4. Sovereign Grace

Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. EPHESIANS 1:3-8

In 1974, six years after I became pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, a number of seminarians, pastors, and I launched a conference to promote Calvinistic doctrines, which we felt were being widely neglected by most Christians. We did not know what to call our conference, but since it began in Philadelphia, we decided to call it the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed

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Theology. It became quite popular, and in the years since it has been held in such widely scattered cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Toronto, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta, as well as its home city of Philadelphia. At the beginning, we thought our conference must be unique, that there was nothing like it anywhere else.

I have learned since that there have been other such conferences, a number of them sponsored by Calvinistic Baptist churches. I have spoken at some of them. Characteristically, these Baptist gatherings are called “Sovereign Grace” conferences.

The words sovereign grace, which is the theme of this chapter, are almost redundant, though necessary. Sovereign means “according to the will of the sovereign [that is, God].” It means according to his will and nothing else. Grace means “unmerited favor.” But think what happens as soon as you begin to tinker with those terms. If you take “sovereign” away from grace so that grace is no longer dependent upon the pure will of God, then grace becomes dependent upon something else, either merit in the subject receiving it or circumstances, and in that case, grace ceases to be grace. It becomes something deserved or necessary. In order to have true grace, grace must be sovereign.

Yet, as I said, both words are necessary simply because we do not often think of spiritual things clearly, and it is natural for us to imagine that the cause of grace is something found in human beings, or that God is somehow obliged to be gracious.

Grace in Ephesians

Sovereign grace is strongly emphasized in Paul’s great letter to the Ephesians. In the last chapter I pointed out that grace occurs 128 times in the New Testament (NIV) as opposed to only eight occurrences in the Old Testament. But the use of the word is not

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equally spread throughout the New Testament. In some books the word does not occur at all, Matthew and Mark, for instance. In Luke it is found only once. Sometimes grace appears in a doxology or benediction, where it is not explained. At other times it occurs repeatedly in a single passage.

Ephesians is a book in which grace has great importance. In Ephesians, the word occurs eleven times, three times in chapter 1 and three times in chapter 2. These chapters contain very important teaching.

Like Romans, Ephesians deals with the most basic Christian doctrines. I call it “a minicourse in theology, centered on the church.” But even more than Romans, Ephesians stresses the sovereignty of God in salvation and the eternal sweep of God’s plan, by which believers are lifted from the depth of sin’s depravity and curse to the heights of eternal joy and communion with God — by God’s grace. That is what we have in chapters 1 and 2. Like 1 and 2 Corinthians and the pastoral letters, Ephesians deals with the church. But even more than those very practical letters, Ephesians shows how the church came into being, explains how it is to function, and gives guidelines for those important relationships in which the nature of the new humanity can be seen and by which it must grow.

Most Christians are aware of Paul’s teaching about grace in chapter 2. In fact, many have probably memorized Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” We will be looking at those verses in the next chapter. It is interesting, however, though not so widely recognized, that the word grace is used the same number of times and has an equally important place in chapter 1.

What is the difference between Ephesians chapter 1 and 2, since both are about salvation? The difference is that in chapter 1 Paul is looking at the matter from God’s point of view, showing

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that we are saved because of what God has willed, and in chapter 2 he is looking at the same things from our perspective, showing how these prior decrees of God impact the believer.

But Paul begins with God!

A Golden Chain

The verses that deal with God’s sovereign grace in salvation, Ephesians 1:3-14, are one long sentence in Greek, possibly the longest sentence in the New Testament. One commentator calls them “a magnificent gateway” to the epistle, another “a golden chain of many links,” still another “an operatic overture and the flight of an eagle.” But this long list of interconnected doctrines makes it hard to outline the section, and commentators have taken different approaches. John Stott gives them a temporal outline, speaking of the past blessing of election (vv. 4-6), the present blessing of adoption (vv. 7-8), and the future blessing of unification (vv. 9-10), followed by a section on the “scope” of these blessings. Others, such as E.K. Simpson and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, merely list the doctrines: focusing on such words as election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness of sins, wisdom, unification in Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

I think a Trinitarian outline is most helpful. Paul is saying that the blessings listed come from God the Father as a result of his electing choice, become ours in Jesus Christ by his work of redemption, and are applied to us by the Holy Spirit through what theologians term effectual calling. This is due to sovereign grace, since God is the subject of nearly every verb.

You can remember this outline by the acrostic ERA, not the Equal Rights Amendment or the soap powder with that name, but: “Election,” “Redemption,” and “Application.”

