Grace Works (Ephesians 2:1–10)

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Doug Van Meter - 10 February 2013

Grace Works (Ephesians 2:1–10)

The Five Solas

As long as the church remains committed to Scripture as our all-sufficient and final authority for all that we believe and do, we will find ourselves committed to the gospel truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The result will be an increasing God-centeredness and hence a desire for God to receive all the glory alone—in all spheres of life, in all place in the world. That is, increasingly, we will see all of God’s glory in all the world.

From Series: "The Five Solas"

These sermons formed part of Doug Van Meter's miniseries in the five solas of the Reformation.

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In early March this year, BBC will observe its annual World Outreach Celebration. The theme of this year’s celebration is “All of God’s Glory in All of the World.” When I invited Ronald Kalifungwa of Lusaka Baptist Church to be our special speaker, I asked him to address the issue of the five solas and the Great Commission. My reason for doing so was that all too often there is a disconnect between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That is, there is often a gap between theory/theology and practice.

If you wanted to label what kind of a church that we are, you might use the term “Reformed Baptist.” (I prefer the term “Reforming” over “Reformed” personally.) Fundamentally, this means that we take very seriously the five solas that arose out of the sixteenth century Reformation: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo gloria (to God alone be the glory). This is the reason for the name of the association of churches to which we belong: Sola 5: An Association of God-centred Evangelicals in Southern Africa. A proper emphasis to these essentials will go a long way toward developing an increasing God-centeredness in our churches.

As long as the church remains committed to Scripture as our all-sufficient and final authority for all that we believe and do, we will find ourselves committed to the gospel truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The result will be an increasing God-centeredness and hence a desire for God to receive all the glory alone—in all spheres of life, in all place in the world. That is, increasingly, we will see all of God’s glory in all the world.

Doctrine matters. And one reason that it matters is that doctrine motivates. I believe that the doctrine of the gospel, when properly understood, motivates us to love God and others. Therefore those who are saved through faith will live by faith; those who are saved by grace will be gracious.

This matter of biblical doctrine driving how we live will be pressed home during our Celebration. But in preparation for that time, I want to take some time in our next few studies to address the five solas. As we do so, may the Lord enable us to keep the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Recently, we have spent time examining the social responsibility of the Christian and how this is a natural outworking of those who indeed have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone. We saw most recently that the faith that saves is proven by works that follow. In other words, faith works. In this study, we will consider Ephesians 2:1–10 and will learn that the same is true of saving grace: it works. This is a legitimate conclusion based on Paul’s inspired words, in which he revels in God’s grace as revealed here in Ephesians 2.

There might be room for debate about how grace works, and how these works look, but that it works is beyond dispute.

I want to pick up today where we left off previously and see, once again, that the gospel experienced will express itself in many ways, not the least of which will be in loving our neighbour as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; James 2:8). In fact, we were created in Christ Jesus for such a work. We are a workmanship that expresses itself in such loving behaviour.

There is no doubt that the ultimate expression of such professed love is to seek the salvation of our neighbour’s soul. And so we need to be grounded in the gospel of the grace of God. In this study, therefore, we will study the truth that salvation is by grace alone, and as we do so we will come to appreciate that, just as with saving faith, grace also works. We will conduct our study under several headings.

Our Amazing Privilege

It will help to briefly consider a broad overview of chapter 1 before we come specifically to our text. Basically, chapter 1 highlights the amazing privilege of the children of God.

The Immediate Context

One of the main reasons that Paul wrote this letter was to highlight God’s grace in forming one people out of many peoples. This is the nature of the new covenant church. Paul wanted the Ephesian Christians (who were mostly Gentile) to appreciate what God had done in their salvation. Further, he wanted them to appreciate the glorious work that God was doing through the building of His church.

In chapter 1 Paul tells these believers that ever since he heard of their salvation he had been praying for them. He says that he was praying that God would give them spiritual revelation (vv. 15–18a) to see three specific things:

  1. The hope of their calling in Christ (v. 18b);
  2. The riches of their inheritance in Christ (v. 18c); and
  3. The exceeding greatness of Christ’s power toward them when He saved them (v. 19)—a power which Paul was at great pains to emphasise was currently available to them because of the Lordship of Jesus Christ (vv. 20–23).

