Sola Gratia, By Grace Alone (Ephesians 2)

You’re not going to believe this story, but it is true. When I was a rather young child, surely pre-school age, I was with my parents at a viewing in a funeral parlor for some person who had passed away. I have no idea who the man was, though I’m quite sure it was not a relative.

My impression was that we were there at the very end of the visiting hours, most people having departed. I had no idea why this man was sleeping in a box. Being a rather verbal child (I know that surprises all of you) I probably asked a question of that sort, to which my father told me to go over and pick up the man’s hand to see if he would wake up.

That is the first and last dead person I’ve ever touched. The memory of the hardness, stiffness and lifelessness still is quite vivid. I don’t think I was traumatized terribly, but it is a clear memory. I recall to this day exactly where that funeral home was located – a house in New Jersey that is no longer used for that purpose.

Oh, yes … the man didn’t wake up. Halloween terror stories aside – replete with visuals of the ground shaking and a hand coming up through the dirt from the grave – dead people don’t come back to life. They don’t respond to any magnanimous offers of any sort.

The Scriptures say that without Christ, spiritually speaking, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. 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. (Ephesians 2:1-2)  We had no way to respond other than to have God’s grace given to us to even make us able to believe. 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. (Ephesians 2:4-5)

So what is grace?  It is something even bigger than we may tend to think. It is not just forgiving a person who has wronged you when they ask for it. Rather, it is choosing to forgive a person at a time when they were not sorry, and when they were in fact worthy of all the anger and judgment you could throw at them.

The definition of grace that I learned years ago that has always stuck with me is this: Grace is favor extended when wrath is deserved. And that is what Christ has done in dying for us. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

So the Reformers were saying that salvation is by grace alone. But didn’t the Roman church then and now believe in grace? They talk a lot about grace. Yes, they do believe in grace, just not in grace ALONE. There are sacraments and other obligations that are a part of meriting grace; that is the difference. In this regard, liberal Protestantism today is not categorically different. In fact, they can be farther from the truth by not actually believing in the deity of Christ or the virgin birth, etc.

The Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone, as articulated by Calvinists today, can also trouble certain evangelicals. To them it has a sound of “easy believism” … that one can just say a prayer of faith, gain the grace, and then go off and live however they want to, now having an insurance policy against hell. But that is not what Reformed teaching supports. There is the belief that genuine salvation will manifest itself in a changed life and desire to live for God, this being the evidence of true faith.

And Paul promotes this very idea also in Ephesians 2:8-10 … 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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The works follow salvation; they don’t earn salvation; they don’t maintain salvation … they prove salvation in the life of the believer as statements of gratitude for the grace received. “Oh to grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!”


As Bad as it Can Possibly Be

At one point or another in our lives, most of us get to face some critical health moments. Something isn’t right; we don’t feel well. So we go to the doctor or the emergency room to discover the underlying problem and gain some relief. We may have an expectation as to what is going wrong. The diagnosis may prove to be minimal compared to our concerns, or it may be something even beyond our worst imagination.

Several years ago when I had the one and only hospitalization of my life with the pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lungs), I underestimated the situation. The doctor walked in and began with those words you don’t want to hear, “Well, I’ve got some bad news for you.”  I never once suspected what was actually happening. But the good news was that it didn’t kill me and the worst was over; it was just a matter of recovery.

Spiritually speaking, our diagnosis is very, very bad. In fact, it is as bad as it can get. We have inherited at the moment of inception a deadly condition for which there is no natural cure. There is nothing we can do to fix the problem that will result in our physical death and eternal separation from God. Yep, it’s bad.

As we wrap up this final week of our “Him Alone” series about the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we will be talking about how to truly know God. And to know Him we need to recall the grand story that spans from eternity past to eternity future. And we will do so by making five divisions, beginning today with creation and the entrance of sin.

Creation: God Creates / Man Sins

There was a perfect once-upon-a-time beginning to God’s Big Story. We read in Genesis 1, on the 6th day, God made the animals and finally man as the pinnacle of creation …

Genesis 1:28 – God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  …  31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Things were as good as they could possibly be. After all, you can’t beat perfect.

