Studies in Ephesians #14 – By Grace


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Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.

“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” — Ephesians 2:8-10

We have all been involved in listening to a conversation, lecture, sermon, or spiel of some sort where we could tell that the speaker or author was gearing up to something specific. The listener feels a sense of expectation as the speaker delays and prevaricates, layering his arguments until he can bring it to the climax at just the right time. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul has been building argument atop proof atop claim atop testimony in an effort to ensure that the point he is making is crystal clear, utterly unmistakable, and incorruptible. In verses 8-10 of the second chapter, Paul finally reaches the point he has been driving at, hammering home his argument using what John Stott describes as the “three foundation words of the Christian good news—salvation, grace, and faith.”[1] This is the third time in these verses that Paul has used the word ‘grace’, the seventh in his letter so far – and he will go on to use it six more times before he concludes. That any blessing or good thing that comes to us does so only through “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace” (2:7) is of fundamental importance to Paul, and he works hard to ensure that it will be of similarly fundamental importance to the people in and around Ephesus who are reading and listening to this letter.

Verses 8-10 are the literary equivalent of a peak in a line-graph – one of several primary points that Paul is trying to make in this letter, and a capstone to his teaching – though as William W. Klein says, “We dare not allow the familiarity of this next sentence diminish its impact.”[2] These verses have been called the heart of Paul’s gospel and theology, for “they capture and summarize the essence of some of the great thoughts that he develops in Romans and Galatians”[3] – thoughts such as the grace by which we are saved, the role of faith, and the fact that works cannot earn us any merit or favour for salvation – which of course, if it were otherwise, would undermine the value of grace:

Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” – Romans 11:6

As mentioned, this is the seventh time Paul has mentioned ‘grace’ so far in his letter, and the third in these verses we have in this second chapter. It is also the second time that Paul says “you are saved by grace” (cf. 2:5), a point that he will underline in a moment by proving the negative, but right now Paul is intent on proving the positive. Specifically, Paul is continuing to speak about the grace of God that he already referred to in the first chapter. It was the riches of His glorious grace (1:6-7) that predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of our trespasses and the redemption in Jesus’ blood. Paul expands this in the second chapter when he says that “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” (2:4-5)

Acknowledging the global importance of the word ‘grace’, the Oxford English Dictionary has as its third definition for the word: “(In Christian belief) the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”[4] R. Kent Hughes agreed: “What is grace? It is unmerited favour—the love of God going out toward the utterly undeserving.”[5] Many commentators and preachers have used illustrations to explain this idea of “unmerited favour” – though placing it in the human realm always seems to minimise the concept somewhat. It is not just a gift given to someone who is undeserving. It is a gift given to someone who deserves the opposite. We see this ‘unmerited favour’ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A wealthy man’s two sons are aware of the inheritance available to them, and one requests his inheritance right away. Unsurprisingly, things do not go well, and before long the youngest son is flat broke, living with actual four-legged pigs who are eating better than he is. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” The young man follows through on his plan, but instead of being dismissed out into the servants’ quarters by his father, the young man is welcomed back with open arms – and more:

“But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.”Luke 15:22-24

Beyond all hope, and beyond all that the youngest son had done to deserve, his father welcomes him back home with a party. The son had wasted his entire inheritance, not a small sum by the tone of the celebrations that followed, but none of it was held against him. In fact, it was forgotten, and a reward was given instead.

So far in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has outlined the many spiritual blessings that God has blessed us with through His Son, Jesus Christ. But Paul similarly makes it clear that these spiritual blessings came at the price of Jesus Christ dying on the cross, and that only as a result of “the riches of His grace that He lavished on us”. We deserved none of it, for we were “dead” in our trespasses and sins, walking “According to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) We are by our very nature as humans “children under wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Yet God’s grace was poured out on us to overflowing (1 Timothy 1:14).

However, unlike in verse 5, Paul amends his statement about grace, saying, “For you are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, emphasis mine). The concept that Paul is raising here is not easily understood, for to fully understand it requires knowledge that belongs only to God. In explaining the addition of “through faith”, Ernest Best says, “It is their response to what God has done; it represents their openness to his activity; it is not something which combined with that activity produces salvation.”[6]  Peter T. O’Brien agrees, adding: “If God’s grace is the ground of salvation, then faith is the means by which it is appropriated.”[7] Commentators are fond of using the word ‘appropriate’ to refer to faith here. The Oxford English Dictionary is of less help here than usual, describing the word as taking “(something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission”[8]. Regardless of permissions, the word ‘appropriate’ gives a sense of human involvement into the process. However, this cannot be, for Jesus says that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Rather, as Paul says in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24) This idea that we can do nothing to save ourselves is paramount in Paul’s mind as he is writing to the Ephesians, but still leaves us wondering – if we can do nothing to save ourselves, how can we respond in faith?

