Mining the Glorious Riches of God's Grace
Topic: Sovereign Grace Passage: Ephesians 1:2–6:24
It’s Reformation Sunday. This Tuesday will mark 500 years since Martin Luther hung his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in Germany. He was calling the church to repent where she had grossly erred in doctrine and practice.
One practice that Luther attacked was the sale of indulgences.[i] The Roman Catholic Church believes in a treasury of merit. Indulgences draw from this treasury as one way to reduce the amount of punishment in what they call purgatory. In Luther’s day, some were selling these indulgences, pretending to sell forgiveness, leading thousands to believe that God’s gracious favor can be earned.
Luther saw this as a direct assault on the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. No human merit could ever forgive sins. Others joined Luther in the protest, arguing from Scripture that grace is no longer grace if it can be earned. From this controversy, one crucial Sola among five others was birthed, Sola Gratia. It’s a Latin expression that means salvation is by God’s grace alone.
The Catholic Church won’t deny that salvation is by God’s grace. Let’s not misrepresent them. Their Catechism plainly states that “the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace.” But that same Catechism adds this: “…we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” Salvation may be by grace in Catholic teaching, but it’s certainly not by grace alone.
Grace for a World Where Our Performance is Everything
You may be surprised at how relevant the assertion truly is that salvation is by grace alone. One way our culture can jeopardize the true gospel is by teaching that our fundamental worth and identity is based on our performance.
It comes with slogans like, “What goes around comes around,” or “God helps those who help themselves,” or “You get what you pay for.” You feel it on the sandlot when all the other boys get picked before you because they perform better on the field. Commercials promote various kinds of drugs and diets to maximize your performance. It comes with every Facebook post that makes you feel that if you don’t do X, Y, and Z, then you’re missing out, you’re not a good mom, and you’re just not accepted. It’s part of the reason stress, anxiety, and depression are so prevalent; people exhaust themselves trying to live up to societies expectations.
If not careful, we start to believe that our fundamental identity is based on our performance. Sadly, such a belief even begins to shape our theology. Sure we know that God saves sinners; grace “gets us in the door,” so to speak. But how tempting to believe that now it’s up to us to finish the race, that now it’s up to our prayers and our Bible study and our sin management and our goodness and our ministry efforts to maintain God’s favor. Salvation that started by amazing-grace-alone morphs into an exhausting-grace-plus-works religion, where we’re never quite sure what God thinks of us, whether we’re going to make it in the end, and if the gospel is all that good.
Luther once said that “human nature is no longer able to imagine or conceive any way to be made right with God other than works.” Hence, the cacophony of religions which amount to various forms of what man can do for himself to obtain the supernatural or appease his god or gods. But what should become very clear for us today is that what counts most in life isn’t anything you have or anything you can do; it’s what God does for you from his own pleasure and grace in Christ. I want to mine the riches of God’s grace from Ephesians. My goal? To show you why salvation is by God’s grace alone from beginning to end, and then talk about a few ways that affects our lives.
A Few Clarifications
Before mining the riches of God’s grace, though, I want to clarify a few things. To be clear, grace is not approval or tolerance of sin.[ii] Grace never minimizes sin. It exposes it. Nor does grace leave people as they are, never producing change. Titus 2 actually says that grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires. Also, grace is never something that can be earned, worked for, even after you’re a Christian. Grace is always undeserved, unmerited favor. When we’re talking about salvation, grace is God’s free and extravagant generosity in Christ toward undeserving sinners.
Something else is this: the source of our salvation is the Triune God. Grace comes from one God existing in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Right from the outset Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In verse 13 we see the Spirit. In unceasing unity the Trinity saves us.
That also means that God’s work of redemption is indivisible. I’ll refer to four major moments in God’s redemption plan—the Father electing us before history, the Son redeeming us in history, the Spirit applying redemption throughout history, and God finishing our salvation at the end of history. These four moments are historically distinct, but they hang together within God’s one redemption plan.
