5. Salvation by Grace Alone

Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved . . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the imcomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved. EPHESIANS 2:4-8

The second chapter of Ephesians contains one of the best known passages in the Bible, and rightly so. It contains the best news that any woman or man can ever hear. With the exception of John 3:16 and possibly Psalm 23, it is probably the Bible passage that has been most memorized by Christians. John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Paul, in Ephesians 2:8-9, said the same thing though in more theological language: “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.”

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The verses have three parts.

Part one tells how God saves us. It is “by grace,” the theme of this book.

Part two speaks of the channel through which the grace of God actually comes to us individually. It is “through faith.”

Part three, a contrast, tells how God does not save us, and it explains why. It is “not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Ephesians Chapter 1 and 2

Verses 8 and 9 are part of a great chapter, and the way to understand them, as well as to understand how we are “saved by grace,” is to view them in this wider context. And part of that is to see chapter 2 in the context of the entire book of Ephesians.

A few years after I came to Philadelphia as pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, a committee met to review our Sunday school curriculum. We were unhappy with what we were using and also, for the most part, with what else was available. Either the curriculums were strong pedagogically but weak theologically, or else they were strong in Bible content and theology but weak in teaching. Chiefly we were disappointed by their failure to teach the great doctrines well. The result of our meeting was that in time we produced our own Sunday school material for the early grades. It followed a three-year cycle, repeated three times.

In the first year of this cycle basic doctrines were covered: sin, salvation, Bible study, prayer, and the Christian life.

In the second year the same areas were covered but from the perspective of the church and in terms of personal relationships. In this year, instead of talking about God providing salvation, we talked about the church, how one becomes a part of it, and how one is to act as a Christian.

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The third year focused on God’s view of history and the place of today’s believers in that plan.

I mention our curriculum because there is a sense in which Paul does the same thing we did as he moves from the first to the second chapter of Ephesians, and later to the third and remaining chapters. We have already looked at Ephesians 1 in the last chapter, seeing how Paul presented the grace of God in salvation from the point of view of God, showing what each member of the Godhead did to save us: the Father chose us in Christ, the Son redeemed us from sin, the Holy Spirit applied that redemption to us by calling us to personal faith in Jesus. That is the picture in its grandest dimensions. Its goal is God’s glory.

In chapter 2 this changes, for now Paul describes salvation from the perspective of the individual Christian. He shows what we were before the Holy Spirit called us to Christ, what God did for us in joining us to Christ, and what we are to become and do as a result.

The remaining chapters tell how Christians are to function in the world.

Here is another way of looking at it. Chapter 1 gives us the past, present, and future of God’s great plan of salvation. Chapter 2 gives us the past, present, and future of the persons Jesus saves.

Speaking of past, present, and future reminds me of one of Harry Ironside’s most delightful stories. Ironside was a Bible teacher, later pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. On this occasion he was riding on a train in southern California on the way to a speaking engagement. While he was sitting in the passenger car a gypsy came down the aisle offering to tell people’s fortunes. She stopped at Ironside’s seat, saying, “Cross my palm with a silver quarter, and I will tell your past, present, and future.”

Ironside asked in an amused tone if she was sure she could do that, pointing out that he was of Scottish ancestry and did not

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want to part with a quarter unless he was sure he would get his money’s worth. But she was very earnest. “Oh yes, sir,” she said. “Cross my palm with a quarter, and I will tell you all.”

Ironside told her this was not necessary because he already had his past, present, and future written down in a book. The gypsy was amazed. “In a book?” she queried.

“Yes,” Ironside replied. “I have it with me.” He pulled out his Bible and turned to these verses. “Here is my past,” he said, reading Ephesians 2:1-3: “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 and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”

The gypsy did not want to hear this. She began to pull away.

“Wait,” said Ironside. “That is only my past. You haven’t heard my present. Here it is.” He began to read verses 4-6: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”

At this point the gypsy was literally struggling to get away because Ironside had put his hand on her arm to hang onto her. “No more,” she said. “I do not need to hear more.”

But the preacher was not ready to quit. “You must hear my future too,” he continued. He read verses 7-10: “in order that in the coming ages he might show the imcomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus . . . For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

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By now the gypsy was heading rapidly down the aisle where she could be heard muttering, “I took the wrong man.”

The Christian’s Sad Past

Ironside was exactly right, of course. For the second chapter of Ephesians does give the past, present, and future of the Christian, showing how we have been brought out of a dismal past into a glorious present and bright future by the grace of God.

How are we to assess the Christian’s past condition, that is, before he or she became a Christian? Paul says four things about it.

1. The sinner is “dead in . . . transgressions and sins.”

In the entire history of the human race there have only been three basic views of man apart from God’s grace, namely, to use three easy-to-understand terms, that man is: (1) well, (2) sick, or (3) dead.

