If one would seek a brief New Testament explanation of salvation by grace through faith, then the context of Ephesians 2 would be one of the most definitive commentaries on the subject. In this context, Paul truly gave the road map into the grace of God, and once there, what is required of the obedient to remain there. For a moment, therefore, we need to journey with the Ephesians from their “nature” in sin before their obedience to the gospel, into the revealed saving grace of God in which they stood at the time Paul wrote.
A. Dead in trespasses and sins:
Paul began his definition of grace by reviewing the state of the Ephesians before they were baptized into Christ. As sinners outside Christ, he reminded them, “You were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ep 2:1). They were in a state of condemnation wherein they lived because they, as religious people, were outside the realm of God’s grace. Therefore, he reminded them that in such a state “you walked according to the ways of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Ep 2:2).
In the preceding text, notice the pronoun “you.” They were personally responsible for their sinful walk. Their sin had nothing to do with the sin of Adam that some say was supposedly handed down to them as “original sin” from Adam. Neither were they born with a “sinful nature” wherein they were inclined to sin against their own will. Paul clearly wrote that they were individually responsible for their sinful walk of life before they obeyed the gospel.
The Ephesians could not blame Adam. They could not blame God for giving them some “sinful nature.” They could not even blame the devil for supposedly making them sin. They could only blame themselves. They were personally and individually dead in sin because they chose to behave sinfully. Unless one takes ownership of his own sinful behavior, he will not repent. He will not be moved to respond to the grace of God.
We cannot escape our personal responsibility for sin by blaming Adam for some “original sin” that was supposedly passed down to us through birth as a “sinful nature” by which God supposedly cursed our souls. We must stop blaming God for this supposed “sinful nature,” and the Devil for supposedly making us sin. Some theologians have given sinners almost every excuse for not taking ownership of their own sins. Even society does the same by calling some sins—alcoholism—a disease, and thus assuming that the individual does not need, or cannot, take ownership for his or her own “sinful” disease. But Paul never let the Ephesians off the hook in reference to their past life in sin. They were personally responsible for their own culture of sinful behavior. And because they willingly created their own culture of sin, they had to take ownership for their sin before they would willingly respond to the grace of God .
B. Life according to the world:
In their former behavior as sinners, the Ephesians individually chose to walk according to the desires of their father, the devil. Jesus explained the state of some in His Jewish audience when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” (Jn 8:44). When Jesus made this statement, He was speaking to very religious Jews. In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul was likewise speaking to formerly religious Gentiles. Nevertheless, they too were of their father the devil because they “behaved in times past in the lusts of your flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest” (Ep 2:3). The Ephesians lived according to the sensual sins of gratifying the desires of the flesh, filling their minds with all wicked thoughts. They followed after a life-style of pride, envy, covetousness and lusts of the mind as idolaters.
They were “by nature” in the habit of behaving after a lustful life-style. It was not that they were born with a sinful nature. The context of what Paul said in Ephesians 2 is entirely against this conclusion. The Ephesians had made a free-moral decision to live according to the lusts of the eyes, flesh and pride of life.
The Greek word that is used here for “nature” refers to a life-style that has been formed after the habit of doing something over a long period of time. The Ephesians, therefore, were “dead in trespasses and sins” because they had adopted a life-style of living according to that which was contrary to the will of God. Their conscience was seared because they had no feelings of guilt that their sinful living was wrong. They were thus judged to be dead in trespasses and sins because there was no hope of eternal life in their state of behavior in their past idolatry. They were separated from God because of their state of condemnation, and thus they could have no hope of eternal life.
The lost state of the Ephesians before their obedience to the gospel confirms the fact that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus was not universally appropriated to all people without obedience. They were good religious idolaters, but they were dead in the sin of their own religiosity. We do not assume that the Ephesians were previously atheists, and thus a nonreligious people. Too often Bible interpreters make this mistake concerning their understanding of the religious world into which the gospel was revealed. On the contrary, the Romans and Greeks were religious. However, the religion was idolatry. They possessed a faith in Zeus and the other Roman and Greek gods that were created after the imagination of very religious people. In fact, when Paul walked into Athens, he complemented the people on their religiosity: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious” (At 17:22).
But religion can save no one. The Ephesians were very religious people, but by nature they were dead in their trespasses and sins (Ep 2:3). They were by nature dead in their relationship with God. We must not be fooled, therefore, with the belief that if one is simply religious and good, he is saved. Without being born again through baptism into the grace of God, one is dead in trespasses and sins.
By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians in A.D. 61,62, the Ephesians had been delivered from their life of sin in their religious idolatry. But before the gospel came to them through the preaching of Paul, they were without hope. If Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross were unconditional, and thus universal, then they would not have been dead in their trespasses and sins before the coming of Paul and the preaching of the gospel. The biblical interpreter must therefore be careful about assuming that the redemption of the cross applies to all people regardless of their knowledge of God’s grace and conditions that He requires for one to make in order to step into His realm of grace.
C. The announcement and response to grace:
And now the glorious news. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ep 2:4,5). Paul’s continued commentary of this outpouring of grace was stated in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It could be nothing else with grace. The outpouring of grace must be nothing short of an outpouring because of mercy, regardless of the state of those to whom it is offered.