Each of these blessing was at their disposal because of God’s grace (vv. 2, 6, 7). This is why he then moves into chapter 2 with the words, “And you.” Paul is about to explain how God, in His grace, chose to save them and to make them a part of this privileged people.

The word “grace” appears, per capita, more times in Ephesians than in any other New Testament writing. In a book in which Paul highlights the enormous privileges of the Christian, he wanted to make sure that they realised that this was undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional. In other words, it was by grace alone.

With this opening reminder of God’s amazing grace, Paul moves into chapter 2, building upon this theme to highlight that, by God’s grace, they were a new people that were destined to bring glory to God, just as old covenant Israel was supposed to (vv. 19–22).

But before getting to this crescendo of privilege, Paul first reminds them how it came to be that they were now this blessed people. And, again, in vv. 1–10 he reminds them that it was by grace alone. He wanted them to be amazed by grace. May we be as well!

The Historical Context

It is helpful to recall the founding of the church at Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19.

Ephesus was the main centre of the worship of Artemas (Diana). The city boasted a temple (dedicated to this religion), which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It measured some 130 metres long and some 40 metres high.

Ephesus boasted one of the wealthiest economies in the world, and much of this was connected to this false worship. Paul came to this part of the world and faithfully proclaimed the gospel. The Spirit of God moved in the city and hearts were graciously renewed, with the result that many believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The results were astounding.

The gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:1–21, 24) had such a saving impact that the surrounding society began to feel the effects—even economically.

The local guild of silversmiths, which made a small fortune selling little Diana idols, were being put out of business. Those who had professed Christ were bringing forth fruit that accompanies repentance. They (in Paul’s words describing the Thessalonians believers) had turned from idols to serve the living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The result was that the marketplace of idols was affected; these manufacturers of idols now had a large supply with much less demand! And as we often see in our world today, the fallout was ugly. A riot broke out and a mob of Ephesians tried to kill Paul and Silas. Nevertheless, the Word of God continued to grow, resulting in the growth of the church in Ephesus and beyond.

When you consider this history, you realise that the recipients of this letter had been privileged to experience God’s grace. They had been delivered from the clutches of paganism and had been set free from bondage to sin, self and Satan. But perhaps Paul also knew that they needed a reminder (cf. Revelation 2:1–7) of their spiritual privileges. We all do. And such a remembrance results in grace worshipping and in grace working. But first, we need to hear grace speaking. Let’s listen.

God’s Amazing Power

The first thing of which Paul reminds Christians is that, when it comes to the saving of sinners, God’s power is truly awesome. In fact, it must be because our problem is enormous. That is why Christians revel in the truth revealed through Jonah that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Paul writes,

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.

(Ephesians 2:1–6)

We might summarise these verses in the words of John Murray: “Salvation is of the Lord; and it is only of Him if it is all of Him.”

Our Awful Condition

We see God’s amazing power in the light of our condition (vv. 1–3). Paul describes us as “dead in trespasses and sins.” He says that we “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.”

We need to appreciate our condition if we will appreciate God as the cause of our conversion. In other words, we will never appreciate saving grace until we come to appreciate the seriousness of our guilt. Let’s briefly consider just how awful our condition was.

We Were Dead

Paul tells us that we were “dead in trespasses and sins.” He does not say that we were sick, dysfunctional, comatose or paralysed. No, he says that we were dead. And this rendered us absolutely hopeless in ourselves, for only God can raise the dead.

By the way, this does not mean that we were dead to religion or to spirituality. It means that we were dead to any relationship with God; there was no appetite for the things of God.

We live in a very seeker-sensitive society, and this philosophy has infiltrated the church as well. It is folly to think that the church must cater to unbelieving “seekers.” If God does not first seek the unbeliever, the unbeliever is incapable of seeking God. He may attend church, and may be seeking a great many things—happiness, peace, a more secure marriage, etc.—but he is not seeking God. He is dead. This is not to say that we should discourage them from attending, for the more they attend the more they will be exposed to the gospel, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that unbelievers can seek God without God’s initiative. To try and make our services comfortable for unbelievers makes about as much sense as building a restaurant at a cemetery. It’s just not going to create appetite for the dead.

