and no wonder, it was Satan who helped weave this lie around and about our minds as we willingly bought into his deceptions.  Now this is only a picture, and like so many analogies there are imperfections.  However, the main thrust is this: before we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot and will not see the kingdom of God (John 3) which is equivalent to seeing the reality of Christ’s reign and absolute power (in fact we will not agree to any absolutes until we realize that all absolutes find their ‘yes and amen in Christ’, but that is another matter).

Our status before Christ burst forth into our lives was like that of Paul before his dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus.  We were not simply dead, we were rebels.  We hated God, because we hated what God stood for – God stood for everything we stood against.  We were independent beings, after all!  We didn’t need anyone bossing us around, telling us what was right and wrong.  We didn’t need someone else’s version of absolutes!  We had our own minds and could think for ourselves, thank you very much!

The deep, deep sinfulness of our sins warranted Divine justice.  Paul wants to be clear as he begins this section that we were completely and utterly cut off from God: dead.

2:2 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—

But it gets worse!  Not only were we dead, we were enemies of God (as I mentioned above).  And not only enemies, but also enemies duped into following a commander who was happy to use of and abuse us for his own purposes and his own pleasure and cared nothing for our souls.

Therefore, Paul outlines two concepts…

First, Paul states that we were walking in our flesh, in our sin according to a certain leader, “the prince of the power of the air”, which is Satan.  In Ligonier’s Tabletalk daily devotions this verse is referenced and they say that, “In ancient times, the term air often referred to the spiritual realm of angels and demons.”

Secondly, we learn is that those who follow this “prince” are “sons of disobedience.”  That’s us! In open rebellion against our Creator.  Jerry Bridges puts it this way:

No one ever has a valid reason to rebel against the government of God. We rebel for only one reason: We were born rebellious. We were born with a perverse inclination to go our own way, to set up our own internal government rather than submit to God.

But this disgusting description of our satanic sonship brings to mind the beautiful reality that we celebrate today, namely the fact that we have been adopted by God, that we were once sons of another – sons of the Devil (John 8:44) – but now are sons of God Himself!

2:3 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.

The result of living as sons of the Devil means that we are going to fulfill the passions of the flesh and the desires of the mind and body. There is a small shift here from Paul’s speaking directly to the gentiles to now addressing mankind as a whole, and the universality of sin on the earth. C.S. Lewis said that, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” Paul contrasts these two types of slavery in Romans 6.

We have gone from being slaves of the enemy, under the cruel Egyptian task master, to being liberated from that slavery into the lovely bondage of Christ. Slavery to Christ may seem like a harsh term, but that’s how Paul described it over and over again.  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Slavery to Christ is actually, paradoxically, freedom!

2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,

Note that both Greek words used for “love” here are forms of the word agapē – the strongest and most profound of the Greek words for love.  Perhaps the most important word in this verse is the word “but.” This word marks the transition from our old state as sinners following the course of this world to our death, to the story of what God did for us in His richness and mercy.

Someone once said, “thank God for the ‘buts’ in the Bible.”  I couldn’t agree more.  This word is the turning point from Paul’s explanation of who we (humans) are, to what God has done for us, and, in essence, who He is.  He is love, and He cannot act out of His own character.

The most important concept in this verse is comprehending the motivating force behind why God did what He did.  Love – His character.  The fact of the matter is that he did what He did because He couldn’t deny Himself and His own love for His creation and His desire to be glorified by His creation.

He is rich in mercy!  He is a God of great love. And we are His image bearers, and the objects of His great love.

God does what He does because He is who He is.

2:5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—

Two concepts are again brought to bear: life and death.  We are reminded again that we were dead, and that even though we were dead we have been made alive together with Christ.  Paul has undoubtedly in mind the resurrection and powerful triumph over death of our Lord Jesus, and wants us to likewise picture our own powerful triumph over death – not in or of our own power, but by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ we have been “raised to walk in newness of life”(Romans 6:1-14, Eph. 1:20, and Colossians 2:12-13).

We are also brought to understand that if we were dead, then we couldn’t have made the decision to be saved on our own – it was purely by the grace of God.  Remember, grace is an active giving of something that we don’t deserve.  This isn’t passive.  This isn’t mercy, which withholds what we DO deserve.  This is the Spirit of God imparting something TO us, namely, spiritual rebirth.

A.W. Tozer says, “The love of God is manifested brilliantly in His grace toward undeserving sinners. And that is exactly what grace is: God’s love flowing freely to the unlovely.”

