Sola Gratia: The Encouraging Reality of Salvation by God’s Grace Alone – Ephesians 2:1-10
We’re continuing our examination of the Reformation slogan: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria (Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone). All of these statements work together in an effort to articulate the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of justification. Justification answers the question: how can sinful man be reconciled to a holy God?
We’ve already examined Sola Scriptura, which answers the question of authority. Scripture is the only source by which we can understand and explain this question. We then turned our attention to Sola Fide. This declaration of pardon/acquittal is received by means of faith alone. Now it is time to look at Sola Gratia. What is the role of grace in our justification?
Ephesians 2:1-10 has become a popular text among those who love the reality of God’s sovereignty over salvation. This is a gospel text. This is, as one of my favorite preachers says, a jugular text. This is a text that grabs man by the throat and refuses to let go. But this text is written within the context of encouragement.
Paul’s purpose in writing to the Ephesians is to encourage them by reminding them of their position in Christ. They have been given the seal and promise of surpassing riches in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, as predetermined by the Father (1:3-14). These verses force the readers to examine the glorious transformation that God had accomplished in their lives, understand God’s ultimate destination and purpose for them, and look to the only One who is to credit for this plan and action.
Encouragement must be based in reality. It is little good to boost someone’s self-esteem by blowing smoke in their face. That’s the difference between encouragement and flattery. Paul points to three realities of justification (that is, God’s declaration of pardon to unworthy sinners). These realities are put forth in an effort to offer real encouragement in their real lives. In other words, doctrine is always practical.
The Context: The Extent of Spiritual Death (vv. 1-3)
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
These verses are here to color the context. Paul’s main point is not actually mentioned until v. 5, but here he lays the groundwork. It would serve us well to remember that Paul is not preaching to a room full of reprobates but is writing to men and women who have already been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. These verses paint a portrait of who they were before God redeemed them.
Man’s Inability (v. 1) – This is such a simple statement that says it all. Paul does not say that the Ephesians were dying in their trespasses and sins, or that they were sick or mortally wounded. He makes the explicit statement that they were dead. They were spiritual corpses left to putrefy in the sun. The idea he is trying to convey is that of inability. A corpse cannot do anything but stink, and that is exactly what they were doing.
By mentioning trespasses and sins, Paul is not making a distinction between different varieties of sins. Rather, he is drawing a wholistic and inclusive picture of sin. Trespasses (παράπτωμα) indicates an action that goes against the rules, law, or standard. We use the term today to describe one who steps over a clear boundary marker. That’s what it means to trespass God’s righteous law, to step over the clearly defined boundary and walk right past the sign that says “Do not enter.” The term sins (ἁμαρτία) is an archery term that means to miss the mark or to fall short. This describes the complete realm in which the Ephesian readers were dead. They are unable to do anything other than break God’s law or fail to keep it. They were dead.
Subjection to the Enemy (v. 2) – It would be bad enough to be found in a position of passive inability. But this verse makes it clear that unredeemed man is in active rebellion against God as a servant of Satan. These Ephesians walked (or lived) according to the standard of this fallen world and in accordance with the standard of the one who runs it. The reference to the prince of the power of the air is a clear reference to Satan. Before they were converted, the Ephesians spend every moment of every day living their lives exactly how the devil would have wanted them to, in full out rebellion against God. The next line makes this clear.
This same prince is the very spirit that even now works in the sons of disobedience. The term disobedience (ἀπείθεια) could also be rendered unbelief. To call the rest of humanity the sons of unbelief is to say that they are begotten by unbelievers to be unbelievers. All human beings come into this world as products of unbelief and therefore servants of the enemy.
Thoroughly Deserving of Death (v. 3) – Paul now changes from the second person (you/y’all) to the first person (we/us). The letter is written to both Jew and Gentile believers and we see Paul making it clear that this is not only a Gentile problem, but a people problem. The argument is much like Romans 1:18-3:20 where Paul condemns both Jew and Gentile alike.
