The Saving Grace of God audio
How many people here watch House? I love it. For those who aren't familiar with it, it's a TV show about a physician. In fact he's the world's best diagnostician. Generally the plot line is that someone comes in suffering from a rare and usually life threatening condition and there's nothing they can do about it. They're entirely at the mercy of House and his team of physicians and surgeons. Of course House always manages to work it out in the end, but unfortunately that means he's developed something of a God complex. The patient is doomed unless House can find a cure. Therefore any risk is worth taking if it means House can save them. The people who work with him are driven crazy by this approach because they know very well that he's not God. In fact he's far from perfect even if he's usually right. Still, there is some truth to the plot line. There are times when people find themselves so sick there's only a doctor and a few nurses between them and certain death. That's a situation no-one wants to be in.
In fact we don't want to be in any situation where we have no control over our future do we? Yet that's the very situation that every member of the human race finds themselves in. Everyone faces the dilemma that no matter how much they try they can never maintain a sufficient level of godliness to please God for more than a few minutes or maybe a few hours at the most. I mean we can't even seem to break those bad habits we've developed: biting our nails, or whistling, or talking too much, let alone making any change that might improve our status before God.
The Dilemma - Our Spiritual Death
When Paul talks about our condition in Ephesians 2 he describes it as being dead. Without God's intervention, he says, we can do nothing. He says, "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived." Well, of course you can't change your sinful habits if you're dead. You can't do anything if you're dead! We're in a far worse situation than any of House's patients. At least there's something that can be done for them if the medical team are clever enough. But there's nothing that can be done for us if we're dead already!
Well that's a bit depressing isn't it? It might even be a bit confusing because we're always being told we need to live a godly life. What's the point of trying to live a godly life if our spiritual state is beyond redemption?
Well it's important that we get the order of things right isn't it? It's no use putting the meat in the curry before you've cooked the onions and the garlic and spices.
Here Paul's speaking about a time before we became Christians. He's saying that spiritually, before you became a Christian, you were dead. So what does he mean? Well, this goes right back to the beginning of time, to that very first act of rebellion by Adam and Eve. Do you remember what it was that God told Adam and Eve about the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? (Gen 3:3) "God said, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, or you will die.'" But they did eat it didn't they? And what happened? Did they die? Not physically. We're told that Adam lived for 930 years before he died, and then, presumably, he died of old age. No, the death God warned them of wasn't just physical death, although their eventual death was certainly part of that. No, the death he spoke of was a spiritual death. It was a death to the ability to do what was right. A death to the ability to please God in all things.
As we read on in Ephesians 2 we discover more of the reason for this. He describes their life as following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that's still at work among those who are disobedient. That is, the path Adam and Eve set out on by listening to Satan instead of obeying God is still being followed by people. People still do what Satan wants rather than what God wants. Now you might think that's a bit harsh. After all not many people actually deliberately follow Satan. But listen to how he continues (v3): "All of us once lived among them (those who are disobedient, that is) in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses." That is, our desire was to please ourselves rather than God. That's how we followed Satan. Our desires and passions ruled us.
How many of us can say we've never been ruled by our passions? Perhaps that's your normal experience. Our passions and desires are very strong forces aren't they? Just think about how you act when you lose your temper: the things you say that you would never say at other times; the way you're happy to hurt those you love the most. It's sad, isn't it, that we find ourselves ruled by our desires and passions far too often?
And what was the result for those who lived like this? "We were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else." That is, our very nature meant that we were under God's judgement. This is the trouble with those people who claim to be good people; who claim to live a pretty good life. Although they may do things from time to time, or even habitually, that are good, even godly things, they can't overcome their basic nature, which is flawed. We all know people who are really nice, who wouldn't hurt a fly, whose mouths butter wouldn't melt in. But even they, believe it or not, are ruled by their desires and passions if they're not ruled by Christ. Even they get carried away by anger or desire or covetousness or a desire for power, or some other vice, from time to time.
So every person on earth has this dilemma. Because of our heritage as imperfect human beings nothing we do can please God. Even if we want to, we can't change who we are.
Yet we read in chapter 1 that God's eternal plan for us was that we should be holy and blameless in his sight. So what sort of omnipotent God plans such a thing if the objects of the plan are totally unable through their state of spiritual death, to achieve that plan? The answer is found in v4. Only a God of love and mercy could do such a thing.
The Remedy - God's Grace.
"But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved." We can't do anything about it, but God can. As you'll discover if you look back at the beginning of chapter 1, God deals with those he's chosen as though they were incorporated into Christ; as though they were part of Christ's body. So although we were dead in our sins, he says, God has raised us up with Christ.
Sometimes House's patients are so sick they die while House's team is trying to work out what the problem is. And the doctors have to wheel out the crash cart and revive them. They raise them back to life in a sense. And there's every chance then that they'll live long enough for House to find the cure. Well, God doesn't do it with an electric shock, but he does raise us up so we can begin to live. He sends Jesus to take on human flesh, to die and then to rise again so everyone who trusts in him can be raised with him.