We were dead in “trespasses.” The word means “to slip,” “to stumble,” “to deviate” or “to go in the wrong direction.” At grassroots level, it means “to fall.” It is translated as “fall away” in Hebrews 6:6 and as “fall” in Romans 11:11.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they fell in such a way that they were spiritually dead, and everybody born since then has been born spiritually dead. Simply put, their fall killed us spiritually. Our fall was so severe that we have been completely cut off from a relationship with God.

We are also dead in our “sins.” The word means “to miss a mark.” We have fallen short of the standard, which is the glory of God (Romans 3:23). When Herod failed to give glory to God he was struck dead (Acts 12:23), and that is the penalty for all who are dead in trespasses and sins and who therefore fail to give God His due.

Both these words—“trespasses” and “sins”—are used to emphasise the breadth of the sinfulness resulting from our spiritual death. As MacArthur notes, “Not all men as evil as they could be, but all fail to measure up to God’s perfect standard.”

We Were Disobedient

Paul says that believers “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 on a path of defiant self-destruction, controlled by the spirit of the age rather than by the Spirit of God. We foolishly followed the crowd. We were indeed “sons of disobedience,” children characterised by unbelief.

Disobedience alienates us from God, and this is a humanly insurmountable problem. Everyone is born running away from God. The first day I held my granddaughter in my arms in the hospital, I was reminded afresh that I was holding a bundle of sin. She was not born asking for a Bible. She was born alienated from God, and she has been on my prayer list for salvation ever since I first learned that my daughter was pregnant.

We must face the reality that unbelievers are “sons of disobedience.” They cannot bring forth fruit of salvation because they have no life. It is sheer folly to try to tape plastic fruit to a lifeless branch!

Obedience is a mark of discipleship. Jesus said that, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). Those who do not keep His commandments do not love him, and those who do not love Him cannot keep His commandments.

We Were Depraved

As unbelievers, “we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” As Sinclair Ferguson says, “The orientation of our whole life was in a God-rejecting manner.”

Reformed theology speaks of the “total depravity” or “radical corruption” of humanity. This does not necessarily mean that every human is as bad as he or she could possibly be. It means that everything about us was at enmity with God. The Fall infected every fibre of our being. We are born wholly opposed to God.

Paul references our “mind” in this verse, which implies that we make deliberate choices that are defiantly contrary to the will of God. Paul later describes unbelievers as “having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (4:18). Isaiah said it this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

We can do “good” things, but not godly things. That is, we are entirely incapable of pleasing God. To cite Isaiah again, “we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6).

In short, we are alienated from God in every way—regardless of “good works.” It is impossible for us to bridge the gap that exists between God and us.

We Were Damned

Paul ends his description of the former life of believers by stating that we “were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”

The word “wrath” pictures growing ripe into something, and therefore speaks of mounting indignation. Unbelievers are characterised as being under God’s wrath and yet continuing to wage war! Psalm 2 describes this defiant war waged by unbelievers against God. Despite the fact that it is hopeless, fallen man continues to rage against God. In fact, the more he tries to bridge the gap, the greater indignation he adds because of his self-righteousness.

Stott notes that, in these verses, Paul “plumbs the depths of pessimism about man.” But this is exactly what fallen man needs to understand. He needs it more than, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Man needs to be alarmed by his guilt. Things are not okay between God and man. They need to be made right. Is there hope?

God’s Amazing Concern

According to vv. 4–6, there is hope. And that hope resides in God’s amazing concern and, therefore His gracious choice.

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.

(Ephesians 2:4–6)

God is gracious to all in some ways; He is gracious to some in all ways. So it is when it comes to salvation.

An Amazing Contrast

Paul opens this section with some of the most awe-inspiring words in Scripture: “But God.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that “these two words, in some ways, are the essence of the gospel.” This type of contrast is used time and again in Scripture to highlight God’s grace in saving sinners. Consider just a few examples.

  • Psalm 130:3–4—If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.
  • Mark 2:7—Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?
  • Acts 13:30—But God raised Him from the dead.
  • Romans 5:8—But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Romans 6:17—But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.

If these two words are not predominant in our preaching then we need to rethink our anthropology. Stott correctly says that Paul goes “from plumbing the depths of pessimism about man to rising to the heights of optimism about what God has done.”

An Amazing Consideration

God’s choice to save people was completely unconditional. That is, there was nothing in the elect that merited God’s favour. He chose to save because He chose to love (see 1:3–4). “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.”