2:6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

The amazing and awe-striking paradox of this statement is that while we were the ones who raised Christ to His painful position on the cross, He repays us with grace and raises us up and seats us in the heavenly places.  I think about Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘The Raising of the Cross’ (circa 1633) where Rembrandt depicts the people lifting Christ up to die on the tree, and includes himself in the men who are responsible for the act.  Martin Luther also identified with this reality when he stated, “Take this to heart and doubt not that you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins certainly did, and when you see the nails driven through his hands, be sure to that you are pounding, and when the thorns pierce his brown, know that they are your evil thoughts. Consider that if one thorn pierced Christ you deserve one hundred thousand.”

In addition, I find it worth noting here that we are not only brought to life, not only forgiven of our sins, but we are adopted and then seated with Him in the heavenly places.  This says something of our spiritual royalty.  (Colossians 3:1 says “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”) Christ makes reference to this special place in heaven in Luke 22:29-30 and John makes reference to it in Revelation 3:21.

Lastly, and perhaps this should have been firstly, this verse tells us of the certainty of our salvation.  For what the Lord has gathered in heaven to Himself by the purchase of His Son’s blood will certainly not be foreclosed upon by any higher power in the universe.  As far as Paul is concerned, the matter is done.  Paul speaks similarly in Romans 8 when he says – in the past tense – that those whom God justified He also “glorified”, as if the thing had been done already, for God sees all time at one time. In Schreiner’s commentary on Romans he talks about how this kind of writing is indicative of Pauline theology – specifically, and I paraphrase, “the radical invasion of the future into the present.”

2:7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Notice again that we are said to be “in” Christ Jesus.  Our entire wealth and inheritance comes by way of Christ and what He did to earn it.  We haven’t done anything to deserve this, but are taking part in His wealth and just deserts.

The word “immeasurable” is also “surpassing” and “exceeding” and “incredible” in other translations.

If we contrast the nature of God’s grace with the situation in which we found ourselves prior to salvation we would also be able to use the same adjectives.  We were incredibly, exceedingly, surpassingly, immeasurably separated from God and lost in our sin.  So fallen were we, and so incredibly holy is God that the difference and the chasm that separated us was gigantic.  In Luke 16 that fixed chasm is called “great”, and great indeed it was.  How could we, by some human effort, seek to cross that chasm.  How could we of our own volition find a way across?  We couldn’t, we can’t, and we won’t.  Only by the One who bridges that gap are we saved.  He is the intercessor between God and man.  He is “the way”(the truth and the life) and no man comes to the Father but by Him (through Him).

2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Nothing could more clearly outline the basis for the doctrine of “sola fide” which was one of the doctrinal hallmarks of the 16th century protestant reformation. (Gal. 2:15-16 is a great reference – verse 16 says “We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified”).

In a past issue of the devotional magazine ‘Tabletalk’ there is a great devotional addressing this passage/verse which says, “The man made religions of this world prove that without the work of the Holy Spirit, people think that they are basically good and can contribute something to their salvation. This strips glory from God and gives it to us, for if we can do even one thing to merit salvation, then we deserve some credit.  All belief systems except biblical Christianity encourage us to believe that we contribute our salvation, even if they deceitfully assert otherwise.”

I like what Jerry Bridges has to say in his book ‘Transforming Grace’:

God answered my prayer for only one reason: Jesus Christ had already purchased that answer to prayer two thousand years ago on a Roman cross. God answered on the basis of His grace alone, not because of my merits or demerits.

Lastly, as an aside, how do the Roman Catholics view this?  R.C. Sproul explains their view of the role of faith in salvation, “Contrary to what many Protestants think, Roman Catholicism affirms that we are justified or accounted as right before the Lord by faith in Christ and that no one is saved apart from Him. However, Roman Catholic theologians deny that faith is sufficient for justification. Instead, good works of obedience must be added to faith in order for God to declare us righteous. Justification comes first through the sacraments — justifying grace is poured into the soul at baptism, lost through mortal sin, and restored through confession and works of penance. Rome argues works cooperate with grace to make us righteous, and we are justified only if we have actually become righteous through our faith and works.”[i]

2:9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

A great cross reference on this verse is Romans 3:27, which states, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.” And Paul also states this in 1 Cor. 1:29-31.

The idea here is that in our fallen state we cannot save ourselves, and if we were to somehow achieve a salvation of our own concoction we would then have reason to boast or brag or say that some part of our salvation emanated or originated from ourselves and something we did, thought, or “realized.”  This is the folly of so many other religions. They fail to take into account the holiness of God.  Once that is taken into account, our own radical falleness is revealed and any chance we thought we may have at saving ourselves is utterly destroyed.