And notice, by the way, that it's out of God's great love for us that this happens. Sometimes you hear parents say something to their children about their bad behaviour that sounds like God won't love them if they're naughty, or at least their parents won't love them if they're naughty. But God's love isn't like that at all. He may get angry at us if we rebel against his rule; there are times when he's punished his people for their disobedience; but his love never fails. He loved us even when we were dead in our disobedience.
That's why he says, "it's by grace you have been saved." If you get nothing else out of this passage, make sure you understand this. God has saved you, not because of something you've done that makes you worthy of his mercy, not because you can give him something back. He doesn't need you or me to be his children. It's not even because we decided to trust him. No, he makes us alive as a free gift that comes out of his great love and mercy. That's what grace means: free, totally unmerited, favour. And it's a good thing that it's free because by our own efforts we'd be like the person becalmed in a sailing boat trying to move the boat by blowing on the sails; expending a lot of effort to very little effect.
But look what happens to those who are made alive with Christ. It's as though we get caught up in his slipstream: "God raised us up with him and what?" "Seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." Notice he puts it in the past tense: "God raised us up and seated us." That's our current status. It's already happened. Those who are in Christ Jesus are already present in God's throne room. We already enjoy the status of God's sons and daughters. Not that we experience it fully yet. He goes on: "7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." There's God's grace again. He seems to be saying that the grace we experience now is only a shadow of the gifts that God will give us in the end. Then we'll experience immeasurable riches.
Then just in case we haven't got the message, Paul sums it up in vs 8 and 9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast." He says it twice: we're saved by grace: that is, by God's free and unmerited goodness towards us; and it's not by works so that no-one may boast. If you're ever tempted to think that God must be pretty pleased with you and that maybe he chose you because you had some gift or ability that he needed or that he chose you because you were more likely to fit into his plans than someone else, then go back and read this verse. No one can boast. No-one can think they have some characteristic that makes them more suitable to being a Christian. Not even the faith that Paul talks about makes you more worthy.
What does he mean by this "by grace we're saved through faith?" What is faith? Well, simply put, faith is believing God. Faith is trusting God's promises. Faith is believing that when God says something will happen it will. So in this instance faith is believing God's promise that he'll forgive our sins. It's believing Jesus' promise that he'll raise up whoever believes in God's Son. It's believing God when he tells us that if we confess our sins then he'll forgive them and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And it's believing God when he tells us that he'll do this not because of any merit of our own but simply out of his great love for us.
Does that sort of faith or belief give you any merit of itself? Well no. Let me give you an example you may have heard before. Imagine that your computer has failed, as they do from time to time and you ring me up for help, as some people have been known to do. I give you clear directions about how to fix the problem, and you follow my instructions and the problem is fixed. Can you take any credit for the solution? No. Does fixing it make you into a computer expert? No. It might mean that you'll know how to fix that problem next time it happens, if you remember how you did it, but in any case the next time it'll be a different problem and you'll probably have to ring me up for help again. No, believing God's promises is simply the prerequisite for receiving those promises. In fact even our faith, Paul says, isn't our own doing, it's the gift of God.
This says something to us about how we go about evangelism doesn't it? I mean, if you're going to share the gospel with someone, you'd better be praying at the same time that God would give them the faith to believe. You'd better be praying that God would raise them from spiritual death and give them new life, because unless he does that first their ears will be deaf to the gospel. They'll never get the words you say to them.
If you're a person who's searching for the truth about spiritual things, then it would be good for you to pray that God would open your ears, would give you spiritual life. God delights to answer those sorts of prayer.
Our Task - Good Works
But having said that our good works don't help us to achieve salvation, we're left with the question, "are good works of any use at all?" Can I just forget about them?
Well, no, because Paul finishes this section with these words: "For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." Far from forgetting about being a good person, now that we've been raised with Christ we have a job to do. We have good works to do, because that's what God made us for. Paul's expression has the idea of God fashioning us specifically for this purpose. We're his custom made tool. It's like going into a mechanic's workshop and looking at all the tools on his shelves. Some tools are general purpose tools that could be used for all sorts of jobs, but some are purpose built. They're made for doing a particular job. If you weren't fixing cars they'd be no use to you but to the mechanic they're indispensable. Well, to God, we're indispensable, because he's made us to do his work in the world. What sort of work? Well, it could be talking to your neighbour about this community here at St Thomas'. It might be inviting someone to our Backyard Bard evening. It might be simply praying for the Alpha course that's running on Wednesday nights at the moment. It might be inviting someone home to lunch. It might be visiting someone in hospital. It might be providing a meal for someone. There are all sorts of good works that we might be doing.
We just need to be ready for the opportunities that God has already prepared for us so we can do the things he desires.
Well, let's draw this to a close. What we've found here today is in fact a good summary of the Christian gospel. i.e. that those who are outside the people of God are in rebellion against Him and are therefore spiritually dead. But God makes them a free offer to bring them back to life. All that's needed to receive all of the bounty that God offers is to believe his promise, turn away from that rebellion and live. And for those who do that God has good works prepared for us to do, that will form our way of life.
So let's make sure we're looking out for those opportunities to serve God and other people that he's prepared for us. Remember that you're God's new creation, purpose built to do his work in the world.