Warren Wiersbe said of the doctrine of election that if we try to explain it we will be confounded, but if we try to explain it away we will lose our soul. That is, there is no salvation apart from God’s grace. God “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (1:5). It was “of His own will” that “He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). We brought nothing to the table; God did it all by Himself.

An Amazing Condescension

All this happened “by grace.” And incredibly—by grace—God “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Though we did not deserve it, we were resurrected to reign with Christ! That is amazing condescension indeed!

This entire transaction can be illustrated by the story of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus was dead. He had been dead for four days by the time the Lord arrived. A Jewish superstition held that the soul hovered around the body for three days after death, seeking an opportunity to re-enter. To the Jewish mind, the fact that Lazarus had been dead four days meant that he was well and truly dead! He was beyond hope.

It was thus a complete shock for the bystanders to hear Jesus instruct that the stone be rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. How they must have wondered when they heard Him call with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” (If Jesus hadn’t specified “Lazarus,” the whole cemetery would have come forth!) But you know the story well: Lazarus responded to the Lord’s command and came out of the tomb, raised to life again. He was granted life and liberty, and in chapter 12 we find him in fellowship with His Saviour.

The question in all this is simple: What role did Lazarus play? He did a fine job of being dead, but what more did he do? He responded to the Lord’s command, but we would hardly say that he contributed. And he only responded because the Lord enabled him to respond. He had no power in and of himself to come to life. He did not decide to be raised, nor did he ask to be raised. Jesus did all the work.

Likewise, God does all the work in raising us to newness of life. He gives the new heart by which we are enabled to believe. He regenerates us so that we are able to respond to the command to repent and believe. If we give ourselves any credit in this transaction, we minimise the grace of God.

God’s Amazing Purpose

In vv. 7-9, Paul highlight’s God’s amazing purpose, which was “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.”

His Purpose is Ageless

Because salvation is by grace alone, God alone gets the glory; through all ages. Paul speaks of us having “been saved.” Primarily, of course, this speaks of justification, but justification can never be separated from sanctification and glorification. Those who have been justified will be sanctified and ultimately will be glorified.

It is clear from these verses that faith is not “our part” in the transaction of salvation. We are saved “by grace . . . through faith,” but that faith is “not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” We were dead, and wholly incapable of exercising faith or repentance. Faith and repentance are gifts of God. Technically, faith is not a condition of justification; it is a gift given by God to those whom He regenerates. Peter speaks of believers “who have obtained like precious faith with us” (2 Peter 1:1). Paul says that it was “granted” us “on behalf of Christ . . . to believe in him” (Philippians 1:29). Peter said elsewhere that “faith . . . comes through Him” (Acts 3:16).

Does this make you uncomfortable? If so, ask yourself, why? Why should it make you uncomfortable that your salvation was entirely by God’s grace? Would you criticise Jesus because He raised Lazarus without Lazarus contributing? Are you so foolish as to think that the clay has any right to instruct the Potter?

God’s Amazing People

This amazing grace that saves the lost produces an amazing people. According to v. 10, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

His People are Active

This verse reveals an amazing truth: Those saved by God’s amazing grace become an amazing people. Yes, that would be us—the church! God’s people are made up of all kinds of people who experience the same privileges (because we have experienced the same power) and who pursue the same purpose by manifesting good works—to the glory of God. In fact, increasingly we will be passionate about this. And this, of course, is all of grace.

There are at least two major realities that this verse reveals to us.

First, we see that God’s grace is not arbitrary. While grace is unconditional, it does have a purpose. God chooses to save people who will glorify in Him in certain ways. His salvation is well-planned.

Second, we learn that God’s grace will manifest itself. We were saved apart from good works (vv. 8-9), but in order to do good works (v. 10). MacArthur writes: “The same power that created us in Christ Jesus empowers us to do the good works for which He has redeemed us. These are verifiers of true salvation. Righteous attitudes and righteous acts proceed from the transformed life now living in the heavenlies.” In other words, there is a real sense in which the believer is to so live that heaven is brought to bear on earth.

Since heaven is filled with mercy and grace, then those who are seated there should be manifesting such characteristics where they are currently living on earth. One area where there is much discussion about Christian works is with reference to so called social works.

