Topic: Reformation Sunday Passage: Ephesians 1:1– 6:24
As Gary mentioned, today is Reformation Sunday. I’ll be preaching on the topic Sola Gratia. That’s a Latin phrase affirming the truth that God saves by grace alone. But in 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther exposed how the church abandoned “grace alone.” Luther didn’t get everything right. But his criticism of indulgences was spot on.[i] The Roman Catholic Church believes in a treasury of merit. Indulgences draw from this treasury as one way to reduce punishment in what they call purgatory. In Luther’s day, some were selling indulgences—pretending to sell forgiveness—leading thousands to believe that God’s grace can be earned.
Luther saw this as an assault on the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. No human merit could ever forgive sins. Others joined Luther in the protest, arguing from Scripture that grace is no longer grace if it can be earned. But this isn’t just about the Roman Catholic Church getting grace wrong.
Grace for a World Where Performance is Everything
One way the culture at large jeopardizes grace is by teaching that our fundamental worth and identity is based on performance. It comes with slogans like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Commercials promote various kinds of drugs and diets to maximize performance. It comes with every Facebook post that says if you don’t do X, Y, and Z, then you’re not accepted. It’s why stress, anxiety, and depression are so prevalent. People exhaust themselves trying to meet society’s expectations.
More than that, we’re surrounded by a cacophony of religions which amount to various forms of self-help. If not careful, such beliefs begin to shape our thinking. Sure, we know that God saves sinners. But sometimes we live like it’s our performance that gets us to the end. Salvation that started by grace-alone morphs into an exhausting grace-plus-works religion, where we’re never quite sure what God thinks of us, never quite sure if we’re going to make it, never quite sure if the gospel is good.
Today, I hope to clarify that what counts most isn’t your performance; it’s what God does for you from his own grace in Christ. From beginning to end, salvation is all grace. I want to show you that from Ephesians.
A Few Clarifications
Before we jump in, though, I want to clarify a few things. When we talk about grace, we’re not talking about tolerance for sin.[ii] People will sometimes say, “Gimme some grace!” and what they mean is, “Cut me some slack!” But grace never minimizes sin. Titus 2 says that grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires.
Also, grace is not something we can earn—even after you’re a Christian. Grace is always unmerited favor at Christ’s expense.
Also, the source of grace is the Triune God. Paul starts in 1:2 with “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In verse 13, the Spirit is our guarantee. In unceasing unity, the Trinity saves. Today, I’ll mention several moments across history; and these moments might stress the unique work of the Father, Son, or Spirit. But know that they’re all of one piece in the Trinity’s plan to save us.
Also, please notice that Paul stresses one’s union with Christ. In the first 14 verses we hear the steady refrain: “in Christ,” “in him,” “through Jesus,” “in the Beloved”—more than ten times. All the riches of God’s grace come only to those in union with Christ. So, as you hear them unfold, ask yourself, “Am I in Christ? Do I share a spiritual bond with the Jesus? Can I call these beautiful things of grace my own?” Union with Christ will amaze you, and it is solid ground for assurance.
God elects us in Christ before history.
Now, with that said, let’s look at our first moment in God’s gracious plan to save us. Salvation is by grace alone because God elects us in Christ before history. In verse 3, Paul celebrates every spiritual blessing in Christ; and in verse 4, he begins with election. It says, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Notice several things about God’s election. One, God’s choice occurs “before the foundation of the world.” Election doesn’t occur in history but before history.[iii] Also, the choice is personal. “He chose us in Christ.” He didn’t simply choose a way that people could be saved. Nor did he simply choose a condition by which people would be saved. God chose a people (“us” = the church) to put into Christ.[iv]
Notice, too, that God’s sovereign will stands behind the choice. Verse 5, “according to the purpose [or pleasure] of his will.” Election isn’t grounded in our will to choose God but in God’s will to choose us. It’s not grounded in God foreseeing that at some point in the future this person would believe; it’s grounded solely in God’s purpose to save whom he pleases.[v] It’s not like choosing somebody for a baseball team. Our choice is based on performance, what others can offer. But God doesn’t need us. Nor was there anything in us that moved him. He chose us simply because he set his love on us.
