This is an excerpt taken from On the Grace of God by Justin Holcomb copyright ©2013. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
From Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. We do not deserve grace, or else it wouldn’t be grace. This means that God grants salvation not because of the good things we do or even because of our faith— and despite our sin. This is the ring of liberation in the Christian proclamation. If it is not grace all the way, then we will spend our lifetime wondering if we have done enough to get that total acceptance for which we desperately long. “I said the prayer, but did I say it passionately enough?” “I repented, but was it sincere enough?” Election puts salvation in the only place that it can possibly exist: God’s hands. God’s election is the unconditional and unmerited nature of his grace.
Ephesians 2:4–5 proclaims Gods grace clearly: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace have you been saved.” Regeneration (being made spiritually alive) takes place when we as spiritually dead people are made alive in Christ. Dead people do not cooperate with grace. Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith. Paul got this from Jesus, who told Nicodemus: “Unless a man is born again first, he cannot possibly see or enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Ephesians 2 is filled with the high-octane gospel of grace for both our justification and sanctification. It begins with how believers were dead in their sins, then moves to how God loved us and rescued us from this death by his grace, bringing salvation to all in Christ, uniting Jews and Gentiles as one people in which the Spirit of God dwells. The first half of the chapter focuses on God’s rescue operation for his people, which delivered us from our sin and God’s wrath, and ends with the verse 10, which centers on how God’s deliverance means we are created anew for lives of righteousness. As one commentator notes, salvation has already been described by Paul as “a resurrection from the dead, a liberation from slavery, and a rescue from condemnation”; he moves now to the idea of a new creation.
The theme of Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear: grace. This theme was already mentioned in Ephesians 2:5, but what was then more of an “undercurrent” now becomes the main point.
We are saved by grace, not anything we have done. The passage is a traditional one used to support the idea that justification before God is by grace alone, and not anything we do.
And for good reason. The verses strike with great emphasis the note of salvation as a complete “gift of God.” We have done nothing to bring it about that could lead us to boast about it. And yet it is nearly impossible not to boast in the radical love of God when we grasp this reality.
We now move to Ephesians 2:10 with its focus on “good works.” It is tempting at first glance to think that verses 8-9 are about grace and verse 10 is about works. But this would be to miss something very important that we easily neglect: everything is grace. Or, as one scholar puts it, “It is grace all the way.”
But what does that mean exactly?
Notice how God-centered Ephesians 2:10 is. In the Greek, the first word in the sentence is “his,” which is an unusual placement and puts the emphasis squarely on God. We are “his workmanship.” We “are created [by God] in Christ Jesus” for good works. These good works were those “that God prepared beforehand.” Clearly works are important to Paul, but his emphasis here is on God bringing them about within us.
Notice that this verse does three important things.
First, it gives the reason why Paul can say in verses 8-9 that salvation is a complete gift of God: because we are his workmanship, re-created in Jesus Christ.
Second, it points forward to other places the new creation idea is found in Ephesians.
Third, it completes the section of Ephesians 2:1-10 in a fitting way by using again the idea of “walking,” which contrasts with Ephesians 2:2 where Paul talks about how we used to “walk” in sin, following the “course of the world.” Now we “walk” in good works God has set before us.
Ephesians 2:10 continues that we have been created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” So we are saved for the purpose of walking in good works. Good works are never the ground or cause of our salvation. They can’t be, they just don’t work like that. They are not the cause but the “goal of the new creation.”
And God has already prepared them for us ahead of time.
We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8-9. The Bible paints a holistic picture of the believer as one whose life is continually lived in grace that bears fruit, fruit that is used by God to bless others.
How do we then live? If our works are “prepared beforehand,” what do we do? Paul says we “walk in them.” We show up. We abide in the vine of Jesus (John 15:4). We walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25). We do our best not to muck it up. But we will; and when we do, grace picks us up again. It’s like the old Rich Mullins lyric: “If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will see me through, and if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.” There is a damaging idea floating around that says, “God saved you, now what are you going to do for him?” This is a recipe for failure. If you come to the table believing you can do anything for God in your own strength or repay him on any level, you have already lost. You are back to confessing your self-dependent spiritual death from which Jesus saved you.
Above all else and before any discussion of what we should do, we must understand deeply in our bones who we are: the workmanship of God. You are his project. So, you are invited to be who you are. Your life is not your own; it was bought with a price. Live with the gratitude, humility, joy, and peace that come from knowing it does not all depend on you. You are loved and accepted in Christ, so you don’t have to focus on what you do or don’t do for God. Now you can focus on what Jesus has done for you, and that will cause you to love God more. Then you can’t help but walk in grace, realizing how costly God’s grace was.
Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church, where he serves as executive director of the Resurgence. He is also adjunct professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary and previously taught at the University of Virginia. Justin holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University.
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