The God of the Bible is a Holy God and he cannot tolerate even an ounce of sin. This is a hard concept for us to comprehend because we are not holy. Even if our actions are respectable, nobody is respectable in their hearts all the time. We have unholy thoughts, immoral thoughts, our hearts are full of hatred and jealousy and selfishness and a lack of concern for most people except for a few family members and close friends. We can’t comprehend the existence of a God who has never sinned, who has never had an unholy thought, nor a wrong attitude. We can’t comprehend a Being who is all holy, all goodness, for all time stretching back to eternity past and an infinite number of years will pass and he will remain exactly the same and continue to be this way for an eternal future. We can’t comprehend a Being like this because you and I are fickle, we are chameleons, we are shades of gray, some darker and blacker than others, but none of us are innocent. We can’t even wrap our minds around someone who is 100% pure, perfect, holy, someone who has never had a hint of sin and who never will. For such a Being, not even an ounce of sin is tolerable. Sin doesn’t bother us because we are sinners. It’s in our nature to sin.
If you have been playing tackle football in the mud and you are already filthy, getting a little bit more dirt on your hands or your clothes doesn’t bother you. But if it’s your wedding day and you are dressed in radiant white, even the smallest smudge on your dress is a serious emergency. God is radiant white so even the smallest smudge of sin is not something he can tolerate.
This means, we’re in trouble. God is holy and we are not. What do we do? We are dead. We can’t do anything. We can’t respond to God. We can’t clean up our act. We might have a good stretch that lasts for a few minutes or a few hours or a few days when you are not sinning blatantly, but sooner or later, we all fall. So what can we do? We are sinners and God can only accept perfection. On the sliding scale of morality, the only passing grade is a score of 100%. A+ perfection. We are dead and we can’t get a perfect score and God’s wrath is coming upon us. It’s a pretty bleak situation.
Thankfully, Eph 2 doesn’t end in v3. There is a verse 4.
“But God…” If there is no “but God,” it wouldn’t be fair. We’d be in a heap of trouble. Condemned and under the wrath of God with no hope to dig ourselves out of the mess we’re in.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!
Who made us alive with the Messiah? We didn’t do it. We didn’t choose God. Remember, we were dead in our sins. We were slaves of sin and Satan and we were living as an enemy rebel in disobedience to God. So God had to be the one to take the first step. He took the initiative. But God who is rich in mercy, God who loves us, He sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins. God breathed life into a corpse and made us alive by shifting the penalty and punishment of sin from us to His Son. The wrath that we deserved because of our sin was poured out on Jesus Christ, the perfect, sinless Lamb of God. Thus, when the Holy God looks at us, He sees perfection, not because we are perfect, but because we have been washed and covered by the perfect blood of Jesus. Jesus became sin and endured the penalty and punishment of sin, God poured out his full wrath upon His own Son down to the last drop, so that you and I can be spared. This is grace.
I think this teaching about the gospel and the nature of salvation exposes some false notions of what it means to become a Christian. Nobody is born a Christian. You can’t say you are a Christian because your parents took you to church or because you’ve been attending church since you were a kid. You might not be able to determine a single event or a single point in time when you were born again and that’s fine, but this text clearly states that there IS a definitive conversion moment. One moment you were a slave to sin and Satan and then the next moment you crossed over and became a child of God because you met the Messiah and repented of your sins and placed your faith in Him. Nobody slides into salvation. It happens in an instant. You were not saved one second, grace comes and then bam, you’re saved the very next second.
6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For you are saved by grace through faith…
How are you saved? Two parts. BY grace. THROUGH faith. By grace – God reaches out his hand, though you didn’t deserve it. That’s grace. And our response is faith. God reaches out his hand, that’s grace, and faith is when we reciprocate and reach out our hand and grab God’s hand. That transaction–the grace of God and our response of faith–this handshake is what secures our salvation.
This kind of sounds like a 50/50 partnership. God initiates and we respond in faith. We are equal partners in salvation. I think Paul must have foreseen that there would be confusion about how God’s sovereignty and human free will and choice works together. In fact, 2000 years have passed and we are still confused. You have the Calvinists on one side stressing God’s sovereignty and you have the Armenians on the other side stressing human free will. Well, the answer is both. But in case we are tempted to draw the line straight down the middle and say we played an equal role in our salvation as God did, Paul continues in Eph 2, the latter half of v8–
8 …and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 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.