The wording here is masterfully constructed. Paul not only condemns unredeemed Jews (including himself prior to his conversion) but makes it clear that this rebellion and sin is not only a result of fallen urges, but a result of purposeful living. The lusts/desires of the flesh might be interpreted as selfish and sinful impulses. Yet Paul connects these impulses to sins of the mind. In other words, behavior is not the root problem. Their sin problem was contained to their hands. It was found in their hearts and minds. Their depravity permeated every fiber of their being and as such they were children of wrath.
When thinking of God’s wrath, Peter O’Brien is helpful when he writes,
“It is neither an impersonal process of cause and effect, nor God’s vindictive anger, nor unbridled and unrighteous revenge, nor an outburst of passion. Wrath describes neither some autonomous entity alongside God, nor some principle of retribution that is not to be associated closely with his personality. Furthermore, the wrath of God does not stand over against his love and mercy…He is a holy God, and therefore he does not stand idly by when people act unrighteously, transgress his law, show disdain to him as their creator, or spurn his kindness and mercy.”
This statement means simply that they were deserving of death. They were children born for God’s righteous wrath. Nor were they alone. Paul adds even as the rest meaning the rest of mankind. This trip down memory lane is currently true of every man, woman, and child who has not repented and believed. They are all dead. They are all willing servants of the devil. They are all thoroughly saturated with wickedness. They are all destined for wrath. But this is not where Paul concludes. This is only context. The best is yet to come.
The Content: The Extent of Spiritual Life (vv. 4-7)
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, 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, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 2:4 contains one of the most beautiful conjunctions in the Bible; but God. What hope and majesty is contained in those two words! Paul needed to remind the Ephesians of who they were before Christ so that he could show them who they now are in Christ.
Regeneration (vv. 4-5) – It takes Paul five verses to build up to his first main verb. The first three verses are written as a backdrop for what we read here. Paul introduces the subject of the verb in v. 4 (God) and the verb itself in v. 5 (made us alive together). What lays in between is a statement of God’s motivation. It answers the question: why did God make us alive? Because He is abounding in mercy and because of the love with which He loved us.
Mercy or lovingkindness is one of God’s personal character traits. The Greek ἔλεος was often used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew חסד (lovingkindness in most English Bibles). In Exodus 34:6 God declares that He is abounding in lovingkindness and truth. He overflows with mercy and loyal love. This wealth of mercy does not demand that God must use or show it, but His promise to do so leads to a commitment on God’s part to His people.
This love (ἀγάπη) is not a warm fuzzy emotional connection. This is a decision to act for another’s benefit. God’s love must not be confused as a desire to please us, but a decision to act for our benefit. The next verse tells us what God did, the action of God that was to our benefit.
He made us alive! That’s right, those who were dead are now alive. How can this be? If we were dead and unable to do anything but sin and transgress, how could we be made alive with Christ? That’s the point of the phrase our English Bibles put into parentheses – by grace you have been saved.
Grace (χάρις) describes the unmerited favor of God. Grace is to receive something of value that is completely unearned and undeserved. This goes hand-in-hand with mercy. While mercy describes the staying of punishment that is completely deserved, grace is the giving of pardon that is wholly undeserved. The term by could also be translated as because, as this grace is the actual cause of our salvation. We are saved because of grace. Salvation is by grace alone.
Exultation (vv. 6-7) – These next two verses complete the view of salvation as a completed act. We’ve mentioned this before, but salvation from God’s wrath upon sin and sinners is properly seen in an eschatological context. That is to say, we are secured in Christ for eternal salvation now but will not experience this salvation to the fullest extent until the final day of judgement when we are spared while the rest are executed. Paul here includes the total scene of salvation in panoramic view.
Not only has God made us alive, but He has raised us and seated us with Christ! This is such a certain reality that he speaks of it as if it has already happened. This is the extent of our security and life with Christ! Our resurrection is as certain as Christ’s. Our exultation is as sure as Christ’s. But this is not for our sake. The purpose of this exultation points ultimately back to the One who exulted us.