Grace was unconditionally offered to humanity, but it is not unconditionally appropriated, or applied to the saving of individual sinners. We must keep in mind that the Ephesians became Christians long after the initial outpouring of grace on the cross in A.D. 30. They were still in a state of condemnation at the time Paul, Aquila and Priscilla came to Ephesus in Acts 18. It was through the ministry of these and others who “came and preached peace to you [Ephesians] who were far off and to those who were near” (Ep 2:17). The offer of grace was preached to the Ephesians while they were dead in trespasses and sins. They responded. And subsequently, Paul could make the statement, “By grace you have been saved” (Ep 2:5). They could be saved by grace only when they heard about the grace of God that was revealed on the cross (Ti 2:11). Grace was appropriated in their lives only when they heard and obeyed the gospel (See At 19). Grace is neither universally appropriated, nor unconditionally received.
We must keep in mind that those to whom Paul was writing the letter of Ephesians were dead in sin after the cross and before they heard the gospel. They did not become alive until they heard and obeyed the gospel. Therefore, they had not been individually elected and predestined to heaven before the creation of the world. If they had been so elected and predestined, then why did Paul say that they were all dead in sin before they obeyed the gospel?
D. Salvation by grace through faith:
“So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rm 10:17). When the Ephesians heard the word of Christ (Ep 2:17), their faith in Him was brought to life. The words of Jesus would be appropriate here. “He who believes and is baptized, will be saved” (Mk 16:16). The Ephesians were not unconditionally dead in their trespasses and sins. They voluntarily chose a sinful way of life. They adopted such as their culture. Therefore, they could not blame Adam for their sinful behavior as some have supposed. As they were voluntarily and personally accountable for their previous sinful nature, grace came to them voluntarily and personally. Each one who heard the preached gospel, voluntarily and individually responded to the conditions God required to receive the offered gift of His grace. As they voluntarily sinned after their own lusts, they had to respond voluntarily to the preached grace of God. As they individually chose to lead a sinful life, they had to choose individually to respond to the grace of God. Their response to grace, therefore, had to be an obedience of their faith (See Rm 1:5; 16:26).
We must not misunderstand Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8,9. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast.” The grace of God was offered years before while the Ephesians were in a state of condemnation in their trespasses and sins. It was God’s free gift to offer to all men a way of escape from a sinful predicament from which one could not deliver himself. The gift, therefore, had to be free.
However, the reception of the gift came with conditions. Simply because the gift is free does not mean there are no conditions for receiving the gift. Titus 2:11 states, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” The free gift appeared and was announced to the world through preaching. But its application came with conditions on the part of those who heard the message of the gospel. If there were no conditions, then salvation would be universal. If the Ephesians were still dead in their trespasses and sins after the grace of God was revealed through Jesus on the cross, then grace was not universal. Reception and application of the effect of grace is based on the condition of our faith. Since our faith is in the gospel, salvation is by grace through our faith in the gospel.
Salvation by grace through faith is not of ourselves. In other words, no salvational schemes of men will work. If we could be saved through our own systems of salvation, then our salvation would be meritorious. And since religion is always the meritorious performance of rites, rituals and ceremonies, salvation can never come as a result of one being very religious. This is true because by works of law or religious traditions no one can be saved (See Rm 3:20; Gl 2:16). Salvation is by our faith in the Christ of the gospel, not in the performance of our own religiosity.
When Peter said to the thousands on the day of Pentecost to “save yourselves from this perverse generation” (At 2:40), he did not mean that everyone should construct for himself some system of religion by which one could save himself. What he meant was that the people must take the initiative to do what God commanded in order to access His grace in order to save themselves from their own religiosity. And in order to do this, one must “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (At 2:38). It was through this obedience that the Ephesians responded to the gospel (See At 19:1-18).
E. Faithfulness through works of thanksgiving:
Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that their initial coming to Christ was not the result of any meritorious efforts on their part, lest they boast to one another concerning their obedience. Their salvation was not by meritorious works, but through an obedient faith in response to the grace of God. Nevertheless, as Christians, their faith had to be perfected through a work of love in response to the grace by which they were saved. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we should walk in them” (Ep 2:10). If one would want a commentary on this statement, then Paul gives such in 2 Corinthians 4:15: “For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace that is reaching many people may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.” It was this grace that reached the people of Ephesus, and thus, it was this grace that moved them to respond to the love of God through Jesus. It was this love that compelled them to obey the gospel (2 Co 5:14).
Paul had told the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Ph 2:12). The Ephesians had been baptized into Christ (Gl 3:26,27). Now it was time that they perfect their faith through their works of faith. “You see that faith was working with his [Abraham] works, and by works was faith made perfect” (Js 2:22). We are God’s “workmanship” when our faith is made perfect through obedience. When our faith works in response to the salvation that we have in Christ, then it is perfected. His grace causes works of thanksgiving. All that God did through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of His Son was for our sakes, “so that the grace that is reaching many people may cause thanksgiving to the glory of God” (2 Co 4:15). It is an obedient faith in response to the revealed grace of God that brings one into Christ. This faith is perfected when the obedient continue to work out their salvation in thanksgiving for the grace by which they are saved.
[End of the blog series. The remainder of the lectures will be in a forthcoming book. Be sure and download and distribute the book if you have appreciated this very important subject that defines the core of our Christian beliefs.]