Also, please notice how Paul stresses one’s union with Christ. Within the first 14 verses alone we hear the steady refrain of “in Christ,” “in him,” “through Jesus Christ,” “in the Beloved”—more than ten times. All the riches of God’s grace come only to those in union with Christ. That means you belong to Christ and he to you at all moments in this story of redemption. This union with Christ will both amaze you and give solid grounds for assurance that God’s grace will never fail us.
And one more: I’ll say a lot about God’s grace, but I will certainly not exhaust all the Bible reveals about his grace. Nor do I want to give the impression that I live by God’s grace very well. I’m not always a gracias man, and I too sometimes think that my worth as a pastor is rooted in my ability to perform well and always say the right thing in hardships. This message is for me as much as it’s for you, that we might all grow together in living by faith in God’s grace alone to save us.
God Elects Us in Christ before History
With that said, let’s now mine the riches of God’s grace. Let’s look at four moments in God’s redemption plan. First, salvation is by grace alone because God elects us in Christ before history. Look at 1:4-6. Paul celebrates every spiritual blessing in Christ; and he begins with our election: “…even as [God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Simply put, salvation comes to sinners only and ultimately by God’s choice. We need to be more specific though. Notice four things about God’s choice. One, his choice is eternal—“before the foundation of the world.” 2 Timothy 1:9 calls it grace, “which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” It’s not a choice awaiting certain conditions like works or faith to play out; it’s a choice God makes before the world existed. We’re not chosen because we believe; we believe because we’re chosen.
Two, the choice is personal—“he chose us in Christ.” He didn’t simply choose a way that people could be saved in history. Nor did he simply choose a condition by which people would be saved. God actually chose a people (“us”) to put into Christ. John’s Gospel and Revelation speak about these people as those the Father gave to the Son, those written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world.[iii]
Three, God’s sovereign will stands behind the choice. Verse 5, “according to the purpose [or pleasure] of his will.” Verse 11, “he works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Therefore, God’s choice to save us isn’t grounded in our will to choose God, but in God’s will to choose us. It’s not grounded in God foreseeing that at some point in the future this person would will and work; it’s grounded solely in God’s pleasure and purpose to save whom he pleases.[iv]
God doesn’t choose us for salvation like we might choose somebody for our baseball team at the sandlot. Our choice is based on their performance, something that’s in them, something they can offer us. God doesn’t need us, nor was there anything within us that moved him. He chose us simply because he willed to love us and give us to his Son for our eternal enjoyment and his eternal praise.
Which leads to four, his choice is ultimately for his praise. Verse 6, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” Alongside predestination, election is an act of grace; and as an act of grace, God gets all the glory for my salvation not me. We did nothing to earn or deserve his choice. We did nothing to put God in debt to us. He was not obligated to choose us. He just did, and therefore all human boasting is excluded and all praise belongs to God. If the ultimate basis of our salvation ever becomes our willing or our doing, then we rob God of the glory that rightly belongs to him.
For these reasons, and others, many throughout church history have rightly described God’s gracious act of election as unconditional. God elects to save certain individuals, but not on the basis of their works or foreseen faith. It’s based solely on God’s sovereign pleasure. Salvation belongs to the Lord. It’s grace alone from eternity past. We’re saved only because God chose to save us.
Christ Accomplishes Our Redemption in History
But don’t forget that this choice in eternity past is also one that is “in Christ,” a phrase Paul returns to in verse 7: “In [Christ, or in the Beloved] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” This leads to the second major moment in God’s salvation plan. We see that salvation is by grace alone in that Christ accomplishes our redemption within history.
At times Paul describes our former manner of life as one that is “outside Christ”—as in 2:12. God then applies Christ’s redemption to us; and in that moment he places us “in Christ” through faith and justification and so forth. But at other times Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” when describing our solidarity with Christ in his once-for-all-time death on the cross.[v] While Christ’s death certainly accomplishes more, verse 7 mentions two things in particular: our redemption and our forgiveness.