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Elected by Sovereign Grace

The point at which Paul begins is the electing choice or predestining of God the Father. He writes,

He chose us in him before the creation of the the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

There are a lot of ideas in those verses, including such important ones as holiness, adoption, and the love of the Father for the Son. But the chief idea is election. It is introduced in several different ways:

Predestination is the technical word for election.

“In accordance with his pleasure and will” explains election as being by God’s will only.

Grace is explicitly mentioned.

Finally, there are the words “which he has freely given.” This is a further explanation of both grace and election.

These verses are one of the strongest expressions of sovereign grace in Scripture, for they teach that the blessings of salvation come to some people because God had determined from before the creation of the world to give these blessings to these people — and for that reason only. This is difficult for many persons to accept, of course. But the difficulties need to be worked through and overcome if grace is to be fully understood and appreciated.

One way people cope with the problem of election is to deny election outright. They will not deny that God was gracious in sending Jesus to be the world’s Savior. He did not have to do it. Nor did Jesus have to die. But this is as far as they will go. They deny that people are saved because God has chosen to save them.

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He offers salvation, but in the final analysis they are saved because they choose to receive Christ through their own free will. It is they who choose God, not God who chooses them.

This appeals to us, of course. We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own destinies and being able to call the shots. But verses like these in Ephesians — and there are many more of them — say clearly that salvation is determined by God.

A second way of avoiding the truth of election is to admit the word but deny its effect by saying that the choice of God is based on foreknowledge. This is a mediating position taken by people who admit rightly that the Bible teaches election but who want to retain a commitment to human ability and perhaps also protect God from an act that seems to be unjust or arbitrary.

This is an impossible position, however. For one thing, an election based on foreknowledge of whether an individual will believe on God or not is not really election. It is the equivalent of saying that God chooses those who themselves choose. If that is the case, then the choice of the individual is obviously the critical choice, and the “choice” of God is in name only. It is actually only a response, and a compulsory one at that. In this approach God does not actually ordain anyone to anything.

An even more serious problem is that if what the Bible tells us about the spiritual inability and depravity of human nature is true, then there is nothing in man that God could possibly see on the basis of which he could elect to save him. The Bible teaches that: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11).

If that is correct, what could God possibly foresee as he looks down the long corridor of human history into the hearts of individuals except minds and moral dispositions radically opposed both to himself and grace. God cannot foresee something that cannot be. So even if God, in some sense, can be thought of as foreseeing faith in some persons, it can only be because he has

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determined in advance to put it there. And as a matter of fact, that is exactly what the next chapter of Ephesians teaches, that even faith is not from ourselves but “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

When people have trouble with election — as many do — their real problem is not with election itself, though they suppose it is, but with the doctrine of depravity that makes election necessary.

The question to get settled first in any attempt to understand theology is this: When the human race fell into sin, how far did men and women fall?

Some people think that human beings fell upward. This is the view of evolutionists, humanists and Mormons. They think mankind is getting better and better. Never mind that our cities are overwhelmed with crime, multiple brutal murders make every daily newspaper, television titillates us regularly with the latest sex offenses, especially by celebrities, and basic integrity is vanishing from Western life. Liberals can believe anything.

Other people suppose that man fell in some sense but that he did not fall the whole way. Some feel that man fell onto a ledge where he has a small chance of climbing back onto the canyon edge. This is the view of Pelagians or of Arminians (and probably many of today’s American evangelicals). They admit sin’s reality, but they deny its full effect. It’s bad, but not so bad as to ruin the human race utterly. We may be disposed to evil, but not so much as to be incapable of repenting of sin and turning to Jesus Christ in faith when the gospel is made known to us. It does not require a miracle of grace, regeneration, to enable us to repent and believe on Jesus.

The only other view, the biblical one, is that when Adam and Eve sinned the human race fell the whole way. Human beings fell to the bottom of the ravine and cannot get out by their own power. “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” is the only accurate assessment of our spiritual condition. In fact, we are destined to remain down unless God on the basis of his own sovereign choice

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reaches out to perform the miracle of the new birth and thus lifts us up out of the pit of sin and sets us on the edge once again.