For these reasons, many in church history have described God’s gracious act of election as unconditional. God elects to save certain individuals, but not based on their works or foreseen faith. I think that’s accurate. It’s based solely on God’s sovereign pleasure. It’s grace alone from eternity past.
Which also means his choice is ultimately for his praise. Verse 6, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” Election is a gracious act. Nothing outside God bound him to choose us. We did nothing to earn or deserve his choice. We did nothing to put God in debt to us. He wasn’t obligated. Freely, he chose us. Therefore, all human boasting is excluded, and all praise belongs to God. That’s the first moment.
Christ accomplishes our redemption in history.
Look now at a second moment in God’s gracious plan: Christ accomplishes our redemption in history. God’s choice before history is in Christ. Paul returns to that phrase in verse 7: “In [Christ/the Beloved] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
Sometimes Paul describes our former manner of life as one that’s “outside Christ”—as in 2:12. Once we believe on Christ, we then become “in Christ” for justification. But at other times Paul uses “in Christ” to describe our solidarity with Christ in his once-for-all death on the cross.[vi] Meaning, it’s not so much focused on the faith-union of individual believers throughout history; “in Christ” sometimes emphasizes the one-time moment Christ died for all his people. That happens in verse 7.
Verse 7 mentions two things that Jesus’ death accomplished for those “in Christ”—redemption and forgiveness. Both touch on two obstacles impossible to overcome by your own efforts. Redemption has to do with deliverance from slavery. You might imagine a man in shackles working himself to death under the crack of a tyrant’s whip. Sin puts us in shackles like that. But the slavery is even worse. We don’t just have the shackles, we prefer them. On top of that, we need forgiveness. We’re guilty before a holy God. We’ve broken his law. We deserve God’s punishment.
But when Christ died on the cross for his people, God secured both redemption from slavery and forgiveness of sins. The blessings come “through his blood.” In that once-for-all-time event, God put his Son forward as the perfect sacrifice. When he died for the sins of his people, mysteriously we were united to him in that death. He’s not only our substitute; he’s our representative substitute. He died for all who would be saved out of Adam and placed into Christ. All at once, Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He did everything necessary to secure our right standing with God.
You and I had nothing to do with that great work. It’s all grace. God did all this, it says, “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.” Not just a little sprinkle, a little dab; he lavished grace on us in the death of his Beloved Son.
God applies Christ’s redemption throughout history.
Another moment in God’s plan: God applies Christ’s redemption to his people throughout history. God accomplished salvation at the cross. But his people from each generation must believe what God accomplished. Look at 1:13: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” From each generation, God’s people must believe what God accomplished through Jesus. Election is unconditional. But that doesn’t erase the condition to believe; election is the reason many will meet that condition.
But lest we miss God’s grace in that whole process of belief, look at 2:1-10: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that’s now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
People who grow dull to God’s grace have lost sight of what they once were. We’re not just drowning at sea, if only someone would just toss a life preserver. No, we’re flat-lined on the ocean floor. We’re dead. We’re captive to Satan. Looking back, you may not feel like you were that bad off. But we must be careful not to evaluate ourselves by human standards. This is what God says we’re like outside of Christ; and nobody can do anything about it. Dead people can’t make themselves alive.
“But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
What a reversal! We were dead, but God made us alive. We were captive to Satan, but God seated us with Christ in the heavenly places. We were children of wrath, but God made us trophies to showcase his grace. God did it all.
Look at verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Those two denials—not your own doing; not a result of works—are why salvation is by grace alone. That doesn’t mean grace is unrelated to works. Verse 10 adds, “For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works don’t earn grace; they display grace. How’d we move from walking in disobedience to walking in good works? Grace!
But that’s not all grace does. In verses 11-22, God’s grace also creates a new humanity. Once Gentile nations were strangers to God promises. They were cut off from God’s people. We were once far off from God. But now we’ve been brought near by the blood of Christ. His death on the cross tore down the barriers, to make us one with his covenant people. Grace not only makes us one with God, but one with each other—he joins us together such that we grow into a holy temple by the Spirit.