Redemption and forgiveness touches on two obstacles in our salvation that are impossible to overcome by our own efforts. Redemption has to do with deliverance from slavery. When we hear the word slavery, we might imagine a man in shackles working himself to death under the crack of a tyrant’s whip. Sin puts us in shackles like that with no way of escape. But the slavery is even worse. We don’t just have the shackles, we like them. We prefer them. On top of that, we need forgiveness. We’re guilty before a holy God for violating his law. Without forgiveness, God must rightly punish us.
What Paul celebrates here is that for those “in Christ” God accomplished both their redemption from slavery and their forgiveness of sins when he died on the cross. These blessings come “through his blood.” In that once-for-all-time event, God put his Son forward as the perfect sacrifice for his elect. When he died for the sins of his people, mysteriously we were united to him in that death. He’s not simply our substitute; he’s our representative substitute. As Ephesians 5:25 puts it, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” He died as a husband for his particular bride.
All at once; everything that needed to be accomplished to secure our right standing with God was accomplished in that moment. Nothing more can be added to it; nothing needs to be added to it. No prayer you make, no hymn you sing, no deed you perform, no money you give can add to Christ’s redemption or buy your forgiveness. Christ did for us what we could never do on our own.
We were born in sin, but Christ came as our new Adam without sin. We were guilty with trespasses, but Christ obeyed God’s law perfectly wherever we failed. We were enslaved to sin, but Christ died to shatter the shackles and carry us out of our bondage. No mere human could satisfy God’s wrath; only the infinite worth of the God-man’s offering could drain the cup of God’s wrath till it was finished.
Question: where were you and I in that whole process? Was the cross your idea? What did you contribute when God put his Son forward as our substitute? You and I had absolutely zero to do with what God achieved on the cross. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. No works, no inherent goodness, nothing in us moved God to love us and send Christ for us. God does all this, it says, “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us with all wisdom and insight.” Not just a little sprinkle, a little dab; he lavishes grace on his people in the death of his Beloved Son.
God Applies Christ’s Redemption to Us throughout History
He planned grace in eternity past quite apart from us. He manifested grace in history in the death of Christ quite apart from us. Now I want us to mine a third moment in our salvation. We see that salvation is by grace alone also in the way God applies Christ’s redemption to his people throughout history.
God accomplished our salvation at the cross. But his people from each generation must believe what God accomplished through the gospel (Eph 1:13). But lest we miss God’s grace in our faith and conversion, and begin to think it was owing to us, look at 2:1-10: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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—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 grace of our redemption in Christ will not amaze us unless we feel the gravity of our rebellion in Adam. People who grow dull about God’s grace have lost sight of what they once were. People who attack salvation by grace alone have way too much confidence in themselves and miss the Bible’s dismal picture of the human condition.
We’re not just drowning at sea, if only someone would just toss us a life preserver; we’re flat-lined on the ocean floor when it comes to pursuing the things of God. We’re dead in our sin; we’re captive to Satan; we’re rebels deserving wrath. That’s what everybody is by nature—“just like the rest of mankind,” he says. Nobody can do anything about it. Dead people can do nothing. But look what God does…
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Be amazed at the reversal. We were dead in sin, but God made us alive together with Christ—we can pursue the things of God now. We were captive to Satan, but God seated us with Christ in the heavenly places—and if you read 1:21 Christ reigns there far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. Satan has nothing on Christ and those seated with him. We were rebels deserving wrath, but God saved us to spend the coming ages showing off the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. We went from children of wrath to trophies of grace.
And God did it all. Look at verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this [What’s “this”? The grace, the salvation, the faith—it’s the whole package!] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Those two denials—not your own doing; not a result of works—are why salvation is by grace alone. Even faith is a gift (Phil 1:29).