The Bible says that we are “dead in . . . transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), and Jesus taught, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

In the declining days of the late Roman Empire, these issues were debated at length by a British monk named Pelagius and the great early church father Saint Augustine. Pelagius wanted to preserve human choice, as he saw it. He saw men and women as being formed more or less morally neutral. We make bad choices, he said. Bad choices dispose us to make further bad choices, he said. But we do not need to make bad choices, and we always have the ability to turn ourselves back, repudiate our sins, and choose God. At one time Augustine thought like Pelagius. But he came to see, and then argued forcefully, that Pelagians do not do justice to the Bible’s teachings about either sin or grace. They do not do justice to sin because they try to preserve some little oasis, however small, of human goodness. They do not do justice to grace because a salvation that depends on human ability makes grace largely irrelevant. It is unnecessary. Besides, grace is no longer grace if it is based on something in human beings, either seen or foreseen.

Whenever I talk about election I like to point out that although it is problematic for some people, it is actually a doctrine filled with important blessings. Here are four of them.

1. Election eliminates boasting.

Critics of election often speak as if the opposite were true. They say that it is the height of arrogance for a person to claim that he or she has been chosen by God for salvation, as if that implies that there must be something special or worthy of praise about the chosen person. Election does not imply that at all. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. As I have been explaining, election

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has to do with God’s choice only, entirely apart from anything that can be found in us. Look at Ephesians 1:4-6 again. They put the entire focus on God, making him the subject of each sentence. God “chose us” in Christ. “He predestined us to be adopted.” “He has freely given us” all blessings. Moreover, all this is “to the praise of his glorious grace,” not ours (v. 6). If any praise is due us, to exactly that degree glory is taken away from God and is given to man. It is only the pure doctrine of grace that keeps us humble.

2. Election gives assurance of salvation.

Suppose it were the other way around. Suppose that the ultimate ground of salvation is in ourselves. In that case, salvation would be as unsteady as we are since, if we can elect ourselves in, we can elect ourselves out. It is true, as we will see in the next study, that there are choices to make and things for us to do. But we are able to make these choices and do these good things only because God has first chosen us and made us to be new creatures. In fact, it is our security in his choice that is the basis for our action.

3. Election leads to holiness.

Ephesians chapter 1 also teaches this, for it says clearly that God “chose us . . . to be holy and blameless” (v.4). In other words, election is not concerned only with the end result — that is, that we might be saved and go to heaven. It is also concerned with the steps along the way, which include holiness. Holiness is a direct result of God’s determination since he has decreed that those who are being saved will be holy. If we are not growing in holiness, we are not elect. We are not saved persons.

4. Election promotes evangelism.

People have supposed that election must make evangelism unnecessary. “If God is going to save some person, then he will

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save that person regardless of what we may or may not do,” they say. That does not follow. The fact that God determines the end does not mean that he ignores the means by which that end will be attained. He ordains the means, too. In this case, he has ordained that it is by means of preaching and teaching the Word that people will be converted.

Besides, it is only election that gives us any hope of success as we evangelize. If God cannot call people to faith effectively, how can we? We cannot persuade them. But if God is working, then he can work in us even if we are inept witnesses. We do not know who God’s elect are, but we can find out who some of them are by telling them about Jesus. Those who are God’s elect people will respond to our witness (or the witness of others), confess their sin, believe on Jesus, and grow in holiness. We can speak to them boldly because we know that God has promised to bless his Word and will not allow it to return to him without accomplishing his purpose (Isaiah 55:11). We can know that all whom God has elected to salvation will be saved.

Redeemed by Sovereign Grace

Electing people to salvation is not the only thing God has done as an expression of sovereign grace. Following the Trinitarian pattern of this chapter, we come next to the doctrine of redemption. What God has done through Jesus Christ is to redeem his elect or chosen people (vv. 7-10). Redemption involves all three persons of the Godhead: (1) God the Father, who planned it; (2) God the Son, who accomplished it; and (3) God the Spirit, who applies it to God’s people. But redemption is chiefly associated with Jesus, who is specifically called our Redeemer.

That is what our passage in Ephesians tells us. In verses 7 and 8, Paul is speaking of Jesus explicitly when he says, “In him [that is, in Jesus]

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we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”

The reason for this is that redemption is a commercial term meaning “to buy in the marketplace so that the object or person purchased might be freed from it,” and Jesus did this for us by dying in our place. To carry the illustration out, we are pictured as slaves to sin, unable to free ourselves from sin’s bondage and the world’s grasp. Instead of freeing us, the world merely gambles for our souls. It offers everything that is its currency: fame, sex, pleasure, power, wealth. For these things millions sell their eternal souls and are perishing. But Jesus enters the marketplace as our Redeemer. Jesus bids the price of his blood, and God says, “Sold to Jesus for the price of his blood.” There is no higher bid than that, and so we become his forever.

The apostle Peter wrote, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Charles Wesley was also describing God’s sovereign grace in redemption when he wrote, using similar imagery,

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed thee.