The first view is that human beings are basically all right. It is the view of all optimists, which includes almost everyone today, at least where an evaluation of human nature is concerned. Optimists may vary as to how well they believe human beings are. Some would argue that people are very, very well. Others would admit that they are not as morally healthy as they may perhaps one day be. After all, there are still many problems in the world: wars, disease, starvation, poverty. But they would still say that the world is getting better and better, and the reason is that there is nothing basically wrong with man. He is evolving upward.

The second view is that man is not well. He is sick, even mortally sick, as some would say. This is the view of realists. They reject the optimistic view because they observe rightly that if people are as healthy as the optimists say, then surely the wars, disease, starvation, poverty, and other problems we wrestle with should have been fixed

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by now. Since they are not, they conclude that something is basically wrong with human nature. But still, the situation is not hopeless. Bad perhaps, even desperate. But not hopeless. People are still around, after all. They have not yet blown themselves off the surface of the planet or committed suicide by destroying the ozone layer or poisoning the world’s oceans. Where there’s life there’s hope. There is no need to call the mortician yet.

The third view, the biblical view, which Paul articulates in classic language in this passage, is that man is neither well nor sick. Actually, so far as his relationship to God is concerned, he is dead, “dead in . . . transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). That is, he is exactly what God had warned he would be before Adam and Eve’s fall. Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make even a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God — unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life so he can do it.

This is exactly what Paul says God does do in this passage.

2. The sinner is actively practicing evil.

There is something even worse about the biblical view of man, according to this passage. Human beings are spiritually dead, according to verse 1. But this is a strange kind of death since, although the sinner is dead, he is nevertheless up and about, actively practicing sin. What Paul says about him is that he “follow[s] the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air . . . gratifying the cravings of [his] sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.”

To put it differently, the sinner is indeed dead to God but nevertheless very much alive to all wickedness.

Some years ago I heard John Gerstner, a former professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, compare Paul’s description of our sinful state to what horror stories call a zombie. In case you are not up on zombie literature, let me explain that a zombie is a person

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who has died but who is still up on his feet walking around. It is a pretty gruesome concept, which is why it is in horror stories. But it gets worse. This upright, walking human corpse is also putrefying. It is rotting away. I suppose that is the most disgusting thing most people can imagine. But it is a fair description of what Paul is saying about human nature in its lost condition. Apart from Jesus Christ, these sinning human corpses are the living dead.

3. The sinner is enslaved.

Another way to speak of our active sinful state is to point out that men and women are enslaved to sin, so that they cannot escape from it. This seems to be another part of what Paul is describing in these verses. Enslaved to what? Well, there is a tradition in the church that identifies the Christian’s three great enemies as the world, the flesh, and the devil. Paul seems to be saying here that in our natural state we are enslaved to each one.

We are enslaved to the world because we follow “the ways of this world” (v. 2). We think as the world thinks, with no regard for our relationship to God or our final destiny, and because we think as the world thinks, we act as the world acts, too. We are enslaved to the flesh because our natural desire is to “gratify . . . the cravings of our sinful nature and follow . . . it’s desires and thoughts” (v. 3). We want what we want, regardless of God’s law or the effect that what we want and do has on other people. We are enslaved to the devil because just as we follow the ways of this world, so also do we follow “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (v. 2). We are Satan’s playthings, and never so much as when we are unaware even of his presence.

4. The sinner is by nature an object of God’s “wrath.”

This worst thing of all about our sinful condition is that, apart from God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we are objects of God’s wrath.

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Most people can hardly take this seriously. “Wrath?” they say. “Did I hear you say wrath? You must be joking. I know people used to speak of God being angry with us because we do wrong things, but that is not the way to think of God today. Speak of God’s love. Speak of mercy, even justice perhaps. But not wrath, at least not if you want to be taken seriously.”

The outlook is an example of the very slavery about which I have just been writing. The world does not take wrath seriously because it does not take sin seriously. But if sin is as bad as the Bible (even this passage) declares it to be, then nothing is more reasonable that that the wrath of a holy God should rise against it. In the Old Testament there are more than twenty words that are used to express the idea of God’s wrath, and more than six hundred important passages deal with it. In the New Testament there are two important words: thumos, which means “to rush along fiercely” or “be in a heat of violence,” and orge, which comes from a root meaning “to grow ripe for something.” The first word describes the release of the divine wrath in what we call the final judgment. The second word points to God’s gradually building an intensifying opposition to sin. It is the word found most often throughout the New Testament.

The Bible says, ” ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30-31).

The Christian’s Present: Saved by Grace

The Christian’s past is a dreadful thing, as it is also for all who have not believed on Jesus Christ. But at this point the grace of God comes in. For having spoken of the Christian’s past, Paul now speaks of the Christian’s present, saying,

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“But [now] because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 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. For it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-8)

This great “but” has changed everything. Left to ourselves, the cause was hopeless. But God has interve