Celebrating God’s Grace in Salvation

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Fighting Christian apathy

This week I read a story of a circus parade moving through the streets of Milan many years ago when suddenly one of the elephants veered off and marched into a church. The church doors were large, and were open because of the summer heat. So the elephant wandered up the aisle, trumpeted a bit, swung her trunk around and then headed back to the parade.

There are times when the Christian life can feel reduced to what that elephant experienced: Once a week we veer off from the parade of life. We lurch into church, make a few noises, acknowledge the other people, and then exit once again to take our place in the ongoing procession passing by.

Isn’t it amazing that the glorious truths we hold so dear as Christians can, at times, seem so un-captivating, mundane, and familiar?

And the danger of the gospel and all its incredible implications becoming commonplace is that apathy can set in and we can experience seasons of life when the excitement tank for the things of God seems to be running on fumes.

Over the next number of weeks, I want to help us combat that propensity to drift toward apathy by reminding ourselves of the utter gloriousness of God’s grace, starting with how it’s revealed to us in the provision of personal salvation by looking at the first ten verses of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.

Remember the darkness

When I decided to ask my wife to marry me, I knew I’d need a ring (to sway her opinion?). So, I checked my bank balance and set off for the nearest jeweller. When I arrived I explained the situation to the man behind the counter. He nodded, reached under the glass, and handed me a diamond.

Taking it from him, I held it up to my face while pretending to know what I was looking for. The man then took out a box wrapped in black cloth, invited me to place the ring on top of it, and handed me a little microscope through which I could examine my eventual purchase more closely.

Leaning over the ring and looking through the eye piece, that diamond came alive. Against the black backdrop of that cloth, I could see the colours bouncing around inside, the details of its shape, and its beauty all the better.

PAST: Our previous condition

In a similar way, in the opening three verses of Ephesians 2, Paul lays down a black backdrop on top of which we will appreciate the diamond of salvation. It’s against the darkness of our past that the beauty of God’s grace really dazzles.

He begins, “As for you.” As for who? Well, he opens the letter this way: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1).

Paul is writing to believers and reminding them, and us who have trusted Christ, of our previous condition. And it’s not pretty. 

First, he says we were dead in sin. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (2:1). How do we understand our previous deadness? 

Remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The one son demands his inheritance from his living father, takes off, spends it all, and winds up realizing his folly while starving in a pig pen. He comes to his senses and decides to head home and throw himself at the mercy of his father. How does his father respond to his rebellious son?

But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate (vv. 22–24).

We were dead in the same way—spiritually bankrupt, destitute, hopeless, and separated from our heavenly Father because of our own stupid, short-sighted rebellion. We were dead in sin.

Not only that, however, but we were also enslaved to the world. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world … ” (Eph 2:1–2a).

This is the world system opposed to all things God. Consider the words of Jesus in John 15:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (vv. 18–19).

Paul is telling the Ephesian believers, before you trusted Christ, you were in bondage to the world, mindlessly following its ways and, ultimately, following the whims of he who rules it. He continues: “ … and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (v. 2b).

To name names, this ruler of the air is Satan (see 1 John 5:19). He rules over the world system. He uses it and shapes it to oppose God. And those who are not in Christ are in the world, enslaved to it and its ruler without even knowing it.

This is clearly seen in our culture today. So many things that the world promotes, celebrates, labels as progress, is obviously depraved, nonsensical, destructive, and opposed to God.

Sometimes it seems like we’re living in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” doesn’t it? Where the emperor runs around naked and everyone is just pretending that he’s got on some nice robes. It’s a shared delusion. 

What the world flaunts as liberty is, Pauls says, bondage. And we were all there, dead in sin and enslaved to the world.

And because of those things we were deserving of wrath. “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh m and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath” (v. 3).

God said, “be holy, for I am holy,” and instead, we actively defied the living God of the universe.

It’s a depressing picture of the believers’ former lostness, darkness, and hopelessness. We all, like the prodigal son, were face down in pig slop, with no one to blame but ourselves, and deserving of divine punishment.

PRESENT: Our current position

The “but” that begins verse 4 almost acts like a pressure release valve delivering readers from the building tension of our debauched resumes. Paul here reaches behind the counter and brings out the diamond of our present to set atop the blackness of our past, starkly contrasting our previous condition with our current position.

And Paul lists three positional realities to sum up what every believer shares right now in Christ. 

