“It’s a Gift!” (Ephesians 2:1-10)
You are a Christian. You are saved. You believe in Christ. You are heading for heaven. And in your Christian life, you do good works. Now the question arises: How did all this come about? To what extent does all of this, or any of this, depend on you? The salvation, the faith, the good works: Which parts are a gift, by grace, God’s doing? And which parts are up to us, our doing, our contribution to the equation? That’s what we’re going to explore today.
Now these are important questions. A lot can be riding on the answers. Let’s say salvation is mostly God’s doing. Mostly. He does the biggest part, of course, and he gets us going. But then it’s up to us to finish the job. Well, in that case, we better find out what we’ve got to do and try our hardest to do it! Suppose the difference between who gets saved and who doesn’t get saved depends on some difference inside of us. Some of us are better prepared to believe and get saved than others. Maybe that’s it. Some people are likelier candidates for salvation. Or let’s say that Jesus did the big thing for us on the cross–that’s God’s part–and now our part is the believing, the coming to faith, the making our decision for Jesus. God does his part, we do ours–that sounds like a fair deal. And then there is the matter of our good works. Now surely that must be up to us. They are “works,” after all, and we’re the ones doing them. Shouldn’t we get the credit?
Now all of the things I’ve just said: Salvation by works, at least in part. Faith as a work, what we must do in order to be saved. Good works as something we can take credit for. All of these things you can find in one form or another in many of the churches that dot our landscape and in many of the preachers who fill our airwaves. Maybe you’ve heard some of these ideas resonating in your own heart at times: “Yeah, that sounds right! That makes sense! It’s up to us! It’s gotta be up to me, to some extent.” Well, let’s see how that measures up with Scripture, in particular, with our text, Ephesians 2:1-10. This is one of the clearest and most theologically packed passages you will ever find on the doctrine of salvation and faith and good works.
Paul here is writing to the Ephesian Christians, and he’s addressing the very questions we’ve just raised. What lies behind your new life as Christians? What were you before, and what are you now? And how did all that come about?
We begin with the starting point for who these Christians were, realizing that this is the starting point also for each one of us. Paul tells us in the first three verses: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
If you ever thought there was something in you that qualified you to be a candidate for salvation, that there was some spark of goodness or life in you–maybe it was dormant, maybe it was dim, really tiny, but it was there–well, this passage blows that out of the water. What was your condition before salvation? In a word, “dead.” You were dead, totally, completely, entirely dead toward God in spiritual things. That was your condition, that was your state, just as it is the state and condition of every person walking around who looks like they’re alive but are really dead. The walking dead. That’s who we are by nature.
Paul really piles up the terms to emphasize us how dead we were: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” The trespasses and sins you kept on doing–which your old Adam still wants to do–show the essential deadness in your soul apart from Christ. Your natural inclination is to do the wrong thing. And in this you are not alone. Paul goes on: “following the course of this world.” The world around us lives this way, going the wrong way, rebelling against God. And you followed along, willingly. The influence of the world around you, the messages the world sends, fed and encouraged you in your wrong behavior and deadness. But wait, there’s more: “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Not only did you follow the world, you also followed the devil. You and I were in the devil’s domain, under his sway, dancing to his tune. But wait, there’s still more yet: “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Our flesh–our inherited sinful nature, our innate tendency to do wrong, our selfish inner desires that show themselves up in sins of thought, word, and deed–this too is who we were. So here Paul lays out the “unholy trinity” of the world, the devil, and our flesh to emphasize just how dead we were in our natural state. And as a consequence of that, we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Children of wrath–God’s wrath, his justifiable anger against those who rebel against him–that is our natural state, and it’s not pretty. You and I were really, really dead.
People don’t like to hear that. They want to argue against their own deadness. I’m reminded of a comedy sketch about a dead parrot. A man walks into a pet shop carrying a cage with a parrot in it, looking kind of immobile there on the perch. He says he wants to complain about this parrot that he bought. The shopkeeper asks what’s wrong with it. The guy says, “It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!” The shopkeeper replies, “It’s not dead. It’s resting!” The shopkeeper doesn’t want to admit he sold the guy a dead parrot and just nailed it to the perch. The customer insists it’s a dead parrot. The shopkeeper says, “No, no. It’s stunned.” Finally, exasperated, the customer really piles up the terms to emphasize the deadness of this parrot: “It’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!”
Now applying the Dead Parrot sketch to our text from Ephesians, I think the “dead parrot” is our soul in its natural state. The devious shopkeeper is our old Adam, arguing that our soul is not really dead, it’s just “stunned” or “resting”; we can wake it up or hope that it recovers. And the insistent customer is St. Paul, piling up the terms, one after another, to emphasize how really, really dead our situation was.