But here is a question for you. For whom did Jesus Christ die? Most people will respond, “For everyone, of course; Jesus died for the whole world,” and there is a sense in which that is true. Jesus died for all kinds of people and for people scattered

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throughout the whole world. Also, his death has infinite value, being adequate to atone for the sins of all the people of this world. But that is not the question I am asking, For whom did Jesus specifically die? That is, Whose sins did he actually atone for by his suffering?

Again, most people say that Jesus died for the sins of all persons and explain that all are not saved only because all will not believe on him. But the proper biblical answer is that Jesus died for the sins of his elect people only, the Father sending him to make specific atonement for the sins of those whom he had already elected to salvation. That is what Ephesians chapter 1 is saying. For the “we” who have been redeemed (v.7) are the “us” who have been described earlier as being chosen and “predestined” to be saved (vv. 4-5).

Does it sound reasonable to say that Jesus died for all persons but that many are not saved only because they refuse to believe on Jesus? It may, at least until you think about the nature of that unbelief. Is their unbelief a morally neutral choice, just believing or not believing? Or is it a sin? The obvious answer is that unbelief is a sin, in fact, the most damning of all sins. But this means that if we really believe that Jesus died for all sins, then he must have died for this sin, too, and the result of this line of reasoning is that even the sin of unbelief will not keep a person out of heaven. This ends in universalism.

The greatest of all Puritan theologians was a scholar named John Owen. Few people read him today because his mind was so keen that most of today’s sloppy thinkers cannot easily follow him. Owen was very sharp in this area. In a book titled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen argued that there are only three possible options where Christ’s death is concerned. Either: (1) Christ died for all the sins of all men, so that all are saved, or (2) Christ died for

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all of the sins of some men, so that these but not all are saved, or (3) Christ died for some of the sins of all men. If it is the latter, then all are lost. They must perish for the sins for which Jesus did not die. The first is universalism, which Scripture rejects. The second is the correct and only biblical position.

To those who would argue that Jesus died for all the sins of all men but that all are not saved because all do not believe, Owen asked shrewdly, “This unbelief of theirs, is it a sin or is it not?” If it is not a sin, why should it keep them from salvation, since they cannot be condemned for an act that is not sinful? If we admit it is a sin, the question then becomes: Is it a sin for which Christ died, or is it not? If he did not die for it, then he did not die for all the sins of all men. If he did die for it, why should this more than any other sin for which he died keep an unbelieving person from salvation? Such clear thinking forces us back either to universalism, which we know to be wrong, or to the second or Calvinistic position.

The sovereign God has exercised his grace in salvation by sending Jesus to make atonement for his people’s sins. In other words, grace expresses God’s choice by what theologians call particular redemption.

Sealed by Sovereign Grace

The final expression of the sovereign grace of God emphasized in Ephesians 1 is the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the salvation thus planned by God the Father and achieved by God the Son to the individual (vv. 11-14).

At first glance the word chosen in verse 11 seems to be saying the same thing as Paul’s words about the Father’s choice in verse 4. But the idea is actually different. In verse 4 the predestining choice of the Father stands before everything. Here the choice

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made by the Holy Spirit follows predestination since the verse says that, “having been predestined according to [God’s] plan,” the Holy Spirit now makes God’s electing choice effective in individual cases by choosing those individuals or leading them to faith. In other words, in verse 11, “chosen” refers to what theologians term the Holy Spirit’s effectual call.

This effectual call is also because of sovereign grace.

The greatest picture of the grace of God calling a dead sinner to life in all the Bible is Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, recorded in John 11. When Jesus got back to Bethany at the request of the dead man’s sisters, he was told that Lazarus had been dead for four days and that he was already putrefying: “But Lord,” said Martha . . . by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (v. 39). What a graphic description of the state of our moral and spiritual decay because of sin! There was no hope that anything could be done for Lazarus in this condition. His situation was not serious or grim; it was hopeless.

But only to man. Not to God. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Therefore, having prayed, Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43), and the call of Jesus brought life to the dead man, just as the voice of God brought the entire universe into being from nothing at the beginning of the world.

That is what the Holy Spirit does today. The Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word to call to faith those whom God has previously elected to salvation and for whom Jesus Christ specifically died. Apart from those three actions — the act of God in electing, the work of Christ in dying, and the power of the Holy Spirit in calling — there would be no hope for anyone. No one could be saved. But because of those actions — because of God’s sovereign grace — even the worst of blaspheming rebels may be turned from his or her folly and find the Saviour.

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