Grace: The Only Source of Salvation
Passage: Ephesians 2:1–2:10
What does it mean to be saved by grace? It means we are totally dead without God, we are totally dependent on God, and we have absolutely nothing to boast about.
How good are you at receiving gifts? I think it’s something most of us have a hard time doing. When someone says they want to give us something for free, in our minds we are thinking, “What’s the catch?” Perhaps for good reason. We are a bit suspicious when a business says, “Come get a free taco!” We go to get our taco and discover we need to give them our name and email address. Ahh, so that’s the catch. There are strings attached. They aren’t just giving us a taco. Sure, we didn’t have to pay any money but we had to do something for it.
But even if a friend wants to buy our lunch, we automatically create a little tab in our head: “Ok, I owe them.” We might even say, “Ok, but I’ll pay next time.” We can’t just receive it as a gift. We feel we need to pay them back.
If we are honest, we aren’t very good at giving gifts either. If you pay for lunch week after week and your friend never offers or reaches for the bill, eventually you might get upset and ask, “Why do you always wait for me to pay? I’ve paid for weeks.” You expect them to give you the same gift in return.
Or sometimes we give someone a present and they don’t express as much excitement and thankfulness as we thought they would so our feelings are hurt.
Or think about kids. How many times do you catch yourself or hear parents say, “I gave my kids so much and they show no gratitude. They are ungrateful.” The point is, when it comes to gifts we tend to struggle.
Today, we are in our second message in a five part series called “Five Truths about Salvation.” This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation so we are taking time to learn about the five truths at the heart of it. These truths state that salvation is 1) by grace alone 2) through faith alone 3) in Christ alone 4) reveal in Scripture alone 5) for God’s glory alone.
Last week, we focused on Martin Luther’s stand against the authority of popes and church councils. Instead, he argued that Scripture alone is the #1 authority for our knowledge of salvation. We know about salvation from Scripture alone. In this second message, we will be talking about the source of salvation. Who produces salvation? Where does it come from?
We will be looking at Ephesians chapter 2, verses 1 through 10 and as we do so, the big question we will be answering is: what does it mean to be saved by grace? What does it mean to be saved by grace?
We defined grace at the end of our Jonah series but here’s a reminder. It is so important we know this. “Grace” means free and undeserved favor. It means you get what you don’t deserve.
We will look at this passage in three parts as we answer this big question. We’ll take a pause after the first part to talk a little bit more about Martin Luther.
Let’s begin by rereading the first part, Ephesians chapter 2, verses 1 through 3.
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 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. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
The apostle Paul, an early follower of Jesus, wrote this letter to a church with whom he spent a good amount of time. He reminds them of their past condition. It’s like remembering a horrible sickness or disease you once had. Paul reminds them of the main problem: you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.
What caused this? The doctor may tell you, “Your heart is failing.” To which you might respond, “What? Why? How did this happen?” To which she says, “You haven’t followed a proper diet. You haven’t been exercising. And you drink too much. Those are the influences of your heart failure.”
Paul also gives the diagnosis: you were spiritually dead in sin. What caused this? There are three influences: the world, Satan, and the flesh.
First, they are following the course of this world. This refers to the attitudes, preferences, and habits of our society and culture that influence us to live contrary to what God wants for us.
Second, they are following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience. This is a reference to the devil, Satan. He is opposed to God and his ways. He fights using deception and lies, tricking us into believing God is holding out on us so we need to do things our way. He makes people into “children of disobedience” who reject God.
These are two external influences. The last one is internal.
Third, they are following an internal influence: the flesh. They are living in the passions and desires of their flesh, Paul says. This isn’t referring to flesh as in our skin. This is a metaphor for the inner inclination we all have to disobey God and go our own way instead of his way.
The problem is we are dead in sin. We lack life. Just think of this image. Dead things are disturbing to look at. They lose color and turn black. Start smelling and decaying and rotting. This is what rebelling against God does. We die.
