Complete these common phrases for me:
If it sounds too good to be true…it is
There’s no such thing as a free…lunch
No gain without…pain
God helps those who…help themselves
Everything we’re ever taught tells us that you get what you earn in life; that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; that you make your bed and then you lie in it. Everything in our lives is predicated on performance. If you want a promotion, you work for it. If you want to make a big purchase, you’ve got to pay for it. If you want a sales award, you’ve got to post the numbers. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to make it happen.
Most of us become pretty good at making it happen. We earn a respectable living and live in respectable houses. We live with heat on in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Our fridges are full of food. Our cars are full of gas. We think that we can make it on our own. We’ve worked for it.
We call this the Protestant work ethic. The only problem with the Protestant work ethic is that God doesn’t operate on the Protestant work ethic. It’s difficult to relate to the way things work spiritually because we’re so used to earning our own way.
We’re going to look at something so rooted in God’s character that we can’t possibly understand Christianity unless we understand this. Ephesians 1:4 says that this has been God’s plan from before the creation of this world. It is the heart of our relationship with God. It’s called grace.
What is grace? Grace is a multi-faceted diamond. There is no single definition of grace to describe what grace is about. One definition of grace is “God’s unbelievable accepting of us.” Somebody else has said that “Grace is the completely undeserved, loving commitment God has made to us.” Another definition: “God’s love in action.” Or “Grace is the face God wears when he looks at my failures.”
Bono, lead singer of the band U2, recently said: “The most powerful idea that’s entered the world in the last few thousand years-the idea of grace-is the reason I would like to be a Christian.” Bono is right. Grace is the most powerful idea that’s entered the world.
Today, I want o look at saving grace. We’re going to look at five characteristics of saving grace from Ephesians 2. This is foundational to being a follower of Jesus. You can’t understand the Christian life unless you understand what we’ll talk about today. This is Christianity 101.
I’ve built an acrostic to help us talk about grace today – G.R.A.C.E. What is grace?
G – GIVEN TO THOSE WHO NEED IT
Ephesians 2:1 says, “Once you were dead, doomed forever because of your many sins.”
If you ask the average person how they will get to heaven, you will hear a variety of things. But I believe you could summarize what they have to say in one sentence: “You have to earn your way.” In other words, you have to be a moral person. You have to do more good things than bad things. You need to live a certain lifestyle, and then maybe God will let you into heaven. It’s all based on what we do – on works.
The only problem is our condition. We’re dead. What Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 is true of everyone. Our natural spiritual condition is death. What can a dead person do to earn their way to heaven? Not very much.
In 1992, a Los Angeles County parking control officer came upon a brown El Dorado Cadillac illegally parked next to the curb on street-sweeping day. The officer dutifully wrote out a ticket. Ignoring the man seated at the driver’s wheel, the officer reached inside the open car window and placed the $30 citation on the dashboard.
The driver of the car made no excuses. No argument ensued – and with good reason. The driver of the car had been shot in the head ten to twelve hours before but was sitting up, stiff as a board, slumped slightly forward, with blood on his face. He was dead. The officer, preoccupied with ticket-writing, was unaware of anything out of the ordinary. He got back in his car and drove away.
That is our natural condition. People might say we need a citation. We need to try harder. But the reality is that we’re spiritually dead. There’s nothing we can do to earn our own way to heaven. It’s no use even trying. The most vital part of ourselves – the spirit – is dead to the most important factor in life – God.
Once you were dead, doomed forever because of your many sins. You used to live just like the rest of the world, full of sin, obeying Satan, the mighty prince of the power of the air. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passions and desires of our evil nature. We were born with an evil nature, and we were under God’s anger just like everyone else.
You could take a look around you and rate people on a moral scale. Let’s all recognize that some people are better than others. There are moral, kind, and law-abiding people. Then there are criminals. You and I are probably a lot better than a lot of criminals. But on God’s absolute scale, nobody here is good enough to earn salvation.
At first Paul seems a little harsh. Our society believes that evil deeds lie at the edge of our character and never penetrate to the core. Basically, we’re told, people are good. We have a sliding scale of goodness.
But the Bible teaches something different. When we lift our gaze to the ultimate standard of goodness – to God himself – even what appears to be goodness on an earthly level is corrupt to the core. I and everyone else am depraved and corrupted in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is untouched by sin. You name it – our minds, bodies, and wills are affected by evil. Paul writes, “As the Scriptures say, ‘No one is good-not even one. No one has real understanding; no one is seeking God. All have turned away from God; all have gone wrong. No one does good, not even one.”
A man asked a pastor one time, “What can I do to be saved?” The pastor replied, “You’re too late!” That kind of shocked him. Then the pastor continued, “You’re about 2000 years too late! What needed to be done for your salvation has already been done and you can’t do anything about it.”