As we saw previously in our study of James 2, works of mercy are obvious fruit from saving faith and yet there is still much unease among evangelicals when it comes to the church and social responsibility. There is the looming fear of what has become known as the social gospel—that is, the idea that the sole purpose of the church is to try alleviate temporal suffering with little if any concern about eternal matters of the soul—matters such as final judgement and the need to prepare people to meet their Maker on that day. Hence, the gospel of the saving grace of God becomes eclipsed and the church becomes merely a welfare society—and a weightless one at that. This concern is very understandable, particularly at a time when it seems as though there is a resurgence of a recovery of the gospel.

Some exceptional books have been written in recent years that have sought to prove the biblical mandate that the presence of the church is to make a difference in culture: The Mission of God by Christopher Wright; Why Government Can’t Save You by John MacArthur; Living in God’s Two Kingdoms by David VanDrunen; To Change the World by James Davison Hunter; The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler; Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller; Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch; Radical by David Platt; What is The Mission of The Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert; and Christ and Culture Revisited by Don Carson. An older book by John Stott—Christian Mission in the Modern World—has also resurfaced in the midst of these. Such titles are only a sample of many such works being published that address the issue of the church’s mission and how the gospel either should or should not be expected to inform our involvement in the wider society.

These books all have much good to say in them. They would all agree that the church must practice what is often termed “faithful presence” in society. They would all agree, to varying degrees, that the church should be having a salty effect in society. In fact, most of these authors would agree that the church should be involved in issues that fall under the concept of social responsibility. But one senses hesitancy on the part of some in discussing the church’s involvement. Because these are all written by evangelicals, they are all concerned that the church should not displace the gospel in its quest to serve God by serving His creation. There is even much strong disagreement among some of them with reference to what the church should expect of its constructive engagement with society. In fact, some of these authors expect very little by way of constructive engagement.

Such debate and dialogue is important, and I believe that this will have the long term result of more biblical clarity on the matter. But having said this, there is ample Scripture and ample agreement amongst instructed evangelicals that encourages us to engage the surrounding culture because of the grace of God that we have experienced in the gospel. That is, because of God’s saving grace, the saved will graciously work. And the world is our workplace. It would seem that Paul certainly saw things this way. And he refers to this here in Ephesians 2:10.

The text tells us that we are a peculiar people and a prepared people. Jesus said much the same in John 15:16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.”

The question that must be addressed is, what kind of fruit is this? I think we will grasp the answer if we reflect on the fact that Jesus sent us as the Father sent Him (John 20:21).

The Father sent Jesus into the world to serve; to give His life a ransom for many. We too are sent to serve and to bring the message of redemption to many. Jesus preached the gospel and ministered to physical needs. It is not either/or but rather both. Of course, spiritual needs take priority, but if we are to walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6), then it is a fair deduction that we should serve people in their sufferings. We should do what we can to meet their needs as enabled by God. I believe that Ephesians 2:10 substantiates this conclusion.

Paul said that those whom God saves are “His workmanship.” The Greek word translated “workmanship” is the word from which we derive the English word “poem.” I don’t think that a poem was on Paul’s mind, but clearly he used the word to emphasise that God saves His people from their sins for the purpose of demonstrating His creative skill.

Sinclair Ferguson suggests that the church is a cosmic art gallery, in which God displays His glory in each work of grace. But note that the workmanship of God—these works of grace—displays God’s glory by its works—works which have been ordained by God and in which we walk.

Let me put it this way: Each Christian is a work of grace, and the display of this reality is in works that flow from that grace. In other words, grace works. And it would seem that the display is one that is gracious. In a world characterised by spiritual death, systemic disobedience, sinful depravity and certain damnation, this is amazing! Yes, by God’s grace, His people are amazing. Let that sink in.

When you feed the hungry in Jesus’ name, it is amazing. When you care for the destitute widow for God’s sake, it is amazing. When you care for the orphan in Jesus’ name, it is amazing. When you sacrificially care for those who are in turmoil over their pregnancy because you love Jesus, it is amazing. We could apply this in a myriad of other ways.

It has been said that it is the whole man, with all his relationships, who is converted to Jesus as the Lord of all he is and does. By necessity then, those saved by grace will manifest such grace in all areas of life.

Be amazed: Salvation is by grace alone! Now, by God’s grace, live like it!