As we continue to consider the “5 Solas” of the Reformation, we see a logical progression. We began with “Sola Scriptura”—Scripture alone—for Scripture is God’s revelation, his communication, to us about who he is, who we are, and what he desires of us. We cannot know any of these things truly apart from God telling us. Next we turned to “Sola Fide”—Faith alone—for, having received an address from God in his Scripture, we need to figure out whether or not we believe this Word is from him and therefore whether we believe him—or not. If we do, our reward is the greatest we could ever imagine, a relationship with the living God himself. This morning we are considering the third Sola, Sola gratia—or grace alone. This sola is perhaps one of the most difficult for us to accept for, having received Scripture’s authority and believed it to be a word from God to humans, sola gratia requires us to acknowledge that apart from Christ, we cannot fulfill the true purpose of our having been created.
When I was teaching an introductory course on world religions at a junior college out in Illinois, one of the questions we considered was from what do humans need saving? Do we need to be saved from our ignorance? Do we need to be saved from our improper understanding of how the world functions? Do we need to be saved from our lack of awareness about the world? Different religious outlooks provide different answers to this question. But if the Old and New Testament Scriptures are our authority, we know that none of these possibilities gets it exactly right. What the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, shows us is that we need to be saved from our subsequent inability to believe in God’s authority and goodness. When he created Adam and Eve, God lavished them with all the riches of nature. He told them they could partake of anything in the garden but one thing—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16). And, by way of the serpent’s temptation, this one thing that was prohibited to them is the one thing they ended up desiring. Satan says to Eve in Gen. 3:1 “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” In effect, his first tactic is to tempt the woman from believing God’s authority—from having faith in God. His second tack is to tempt her to question God’s goodness. He says to her, verses 4–5, “4 You will not certainly die,… 5For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The serpent portrays God to be petty in his concern that this man and this woman, whom he created in his image, will become like him. By succumbing to the serpent’s temptation, Eve—and then Adam—chose friendship with the serpent over friendship with God. They had faith in the serpent’s version of truth—which was in fact a lie—and presumed care over them—which was in fact an attempt to destroy them—rather than in God’s. So in a sense, we might say that Adam and Eve lost sight of the first two “solas—they denied God’s authority, his Word of truth to them, and they chose not to have faith in him alone when they succumbed to the serpent’s temptation and placed their faith in his words rather than God’s. Human nature changed at that point, dying spiritually and subsequently losing its ability to see and hear God properly. Since the time of our first parents’ Fall, their initial disobedience has now become our norm and we now need to be saved from our spiritual death which refuses to hold God as our sole authority and have to faith in him alone, in the truth of his written Word.
Our passage in Ephesians begins with this reality of who we are prior to coming to a saving faith and knowledge of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Paul reminds these believers in verses 1–2: “1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Do you see the Genesis backdrop here? The serpent had told Eve that she would not die if she partook of the fruit and she didn’t—at least not immediately in a physical sense. But she and Adam did die spiritually. They went from having perfect fellowship with God to hiding from him; they went from having perfect fellowship with each other to blaming each other—Adam progresses from his initial proclamation of “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” in Gen. 2:23 to replying to God in Genesis 3:12 “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it;” Appreciation of his mate descended to blaming her for his disobedience. And they both went from having ease in work to having to toil in their work—women would now have severe pains in childbearing (3:16) and the very ground would be painful to care for, by the sweat of the brow, as it would now “produce thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:17–19). All of this is to say that, as a result of the Fall—of Adam and Eve’s lack of trust in God and his goodness and their consequent disobedience towards him—they did die, not physically but spiritually as the perfect, unhindered, open relationships they once had enjoyed with their Maker, each other, and the earth over which they were called to be stewards and caretakers (Gen. 1:28) were now all twisted and broken.
And this broken state of choosing to follow our ways rather than those of the God who made us in his image is the state into which all humans—Jesus Christ excepted—have been born since the time of the Fall. This is what Paul means when he tells the Ephesian believers that at one time they, too were “dead in [their] transgressions and sins” (verse 1). To be dead in our transgressions and sins means we are unable to see our sins for what they are. Because our reason, too, is now fallen, our tendency is to rationalize our succumbing to temptation—the woman you gave me tempted me, the serpent deceived me—rather than owning our disobedience. But to be spiritually dead also means that there is nothing we can do to come alive again—to see that we are sinners in need of a Savior, of God himself, anymore than a dead body is able to restore its own life. This regeneration—this coming alive and being provided sight to see things as they are—is only possible by means of God’s Spirit opening our eyes, helping us see our need for God in Christ, and so moving us from spiritual death to spiritual life. Only God, the Lord and giver of life, can restore us from spiritual death to life with Christ, our eternal Savior and Lord, who longs to go give us his very nature and being.
