“By Grace You Have Been Saved”
(Ephesians 2:1-10 – Lent 4 – March 11, 2018)
Ephesians 2:1-10 – And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Dear Redeemed in Jesus Christ:
You have likely heard the saying: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Tradition attributes it to John Bradford, a 16th century English reformer and martyr. Bradford was imprisoned by Mary Tudor for his Protestant faith. While imprisoned in the Tower of London, when he saw evildoers being led to execution, he would exclaim: “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” When it came time for his own execution as a martyr, he was chained to a stake to be burned. Before the fire was lit, he begged forgiveness of any he had wronged, and offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him. He then turned to a man next to him and said, “Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!”
“There but for the grace of God go I.” It has become an expression of humble trust in the grace of God alone, rather than one’s own worthiness or merit, for salvation. It was this grace of God that Bradford wanted to share with his fellow sinners to his last hour. It was this grace of God that made him confident of his salvation and eternal life, even in the face of death.
God’s Word gives us the same confidence as it says: “By Grace You Have Been Saved.” Today let us consider 1) What we have been saved from, 2) What we have been saved by, and 3) What we have been saved for.
1) What we have been saved from
What have we been saved from? Our text spells it out: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.” We were saved from walking apart from God in a path of spiritual death. We all were conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5), inheriting the fallen nature of Adam. We were not by nature children of God but of the devil. All we could do was obey his lies and temptations.
So we fell under the same judgment as the rest of fallen mankind, as it says: “among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” If we boasted that we were better than others, by obeying moral laws or doing more good works to earn God’s favor, we were only deceiving ourselves. Romans 8:7-8 says: “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Sinful flesh cannot obey the perfect law, moved by pure love for God and neighbor. The carnal mind is moved by selfish interests – giving in order to receive, doing good in order to be rewarded. Sinful man can only hate God, for His law demands what is repulsive to the flesh, it exposes the best works as corrupted by sin, and it condemns the sinner to death.
Thus when it came to our relationship to God, we were “dead in trespasses and sins.” A dead corpse cannot even lift a finger, let alone bring itself to life. Likewise, we were unable to make any movement toward God, or even begin to live with Him. Spiritually speaking, we were the walking dead, as it says: “in which you once walked according to the course of this world.”
“There but for the grace of God go I.” As “children of wrath, just as the others,” we were imprisoned in sin and condemned. We were not just facing the wrath of human judgment and burning at the stake. We were facing the wrath of divine judgment and the flames of hell.
2) What we have been saved by
That is what we have been saved from. But now we ask: What have we been saved by? Immediately after spelling out our dire condition as condemned sinners, our text declares: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” Here, we can truly appreciate the grace of God by which we have been saved.
Let us consider the meaning of God’s terms of grace in our text. It speaks of “His great love.” In the Greek it is agape – an unconditional love that does not depend on the worthiness of the beloved. There was nothing in the self-centered sinner, the God-hater, the spiritual corpse, that attracted God to any one of us. He simply loved us in spite of ourselves. For God is love (1 John 4:7). But His love was not just a feeling. It was an action, “with which He loved us.” His love moved Him to act for our spiritual and eternal good.
Here we consider the next term of God’s grace. It says He is “rich in mercy.” As He saw us in our lost and wretched state, His loving heart moved Him to take pity on us. He did not treat us as our sins deserved. In mercy, God sent His Son to the cross to be our Substitute. Jesus, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us – that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, the holy Son of God, was punished as the Child of wrath – that we might become the holy children of God by faith in Him.
All this spells out the undeserved love of God for unworthy sinners that is His grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Grace is expressed in the acronym: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” God lavished on us the riches of His love and mercy – not because of anything we offered to God, but because of all that Christ offered for us. God saved us – not because of any work of obedience on our part, but because of Christ’s obedience even unto death. For Christ’s sake God justifies us – declaring us forgiven, free of all charges, and righteous in His sight.
