‘By grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:1–10)

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians teaches the highest theology in the whole of Scripture. It sets forth with great clarity the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinful people. It speaks to us of man’s plight and desperation in sin. Paul is at pains to tell us that man cannot save himself. He is utterly helpless. The only hope of a man dead in trespasses and sins, says Paul, is the power of God.

    Paul’s theology of grace expressed so beautifully in this letter is the hope of every true believer. Grace, according to the Apostle, is not some charming or pleasing sentiment. On the contrary, the grace of God is the exercise of His divine omnipotence in saving sinners from their miserable condition. It is the power of divine grace alone that saves men and women from sin, and death, and hell. Paul is saying that none but God can speak with the voice that wakes the dead. Grace isn’t merely divine favour, it is divine power. It is not merely the sunlit majesty of a beautiful lake; it is the advance of a mighty ocean. To be saved by grace is to be rescued by the hand of the Almighty God.

    The passage before us is divided into two clear parts: (i) man’s misery in sin (vv. 1–3), and (ii) God’s grace in salvation (vv. 4–10). The structure of Paul’s argument is crucial for understanding the Gospel message itself: for it is against the night sky of human depravity that the stars of God’s grace shine brightest. God saves sinners. Grace is not a reward for the righteous. It is a gift of mercy for poor and miserable sinners. It is from wrath and condemnation that we have been saved. How terrible a thing it is to abide under the wrath of God! It is like an unquenchable flame burning within the conscience of man. But when God comes to us in grace and pardons all of our sins, then we begin to see something of His beauty, mercy, and kindness. He becomes our highest happiness, our delight, our love, and our joy. We are raised beyond the tomb of sin and death to the full enjoyment of the living God. ‘God does not appear now in the fire or in the earthquake, but covered with a rainbow full of mercy’.[1] Grace is His darling attribute. It sweetens His holiness and sovereignty, and makes Him appear precious and delightful in our eyes.

1] In the first part of our text, Paul speaks to us of man’s misery and desperation in sin (vv. 1–3).
He uses two words to describe the plight of man: ‘trespasses’ and ‘sins’. The word trespass (paráptōma) means to cross a boundary without permission. If you have ever read the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, then you will know that the Hobbits Merry and Pippin would often trespass the boundaries of Famer Maggot’s fields to steal his carrots and mushrooms. God has given us boundaries in His Law to keep us on the straight and narrow way of holiness. Whenever we break the Law of God, we are trespassing and deviating from the way He wants us to live. We are doing the things we ought not to do. Trespasses are sins of commission. They are deliberate actions against God Himself.

    Sin (hamartia) is an archery term for missing the very centre of the target. God asks us to obey Him perfectly and perpetually. We refuse. We stamp our feet like little children and shake our tiny hands in the face of the Almighty and say, ‘I’ll do it my way’. We miss the standard of God’s absolute righteousness. We fail to live as God commands us to live. Paul is teaching us a theology of sin. The Shorter Catechism puts it simply for children to understand: ‘Sin is any transgression or any want of conformity to the Law of God’. The highest commandment in the Law is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God is to be the highest object of our affections, but as sinners we love our selves and the things of this world more than we love God. We wilfully break His laws and we don’t live lives of holiness for His glory. Our sins offend Him deeply. The Lord Christ wept over the sinful stubbornness of Jerusalem. If I may say this with reverence, sin breaks God’s heart. Oh that we would gain a sense of how terrible and odious a thing sin is! Oh that we would experience that spirit of brokenness for our sins and the sins of the world! How can we look upon the ruins of mankind and not shed a tear? How can we not weep when we see what has become of mankind? Man who was made but a little lower than the angels, who was crowned with glory and honour in Garden, and made in the image and likeness of God Himself.  Thomas Boston laments our sorry state with tears:

Happy were you, O man! Heaven shone upon you and earth smiled; you were the companion of angels and the envy of devils. But how low is he now fallen; he who was created for dominion and made lord of this world! The crown is fallen from our head; woe unto us, that we have sinned! Oh! How we have fallen! How we are plunged into a gulf of misery! The sun has gone down upon us and death has come in at our windows.

The consequences of sin and transgression are dreadful. Paul speaks of four in particular. He speaks of these things in the past tense in order to remind the Ephesians of the miserable estate from which they have been saved.  

