Today we continue with our Growing in Grace discipleship course with Part 4, which is titled “By Grace through Faith.” Our two memory passages on this subject from the Navigator’s Topical Memory System are Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5.
Listen to the message here:
My first visit to Dahlonega took place in late October of 2007. Like most, I drove up Highway 400 from the north Atlanta suburbs and took Highway 60 to the left. Winding along the Chestatee River, eventually I began to ascend Crown Mountain. As I crested the summit, you know what I saw. I beheld the breathtaking panorama of the Appalachian Mountains in full color.
I had heard that there were mountains in Georgia, but the sight which lay before me was more than I had expected. In that moment, surrounded by such beauty, I felt compelled to continue driving through town and toward the mountains along the twisty roads, deeper and deeper until I was surrounded by peaks, anticipating the moment I would get out the car and begin exploring the trails, the creeks, and wondrous vistas that are to be enjoyed along the way.
It was that experience of wonder and beauty that birthed Creekstone church and gave us our distinctive mission. For in the same way that I felt what it was like to come alive to the wonder of the mountains, I wanted to start a church where our mission would be to come alive to the wonder and the beauty of the gospel in such a way that we would be compelled to explore the deep and wide ranging ramifications of God’s mercy for every moment of our lives.
But just like anything we see or experience on a regular basis, we can grow familiar and cold to wonder and beauty.
In the same way that I never want the splendor of our mountains to become so familiar and ordinary that I lose the wonder that I experienced the day I first gazed upon their beauty on my first drive into Dahlonega, I never want us to become so familiar with the gospel that we lose our wonder and are no longer moved by the beauty of what it is to be saved by grace.
If I haven’t come alive to the wonder of the gospel, maybe it’s because I haven’t understood the theological design of grace or haven’t considered the practical implications for my personal life. Or maybe its because I have sought to fill the desire for ultimate beauty with a substitute beauty, things we call idols.
Thankfully, today’s memory verses are divinely designed to help us come alive to the wonder of what the Bible calls salvation.
In simple terms, to be saved is to be rescued.
When someone is rescued from a burning building or a sinking ship, we say that person was saved.
Yet in Paul’s writing to the Ephesians and in his letter to Titus, the apostle is not referring to a burning building or a sinking ship. The predicament of which he speaks is far more dire with much more severe consequences.
Consider the context of Ephesians 2:8-9. If we dial back five verses to Ephesians 2:3, Paul reveals that we are, in our natural condition as humans, “objects of wrath” before the law of God and that there is nothing we can do to argue our way out of the just condemnation our sins deserve. There are no excuses. There is no one upon whom we can shift the blame.
A storm is approaching and there is no escape route.
It is from this storm of judgment that we need to be rescued—from which we need to be saved.
The question is how? How are we saved from the storm?
There are three general approaches people have taken when answering the question of how we are saved.
The first approach is that we must save ourselves. This is the most popular view, which is expressed by theologian and Georgia native, Alan Jackson, in a called Where I Come From.” Here are the lyrics of the first stanza.
Well I was rollin’ wheels and shiftin’ gears
‘Round that Jersey Turnpike
Barney stopped me with his gun
ten minutes after midnight
Said sir you broke the limit in that ol’ rusty truck
I don’t know about that accent son
Just where did you come from
I said where I come from
It’s cornbread and chicken
Where I come from a lotta front porch sittin’
Where I come from tryin’ to make a livin’
And workin’ hard to get to heaven
Where I come from.
Workin’ hard to get to heaven. This isn’t only the common view of the typical American, it is the view espoused by ever religion in the world, except Christianity.
Yet even if I don’t believe that I must save myself, I may believe that it is my job to keep myself saved, or at least to stay in good standing with God by something that I must do—what Paul calls in Titus 3:5, “righteous works.”
This is where the second approach teaches that we may not save ourselves by ourselves, but that we need help in the process of being saved. A classic illustration of this view is that we are drowning in a sea and God throws out a life preserver. All I have to do is grab ahold of the life preserver in order to be saved. The problem with this view is that if we dial Ephesians 2 all the way back to verse 1, we learn that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Not physically dead, but spiritually dead.
