“But when the benevolence and philanthropy of God our Savior appeared, not because of works of righteousness which were produced by us, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, in order that, being justified in that grace, we became heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
There are many passages in the writings of Paul where he densely packs theology into a nice, tight line of thought. Here is one of those little packages…gifts, really. Why a gift? It is a gift to us because we can spend a lifetime digging deeply into the riches of just these few words.
We have already discussed the language of benevolence and philanthropy, but notice the very next thing that Paul writes. He makes it very clear that this benevolence and philanthropy of God does not come to us because we have produced good works, it comes because of God’s mercy towards us…indeed, it is a matter of grace.
How important it is that we emphasize this over and over again. How sad it is that so many professing Christians speak about salvation by grace, but when you look at their lives, it is clear that they do not really believe what they say. Christians often think that God is “getting even with them” when bad things take place. Too many people, if asked, “how does one get to heaven,” will say, “by living a good life.” How often I have met with people to prepare for a funeral and their first words were, “he was a good person, pastor.” And how often I have responded, “But did he (or she) know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” That is not meant to be insensitive, it is simply meant as a way to turn the conversation toward Jesus, where it most needs to be.
The work of our salvation is done entirely and fully by Jesus Christ. It is not about us, it is all about Him. We can add nothing to the work that Christ has done and we can not improve upon it in any way…it is a gracious work of his mercy towards us. “Nothing in my hands I bring…simply to the cross I cling.” Christ’s work is sufficient for his people; if we even begin to think and act like we must do certain things…even if we must make a certain decision or pray a certain prayer in a specific way…then we are guilty of second-guessing the sufficiency of Christ.
So what of our good works? Does not James tell us that faith without works is dead (James 2:17)? Indeed, but we must first remember that those works were prepared for us by God even before we were saved (Ephesians 2:10), which means that God gets the credit for anything good that you or I might do. Does that mean we can live how we want? Certainly not! How can we who are dead to sin still live in it (Romans 6:1-2)! Indeed, we strive to do good works because that is what good servants do (Luke 17:10), because that is how we show our love to Christ (John 14:15), and because we are thankful to God for his saving work (Colossians 3:16). Yet, it is clear from the text here and elsewhere that salvation precedes works; works do not precede (or participate in) salvation. Works becomes the byproduct of a life that is saved and renewed by God.
And such is the consistent statement of the Scriptures even if it is not fully held by people who profess to be Christians. Yet, when we add works into the mix of our salvation, grace ceases to be grace (Romans 11:6) and we create a context in which we have room to boast (Ephesians 2:9). Here we must stand…God saved us through his Son Jesus Christ’s sufficient work, not because of our good works, but because of his great mercy.