First, we are alive with Christ. “[God] made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (v. 4).

Though we were once dead, we’ve been made alive. Though we were once separated, now we are brought near. We are currently alive because of God’s grace.

Second, we are raised with Christ. “And God raised us up with Christ … ” (v. 6a). This describes our spiritual, not physical experience. While we will one day be raised physically, Paul is referring here to the spiritual resurrection God has already gifted to every believer.

Third, we’re seated with Christ. “And [God] seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (v. 6b). We are seated with Christ.

And where is he seated?

That power is the same as the mighty strength [God] exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (1:19b–20).

As Christians we need to grasp the reality that this world and the system that controls it is not our home. Peter says we are aliens and strangers sojourning here (1 Pet. 2:11). But our home is elsewhere (Phil. 3:20)!

Now, let’s not lose the contrast Paul has developed. We were dead, enslaved, and objects of wrath but now, Paul explains, we’re alive with Christ, raised with Christ, and seated with Christ. We’ve been transferred from the deepest depths to the highest height! What grace!

And why would God do all of this? Paul gives us his motivation in verses 4 and 7 of Ephesians 2.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy … [did all these amazing things] … 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.

Fuelled by his love and mercy, God lifted enslaved rebels like us into the heavenly throne room with his Son because, in the ages still to come, it would showcase for the universe his immeasurable grace and kindness.

Brother and sisters, there is huge amounts of power, peace, and comfort in the realization of our current position in Christ.

If you’re a believer in Jesus, your position stands, right now, no matter what. I’m sure it was these realities that moved Paul’s pen when he wrote in Romans 8: “If God is for us, then who can be against us?” If I am, right now, alive, resurrected, and seated in the heavenliness with Christ, what can hurt me here? What can shake my faith? And what’s more exciting than that?

George Whitfield once stated: “God give me deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love and a single eye, and then let men or devils do their worst!”

The Enemy of our souls want to remind us of the backdrop of our past because it’s an immobilizing, paralyzing, and guilt-inducing prison. Instead, Paul is reminding us of our past only to magnify our present position in Christ.

If you’re reading this today and you’re struggling with guilt stemming back to your days without salvation, it’s time to let it go. If you’ve trusted Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, it includes the ones you’re feeling shame over. Let it go. It’s been paid for. That is your past not your present. That is your previous condition, not your present position.

FUTURE: Our ongoing commission

I could write of this forever but we need to look to the future for a moment. We’ve been reminded of where we were and where we are now, but where are we to go? What’s our ongoing commission, our assignment going forward because of these truths?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (vv. 8–9).

Paul goes out of his way to emphasize the one-sidedness of this transaction. This salvation, this transfer from rebellion to throne room, from objects of wrath to trophies of kindness, mercy, and love, is provided by God’s grace. It’s a gift.

And this gift of salvation is unwrapped by each individual by faith, by belief, and not by works. Nothing aids in the unwrapping or application of this gift of salvation. In fact, to try and “help God” with this salvation only serves to insult the Giver of the gift because, remember verse 7: We’re trophies of his grace!

If you were to give the person you love most in this world a gift as a token of your love, you would probably be insulted if they continually insisted on paying you back for at least part of the expense. It’s hurtful, it takes away from the generosity of the gift, and it communicates an unattractive self-righteousness.

No, as someone being given a gift, our job is to accept that gift, say thank you for the gift, and enjoy the gift. What pleases us more than seeing the one we love enjoying the gift we’ve sacrificed to give them? Nothing.

So too for us today. As believers, we need to move forward in acceptance of the gift of salvation he’s given us. We are to live lives marked by gratitude and enjoyment of the positional realities we now have to enjoy because of his gracious provision. I need to abandon all attempts to contribute to my salvation and pay-back for the gift of salvation. 

But there are works involved, aren’t there? Look at the closing verse of our text:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (v. 10).

Is Paul contradicting himself here? No, of course not.

We are saved, not by works but for works. As Christians, we serve God because we’ve been liberated by him and as an expression of our joy and gratitude.

This reality is at the centre of Christianity and, properly understood, kills so many things that plague the church today—pride, legalism, guilt, shame—they all die here.

Christian, you have been saved by the grace of God by placing your faith in the Person and work of his Son, Jesus. Your position is absolutely secure. And as we all grow in our understanding of both our former condition and present position, our ongoing commission will become a natural response.

That’s a diamond ring worth buying!