So spiritual deadness was our starting point. And dead men don’t raise themselves. Not by their works, not by their decision. When Lazarus was in the tomb for four days, he didn’t decide, “Oh, I think I’ll revive myself and walk out of this tomb.” No, it took the voice of Jesus to make him alive: “Lazarus, come forth!” That’s how it is in our conversion. We didn’t do anything to raise ourselves from spiritual death. Rather, it’s as Paul says: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.”
“But God.” There it is. God did it. God made us alive. Up to this point, Paul has been talking about us, us apart from God, and he says we were “dead,” “sons of disobedience,” and “children of wrath.” But now God comes into the picture. God, who is “rich in mercy.” God, who loves us with “great love.” God, who acts “by grace,” that is, without any merit or worthiness in us, it’s his pure, undeserved favor. This merciful, loving, gracious God “made us alive.” God raises the dead! He raised us up, even when we were dead, completely dead, in our trespasses. It’s all God’s doing, 100%. It’s a gift.
God made us alive “together with Christ.” It’s all “with Christ,” “in Christ,” in connection with him. There is no real life apart from Christ, only death. And the amazing thing is, it took the death of Christ to undo death. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and so something had to be done about those trespasses and sins. We couldn’t do anything about it. We were dead, remember? And so Christ came, the Lord of life come from heaven. Jesus Christ came into our hall of death and took our trespasses and sins into his sinless body. The Son of Man was lifted up on the cross, bearing those sins and suffering the death that we, the children of wrath, deserve. That did the job, 100%, nothing more to add. Sin paid for, death conquered. So God raised up this Jesus and seated him at his right hand, and now he lives forevermore.
And now God has made us alive together with Christ. He raised us up with him in Holy Baptism. We were joined to Jesus and saved and made new people. This is “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” New birth. New life. New creation. It’s a gift. Salvation in Christ is a gift. “By grace you have been saved.”
OK, Jesus did all that. His cross and his blood purchased my salvation. But what about faith? Isn’t this where I do my part? You know, where I make my decision for Christ? Isn’t that up to me, by an exercise of my free will? No, you were dead, remember. Dead men don’t make decisions. And your will was willfully willing the wrong things, following the devil, the world, and the flesh. Your will, like the rest of you, was dead in spiritual matters. And so faith itself, your coming to believe in Christ–that too is a gift. Listen to what St. Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The whole “saved by grace through faith” thing–that whole thing is, as our text states, “the gift of God.” Salvation is a gift. Faith is a gift. You would not have believed in Christ, you would not have received the gift, if God had not first enlivened you, quickened you by the gospel, so that you could receive it. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel.” Both our salvation in Christ, the forgiveness he won for us on the cross, and the faith to receive that gift–all of it is God’s doing. He gets all the glory. No boasting allowed.
No boasting allowed, either, even when it comes to our good works. Paul continues: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We Christians are God’s workmanship–not our own workmanship, but his. Our good works are due to his good working in us. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to your name give glory.”
We are his “workmanship,” his handicraft, if you will. The word that’s used here can describe a work of art that a craftsman or an artist makes. Imagine works of art that are truly beautiful and glorious: textiles, carvings, beautiful landscapes, stained glass windows. Noble, excellent things of beauty that show the skill and design and creativity of the artists who make them. Well, take that idea now and apply it to God. He is the great Artist par excellence, and we Christians are his handiwork. We are new creations in Christ. He has designed us to show forth his glory by our life of good works. As Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is the Christian’s life of good works. That’s who God has created you to be: a reflection of his goodness and love and character, in how you love and serve your neighbor.
Now you don’t need your good works for your salvation. No, that is 100% God’s doing. But your neighbor needs your good works. And you were designed to do them. You are God’s channel of blessing for your neighbor. God has mapped out the course beforehand for you to walk in good works of love and service. God will give you opportunities to serve your neighbor in love. He’ll put those opportunities in your path. Now just walk forward into them. Walk with Christ. You will recognize those opportunities, and you will do those good works.
So the whole thing, from start to finish, is God’s doing: Your salvation in Christ. The faith to believe in Christ. And your life of good works as God’s workmanship. All of it, the whole thing, is a gift. Now why is this a good thing? Because if it depended on you, in any part or any measure, you could never be sure that you had done enough. You would always be wondering, “Have I done enough to satisfy God?” But because it is a gift, from God, then you can be sure. You can be sure of your salvation, because Jesus Christ finished the job for you on the cross. Likewise, you can be sure God will provide you with what you need to keep you in the faith. For that is simply the gospel, which comes to you here in plenteous supply, in the gifts of Word and Sacrament. And you can be sure that God will help you to live the new life of love and good works, for that is what he has created you to do. And finally, you can be sure of the eternal life that is waiting for you in heaven. You have God’s word on it, and his promises are a sure thing. All of this, then, is God’s doing, his gracious gifts bestowed on you for Christ’s sake.
Salvation, faith, good works–being raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places, all that we have to look forward to in the coming ages–all of this, dear brothers and sisters, in all of this we can rejoice and say, “It’s a gift!”