Then in 3:7 Paul explains how this was all part of God’s eternal plan—a mystery hidden for the ages in God but now revealed in the person of Jesus. “Of this gospel I was made a minister,” he says, “according to the gift of God’s grace.” The revelation of the gospel to Gentiles is also an act of grace.
Chapters 4-6 then show what the outworking of God’s grace looks like for the new humanity. For example, Christ gifts the church in 4:7: “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Those gifts are for maturing the church into Christ, into his love—that’s 4:13 and 16. Then in 4:24, we learn that we have a new self, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” God had created Adam in his image and likeness. Our sin warps that same image. But through God’s grace in Christ, he’s renewing us. He’s restoring God’s image in us.
In doing so, you also become a conduit of grace in the words you speak. 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In 5:8, we once were darkness, but by grace we’re now light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. When we do, our light exposes the darkness of the world. In 5:18, he then explains how the grace of the Holy Spirit’s filling both encourages the church and rightly orders husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters.
God will finish salvation at the end of history.
Then finally, God will finish salvation at the end of history—that’s another moment to consider in God’s gracious plan to save. Peppered throughout Ephesians are statements of what God intends to finish by grace. In 1:4 the goal of election is that we be holy and blameless before God. In 1:13-14, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” God’s grace begins in eternity past, but it never waivers to the end of the world. The Holy Spirit guarantees that God will finish what he began. If God sets forward a plan to make us holy and blameless, he will not fail to accomplish that.
In 2:7, God saves us “so that in the coming ages [that’s future!] he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us.” Then in 5:25, Paul is teaching on the way husbands ought to love their wives, but listen to what he says of the work of Christ: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
That’s the same words he used in 1:4 related to election. Jesus’ death wasn’t simply for our sanctification; it secured the glorification of God’s elect. He died to present the church to himself in splendor; and we see that happens in Revelation 19.
Here’s the point: if God elects to save us in Christ before history, and sends Christ to represent us in history, and binds us to Christ by the Spirit throughout history, then we can rest assured that he will raise us in Christ at the end of history. God’s salvation is of one piece. At no point does he lose what he sets out to save. And when we’re raised from the dead to receive our inheritance, to receive new bodies, to receive wills that never sin again, no one will boast. We will only say, “It was all grace!"
Honor the God of all grace
Which leads us to a first way grace alone should affect us. Salvation by grace alone leads us to honor the God of all grace. Three times God repeats the goal in chapter 1. Verse 6, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” Verse 12, “to the praise of his glory.” Verse 14, “to the praise of his glory.” When salvation is by grace alone, honor belongs to God alone. “Grace alone” isn’t just about abstract doctrinal precision. It’s about promoting true worship and guarding the church from false worship of self. It’s about ascribing to God the praise that’s due his name.
Walk in humility before God and others
Grace alone also means that we walk in humility before God and others. If salvation is by works, we have something to boast about. But if salvation is all grace, we have nothing to boast about. That’s why Paul says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:29). If you’re a Christian, there’s no room for pride. There’s no room for looking down on others. There’s no room for partiality or envy. Knowing God saves by sovereign grace shouldn’t lead to theological swagger; it should lead to compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience, Colossians 3:12 says. If it doesn’t, then you don’t really know God’s grace; you’re just repeating words.
Humility grows in the soil of grace. Humility grows from knowing that there was nothing in you that moved God to love you; he simply chose to love you unworthy as you are. That affects how you interact with others.
Walk in holiness as grace trains & empowers
Grace should also motivate you to walk in holiness. God’s grace is extravagant. It’s so extravagant that some accused Paul of lawlessness. If grace was this lavish, they feared some would just sin all the more that grace might abound. But Paul destroyed that objection. He showed that if grace truly saves us from sin, then how could we still walk in it? More than that, he showed that grace both trains and empowers.
Listen to Titus 2:11-13. It says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
Grace trains and grace empowers. It trains us to deny ungodliness and to live godly lives. And then it empowers by showing us that Christ is the one who redeems from lawlessness to purify for himself a people. So, we deny ungodliness and we pursue holiness, but he’s in here purifying and making us zealous for good works.