    1] Firstly, our relationship with God was completely ruined. Paul says that we were dead to God. We were spiritually separated from the presence of the divine being. Isaiah says, ‘Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear’ (Isaiah 59:2). The great tragedy of the fall of man is this loss of communion with God. In the state of sin, we have no fellowship with the divine being. We have no personal love relationship with our God. And without God, we were dead, lifeless, helpless, and hopeless. There was no awareness of the glory and majesty of Christ, there was no experiential acquaintance with His sufferings and death, and there was no sensitivity to the life and activity of the Spirit of God. There was no spiritual vigour in the soul. Fallen man is like a ruined castle, devoid of life and activity. He is ruined by the fall. He is dead in sin. He has no love for God, no desires for holiness, no longings for Christ. He walks in darkness. The problem that we are facing in society is not merely apathy or indifference. It is not even that man is spiritually sick, and needs a little help. Man is dead to God, utterly dead, in trespasses and sins. And so, nothing but resurrection power will remedy the plight of man. Nothing but a supernatural work of the Spirit of God can breathe new life into the dry bones of lost sinners. We must pray for this. We must seek God for such a revival of religion. We need Spirit empowered preaching and Spirit filled congregations. We need the breath of God to revive His Church, to sanctify His people, and save lost sinners.

    2] Secondly, we were enslaved to the world and her pleasures. Paul says, we were ‘following the course of the world’. We were not unwilling slaves. Men love the sinful bondage of this world. When Paul uses the term ‘the world’, he is speaking of the values and ideologies of society, of the culture and age in which we live. These values change and shift over time. Even within a society, there can be many different worldviews and philosophies among men, but there is one thing that unites them. The distinguishing mark of worldliness is disdain for God Himself. Men will turn to idols and gods of their own making, or they will make gods of themselves and suppress the knowledge of the true and living God in unrighteousness, rather than obey His voice. They will live for the debase pleasures of sex, drink, drugs, and wild living or they will live for the higher pleasures of art, politics, and education, but they will not live for God and for His righteousness. They follow the crowd. They follow their social situation. They have their pop culture, their soap operas, their sports channels, their glossy magazines, and horoscopes. They mindlessly walk into the darkness of hell without a thought for the eternity of their souls. My friends, we must sound the alarm! We must urge men and women to see the seriousness of their predicament and flee to the Lord Christ for mercy! How terrible it would be for us to leave men drowning in sin! How selfish it would be to keep a Gospel of free grace to ourselves! What’s the matter with us? Where are the tears for lost sinners? Where are the urgent prayers for God to save? Where is the missionary heart of the Church?

    3] Thirdly, the prince of the power of the air held us captive. He chained us to this present world and her fleeting pleasures. All the ways of Satan are pure malice and spite. He hates God and he hates God’s people. He flatters himself and calls himself the ‘prince of this world’. He thinks he owns the place and, sadly, men are deceived by his wicked devices. He has the ‘power of the air’. The air or atmosphere covers the entire globe. In other words, his influence is global. His armies of fallen angels prowl the earth, seeking to devour the souls of men. It is his spirit that works all that is evil in this world. He has a finger in every pie. He is there at every gathering of world leaders. He has a seat in parliament and in congress. His influence is pervasive. He works no good in earth. He holds kings and rulers, politicians, and journalists, men and women, as his children, his sons and daughters of disobedience. He has them under his thumb. But we have a Saviour who is infinitely greater than the ‘prince of this world’. We have the King of the Universe on our side. We have the Lord Jesus, the One who has beaten sin, and death, and hell. We have the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who has crushed the serpent’s head. We must look to the Captain of our Salvation for strength to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

    4] Finally, Paul says we were children of wrath like the rest of mankind. Paul is speaking about us. We must never think that we are better than other men. We were condemned. We were the children of wrath. We lived in the ‘passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind’. In other words, we lived as we pleased without a care for God. We were enslaved to sinful desires and thoughts. And therefore the wrath of God was revealed against us. God is righteousness and holy. He cannot look upon sin. Now His anger is not malice or spite. It is justice. His wrath is what every man deserves for sinning against a holy God. It is not like the wrath of sinful men. When men get angry, they are vicious, wild, red faced, hot tempered, and flustered. But God is like a judge at court. He is cool, calm, dignified and of right mind. His judgements are perfect and all His ways are just. This divine judgement comes upon us all. We are all guilty sinners by nature. We have all inherited the guilt and corruption of our first parents. We are sinners ‘like the rest of mankind’. When Adam fell, we all fell with Him. We went down like a line of collapsing dominoes. None are exempt from this condemnation. ‘There is no one righteous, no not even one’ (Romans 3:10). All mankind abides under the wrath of God. There is no room for spiritual pride in our Churches. Have we become like the Pharisees? Do we stand in condemnation of all others and yet not feel ourselves to be sinners? Are we white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones? Like the city of Nineveh, we must all fall upon our knees in sackcloth and ashes with tears in our eyes, for we were the children of wrath but we have found mercy and grace in God. Where is our poverty of spirit? When did we last drop a tear for our sins? The miners who came up from the mines to hear Whitefield preaching in the open air in Bristol listened and the tears fell from their eyes making white gutters down their coal-black faces. Oh for such a work among men today!