These former Gentiles, who didn’t even have the advantage of the Hebrew Scriptures, used to follow “the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air” which spirit is still “now at work in those who are disobedient” (verse 2)—in other words, in those who have not yet turned to the one and only living God in Christ. Satan, that “ancient serpent” as John refers to him in Rev. 12:9 and 20:2, is still alive and well. Though cultural celebrations like the Halloween we just observed yesterday would have us think that witches, ghosts, and goblins are fictitious inventions of the human imagination, Scripturally we are reminded time and again that though Satan is ultimately a foe who was defeated at Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, he is still alive and well, prowling like a roaring lion, seeking those whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). We ignore and deny his existence at our peril for he wants to keep those who don’t know Christ spiritually dead and to cause all of us to question God’s Word and goodness.
Now Paul isn’t taking on a holier than thou attitude here. In verse 3 he identifies with the Ephesian believers as he acknowledges that “All of us also lived among [our transgressions] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” So Jews and Gentiles are equally in need of God. Consequently, [all of us]—“were by nature deserving of wrath.” Some of your translations may read here “children of wrath” which is what the text literally says in the Greek. We were all at one time children of wrath for we were all born into this life with spiritually dead natures due to Adam and Eve’s, our first parents, disobedience and consequent punishment. Brother and sisters, do we believe this? Do we believe that prior to coming to a saving faith in Christ, we were deserving of God’s wrath? I don’t think we do. I think you and I are more apt to believe in human goodness than in human selfishness or self-interest that would rather follow our ways rather than God’s. We are like the extraordinary teenage (~15) Anne Frank who, before her family’s capture by Nazi soldiers in 1944, wrote in her diary “I cling to [my ideals] because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
This belief in humanity’s goodness is widespread and it is certainly the case that due to what theologians refer to as God’s “common grace” we do see good in this world. Because of his love great love for his creation, God does give good things—sun and rain—to all his creation thus preserving it and, in his sovereign rule over creation, he keeps evil in check—in part by creating humans in his image and thus with an ability to act according to their God-given consciences. As Paul states in Ro. 2:14–15 “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness.” Yet as the daily news reminds us all too often, the fact that we as creatures who are made in the image of God have the ability to know right from wrong doesn’t mean that we act on the right we know we should do. And the fact that even we who are indwelt by God’s Spirit still struggle with temptation and sin, points not to the inherent goodness in human beings but to how difficult it is to live holy lives since the time of the Fall. For though this world will one day be redeemed by God in Christ, right now it still displays all too vividly the effects of that Fall that should lead us all to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!”
So God’s common grace—the goodness he displays to all his creation—isn’t enough to spare humans from being objects of his wrath for, apart from Christ’s saving work and the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to please God—to know him and carry out his will for our lives. But, fortunately, God’s love is so great that he wasn’t content to leave us to our own devices. In verses 4 and 5 Paul tells us “4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Brothers and sisters, did you catch that? “even when we were dead in transgressions” “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.” Even prior to coming to a saving faith and knowledge of him; even when we were God’s enemies, children of wrath who didn’t care about him or his ways; even when we were spiritually dead because of our hardened hearts, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.
This is the Gospel. This is what Scripture—God’s word to us, his communication to us—tells us about what he is like. He is rich in mercy. In Luke 6:35, Luke concurs noting that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish”—that would be you and me. God wants us to know him and his love. He wants us to know him as he really is. He wants nothing more than for us to become aware of his true nature. For if we come to understand, in our hearts, and our minds, and our souls, and emotions, what God is really like, then how can we keep from turning to him? God loves to show mercy to those who are in misery or distress, irrespective of their deserts. In his mercy God reveals himself as compassionate and as pitying those who are in misery. He is ever ready to relieve our distress. That, Scripture tells us, is what God is like.