We will only touch on v. 7 here as we will likely return to it in a few weeks. But notice the reason for this exultation. God saved, secured, and sanctified us so that His grace and His kindness might be on display from age to age.
The Cause: The Explanation of this Transformation (vv. 8-10)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Now Paul returns to explain what he briefly mentioned before. The reader must fully understand the work of God so that God might receive the glory He is due.
Identifying the Gift – Much debate surrounds the simple demonstrative pronoun represented by “that” in our English text. More accurately translated “this” as the Greek (τοῦτο) is a near demonstrative and not a far demonstrative. The question is this: what does “this” point to? In other words, what is the gift of God?
Some say that the pronoun points to faith, others to grace. But grammatically neither one of these options are very satisfying. It would be difficult to explain why a neuter pronoun is used to refer to either of these feminine nouns. A better explanation is to say that “this” points to the whole discussion which began in v. 4. Paul is looking at salvation/justification as a whole. The fact that God makes the dead to live, raises the dead, and seats those who were once dead in the heavenly places with Christ is the gift!
This would include both grace (the cause of our salvation) and faith (the means of our salvation). Paul makes it very clear that this gift is not a result of anything that could possibly be construed as human achievement. We cannot present the gospel as a handout of eternal life on the part of God which is met by faith on the part of the individual. The gift includes more than the opportunity for life, but also the means by which we receive this life. Salvation as a whole (regeneration, resurrection, and exultation) is the gift. It is given because of (by) grace and is received by means of (through) faith. So even faith and grace are included in this gift of mercy and love.
Source of the Gift (v. 8b-9) – A gift is not a contract or a testimony of cooperation. The whole synopsis of salvation from the wrath of God and the dominion of sin is hereby called the gift of God. It is very difficult to describe this in any other term as coming exclusively from God.
Man cannot and therefore does not contribute anything to his salvation. God does not credit righteousness to his account because he prayed a prayer, handled some beads, or lived an outwardly moral life. God is the giver of this gift who must first make alive the recipients so that they might receive this gift through faith. Any other description or understanding of salvation cheapens this gift so as to rob God of all the glory. But to make human effort any portion of this equation would also collide with v. 9.
If any aspect of my conversion is laid at my feet, then I certainly have something in which to boast. If faith is something that must be conjured up by man so that we might receive this gift, then part of the credit belongs to us. Did we not produce this faith of our own free will? This makes faith into a work of human achievement, a position that v. 9 simply does not allow for.
No, salvation in its entirety comes exclusively from God. He is the source of salvation’s motivation (mercy and love). He is the cause of salvation (grace). And He even provides the means by which we receive salvation (faith). Many will balk at this explanation, but this may be because they do not understand the purpose of salvation.
Purpose of the Gift (v. 10) – Like v. 7, we will not spend much time here as I intend to return when we tackle Soli Deo Gloria. But notice how much God is put on display here. God saves us for the purpose of doing good works (i.e., living in obedience to His commands). This obedience was all laid out beforehand by God for the purpose of our obedience. But why? Perhaps we should look back at v. 7.
Don’t forget that our ultimate purpose is to display God’s undimmed glory. If our salvation is not completely and utterly His work without any help from us, then some of this glory would rightfully belong to us. In other words, God would be wrongly grabbing at our glory by demanding that He receive it all. But this is not the case at all. All credit for our salvation rightly belongs to Him for we are saved exclusively because of His grace. Sola Gratia.
This is hardly an exhaustive study of these verses. It would take several posts to simply scratch the surface of this jugular text. But as we work through this Reformation slogan and as we move (in God’s sovereignty) into this season of thanksgiving, I pray that this post will have a similar effect on the reader as Paul’s letter would have on the Ephesians. Look back upon the reality of your past wretchedness and helplessness. Now, look forward to the certain future you shall enjoy with Christ. What brought about this transformation? The grace of God alone. Let this set the tune to our Thanksgiving. Let God’s grace prepare our hearts to worship Him. Soli Deo Gloria!