II] In the second part of our text, we see God’s grace in saving sinners of lost mankind.
Paul can no longer restrain himself from speaking of God’s mercy and grace. ‘The great throbbing heart of this marvellous missionary, a heart so filled with compassion, can wait no longer’.[2] Paul desires above all to tell the Ephesians the way of salvation. ‘But God’, he says. God Himself is the author of salvation. It is His work. It is His prerogative. Nothing but divine intervention can rescue fallen men and women from their plight and rebellion in sin. We were dead in trespasses and sins, but God came to us in resurrection power and rescued us. Salvation is of the Lord. We don’t earn it. It is not an award. It’s not a prize. It is a gift of mercy: ‘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’. There is something truly wonderful about this. It is a remarkable work of God. We have this backdrop of sin, and misery, and death, but God intervenes. But God comes to the rescue. He comes in the person of Christ to save us. For us, He takes a body like our own; He shoulders our sins and sorrows, He makes them His very own, He carries them all the way to Calvary, and suffers and dies alone. The Son of God condemned in our place for our sins. That’s grace! That’s mercy! That’s love!

    Do you know our God is rich in mercy? There is an ocean of divine pity in the heart of God for helpless sinners. So often we have a mean view of God, we think harsh thoughts of Him, and we imagine that He is reluctant to pardon sinners. Don’t you see? We were dead in our trespasses, but God had mercy upon us. God knows nothing of penny-pinching when it comes to showing mercy. He is rich is mercy. There is an abundance of mercy in the heart of God for repentant sinners. There is no sinner too foul for Him. And what is the source of His mercy? Paul says it is ‘the great love with which He loved us’. It is not merely love, it is great love. There is a plenitude of love in the heart of God. Indeed, God is love. There is so much love in His heart for sinners. Indeed, it is a love beyond human comprehension (3:19). We stammer for words to fathom its height, its depth, its everlasting breadth. It is His deep, passionate concern and care for His elect children in Christ. It is a love that will not let us go (Romans 8:39). It is a love which comes to us when we are utterly helpless and without hope. It is a love for the unlovely and unlovable. It is a love for the worst sinners and the best sinners; a love for wicked sinners and splendid sinners. It is not that God’s love comes to us when we were doing rather well for ourselves. His love comes to us when we are most destitute and miserable. But God demonstrates His own love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)! The Lord God drew close to us in love and mercy even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins and made us alive together with Christ.

    It is not merely that God helps us, or gives us a spiritual boost. On the contrary, He resurrects us! He creates new life in our dead hearts. Can these dry bones live? Can the dead be raised to life? We are dealing with something extraordinary. The same power which brought Christ back from the dead is at work in our hearts. We call it regeneration. It is a new birth. It is the life of God in the soul of man. The New Birth is as remarkable as when the Lord Christ Himself broke the chains of death and rose in glory and in might. If you are a Christian then marvel at what God has done in your heart! He has taken your dead and lifeless heart and caused it to beat with love for God and for His people. He has given you a new heart, with new desires. What do we know of this by experience? Do our hearts overflow with love for God, with holy desires, with concern for God’s people, with a passion to see lost sinners saved? What do we know of holy affections for the Lord Christ and our heavenly Father?

    Sandwiched in the middle of Paul’s discussion is the exclamation: ‘By grace you have been saved’ (v. 5b). This is what Paul’s letter is all about. We are not saved by our merits, efforts, works, or deeds, but by God’s grace alone. Grace means that our salvation doesn’t depend upon our personal performance. For those who are struggling and those who are weary and heavy laden, bowed down beneath a load of sin, grace is the most wonderful message in the world. That’s our message. We are a people saved by grace. We have the best message, the best news to tell to a dying world. The Biblical position on this matter is stated most clearly by Toplady:

Not the labours of my hands,
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

    No amount of law keeping, no amount of good works, or prayers, or tears of sorrow for sin, or charity work, or church attendance, or Bible reading can ever make a man a true Christian. Salvation is not by human effort. It is a work of divine and sovereign grace alone. God alone saves, and none other. When we fall and stumble, when we struggle with sin, we must not think that our salvation depends upon our personal merits. It does not. We look ever and only to God and we find rest for our souls and everlasting happiness in His matchless grace.