And this is what the Reformers meant by sola gratia. Martin Luther suffered from intense spiritual warfare, dealing with various manifestations of the demonic throughout his life. Last week at our Reformation Day lunch, I was speaking with Sara, a friend of Gail and Richie’s, who told me an anecdote about Luther I had never heard before. She mentioned that one night Lucifer himself appeared by Luther’s bedside holding a scroll listing Luther’s many sins. Luther looked at this list, acknowledged them, lifted his hand and said simply, “Covered by the blood.” Luther understood implicitly verse 5 of Ephesians “it is by grace you have been saved.”
Our salvation isn’t due to our being good people at heart.
Our salvation isn’t due to our intelligence.
Our salvation isn’t due to our ability to win God’s favor or impress him.
Our salvation isn’t due to our efforts or attempts to do God’s will.
Our salvation isn’t due to how nice or kind we are.
Our salvation is due only to God’s grace—to his great love—to his richness in mercy—to his accomplishing our salvation from all eternity so that even when we were dead in our transgressions, he knew that one day we would be alive in Christ—covered by the blood. This grace wasn’t due to our deserving it; it was unmerited and due purely to God’s great love for us. God excels at helping us even when—or perhaps especially when—we are helpless and hopeless.
And not only that. Not only have we who were at one time deserving of God’s wrath and dead in our transgressions been made alive with Christ due to God’s rich mercy, but, verse 6, that God has also “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” In other words, having saved us by Christ’s blood, God isn’t going to change his mind about us. We may still fail him. We may follow him imperfectly. We may wrestle with him. We may question him. We may struggle with our belief in him. But because we are united with Christ by means of his indwelling Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father’s love for us will never let us go. His love for us will hold us no matter what this life may bring but it will also hold on to us in the life to come. In some wonderful, awesome, mysterious sense, those who know Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord, by virtue of our union with him, are already seated with him in the heavenly realms even as he rules over this universe.
And the reason for it all, verse 7, is “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” God wants all in the coming ages to know—to see—what it is he has been showing us from the beginning of creation, namely the incomparable riches of his grace which ultimately are expressed in his kindness to us in Jesus Christ. And the kindness of Christ is that he who was God whom the universe could not contain, chose to limit himself to a human body—to live, suffer, and die for us even though he never committed a single sin that would lead to his death—to experience the wrath and punishment of God for us—and to rise on the third day for us so that, having experienced God’s wrath in our stead, we would never have to.
And so we read, for a second time in verses 8 and 9: “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” It is by grace—by God’s unmerited favor to us, who were deserving of wrath—by God’s kindness to us, in choosing to suffer our punishment in our stead in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ—that we are able to know and enjoy him not only now but forever in the heavenly realms with Christ. We didn’t do anything to merit his favor, it is the gift of God, offered freely and willingly to all who are able to see our need for him and his forgiveness. God’s unmerited favor isn’t due to our working hard to please him. Human parents like Jason and Min love their newborn babies—love Joshua—not because of anything their babies have done but simply because they are. And so our Father in heaven loves us. And as human parents persevere in the love of their children even when—and sometimes especially when—they disobey and fall on hard times, so, too our Father in heaven, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive in Christ—because of his love for us, not because we are particularly loveable but because he delights in us whom he has made in his image and redeemed by his love. So there is no cause for boasting and neither is there a fear of his abandoning us if we don’t follow him perfectly. For it is by his grace—his unmerited favor—we are saved through faith—through believing he is who he says he is in his Word.
Paul ends by reminding believers who we are in Christ—“ we are God’s handiwork.” We are made in his image. We are created for him. And the reason he has made us in Christ Jesus—that is, in God, in himself—is for the sake of doing “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So good works are not the cause of our salvation. No, good works are the result of our salvation. God in Christ has sacrificed himself that we might know him and live according to his will and ways which he “prepared in advance for us to do.” What might this possibly mean? I think it means, at least in part, that you and I, gathered here this morning, are called to meet the needs that we see. Our lives, our joys and our sorrows and our needs, individually and corporately, aren’t a surprise to God. He is the one who has called us together to be his children—to be family to one another. And so God wants us to be good stewards of our time and energies. To love and care for each other. To use our gifts in serving and caring for each other even as God has loved and cared for us.
Brothers and sisters, how appropriate that on this communion Sunday, we’ve had an opportunity to consider this great salvation our heavenly Father has provided by his great mercy and love in his Son Jesus Christ, and his sealing us by his Holy Spirit, that in taking of the bread and the cup, we might be reminded that it is by his grace alone we have been saved through faith, it is not of ourselves, less any one of us should boast. Let us pray.