What’s the result of this? The end of verse 3 says that we are by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Children of disobedience are children under God’s wrath - God’s judgment. We are alienated from God, separated from him, and estranged. This is a problem of our own doing. We left him. He is the source of life and we decided to try living on our own.
We all know flowers are beautiful when you first pick them and put them in their vase. But we only keep them in our house so long because they have been removed from their life source. They can’t survive on their own. We can try to lengthen their days with proper pruning, water, and plant food. But they are already dead and dying because they are removed from their source of life. Eventually they wilt, the water turns cloudy, they start rotting, and little bugs are swarming around them. That’s us. We can’t survive removed from our life source.
Martin Luther had a very real understanding of his condition before God. Last week, we focused on his posting of the “95 Theses” in response to the selling of indulgences. This happened in 1517, but if we back up a bit in Martin Luther’s life, we see a man with a very sensitive conscience.
While Luther was a Catholic monk, he lived with what he called, in German, “anfechtung.” There really isn’t a good translation into English. It means something like “dread, despair, a sense of foreboding doom, assault, anxiety.” He was constantly invaded by feelings of “doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation.” These feelings left him wanting to just hide in a mouse hole.
Why did he have these feelings? Because he knew he stood before God as a guilty sinner. Luther knew what the bible said about how holy, perfect, righteous, and glorious God is. And he knew how sinful, unrighteous, and evil he was. Luther had an acute awareness that he fell utterly short of being in God’s presence. He knew that he was alienated from God and that he deserved condemnation. In other words, Luther truly felt the words of the first three verses of Ephesians chapter 2: dead in his trespasses and sins, following the world, following Satan, following the passions of his flesh, a child of wrath. Luther knew he was a sinner and thus he knew what he deserved: God’s judgment. And this is all while he is serving as a Catholic monk.
Sometimes growing up, if I was really naughty, my mom would say, “When your father gets home, I’m going to tell him about this.” Perhaps you had a similar experience. You’ve been misbehaving. You aren’t listening. But you think you can get away with it. But then comes the threat of father finding out. Suddenly, dread fills you. You beg mom. You say you’re sorry. You just want to hide. This is kind of what Luther felt. He knew he had done wrong and there are consequences.
Luther tried everything to relieve himself of this feeling. The question Luther was asking was: how can I be righteous before a holy God? As we go over these, see if you can relate with Luther. Is this how you are trying to be made right with God?
His first approach was good works. Luther did everything possible as a monk. “If I am going to stand before a holy God”, he thought, “I must become holy.” He was a Catholic monk and here is what he wrote:
“I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.” (Here I Stand, 31)
Sometimes he would be proud that he had done nothing wrong that day. But then, he would wonder: have I done enough? He found that he could never live up to God’s standard.
Luther was brought up on a teaching that God would meet you with his grace if you did your very best. In this way, you worked with God’s grace to become righteous and thus are saved. But what is the best you can do? Luther wondered: have I done my best?
His next attempt was through the good works of others. Last week, we talked about indulgences. Indulgences are like a transfer of credit. The pope can transfer the righteousness of Christ and others to poor sinners like Luther so the punishment for his sins will be covered. He won’t have to spend time in purgatory. Luther performed the steps to receive indulgences but in the end had doubts about whether they actually transferred righteousness to him. It gave him no comfort.
Next, he tried confession. In confessing to a priest, there are two requirements: confess everything and be sorry. Luther confessed to his mentor, Johann von Staupitz. He would confess every day for hours and hours, thinking of every sin he had ever committed. He would leave but then quickly turn around because he thought of another sin he had missed. Staupitz at one point said, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive…” Basically, “Go commit a real sin, Luther, then come talk to me” Luther was always plagued with the question: have I confessed everything?
But even when he felt he had confessed everything, he was wondering: was I contrite enough? Was I really sorry? Maybe he was just doing it out of fear rather than truly being sorry. Confession could provide forgiveness for particular sins, but Luther was discovering his whole person was in need of forgiveness.