Do you see the conundrum? If I am dead in my sins, then I have no moral or spiritual ability to reach out for the life preserver.
We need a third approach, which I believe most clearly and accurately represents the teaching of salvation in the Bible.
The third approach is the view sees human beings as passive recipients of a hero’s bravery– a hero who rescues us single-handedly. In theological language we say that we are saved by grace.
When Paul says that we are “saved by grace” in Ephesians 2:8, he uses the Greek word charis for grace. Those of you who have been around Creekstone for a while will recognize that word charis is the root for our English word charity.
You don’t work for charity or earn charity or necessarily deserve charity. And there is no expectation of payback with charity. Charity is something that is merely received as a gift.
The same is true of our salvation. The rescue from the curse our sin deserves is God’s charity to sinners. It is a gift.
This is why Paul says we are “saved by grace.” We do not contribute to our rescue at all. As we have already said, those who are saved are passive recipients of someone else’s heroism.
To use the illustration of being saved from a burning building, the image of rescue is of an arsonist being trapped within his own flames and passing out on the floor as the building collapses around him. A bystander, out of compassion and with extraordinary bravery enters the building to save the man from the consequences of his own actions. In the process, the arsonist is rescued while hero perishes in the fire.
Here is what this means. While we are saved by grace we also are saved by works, just not our own works. We are saved by the works of Jesus which culminated in his substitutionary death for his people on a cross.
In the crucifixion of Christ, the penalty has been satisfied for all my sins, past, present, and future, and the all the charges have been thoroughly erased from my record. This is the ground of my salvation—not any good thing I have done, but the good thing Jesus did for me.
In other words, how is grace received, activated, and made effectual in the life of a Christian? Paul provides the answer in Ephesians 2:8, saying that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.”
If the work of Jesus is the ground of our salvation, faith is the means by which we receive the benefits of his work.
For example, in the old days of scuba diving, oxygen was supplied to the diver below the surfact through a tube that was connected to an air tank on the deck of the boat. The tube was the means through which the diver received the oxygen, without which he would die.
In this illustration, we can see how vitally important both the oxygen and the tube were to the original scuba divers. In our salvation, we learn that faith, like the tube, is the vital instrument through which we receive the benefits of our redemption.
This is why we say that we are saved by grace through faith, both of which are gifts. Even our faith ultimately is a gift that is activated by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. After all, Paul makes this clear in verse 8 when he says, “And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God.”
Another illustration of faith is taking medicine. The medicine is the ground for our well-being and healing while the spoon is the means by which we receive the medicine.
The same is true with faith as a means to receive God’s grace.
We do not create the medicine. We simply receive it.
In Romans 3:22-25, Paul states, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”
Later, in Romans 4:5, he writes, “To the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”
Do you see how wondrous, glorious, and astounding this is?! God justifies the ungodly!? Not by our works, but by the works of Jesus. We do not do; we receive what Jesus has done. The result is forgiveness full and free. No more condemnation. Reconciliation with God.
If I am able to hear these things and not be affected, it is possible that the beauty and wonder of grace has become familiar, and in becoming familiar, it has lost its power to transform my life.
This is why my friend, Tim Keller, says that the key to spiritual vitality is an ongoing rediscovery, not only of the theological definition of grace, but a rediscovery of the personal implications of grace.
I’ll mention just three.
The first implication is that Christians should be the most humble people on earth. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “And this [salvation] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of (our) works, so that no one may boast.”
In the dictionary next to the word oxymoron ought to be a picture of the Christian boasting in his moral superiority or speaking condescendingly about someone else’s spiritual failures or ethical ignorance.
Look, having been rescued as arsonists who caused the flames in which Jesus would suffer, we should be the most humble people on earth. We were dead and are now alive. How do we explain that?