    Salvation by grace doesn’t merely mean that God has wiped the slate of sin clean, but that He has raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places. Believers share a spiritual union with the Lord Christ. We were united with Him in His life, obedience, sufferings, and death, and we are united with Him in His resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session at the right hand of God. If God were to ask ‘where is your righteousness?’ you can say, ‘seated at Thy right hand’. Our righteous is in heaven. Our hope, our blessedness, our salvation is found in the Lord Christ who is seated at the right hand of God.

What from Christ my soul can sever,
Bound by everlasting bands?
Once in Him, in Him forever,
Thus the eternal cov’nant stands.
None can pluck me, none can pluck me
From the strength of Israel’s hands!

    We are wrapped up with Christ in the glory. We are safe and secure forever in His arms. We can say with Solomon, ‘My beloved is mine and I am His, His banner over me His love ’. This union is the basis of our personal communion and fellowship with Christ. We can enjoy a personal love relationship with the Lord Jesus by virtue of this vital and living union with Him. We can approach Him in prayer and we can listen to His voice as His speaks to us in His written word. Oh how can we not be moved to love Him? We are one with Him! He holds us in an embrace of eternal love. It is only fitting that we love and adore Him in return. Let us give Him the cream, the best, the quintessence of our love. For He is worthy to be loved and cherished! He is the lily of the valley, the rose of Sharon. He is the fairest among ten thousand. Yes, He is altogether lovely.

O that my soul could love and praise Him more,
His beauties trace, His majesty adore,
Live near His heart, upon His bosom lean,
Obey His voice, and all His will esteem.

But why has God done this? What end or purpose does He have in mind? Paul tells us that God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the glory ‘to show us the immeasurable riches of grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus in the coming ages’. God’s work of salvation displays the riches of His grace and kindness. The history of redemption is like a great theatre wherein God enacts His glory. We are trophies of His grace.

The purpose of God for His Church, as Paul came to understand it, reaches beyond itself, beyond the salvation, the enlightenment and the re-creation of individuals, beyond its unity and fellowship, beyond even its witness to the world. The Church is to be the exhibition to the whole creation of the wisdom and love and grace of God in Christ.[3]

    The end of the work of redemption is the glory of God. That God should transform sinners from dead miserable creatures to being joint-heirs with His Son is a truly remarkable thing! It shows us most vividly the kindness of God and the riches of His grace. God is showing us His kindness and grace ‘in Christ’. We are reminded that no grace, no love, no mercy, no salvation comes to us from God without the mediation of the Lord Christ.[4] The work of salvation is always intimately connected with the life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of our Lord. It because He died and rose, that we have died to sin and been raised to new life in Christ.

Practical Uses    
1] Paul’s doctrine of grace rebukes those who say salvation is earned by works.  He is at pains to say that God alone saves us. We do not contribute anything to our salvation. John Stott puts it like this:

By God’s grace you are a people who have been saved through faith and this event and experience is God’s free gift to you. It is neither your achievement (not of your own doing) nor a reward for any of your deeds of religion or philanthropy (not because of works) ... there is no room for human merit.[5]

You will hear many people say, ‘I decided for Christ. I made up my mind and chose to become a Christian’. But as we read the Gospels and Paul’s letters, we begin to see that it was God who chose us, called us, rescued us, regenerated us, and created faith in our hearts. It was God who decided for us. It was God who made up His mind to save us. It was God who chose us in Christ to become His children. Faith and salvation are the gifts of God to us. It is God alone who saves sinners. We are undoubtedly responsible to repent and believe the Gospel, but only God can work a miracle of grace in our dead and lifeless hearts.    