Remember, we are talking about the source of salvation. Who produces salvation? Where does it come from? The Roman Catholic Church led Luther to look inside himself. There was something he must contribute to his salvation. God gave grace, but Luther needed to do something too. Luther needed to bring something to the table. God had his part, but Luther doubted whether he had done or could really do his part.
This left Luther in utter despair and dread. But there came a turning point. He was given the assignment of teaching the bible in Wittenberg, Germany. First, he went through the Psalms then through Romans. In Romans chapter 1, it says the gospel reveals the justice or righteousness of God. Luther hated this phrase. He understood it to mean the gospel reveals God’s justice in condemning sinners and it filled him with dread. It led to the anxiety and foreboding doom he felt. How could he ever be good enough for this God? Luther wrote:
“My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him” (Here I Stand, 49)
One of the words that the book of Romans uses a lot is “justification.” In Luther’s day, this was thought to mean “make righteous.” For God to justify the sinner meant to make them righteous. He sends grace and you do your best. That’s how you become righteous.
Luther discovered that the term “justification” was a legal term. It was used in the court of law. Someone would either be declared guilty or declared righteous: guilty or innocent. So for God to justify us doesn’t mean to progressively “make us righteous” over time. It means he “declares us righteous” in the courtroom. It is a one-time action. Luther was overjoyed at this discovery. He found that his “justification” was not something he must do but something that God does. He found that salvation is not based on what he brings to the table but on God’s action on his behalf. He wrote this:
“Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, 49-50)
Luther discovered that God’s grace means God does all the work for Luther to be righteous in God’s sight. Luther gets what he doesn’t deserve. God declares him righteous even though he doesn’t deserve it. Righteousness is given to him as a gift. With this truth, God became to Luther a loving and gracious Father rather than an angry Judge.
With this in mind, let’s return to Ephesians chapter 2. The second part of this passage is verses 4 through 7. Let’s reread those.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
Without God, each and every one of us is described by the first three verses. Spiritually dead. Luther felt it. He felt the dread of knowing he stood before a holy God as an unrighteous sinner. In God’s law court, he was guilty and condemned. And no matter what he did, he felt it wasn’t enough. Just like Ephesians 2 says, there was something wrong with him at the core. He was being asked to bring something to the table but he always felt what he brought fell short.
Finally, God showed Luther the truth that these verses communicate: “We were dead...but God.” God took action. God did something. We were dead. Dead things don’t contribute. They can’t. But God acted. Not because of anything we brought to the table, but because he is rich in mercy and great in love. He loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses. He made us alive with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him on his throne. What is true of Jesus is now true of us who believe.
And why did he do this? Not because we brought something to the table. Not because we tried our best. Not because we confessed perfectly. But because of his grace. Verse 5 says: “By grace you have been saved.” He did this, verse 7 says, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” By grace we are saved so that God may put on display the immeasurable riches of his grace.
Grace is one-directional. It comes from God to us based on nothing we do. Grace is free and undeserved favor. It is unmerited.
The last part of this passage makes that abundantly clear. Let’s reread verses 8 through 10.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Why is our salvation a display of the immeasurable riches of God’s grace? Because it is by grace we have been saved through faith. The source of our salvation isn’t us. It is not our own doing. It is a gift of God. It isn’t the result of works. No one can boast. No one can say: “I brought this to the table. I contributed this to my salvation.”
The only thing we contributed to our salvation was the need for it. God did all the rest. There is no element of our salvation for which the answer to the question, “who gets credit for this”, is me. It is all God.
While good works do not contribute to our salvation, verse 10 tells us that they are a product of it. Our works are not the basis of salvation, but once God saves us he produces good works in us. We can’t even lay claim to our good deeds. We are God’s workmanship and our good works are a result of what he is doing in us so that no one can boast.
The big question this passage answers is: what does it mean to be saved by grace? This passage gives us three answers.