That doesn’t mean God’s grace is unrelated to works. Verse 10 actually tells us that grace also produces good works in God’s beloved. “For we are his workmanship,” it says, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But these works never earn God’s grace for salvation; they manifest God’s grace in our salvation. Look at it carefully: we’re his workmanship; he re-creates us in Christ Jesus; he prepared the works beforehand. Yes we will and we do. But it’s like Paul says, “though it was not I but the grace of God within me” (1 Cor 15:10).
God Finishes Our Salvation at the End of History
Let’s look now at the final moment in God’s salvation plan. We see that salvation is by grace alone in the way God finishes our salvation at the end of time.
Chapters 1-3 of Ephesians expound the gospel of God’s grace. Chapters 4-6 then show what the outworking of God’s grace looks like for the individual and for the community. God’s Spirit works in his people so they learn to put off the old self and put on the new self in Christ. Believers become conduits of grace to others in the words we share (Eph 4:29). God’s Spirit also gifts the church—“grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” we see in 4:7. The purpose of these gifts is to grow the whole church into Christ, who is our head.
But all these things anticipate God’s future grace. Look back at 1:13-14. It says we were sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” We started with God’s grace toward us before the foundation of the world. Here we find that God’s grace toward us will never waiver to the end of the world. The third person of the Trinity is our guarantee.
If God elects to save us in Christ before history, sends Christ to represent us in history, binds us to Christ by the Spirit throughout history, then we can rest assured that he will raise us in Christ at the end of history. And when we’re raised from the dead to receive our inheritance, and given new bodies that will never die, and wills to never sin again—in that moment, not a single person will say, “I did some of that.” Why will you never sin again at Jesus’ return? God! That’s the only answer. And our song will forever be “Glory alone be to the God of all grace.”
Honor the God of all grace
Which leads us to a first way grace alone affects us. Salvation by grace alone leads us to honor the God of all grace. From beginning to end, isn’t that what it’s ultimately about? The refrain of chapter 1 is unquestionable. Everything about our salvation is “to the praise of his glorious grace”—verse 6; “to the praise of his glory”—verse 12; “to the praise of his glory”—verse 14. When salvation is by grace alone, all honor belongs to God alone. Grace alone is about promoting true worship and repenting from every false boast in our own ability. Sola gratia leads to soli Deo gloria!
Walk in humility before God and others
Grace alone also means that we walk in humility before God and others. If salvation is by works, then we have something to boast about. That’s implied by 2:8. But if salvation is by grace alone, then we have nothing to boast about. That’s why Paul says elsewhere, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:29). If you’re a Christian, there’s no room for pride or looking down on others in the church. There’s no room for favoritism or partiality or envy. Everything we have in Christ is a gift.
Colossians 3:1 instructs us well, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Hear that rightly. He doesn’t say, “Put on kindness and humility to become God’s chosen ones. He says, “As God’s chosen ones, put on kindness and humility.” Humility grows out of being chosen by grace. Humility grows out of knowing that there was nothing in you that moved God to love you; he simply chose to love you unworthy as you are.
Walk in holiness as grace trains & empowers
Salvation by grace alone also motivates us to walk in holiness. Yes, God’s grace is extravagant, and it’s so extravagant that some were accusing Paul of lawlessness. If grace was this great, they feared some would just sin all the more, that grace might abound. But Paul destroyed that objection. He showed that if grace truly saves us from bondage to sin, then how could we still walk in it?
More than that, he showed that grace both trains and empowers. Listen to Titus 2:11-13. It says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
Grace trains and grace empowers. It trains us to deny ungodliness and to live godly lives. And then it empowers by showing us that Christ is the one who redeems from lawlessness to purify for himself a people. So, we’re denying ungodliness and pursuing holiness, but he’s in here purifying and making us zealous for good works.
Find your help in God’s daily grace in Christ
Which leads to something else I want to remind you of: find your help in God’s daily grace in Christ. There’s a reason Paul ends his letters with “Grace be with all of you” (Eph 6:24). We need God’s grace to be with us every day. The idea is, “Grace be with you at the office tomorrow when you’re living this out; Grace be with you in the morning when kids don’t want to do school; Grace be with you when the cancer hits and you need help holding on to these promises; Grace be with you when you’re tempted to give in to immorality.” God’s grace goes with us.