That’s the fundamental difference between Christianity and every other religion. Christianity is the only religion built on grace – on what God does. We don’t have to earn God’s approval. In fact, we couldn’t even if we tried. In other religions, there’s always something you have to do to earn God’s pleasure. In Christianity, there’s nothing that you can do. God does it for you.
That’s the first thing we need to understand about grace. It’s given to those who need it. We all need it. As C.S. Lewis said, “Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital, who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice.”
Grace is for the guilty. A pastor once said to a police officer who had pulled him over for speeding, “Say, Officer, I bet you’ve never been part of a real live sermon illustration about grace …”
You’re not getting to heaven based on what you do. You can’t earn salvation. You’re going to go to heaven because of what Jesus did for you. You’re going to go to heaven, it’s because you realize that grace is a free gift to those who need it.
The second characteristic of grace is this:
R – ROOTED IN GOD’S CHARACTER
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so very much, that even while we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s special favor that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ, and we are seated with him in the heavenly realms-all because we are one with Christ Jesus. And so God can always point to us as examples of the incredible wealth of his favor and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us through Christ Jesus.
If God had chosen to destroy every human being, he would have been justified. If God had decided in his justice to send every single one of us to hell, no problem. God would have been within his rights. He wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong. But there’s an aspect of God’s character that is so rooted in who he is, that God didn’t do that.
The picture so far has been on us, and it’s been bleak. But in verse 4 the emphasis switches to God. Why did God act? He acted because of his great love. He acted because he’s rich in mercy. He acted because of his special favor. He acted because that’s his character. Grace is rooted in God’s character. It’s a reflection of who he is.
Two things stick out in this passage. The first is the extent of God’s grace. Paul uses words like the incredible wealth of his favor and kindness toward us. You can’t exhaust God’s grace. You can’t be too bad for God’s grace. God’s grace is always greater than our sin. Romans 5:20 says, “But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful kindness became more abundant.” You can never outdo God’s grace.
The other thing that comes out is how central grace is to God’s character – so much so that the entire Bible is about God’s grace. If you want a theme for the Bible, it’s this: God’s grace. The entire Bible is about the God of grace reaching out to people who didn’t deserve it. Ephesians 1:5 tells us that it was part of God’s eternal plan. It gave him great pleasure. That’s who God is.
God knows how bad things are with us, and yet he changes them. Where wrath should have come, mercy comes instead. The wealth of God’s mercy and love are not limited. They’re part of his character. They’re extended to even the worst person who opens to the Gospel message. God is for us. We are the objects of God’s love.
That’s God’s nature. Grace is rooted in God’s character.
Not only is grace given to those who need it and rooted in God’s character…
A – ACCEPTED BY FAITH
Grace is accepted by faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
You and I feel like earning our own way to heaven. Yet this passage tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” We don’t earn grace. We just receive it. The whole of salvation is something we receive. We can take no credit for it.
There’s even a temptation to think that faith is the contribution we make in order to go to heaven. The reality is that faith itself is a gift from God. We’re saved by faith.
This is so important that Martin Luther once declared that this is the article upon which the church stands or falls. How are we made right before God? Not through penance. Not through good works. We’re saved by faith – by clinging to Christ alone for salvation. It’s a free gift.
What is faith? Faith involves three things:
It involves UNDERSTANDING. This part is factual. You need to understand grace. You need to understand that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins. You need to understand that he offers eternal life. You need to understand that Jesus came to remove your guilt and that you were made to enter into a relationship with God that will last forever. The Gospel is so simple that that’s all you need to understand.
It involves AGREEMENT. Satan has an understanding of salvation, but he’s not a follower of Christ. It’s not enough to believe. You can believe that 7 times 6 is 42, or that Bern is the capital of Switzerland, but it makes no difference to you. Faith means taking the next step: of admitting that you’re a sinner in need of salvation, and that Jesus has paid the penalty for sin, and that he offers salvation to you. You need to make your understanding personal and agree with the Gospel.
It involves TRUSTING. Faith isn’t just about beliefs. It’s about a person. Once you get to know a person, and the more we see in that person a pattern that is trustworthy, the more we find ourselves trusting that person to be and do what they say. Faith involves trusting Jesus in the same way. It’s a matter of entering into a relationship with him.
In John 3:16, Jesus said, “Everyone who believes in him [meaning Jesus] will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus didn’t say, “whoever believes him.” That would just be factual. He said, “whoever believes in him.” In the original language, the sense is believing into. It’s much more than an intellectual assent. It’s trust. It’s a relationship.
Have you come to trust in Christ personally, or are you still at the point of intellectual knowledge and even agreement with the facts of salvation, without ever having put your trust in Christ? It’s not enough. You’re saved by grace through faith. What’s holding you back?