Find your help in God’s daily grace
Which leads to something else: find your help in God’s daily grace. Paul ends Ephesians like this: “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.” That’s different from how he started the letter, “Grace to you.” His letter is a means of God bringing grace to them. But now he’s praying, “Grace be with you.”
The idea is, “Grace be with you at the office tomorrow when you’re living out these words. Grace be with you in the morning when kids argue over who’s first in the bathroom. Grace be with you when your brother or sister offends you and you must forebear and forgive. Grace be with you in your speaking with others at care group. Grace be with you when cancer hits a family member and you need help holding on to God’s promises. Grace be with you when you’re tempted to give up.” We need God’s grace to be with us every day; and here we’re assured that God’s grace goes with us.
Herald God’s grace in Christ to others
Next, if salvation is truly by grace alone, then herald God’s grace in Christ to others. Paul counted his mission a “stewardship of God’s grace” in 3:2; and part of that stewardship was announcing the gospel of God’s grace to others.
We live in a world swarming with religions that assume man is good enough to make things right with God, man can earn God’s favor, man can work his way to heaven. Our world is also teaming with people who exhaust themselves seeking approval from God and others instead of resting in the God of all grace. Even worse, so-called churches have taught others that if they’ll just do X, Y, and Z, then God is sure to bless you. That’s not good news! That’s poison. We have a better gospel. People will only be freed from their exhausting man-made religion with the extravagant grace of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. Share it with others.
People sometimes think that God’s sovereign grace in election and conversion hinders missions and evangelism. No, it’s the only hope for missions and evangelism. Because of divine election, we’re guaranteed that people will be saved. Jesus has other sheep that will hear his voice—John 10:16. Those ordained to eternal life will be saved—Acts 13:48. The Lamb will receive the reward of his sufferings—Revelation 5:9.
More than that, sovereign grace means he can save anybody he wants to. No matter the background or despair or shameful past or heinous crime—his grace is greater than all our sin. God is not bound by your evil; he’s totally free to save. If anybody ever says, “I don’t know if God can save someone like me.” Sovereign grace enables us to say right back, “Well, he saved me; and I’m just like you. Your sin isn’t the determining factor in whether you can be saved. Grace is. And his grace in Christ is more than sufficient to save anybody. Come to him!” Can we say it like that?
Hope in God’s grace to finish your salvation
Lastly, hope in God’s grace to finish your salvation. 2 Thessalonians 2:15-16 says that God “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace.” We have good hope. Why? God gave it to us through grace. We have his Spirit by grace; he is our guarantee (Eph 1:14). Jesus didn’t die merely to cleanse his bride; he died to receive his bride in splendor. He died so that the church would be presented to himself without spot or wrinkle. What he begins, he also finishes.
I remember visiting my granny. In the last few years of her life, she stayed in a nursing home. Most of the conversation was spent reminding her who I was, where I was living, who my children were. I remember her mind fading quickly. It got me thinking about how much hope we truly have when salvation is by grace alone. What happens when I become too weak to serve others, or when I can’t remember Rachel’s name. Or the worst for me to consider: what happens when my memory so fades that I can’t even remember Jesus, I can’t even read my Bible and feel the warmth of his promises?
Will I lose favor with God? This gospel says No way. It’s by grace alone. My salvation is accomplished in Christ, and in him I’ll stand right before God. I might forget Jesus due to my brain not working; but he’ll never forget me. From beginning to end I am his, and he is mine. From beginning to end you are his, and he is yours. He will fit you to see him face to face. To him be the praise and glory.
[i]See discussion in Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 14, 37, 40, 54, 63, 80.
[ii]Montgomery and Jones, Proof, 17.
[iii] 2 Timothy 1:9 calls it grace, “which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”
[iv]John’s Gospel and Revelation describe these people as those the Father gave to the Son, those written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world (John 6:37; 10:29; 17:11, 24; Rev 13:8; 17:8; 21:27).
[v]Romans 9:15-16 is also helpful: God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Conclusion? “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
[vi]See especially Romans 5:12-21; 6:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.
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