Leaderlightnig

Image Credit: Anynobody, via Wikipedia

At this point, I like to use an analogy sourced straight from nature. Many of you will have seen still-photographs of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes – be they over a city, the plains, or a close-up of a single object being hit. The photograph represents how God works in us to let us respond in faith. A lightning storm is a storm that has built up an electrical charge within the oncoming cloud. As such clouds move across the landscape, a polarised opposite electrical charge will be induced on the Earth’s surface beneath the onrushing clouds. Subsequently, an electric field is created between the two oppositely charged regions – cloud and surface. Many of us start out believing that lightning from these types of storms is a purely one directional activity – a fork of lightning flashes from within the cloud towards the Earth, and then immediately disappears. However, the actual mechanics are much more intricate, and therefore, much more interesting. In fact, the flash of lightning easily visible to human eyes is preceded by two separate activities: First, a barely visible “leader” is initiated from within the cloud, and it streaks towards the ground, often forking over and over again. What many do not know, however, is that a second leader is initiated on the ground. Imagine a flagpole stuck in the middle of a football field. It is the only object for hundreds of metres, and perfectly suited to attract a lightning strike. Due to the already-mentioned opposite electrical charge induced by the storm clouds above, the second “leader” will reach out from atop our flagpole. In a matter of milliseconds, the downward leader from the clouds seeks out the upward leader from the flagpole, and upon contact, or “attachment”, a massive discharge explodes from the momentary connection between ground and cloud, and produces the blinding flash of light connecting ground to cloud, followed soon after by a thunderclap.

Salvation works in the same way. Some people imagine that they are responsible for the small leader reaching out from the flagpole towards the larger leader coming from the cloud. However, it is the storm that has arrived over the top of our flagpole that is responsible for creating both the upward-moving leader and the downward-moving leader – the flagpole just got lucky.

In the same way, God works in all things to reach down to us, and to create in us something that reaches out in response. This is faith – but not some wishy-washy human idea that is really just self-confidence. Rather, as James Montgomery Boice says, “Faith in the biblical sense actually has three elements, which I call: knowledge, heart response, and commitment.”[9] The concept is the same as that given by Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “What is faith? It is made up of three things—knowledge, belief, and trust.”[10] In short, we must seek out knowledge of God, believe that knowledge in a real heart-way, and commit to what that response requires – ie, a trust and commitment in God.

We are partly responsible for maintaining that response upon connection – faith in God and in His Son – but we should not kid ourselves, we have not done anything to save ourselves. “The additional phrase ‘by faith’ is the inseparable companion of ‘by grace’, and together the two expressions stand in stark contrast to any suggestion of human merit.”[11] Regarding the combined gift of grace and faith, O’Brien explains that the word ‘this’ is understood as referring to “salvation by grace as a whole, including the faith (or faithfulness) through which it is received”[12] – rather than referring solely to a gift of faith, or a gift of grace. O’Brien adds that “faith itself cannot be a meritorious work” for it is a gift (given in tandem with grace), therefore faith is seen as “the response which receives what has already been done for us in Christ.”[13]

This idea that we are not responsible for the grace we receive or the faith we respond with is the crux of what Paul is saying. Verse 8 finishes with “it is God’s gift” and commentators nearly-unanimously agree that this gift is referring to both grace and faith.

Why is Paul focusing so heavily on this? He explains that grace and faith is God’s gift, and not from any works we might imagine we have done, “so that no one can boast.” This is Paul proving the negative of grace, namely, that we cannot do anything to earn or acquire grace. Paul has explained how grace is given to us by God, and the ways in which He has done so, now Paul turns to explaining how we cannot achieve it for ourselves.

If the book of Ephesians had been written to a Jewish audience, the phrase “not from works” might have suggested Paul was condemning the idea that the Old Testament laws and regulations (such as circumcision and adherence of the Sabbath) could earn someone salvation. However, as we know, Ephesians is a letter written to a mainly Gentile people, therefore, we can say quite certainly that Paul is here referring to works of all sorts that we might imagine are of good character. Klyne Snodgrass says succinctly that Paul is here referring “to any human condition or accomplishment by which one thinks to gain status or privilege before God.”[14] As we saw at the beginning of our study, Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans:

Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” – Romans 11:6

Paul’s desire to prevent us from boasting “is actually a determinative part of Paul’s theology.”[15] As we saw through the opening 14 verses of the letter, Paul again and again redirects our praise back to God. In the second chapter, Paul is doing the same thing, showing how it is only through God’s actions that we are saved from sin and death. “He seeks to destroy any conceivable ground for human beings boasting in themselves.”[16] Paul’s belief that man must not boast in himself but in God is repeated throughout his letters (Romans 5:9-11; 1 Corinthians 1:31; Philippians 3:3). Specifically, it appears as if Paul learned this lesson from Jeremiah:

“This is what the Lord says:

The wise man must not boast in his wisdom;
the strong man must not boast in his strength;
the wealthy man must not boast in his wealth.
But the one who boasts should boast in this,
that he understands and knows Me—
that I am Yahweh, showing faithful love,
justice, and righteousness on the earth,
for I delight in these things.
This is the Lord’s declaration.”
Jeremiah 9:23-24 (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:31)

Paul spoke from some position of authority too, as someone who had a lot to boast about (2 Corinthians 11:21-33), but he knew that, in the end, all things are from God. James, in his own letter, echoed this sentiment, saying: “Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