And all the riches of God’s grace and salvation in Christ come to us, it says: “through faith.” Christ has won forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life for every sinner. But God’s gift can only be received by faith. Even this faith is included in the words: “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works.” Faith and conversion is not our work but God’s. As fallen sinners, our will was entirely corrupted. Being spiritually “dead in trespasses and sins,” we could not make any movement toward God. We could not choose to believe in Christ or come to Him. It required Him coming to us, calling us to faith by the Gospel, breathing spiritual life into us. In Baptism, God poured out His Spirit on us, claiming us as His children through faith in Christ.
This work of God in saving us by grace through faith began in eternity. If we back up to Ephesians 1, it says in verses 4-5: “He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world… having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.” Then, after describing how God sent His Son in time to complete the work of our redemption, it tells how He brought us to faith in verses 13-14: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”
Therefore, we are saved by grace alone. It is true in the fullest sense. By God’s eternal plan, salvation is His free gift to us, apart from our work. To God alone belongs the work of redemption, reconciling us to Himself in Christ. To God alone belongs the work of conversion, calling us to saving faith by His Holy Spirit. Because it is His work of grace from beginning to end, not depending on our strength or merit, we have true confidence for eternal life. He who began His good work in us will complete it in bringing us to heaven (Philippians 1:6).
3) What we have been saved for
And now we may rightly consider our last point: What we have been saved for.
After stating that we are saved by grace, and not of works, ironically our text goes on to tell us that part of the reason God saved us is for works: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Sometimes, in teaching that we are saved by grace alone, apart from works, we are accused of teaching that works have no place in the life of a Christian. They certainly do, but it has nothing to do with how we are saved. Our justification in Christ is complete, apart from works. But now that we are fully justified in Christ through faith, works will follow as fruit of faith. Works do not belong to the conversation about our justification, but rather our sanctification.
God has made us His new creation in Christ. He has put His Spirit in our heart, creating a new spiritual nature. The Spirit moves us by the Gospel, giving us a new will. Philippians 2:13 says: “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Faith works in love (Galatians 5:6); not to earn salvation, but in thankfulness for God’s free salvation in Christ.
What an important meaning and purpose God gives us, as His new creation in Christ. He has saved us by His eternal purpose, and He has put us where we are “for good works, which God prepared beforehand.” The people among whom we live, the calling in which we use our gifts, the church family with whom we worship and serve – all this “God prepared beforehand.” Even when life seems average and mundane, difficult and stressful, painful and sorrowful – even then, God is fulfilling His good work in us. As His new creation, moved by faith in Christ, we bring true glory to God and good to our neighbor, as we share His grace with fellow sinners.
But God has saved us for a purpose that goes well beyond this temporal world. Our text tells us that, having saved us by His grace in Christ, He “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Already, God has raised us up to a new life in Christ. It is spoken of as a completed action, including all that is still to come. Already, He has lifted us out of sin by His forgiveness; He has lifted us out of death by His Spirit and faith. Already, we have eternal life in Christ.
Therefore, according to His eternal purpose for us in Christ, God will also bring us to the heavenly places He is preparing for us. Then we will experience His “exceeding riches” – heavenly riches that surpass all earthly measure or comprehension. Scripture begins to picture heavenly things in earthly terms – like the most joyful wedding banquet with the beloved, or like a glorious city paved with gold and set with precious stones. As one commentator put it: “Even in the eons to come all will be pure grace, undeserved favor; but after having removed every trace of sin from us and having brought us to perfection and glory, grace will still have endless goodness and kindness to lavish upon us.” (Lenski)
“There but for the grace of God go I.” We join believers through the ages, confessing our trust in the grace of God alone by which we are saved. In the riches of His grace, He has saved us from sin and condemnation. He has raised us up in His forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. He has made us His new creation by His Holy Spirit. And His gift will keep on giving in the exceeding riches of His heavenly glory.
Therefore, with our hearts and lips and lives, we declare: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.