But you can mess up perfect, especially when Satan is involved. You know the story of the fall of man into sin, and everything changed. A curse of death was pronounced on all; and at the end of Genesis 3, man is driven out of the Garden …

Genesis 3:23-24 — So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

So how bad is the situation?  Very bad. As bad as it can be. Man is destined to struggle all through life in a cursed environment, die physically, and be spiritually separated from God due to the debt of sin. This truth is picked up and spoken of throughout Scripture.

Psalm 14:2-3 — The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

This passage from Psalm 14 is quoted in Romans 3 at the final, decisive point of Paul’s argument about the lost condition of man. Paul wrote graphically of this as well to the Ephesians when reflecting on their condition prior to knowing the gospel …

Ephesian 2:1,3 — As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins … we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Dead is bad … very bad. It is not just a sickness from which recovery is possible. There is no life. The only hope is resurrection, and dead people can’t make that happen for themselves.

Why is it important to understand this clearly?  Let me suggest two reasons that come to my mind.

  1. Evangelism – There is an old saying about evangelism that you have to “get a person lost before you can get them found.” Think of those you know who scoff at the notion of God and a Savior. They have no sense of need. They errantly believe they are self-sufficiently in a good position. And until a person realizes they are lost, they will not reach out for a map or check the GPS system.
  1. Appropriate Gratitude – When we realize that biblically and spiritually speaking we were truly lost and dead in our sins, without God and without hope, we rightly realize that we did not find God, He found us. He chose us so that we could choose Him. The extent of grace is beyond our imagination, just as was the lost condition we faced … but all of that is a part of other portions of God’s Big Story.

In that second chapter to the Ephesians, Paul reminded these mostly Gentile readers of the extent of their lost condition …

2:11 – Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

It is good for us to remember how lost we were.

Is reconciliation always possible? (Ephesians 2:12-16)

What comes after forgiveness?  Depending on the nature of the offense, there may be a prolonged struggle.  After all, forgiveness might not come all at once; it may be a daily struggle to forgive that other person.  A number of years ago the nation of Rwanda was torn apart by tribal conflict and genocide—you may remember this from the film Hotel Rwanda.  After it was all over, the healing had to begin.  I say had to, because the nature of the conflict meant that individuals would return home, and literally move back in next to neighbors that had taken the lives of their family members.   In her excellent book As We Forgive, Catherine Claire Lawson shares the real-life stories of many who came to understand forgiveness only through the workshops offered through Christian relief workers.  One such story comes from “Monique:”

At the workshops, they read stories of forgiveness from the Bible.  Monique remembered the stories from childhood, but the words came alive to her again as she heard how Jesus Christ had taken our sins and our sorrows to the cross.  [The group leader] explained how this meant that Christ had taken both the sins of the genocidaires and the sorrows of the victims carried those with him to the cross.  As an innocent victim, Christ identified with those like Monique who suffered wrongfully.  But by laying upon him the sins of the world, Christ also took away the reproach of sinners who would look to him in faith.  He forgives.  ….Little by little, Monique felt she too could extend forgiveness to the people who had wronged her.  (Catherine Claire Lawson, As We Forgive, p. 152-3)

In the ancient city of Ephesus, Paul likewise uses the sacrifice of Christ to describe how Jews and non-Jews could be united despite past cultural differences.

Read Ephesians 2:12-16:

“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:12-16)

The New Testament describes reconciliation—a restored relationship—as the ideal.  Why might this be so difficult to achieve?

In recent months, a nation expressed outrage over the deception of Brian Williams.  But in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, David Brooks raises the possibility of forgiveness.  He asks:

“…the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?” (David Brooks, “The Art of Rigorous Forgiveness,” in The New York Times, February 10, 2015)

Brooks goes on to describe a four-stage process of reconciliation:

  • Pre-emptive mercy: the act of extending forgiveness before the offender does a single thing.
  • Judgment: being willing to label the offense as wrong, and seeing it without exaggerating or minimizing the offense.
  • Confession and repentance: when the offender recognizes and changes their attitude toward their wrongdoing.
  • Reconciliation and re-trust: a restored relationship between myself and my offender.