John Stott rightly points out that we could be mistaken for imagining “that by now Paul has made his point and is ready to pass on to another topic. But no, he is determined not to leave his theme until he has expounded it beyond any possibility of misunderstanding.”[17]  In verse 10, Paul continues by reminding his readers that “we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” John Stott continues:

“So far Paul has described salvation in terms of a resurrection from the dead, a liberation from slavery, and a rescue from condemnation. And each declares that the work is God’s, for dead people cannot bring themselves to life again, nor can captive and condemned people free themselves. But now he puts the matter beyond even the slightest shadow of doubt. Salvation is creation, re-creation, new creation. And creation language is nonsense unless there is a Creator; self-creation is a patent contradiction in terms.”[18]

This is what we have here, in verse 10. It is Paul putting the matter to rest in as definite a manner as possible. The language Paul uses in this verse does not refer to the creation of humanity – which might engender thoughts of the Prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:2-3) – but rather the language of our being made a new creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Paul will expand upon this idea more in coming chapters of Ephesians, when in the fourth chapter he explains that we should “put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of truth.” (Ephesians 4:24) In fact, commentators are mostly in agreement that Paul is here in the second chapter prefacing what he is soon to elaborate. The “good works” that we are created for in Christ Jesus are likely the contents of what we have as chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Ephesians. Harold W. Hoehner says that “the use of ‘walk’ in 2:10 suggests that these are the same works outlined for the believer in chapters 4—6 because the dominant theme of those chapters is the believer’s ‘walk’”[19]. The importance of our being created for these good works provides further confirmation that our own efforts are of no importance or value. “These ‘good works’ cannot be the ground of our salvation or the subject of our boasting since they are the goal of the new creation. They are the fruit of salvation, not its basis or cause.”[20] Hoehner notes that it says we are to “walk in them” rather than “work in them” – an interesting distinction, which he believes suggests that it “is not doing a work for God but God doing a work in and through the believer”[21]. This idea is picked up again in Philippians, when Paul writes: “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)

These works, as Paul says in Philippians, and again here in Ephesians 2:10, are “prepared ahead of time”, echoing the sentiment heard in Ephesians 1:4: “For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight.” This has a definite predestinarian sound to it, but that is simply one of the mysteries we must acknowledge as beyond our comprehension. “Put simply, it is God’s will that those who belong to the new creation should be characterised by a lifestyle which ultimately reflects his own character and action.”[22] This lifestyle must result in the good works God has planned for us; John Stott says: “Good works are indispensable to salvation—not as its ground or means, however, but as its consequence and evidence.”[23] O’Brien agrees: “Good works are God’s design for his new creation and flow from his gracious salvation as its consequence or fruit.”[24] Hoehner adds: “In other words, we are created in Christ Jesus for works that are morally and beneficially good for us, for those around us, and for God.”[25] Whether God has a specific set of good works for us to do, I doubt it. Rather, I believe each of us is uniquely suited to achieving goals that glorify God’s kingdom.

Sometimes these sort of lessons can result in our thinking we have an avenue through to a life of passivity, but to think such is to undermine and misunderstand everything that has been said.

Yes, God is responsible for the grace He gives us and for the faith He wells up in us – but we must still appropriate that faith, fully, into our lives, with our whole being.

Yes, God is responsible for all the good works that might happen around us or through us, but that does not mean we are to shut ourselves off and expect God to move us around like marionettes. If we are fully appropriating faith in God, then our fruit will show it – our lives will reflect that faith, and allow God’s prepared good works to show.

Paul has succinctly minimised our importance in the world in these verses, but the fact that we are in fact chosen “in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight” should remind us forcibly that we are special in God’s eyes. We are chosen not only to be holy and blameless in his sight in eternity, we are also chosen to do His good works here on Earth. This should not only encourage us, but spur us on to better grow our faith in God.

[1] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 83 (The Bible Speaks Today)
[2] Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 69 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[3] Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Arthur G. Patzia, p. 183 (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series)
[4] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/grace, accessed 05/07/2016
[5] Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, R. Kent Hughes, p. 73 (italics his)
[6] A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians, Ernest Best, p. 226 (International Critical Commentary)
[7] The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 174 (The Pillar New Testament Commentary)
[8] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/appropriate, accessed 06/07/2016
[9] Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p. 67
[10] Faith—What Is It? How Can It Be Obtained? Charles Haddon Spurgeon – http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols25-27/chs1609.pdf, accessed 06/07/2016
[11] O’Brien, p. 174
[12] ibid
[13] ibid
[14] Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 106 (The NIV Application Commentary)
[15] Snodgrass, p. 106
[16] ibid
[17] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 84 (The Bible Speaks Today)
[18] ibid
[19] Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold. W. Hoehner, p. 349 (cf. O’Brien, p. 180)
[20] O’Brien, p. 178
[21] Hoehner, p. 349 (emphasis his)
[22] O’Brien, p. 180
[23] Stott, p. 84-5
[24] O’Brien, p. 180
[25] Hoehner, p. 348

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