When we went through James together, I remember several of you being struck by these words: “but he gives more grace”—that’s James 4:6. Live every moment of your day by those words: “but he gives more grace.”
Herald God’s grace in Christ to others
Next, if salvation is truly by grace alone, then herald God’s grace in Christ to others. Paul counted his mission a “stewardship of God’s grace” in 3:2; and part of that stewardship was announcing the gospel of God’s grace to others.
We live in a world swarming with religions that have as their fundamental presupposition that man is good enough to make things right with God, man can earn God’s favor, man can work his way to heaven. Our world is also teaming with people who exhaust themselves seeking approval from God and others instead of resting in the grace of God in Christ. Even worse, so-called churches and their false teachers have taught others that if they’ll just do X, Y, and Z, then God is sure to bless you; that God can’t do anything until he sees your resolve first; that Jesus put the down-payment on your salvation, but you have to keep up the payments.
That’s not good news; that’s poison. We have a better gospel. We have the true gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace. People will only be freed from their exhausting man-made religion that leads to hell with the extravagant grace-filled gospel of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. Share it with others. Share it with all!
People sometimes think that God’s sovereign grace in election and conversion hinders missions and evangelism. No, it’s the only hope for missions and evangelism. Because of divine election, we are guaranteed that people will be saved. Jesus has other sheep that will hear his voice, John 10:16. Those ordained to eternal life will be saved, Acts 13:48. The Lamb will receive the reward of his sufferings, Revelation 5:9.
More than that, sovereign grace means he can save anybody he wants to. Anybody! No matter the background or despair or shameful past or heinous crime—his grace is greater than all our sin. God is not bound by your evil; he’s totally free to save. If anybody ever says, “I don’t know if God can save someone like me.” Sovereign grace enables us to say right back, “Well, he saved me; and I’m just like you. Your sin isn’t the determining factor in whether you can be saved. Grace is. And his grace in Christ is more than sufficient to save anybody. Come to him!” Will you say that? Herald grace to others.
Hope in God’s grace to finish your salvation
And then lastly, hope in God’s grace to finish your salvation. 2 Thessalonians 2:15-16 says that God “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace.” We have good hope. Why? God gave it to us through Grace. We have his Spirit by grace; he is our guarantee (Eph 1:14). We have his promises by grace—promises like Philippians 1:6, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The good work God began he will finish.
I spent some time with my family last week down in South Texas. One day we went to a nursing home where my Granny is living. We celebrated her 92nd birthday. Most of the conversation was spent reminding her who I was. Where I was living. Who my children were. Her memory isn’t good and fading rapidly. I also ran into another lady—much younger than my Granny—and she couldn’t hardly talk or understand anything because of Alzheimer’s.
It got me thinking about how much hope we truly have when salvation is by grace alone. Because what happens when I become too weak to serve others, or when I can’t even remember the wife God gave me to love as Christ loves his church. Or the worst for me was, what happens when my memory so fades that I can’t even remember Jesus, I can’t even read my Bible and feel the warmth of his promises?
Will I lose favor with God? Oh this gospel says No way. It’s grace alone. My salvation is accomplished in Christ, and in him I’ll stand right before God. I might forget Jesus; but he’ll never forget me. From beginning to end I am his, and he is mine. He has fit me to see him face to face. He has fit all of us to see him face to face in Christ. To him be the praise and glory.
[i]See discussion in Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 14, 37, 40, 54, 63, 80.
[ii]Montgomery and Jones, Proof, 17.
[iii]John 6:37; 10:29; 17:11, 24; Rev 13:8; 17:8; 21:27.
[iv]Romans 9:15-16 is also helpful: God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Conclusion? “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
[v]See especially Romans 5:12-21; 6:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.
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