    2] Paul’s doctrine of grace leaves no room for selfish boasting. John Stott said, ‘We shall not be able to strut round heaven like proud peacocks’.[6] Salvation is not our own doing; it is not a result of human merit. It is a work wholly divine. All the praise, all the glory, all the honour must go to God alone. If we are to boast, let us boast in the Lord. You won’t be able to say, ‘I got to heaven, because I’m worth it’. In fact, we will say the opposite, ‘I was worthless, but God rescued me’. There is no such thing as a proud Christian.  
    3] Paul’s doctrine of grace means that we are precious to God. Paul says that we are ‘God’s workmanship, created in Christ’. We are God’s work of art. We are His masterpiece, His magnum opus. All the beauty and wonder of salvation is His work. Paul even ties this workmanship with the idea of creation. We are created anew in Christ. Salvation does not mean that God helps us to become like Christ, but that He makes us like Christ. He recreates us to reflect the beauty and glory of the Lord Christ in our lives. Calvin says, ‘You see then that this phrase ‘created in Christ’ is enough to stop the mouths and put away the cackling of such as boast of having any merit. For when they say so, they presuppose that they were their own creators’.[7]  The whole work of salvation in us from the new birth to glorification is God’s workmanship. We are His special creation in Christ Jesus. And we are deeply loved and valued by the God who made us and conforms us to image of His Son.

    4] Paul’s theology of grace means that we have good works to do. When the Lord Christ by His Spirit dwells within our hearts, He creates good works within us. He causes us to bear the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self–control’ (Galatians 5:22–23). The outward manifestation of works is important, but principally God is concerned with our heart. The fruit of the spirit deals with our emotional and thought life. Good works that are truly Christian spring from good attitudes. True religion, in great part, consists in holy and loving affections. And God has prepared such spiritual fruit from eternity. He planted the tree of holiness and obedience before the foundation of the world. His plan for us was a plan for holy living. It is not that we grit our teeth and suddenly decide to become holy by a sheer effort of human will. If that is your understanding of holiness, then you are far, far from it. Rather we look to God’s grace to create such fruit in our lives and to make us more like Son. We happily pray with St. Augustine, ‘Lord, command whatever you will, but give us what you command’. In other words, ‘Lord, give us the grace to live holy lives’. He has prepared these good works for us; we have only to ask Him and seek Him in prayer and He will slowly but surely make us more like His beloved Son. It is hard at times. It is a fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. But God is on our side! And the grace which saves us is the grace which sanctifies us.  

    Holiness is not a burdensome task. Sometimes preachers make it sound like that. We’ve missed the point when describe holiness in such austere terms. The way of holiness is the way of true and lasting happiness. It is a blessed life to live for God. It is a pleasant delight to walk in the way of holiness.

A rigid master was the Law,
Demanding bricks, denying straw;
But when the Gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.[8]

May we learn to sing with the Psalmist, ‘Oh, how I love your Law. It is my meditation all the day’ (Psalm 119:97). May our lives adorn the Gospel of Christ! Oh that we would be an attractive people! Grace ought to make us gracious in all our dealings with men. We must tell others of Christ and imitate Him in our lives. We are to be a people of holiness. We are to be a like the Lord Jesus in all that we say, do, and think.

    5] Finally, be sure you are saved by grace. You may feel yourself to be a great sinner, beyond redemption. It may be that you’ve agonised over your sins. You say, ‘what hope is there for me? I’m the worst of sinners’. Your sin overwhelms you like Noah’s flood and you fear you may drown, but God’s grace rides atop the waters like the ark’. His grace comes to rescue sinners of mankind lost. You won’t find peace and happiness elsewhere. True happiness belongs to those who have been saved by grace alone. ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (Psalm 32: 1). Christians are the most blessed people on earth. So why not come to the Lord Christ and have your sins washed away? He is willing to pardon the vilest offenders who come to Him believing. He says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). There is an abundance of grace in His heart for poor and helpless sinners. He asks simply that you trust in Him. He doesn’t ask for money, or charity work, or a fantastic CV, or religiosity, He asks simply that you come to Him in repentance, with sorrow for you sins, and faith in His word. Will you not believe? Will you not cast yourself upon His arms of grace? There is pardon for all your transgressions and grace to cover all your sins in Christ. Come to Him! Don’t pass Him by! Don’t put it off until another time! Come now! Come today and find mercy, and pardon, and peace.

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity joined with power;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing; doubt no more!

[1] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (London, 1965), p. 159. 
[2] William Hendriksen, Ephesians, p. 116.
[3] Geoffrey B. Wilson, New Testament Commentaries, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 609–10.
[4] John Calvin, Ephesians, chap. II. 7.  
[5] John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Nottingham, reprint 2012), p. 85.    
[6] Ibid.
[7] John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh, 1973), p. 162. 
[8] Quoted in Eifion Evans, Bread of Heaven: the life and work of William Williams, Pantycelyn (Bridgend, 2010), p. 155.