Again, the New Testament ideal is to move us to stage 4.  But let’s pause for a second—is this even possible in every situation?  For some, reconciliation without confession and judgment only serves to enable my offender.  It hasn’t healed the problem, only sugared over it.  So there may be situations where the offender refuses—for whatever reason—to come to terms with their offense.  In such situations, it may actually be unloving to pursue a relationship with that person until that offense has been dealt with.

We’ll return to this question in tomorrow’s post.  For now we can simply recognize that for Christians, forgiveness is an extension of God’s love; but reconciliation is not always possible.  What forgiveness means is that I no longer hold the past as a barrier to future relationship, though always recognizing that future relationships can be made possible through ongoing behavior.


The initial challenge, therefore, is to practice that “pre-emptive mercy” and to lay aside the anger we feel toward our offender.  Only then can we be released from carrying a grudge and can extend a hand in love.

The Story Behind the Story (Ephesians 2:1-10)

And the pastor began to speak to them in parables, saying: 

There was once an exceedingly wealthy man named John who owned a mansion house containing many rooms. For reasons none could understand, he cared about street thugs and young men who had completely lost their way in the world. One day he sought out a young boy named Billy and offered him a room to come and stay at his home, in order that Billy might put behind his world of crime and relational connections to the life of the street. At first Billy was skeptical, and even though there were frustrations with the street life, it was all he knew. He laughed at John, as did his gang of ruffians, but John continued to pursue him with the great opportunity for a total transformation.  And over time, a day came when Billy made the decision to walk out of the hood, and into the mansion. Billy was always thankful for what John had done for him, but over time, he began to remember the details a bit differently than the historical reality. The way his mind recalled them was that, out of all the guys in the hood, he was the smart one who found a good deal and was wise enough to make a choice to change his life. There was a subtle sense within him (not that he actually put words to it) that there was a little something unique about him that made John single him out.  He was pretty proud of his life transformation! Not many ever did such a thing! However, the reality was that, bottom line, Billy really had nothing much to do with his good fortune, it was all because of John that it ever happened at all.

We’ve been talking about some big words – cross words – in this series of sermons and devotionals. I’m going to give you some more today. I realize now that I used to think like Billy, but here is the day that changed. A college professor taught that there are three views about salvation: Pelagianism, Semipelagianism, and efficacious grace.

Pelagianism (named after a guy who lived in the late 300s) is a view that man is not really that badly tainted by sin and that he can work his way into a good position with God by following Christ’s moral example. This is truly works salvation, and I knew that was totally wrong.

Semipelagianism is a view that God sees that man is very sick because of sin, sorta throws down a rope from heaven, and man grabs hold of it if he is smart and ends up being saved from his perilous condition – spiritually rescued like a helicopter with a rope picking up someone off the roof of their house in the midst of a huge flood. I heard this, and at age 18 in college thought – “yep, that’s correct.” But the prof said that “no” it was not.

Efficacious grace is the view that man is total depraved – meaning that he is so lost because of his imputed sin from Adam that he is spiritually dead. A dead person cannot respond to anything. God brings life and salvation – opening the eyes and the mind to understand and respond to the Gospel – for apart from that grace and act of God, the lost soul would not and could not respond. Hence salvation is fully a work of God. It seems that we respond, and in time and space we do respond to the Gospel and are commanded to preach the Word as the vehicle through which God’s grace and truth is disseminated … but the real work of salvation is all of God.

That is what today’s passage is teaching. And when one understands God’s grace in this way, and when one sees what the Lord has done in raising us up and seating us in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus … Wow! It really is a gift. Take these thoughts with you this Sunday to the table of the Lord, and I dare you to stand there with those elements in your hand … with dry eyes.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Made Alive in Christ

2:1  As 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. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 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. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 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. 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. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.