Grace is ready for you. It’s given to those who need it. It’s rooted in God’s character. It’s accepted by faith. It…
C – CAME THROUGH CHRIST
Ephesians 2:7, 10 says, “And so God can always point to us as examples of the incredible wealth of his favor and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us through Christ Jesus… He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.” Moses gave the law. The law came in the form of cold stone tablets. Nobody was ever saved by the law. On the contrary, the law just condemned us. It showed us how far we had fallen from God’s standards of holiness. Moses gave us a system of bookkeeping – figuring out how many things we had done wrong. As somebody has said, nobody was ever saved by good bookkeeping.
Jesus was different. He brought grace. Instead of bringing grace through cold stone tablets, he brought it in the form of a person. Jesus came not to give the law, but to fulfill the law. He came to bring us grace. He came to bring us life. Ephesians says it’s not of yourselves; it’s a gift from God.
Jesus said himself:
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. There is no judgment awaiting those who trust him. But those who do not trust him have already been judged for not believing in the only Son of God. (John 3:17-18)
That’s the entire reason Jesus came. He came to bring us grace. He did for us what we couldn’t do. It’s the only way that you can have eternal life. He paid the price. You didn’t. The Buddha didn’t. Jesus did.
Grace is free, no doubt about that. But it is not cheap. It cost Jesus Christ His life. He paid for your ticket.
There are many things that you’ve done wrong. Jesus came to this world to take your tattered life – all the mistakes, all the hurts. In exchange he gives you his life. He gives you a fresh start. He makes you into a new creation.
Galatians 2:21 says, “If we could be saved by keeping the law, then there was no need for Christ to die.” If you could be saved and could get to heaven on your own merits, the cross was a waste. If you could have gotten to heaven without any help from God, Jesus wouldn’t have come and died on the cross for you. He wouldn’t waste Himself like that. But there was no other way. You’re either going to get into heaven in Christ, or you’re not going.
Grace is available to those who need it. It’s rooted in God’s character. It’s accepted through faith. It came through Christ. And finally, it’s…
E – EXTENDED THROUGHOUT ETERNITY
We’ll never outlive God’s grace. God’s plan is to continue to give us grace throughout eternity. That’s partially hidden in verse 8, where it says, “God saved you.” In the original language, Paul points to a past event that has continuing results. We’ll never outlive the effects of God’s gift of saving grace.
Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gi ft of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. With God, the best is yet to come. The gift of God is eternal life that begins now and continues throughout eternity.
There’s only one catch to this gift. You have to accept it. Although Jesus makes this gift available to everyone, it’s effective only to those who receive this gift.
If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ this morning, you can’t take any credit for it. Your salvation is not a result of anything you’ve done. It’s simply by God’s grace. You won’t get to heaven and hear people outdo each other with stories of how they got to heaven. It’s all of grace. All we can do is be thankful for it.
Lewis Smedes writes:
Why do we call grace amazing? Grace is amazing because it works against the grain of common sense. Hard-nosed common sense will tell you that you are too wrong to meet the standards of a holy God; pardoning grace tells you that it’s all right in spite of so much in you that is wrong.
Isaiah 30:18 says, “The LORD still waits for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion.” That’s his desire. It is his nature to bless undeserving people. He’s waiting for you to accept his grace. He enjoys being gracious. He’s not mad at you. His heart’s broken for you but he wants you to come home.
A banner headline across the top of one Chicago Tribune read, “Guilty Plea Sets Inmate Free.” The picture showed the freed man embracing his sister, and the article told how a man imprisoned for eight years cut a deal with the state’s attorney’s office in which the time served satisfied his sentence.
What struck me was that headline. You could think, “Great. Another criminal gets off with a plea bargain.” Or you could realize that this is the story of the Bible: “Guilty plea sets inmate free.” Freedom is not in a plea of innocence but in the admission of guilt. Your story is different, but the headline fits perfectly. It’s about grace. It’s about God’s forgiveness.
God’s amazing grace is available right here and right now. Today. That’s why He brought you here. You’re not here by accident. He brought you here. If you have never received that saving grace gift, what are you waiting for?
Why don’t you pray this prayer in your heart? “Dear God, I realize that I can never be perfect enough to earn a place in your perfect heaven. I realize that the only way I’ll get in is by your grace. Forgive me for thinking that I could be good enough. Forgive me for my pride that thinks I can earn my way into heaven. Thank you that you give me what I need, not what I deserve. Thank you for your forgiveness and I ask for it today. Jesus Christ, thank you for paying for my salvation on the cross. By faith, I accept your grace today. I want you to guide my life from this day forward. In your name I pray. Amen.”