First, verses 1 through 3 tell us saved by grace means we are totally dead without God. Saved by grace means we are totally dead without God. We are unable to contribute anything to our salvation. We are unable to be righteous in his sight. We’ve separated ourselves from the source of life and thus are spiritually dead. We are totally dead without God.
Second, verses 4 through 7 tell us saved by grace means we are totally dependent on God. Saved by grace means we are totally dependent on God. We cannot contribute anything to our salvation, thus we need someone else to save us. We are dead and can do nothing. Someone has to bring us back to life. Salvation is one-directional. It flows from God to us. We don’t meet him halfway. We are totally dependent on God.
Third, verses 8 through 10 tell us saved by grace means we have absolutely nothing to boast about. Saved by grace means we have absolutely nothing to boast about. There is nothing we contribute to our salvation. God gives it because he is gracious. Grace means free and undeserved favor. Salvation is a gift that we receive. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it. No part of it comes from us therefore we have absolutely nothing to boast about.
Know that grace is the source of your salvation. God gives salvation to you as a gift. God gives you a right standing with him as a gift. God reconciles you with him as a gift. God makes you spiritually alive as a gift. There is nothing you do for it. It is freely given. It is unmerited and undeserved.
And yet, we have a hard time receiving gifts, don’t we? We can see gifts in three wrong ways.
The gift is a reward. We need to do something to deserve it. If we want salvation, we need to earn it.
The gift is a loan. God gave it to us but now we need to pay him back. If we want to keep salvation, we better keep up the payments: do good deeds, go to church services, pray, read our bibles. We live with an IOU.
The gift has a probation period. God gave it to us, but if we don’t appreciate him enough he will take it away. It’s not permanent. If we want to keep salvation, we better not do anything that will make God mad so he takes it away.
A gift is a gift. We are given it and all we need to do is receive it. We receive it by faith - we trust God. But this passage says that even faith is a gift God gives us.
When we make a gift into a reward, loan, or act like we’re on probation, we will feel like Luther. He carried a weight with him. He hated God. He felt like he was on a hamster wheel running and never doing enough to earn salvation and that’s because he couldn’t! There is nothing we can do to earn it.
This burden was too much for Luther and it is too much for us. When we look to ourselves to produce in us only what God can, it is a heavy burden. Luther kept asking, “Am I doing enough? Have I done enough? Have I done it right?” But the question isn’t “am I enough” but “is God enough.” Of course you aren’t enough to save yourself. But God is. And he has done it all.
I learned a helpful question from a mentor in my life recently: who’s doing the heavy lifting in your life? Is it God? Or is it you? Luther felt he needed to do the heavy lifting. God was watching him and waiting for him to get his act together. He carried a heavy burden of trying to muster up enough goodness in himself to earn God’s forgiveness.
But he learned that God is the one who does the heavy lifting in salvation. He took on our punishment when Jesus died on the cross. He paid the full price of our salvation. And he gives it to us as a gift. We simply receive it and do nothing for it because we were incapable of doing anything for it.
Ask yourself that question this week: who’s doing the heavy lifting in my life? God is the one who works salvation in you and who produces good works in you. Rely on his Spirit to make you who he wants you to be and to make others who he wants them to be.
The big question we are answering is: what does it mean to be saved by grace? First, it means we are totally dead without God. Second, it means we are totally dependent on God. Third, it means we have absolutely nothing to boast about.
Luther’s anxiety and dread was a product of the Roman Catholic religion he was a part of. He was trying to be saved according to the system in which he was trained. But he was not relieved of his dread and anxiety until he discovered salvation was a gift God gives. Salvation is 100% from God’s grace and 0% from us. People all around us, Catholic or not, are living with the burden of producing their own salvation. Wouldn’t it be good for them to hear that salvation is a gift from God?
This week, remember who does the heavy lifting in your spiritual life. God is the one who saves you from sin. He is the one who gives you faith. He is the one who produces good works in your life. Rely on him to do the heavy lifting.