We may explain it using words such as grace and mercy, but we may not explain it by any thing we have done to contribute to our salvation. All I contributed to my salvation was my sin and my need.
For the believer, all is grace. Period.
Therefore, if there is one word that the world should use to describe what it is like to encounter a disciple of Jesus, it should be humble. As Paul says, in view of the cross, “no one may boast.”
Of course, he means no self–boasting, because he himself was known to boast—and big time. Not himself, but in Jesus, as he writes in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This leads to the second implication of grace, which is worship, where we celebrate our hero, Jesus. In the same way that we marvel when beholding the unique beauty of a magnificent mountain panorama or a stunning sunset at the beach, we experience a rapturous joy when we contemplate the glory of grace revealed in the cross of Christ. In view of such splendor, there is no way to remain a church of the frozen chosen. We will want to worship, to sing, to clap, and even dance, as we feast upon the Word of God. In view of such great grace, we should be not only the most humble, but the most celebratory people on the planet!
Not only will our desires to celebrate Jesus increase, but other desires will grow as well.
In addition to a desire to celebrate Jesus is a third implication, which is a spiritual craving for obedience. If I have no desire to express devotion to Jesus through practical obedience to his Lordship, then I simply have not come to grips with the height and depth and width and breadth of God’s love and grace expressed in and through the cross.
Not only does the grace-awakened soul savor the riches of grace that are his in Christ, but it longs to be rich in good deeds as well. Yes, good works.
Defining “works” as something done which is congruent with the wisdom, will, and ways of God, works do not play any part in the legal status we enjoy before God as his forgiven and beloved sons and daughters.
However, it is important for us to note that we are saved by grace through faith unto works. This simply means that the result of our rescue is practical devotion to our hero.
The context to both of our memory verses attest to this devotional outworking of grace in our lives. Ephesians 2:10, says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance that we should walk in them.”
Paul knows that practical obedience is not only a natural consequence of a grace-based salvation, but it also is for our own good to walk in the paths God has prepared for us, which are congruent with his wisdom. He is simply calling us to walk in the way of blessing.
Paul says the same thing in Titus 3, after emphasizing with uncompromising clarity that we are saved by grace alone through God’s mercy, he goes on to say in verse 8, “This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
What we discover in Scripture is that the works that result from our salvation as expressions of devotion to Jesus, while not meritorious at all, are profitable and are for our good as we live as disciples of Jesus.
But let’s be clear. The ground of our salvation is the work of Christ alone. Any works of ours are by-products. We are saved by grace—the grace that every human being longs to receive. It is a longing that penetrates to the depth of human desire, whether we realize it or not; whether we can communicate or express that desire or not.
In 1990, journalist Bill Moyers produced a documentary on John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace.” One scene is from a concert at Wembley Stadium in London celebrating the changes that were taking place in South Africa.
While Moyers interviewed opera singer, Jessye Norman, backstage, bands such as Guns ‘n Roses rocked the crowd. Jessye Norman was scheduled to be the final act of the day, singing a song that seemed a bit out of place for the largely inebriated gathering of rock enthusiasts.
Eventually, the time comes for her to step out on stage.
As Philip Yancey tells the story in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace?, As she strolls on stage,
A single circle of light follows (the) majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirrs, restless. [Very] few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more Guns ‘n Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly.
Alone, a cappella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, slowly:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see.
In that moment something thoroughly unexpected and seemingly supernatural took place. The crowd fell silent. She continued.
‘twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.
By the third verse, thousands of fans are now singing with Jesse Norman, according to Yancey, “Digging far back in nearly lost memories the words they [had] heard long ago.”
When we’ve been there ten-thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.
It was a moment of deep spiritual longing. Jesse Norman had not planned for that kind of response. It just happened.
My prayer is that what happened there with them will happen here with us. That God will speak to a deep place in your heart, awaking us to the wonder and beauty of the crucified and risen Jesus our hero, our rescuer.
The one who saves us by his grace.
 Yancey, Philip. What’s so Amazing about Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, 281-82.