“even as we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved —“
Paul will go on to further explain the final phrase in this verse…”by grace you have been saved. What ought to be said here is that this is one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian church. To deviate from this means to enter into a world of cultic thought if not activity. No, it is not by your works that you are saved; neither is it by your good character, your good intentions, your good name, or your church membership — no, it is by God’s grace and apart from the grace of God, there is no salvation available to mankind.
How often we speak with people and ask, “Why do you think you will go to heaven?,” that an entirely different answer is given. People say things like, “I’m basically a good person” or “My family and I have served God in this church for generations.” The first statement is certainly not so (there is none good but God) but the second may be so; nevertheless, it does not earn you the right to claim heaven. You simply cannot earn God’s favor as your works are all and always tainted by your sin. Your offering of sinful works to God will be no better received than that offering given by Cain, who did so without faith. No, if you are saved, beloved, it is because of God’s grace and his grace alone.
And because it is God’s grace and God’s grace alone that saves, then salvation begins assuredly with God and God alone. You did not choose to be saved; God chose to save you. You may perceive yourself as having “accepted Jesus into your heart,” but if such be true, then it is only because God pummeled the dead rock of your heart into a fleshy substance which he remolded and remade into something living. He did that, not you. It is not about you; it is about what God is doing in you, to you, and with you. It is all about God.
Friends, cease clinging to the notion that you have done something to contribute to your salvation; it is a foolish and un-Biblical idea that only leads to pride (Paul will soon get to that). You were no more born again by your own choice than you were born by your own choice in the first place. Yet, free-will decision theology has run amok with the church. And so I say put that foolish notion off and let the words of the Apostle Paul define your understanding of salvation — it is by grace that you have been saved and it is not of works (not even of one little tiny work!). If there were an avenue for works in even the smallest of discernible ways, then as Paul writes in Romans 11:6, “grace would no longer be grace.” Oh, the arrogance of man when man claims something of God’s as his own.
It’s been closing in on twenty years since my wife and I packed our bags and moved from rural Maryland to Jackson, Mississippi so that I could attend seminary. And though that seems like almost another life, one question I was asked stands out still today. You see, part of my application to attend seminary included a telephone interview in which I was asked to share a little about my faith and walk with Christ. In that interview, the interviewer asked, “Are you saved by faith or by works?” My response, one practiced both in my personal witness and from the pulpit at that time was, “We are saved by grace alone; not by works.”
The interviewer pressed me, “Not by any works at all?” I said, “My works are of no benefit to my salvation.” Once more he asked the same question, “Any works?”
Now you see, my mother didn’t raise any dummies, so I got to thinking more closely about the interviewer’s question. What was it that he was trying to fish out of me. I knew my theology and I knew what the Apostle Paul said in Romans and Ephesians about salvation by grace, but I recognized he was fishing for something, so I thought it through again. Were there any works involved in my salvation? Certainly not on my part. My own salvation was a story of God’s glorious victory over a rebellious sinner, a sinner who only came to faith kicking and screaming because I knew the lifestyle to which God was calling me. My only contribution was dragging my heels as best as I could against God’s irresistible grace. No, there were no works of my own that contributed to my salvation, it was entirely a work of Christ. And right there, it struck me as for what the interviewer was fishing. I said, “It is only by the work of Christ that I am saved.” And I could almost see his smile through the telephone.
One thing that we sometimes miss is that God’s grace, while free to us, is not truly free. It cost someone something, and that someone was His Son, Jesus. The just demands of the Law had to be paid and they had to be paid in full. I can’t do that for myself, let alone for another. And thus, this work Jesus did on my behalf and on behalf of every believer throughout the history of mankind. This is the work that Jesus did on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, it was a work found both in Christ’s active obedience (fulfilling the Law of God perfectly in this life) and in his passive obedience (receiving upon himself the wrath of his Father for my sins and the sins of every believer throughout history). And, in this sense, we are saved by works — works found in the merit of Christ. In that, we receive free grace so that no man may boast.
And so, Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism closes with this as a reminder: “These are freely given by God and he does it out of grace alone for the sake of Christ’s merit.” It is what theologians will call a “vicarious” sacrifice — one in which Jesus does the work in which we benefit. We receive it freely by God’s grace alone…yet, it is for Christ’s merit and he is rightly praised for this work. Though we receive it freely, there was a terrible price paid for our redemption.