What is Paul trying to say about salvation? While it is true that we had a role in choosing to be saved by faith, salvation was first completely an unmerited gift. God chose us first by making us spiritually alive and because God chose us in Christ, we were enabled to choose him. God’s choosing is first in terms of chronology and is first in terms of force. He chose us first and in response, we chose him second. Also, God’s choosing was first in force, His pull was stronger, His decision was weightier than ours. If this were a test, the section of the test entitled “God’s sovereignty” was worth more points than the section entitled “human choice.”
What if we put God’s sovereignty on equal footing with human free will? Simple. We would boast. We would take credit. We would say it was my works that saved me. I went to church. I read my Bible. I prayed. I asked questions to my pastor. Look at my works. See, it was my decision! Paul reminds us, salvation is not from yourselves. Not even 1% – salvation did not come from you. It is God’s gift. He reached out to us and said, here’s the gift. You’re gonna like it. It’s really good. Come on, take it. Our response is to open our hands and to receive the gift. The opening up our hands to receive the gift is called faith. Yes, Jesus, I repent of my sins. Yes, Jesus, I surrender my life to you, I’ll follow you and live for you the rest of my life. That part is human choice and it’s a continual choice every day of your faith journey. But I hope you can see where the accent lies. The accent has to be on God’s sovereignty, not our free will. Otherwise, we would boast.
Eph 2:8-9 – salvation is not from yourselves, it’s not from works. Yet, v10 –
10 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.
I thought salvation is not by works, yet why does Paul say we were created for good works? Here’s what I think he means. God chose us first, and so, the accent is on His choice over our choice. Salvation is not from ourselves. Salvation is a gift. None of our works could ever be enough to achieve our salvation and God set it up this way so that we would not boast. So pre-salvation, our works don’t count for anything. But in v10, Paul is not speaking about pre-salvation. He is talking about those who are already His creation. They have already been made into the new creation. They are already in Christ, meaning, he’s talking about post-salvation. We are not saved by good works. However, if you are saved, good works will flow out from your life.
To recap what we have talked about thus far, the mystery of God’s will pertains to the end of the world. How the world ends is no longer a mystery. We don’t have to be anxious about our future. We don’t have to fear death. We know how things will end. Everything in the church and everything in the universe is on a cosmic collision course with Jesus, who will be the head over everything.
In addition, the mystery of the Messiah pertains to personal salvation. We were spiritually dead. We were objects of wrath. We were hopelessly cut off from God and we were slaves of sin and Satan, living in direct disobedience to God. But God reached out His hand to save us as individuals. We know the Messiah personally and He knows us.
Lastly, the mystery of the Messiah mentioned in Eph 3:3-4 is not merely a personal decision between you and God. The mystery is closely linked with the verses that follow about the the corporate aspect of our faith, namely the church where Jesus is the Head and the church is His body.
Christ is the Head and the church is the body of Christ. You can’t separate Christ from the church any more than you can separate a head from a body. The head, the arms, the legs, torso, it’s all one. What makes up this body? The nation of Israel from the Old Testament was included from the beginning. Even Christ was a Jewish man and he said he came for the lost sheep of Israel. In fact, all 12 disciples that followed Jesus were Jewish men. But there were clues during Jesus’ earthly ministry that he didn’t mean literally that salvation was limited to a single nation. There was the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, who came to a saving faith in Christ. There was the Roman centurion, also a Gentile, who was saved. So clearly, Jesus did not come for the Jewish people only. He came for the world. But he did focus on Israel while he was here.
And what happened? The vast majority of Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah and that marked a major milestone in salvation history. And so with Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the gospel moved away from being Jewish-centric and expanded to include all the nations. Both Jews and Gentiles, meaning representatives from every single nation on the face of the earth will be saved and together we will form one unified body of Christ in the new heaven and new earth.
To whom has this mystery is revealed? There are 2 audiences. The first audience is described in Eph 3:5-6.
5 This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6 The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The fact that salvation was meant for all nations was not revealed definitively to the generations prior to Paul. But starting with Paul’s generation and every generation since, the mystery of the Messiah has been revealed–salvation is for the entire world. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, what your family background is, how much money you make–everyone has an opportunity to be saved.