The kind of pride it would take to both realize our radical sin and separation from God and yet devise a way of works with an end of salvation is the kind of pride that would certainly negate any successful achieving of this end.

2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our Purpose: to Bless the Nations and Glorify God

Here we see the ultimate reason for our election.  Some might say that ‘now that we are elect why would we evangelize?’ and this is the verse that contradicts this thinking.  We were elected beforehand unto not only salvation, but unto good works, which are the fruit of salvation.

Because we are so naturally ego-centric, we think of salvation as the end, and that now we need to live this Christian life on our own, but God thinks of it as the beginning of His work of grace in us.

We must not miss the reason for which we were saved: good works. This means not only living a holy life, but also sharing the good news of the gospel to the world. For we are to love our God and to love the world.

In fact, we have been called to bless all the nations of the world through the spreading of the gospel.  This is the fulfilling of the great promise made to Abraham so long ago. It is through the spread of the gospel to a dying world that we bless the world and bring glory to God.

Now God does not leave us alone to this mission.  No indeed, for His grace is with us to sustain us throughout our life through the inward working of the Holy Spirit. John Piper says, “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power not just pardon.”

So we see that eternal respite from hell and damnation is only the first part of God’s grace.  That is one part of the consequence of salvation, but there is also a plan of action moving forward that God in His righteous omnipotence has designed for us since before the foundation of the world.

Holiness

This means not only that we are to spread the gospel, but that we are to strive for holiness.  We can only do that be surrendering to God’s powerful working within us. We have to trust God, and lean on His truth and His grace.

He will indeed provide us grace in our time of need.  That is the magnificent difference between the New Covenant believer and the Old Covenant Jew.  We can obey.  God wanted to create a covenant with people who could actually keep the covenant (cf. Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum)! This is what Jeremiah emphasized over and over again.  No one was going to need to teach his brother because God was going to put His Spirit within His chosen ones.  HE would be the teacher! He would be the one helping us, enabling us to keep the covenant.

But what if we failed?  He had that part figured out as well.  For Christ would be sent to pay for every failing in the past, present, and future. His death on the cross paid for sins you haven’t even committed yet.  That should blow your mind!  Jerry Bridges puts it this way, “Furthermore, grace does not first rescue us from the penalty of our sins, furnish us with some new spiritual abilities, and then leave us on our own to grow in spiritual maturity.”

He does not leave us alone; His presence is the great blessing of the Christian life.  He is working through us to sanctify and keep us. Augustine said, “Nothing whatever pertaining to godliness and real holiness can be accomplished without grace.” Amen.

Conformed into His Image for a Reason

Lastly, we are said to be “His workmanship” which implies more than simply our good works are at issue here. There is a sanctification piece as well. Our very being, our soul, is at issue here.  He is molding us into a creation that will glorify Himself. (Ps. 138:8; Is. 29:23, 43:21, 60:21; Matt. 5:16; 2 Tim. 2:21) If He stopped at salvation He would certainly receive glory for His heroic and unfathomable love, mercy, and grace, but He doesn’t stop there.  He continues to mold us, shape us and refine us unto His own glory. (Phil. 2:13)

Now being the clay in the Potter’s hand is not always a pleasant experience.  There will be times when we are called to suffer. I do not want to here answer the reason in-depth for suffering except to say that it can be for molding, or discipline, or simply because we are under the attack of the Devil.  Whatever the case may be, we must realize that the servant is not greater than the master.  Christ promised that we would suffer as He did if we publically identified with Him. It is an honor to suffer in the name of Christ, but when we suffer we need to keep a few things in mind:

  1. The suffering of Christ – personally I like to mentally picture the walk of Christ up to the road at Calvary.  Suddenly my situation doesn’t seem so bad.
  2. The power of Christ – I am constantly reminded that the very Spirit who raised Lazaraus and indeed Christ from the dead is at work within me to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
  3. The triumph of Christ – when Christ rose from the grave, He defeated sin and death. Revelation 21:3-4 reminds us of this great truth, “ 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The Ultimate Reason for Conformity…

The reason for this is because He wants to conform you to the image of His Son.  Why? Because He is at work to restore you to the original image in which He made you.  He delights in this because when He restores us to His original image, the image of His Son who reflects all the radiance of His glory and is the very embodiment of His character and goodness, then what He is looking at is a miniature reflection of Himself.  God loves Himself and cherishes His own glory – and when He sees us gradually conformed into the image of His Son whom He loves with infinite love, He smiles.  This is the essence of what it means to bring God glory.  To submit to the work of the Spirit within you, to respond in love both to God and to His image bearers.

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