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What is Grace?

WHAT IS GRACE?

Cheap Grace?

Cheap grace. The term itself is offensive.

“Why do you use that expression?” a friend asked. “It just seems to denigrate the grace of God. After all, grace isn’t cheap —it’s absolutely free! Isn’t perfect freeness the very essence of grace?”

But “cheap grace” doesn’t speak of God’s grace. It is a self-imparted grace, a pseudograce. This grace is “cheap” in value, not cost. It is a bargain-basement, damaged-goods, washed-out, moth-eaten, second-hand grace. It is a manmade grace reminiscent of the indulgences Rome was peddling in Martin Luther’s day. Cheap? The cost is actually far more than the buyer could possibly realize, though the “grace” is utterly worthless.

The term “cheap grace” was coined by a German Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945 by SS guards, but not before his writings had left their mark. Bonhoeffer’s theological perspective was neo-orthodox, and evangelicalism rightly rejects much of his teaching. But Bonhoeffer spoke powerfully against the secularization of the church. He correctly analyzed the dangers of the church’s frivolous attitude toward grace. After we discard the neo-orthodox teachings, we do well to pay heed to Bonhoeffer’s diatribe against cheap grace:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.

Cheap grace has not lost its worldly appeal since Bonhoeffer wrote those words. If anything, the tendency to cheapen grace has eaten its way into the heart of evangelical Christianity. The no-lordship movement has led the way in legitimizing and institutionalizing cheap grace in American fundamentalism. No-lordship teaching tragically misconstrues and misapplies the biblical doctrine of grace. While verbally extolling the wonders of grace, it exchanges the real item for a facsimile. This bait-and-switch tactic has confounded many sincere Christians.

No-lordship theology utterly ignores the biblical truth that grace “instruct[s] us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” ( Titus 2:12 ). Instead, it portrays grace as a supernatural “Get Out of Jail FREE” ticket—a no-strings-attached, open-ended package of amnesty, beneficence, indulgence, forbearance, charity, leniency, immunity, approval, tolerance, and self-awarded privilege divorced from any moral demands.

Supergrace is fast becoming the most popular bandwagon in the evangelical parade. Those who make allegiance to Christ’s lordship optional are leading the way. They have even begun calling their teaching “grace theology” and refer to their movement as “The Grace Movement.”

Yet the “grace” they speak of alters believers’ standing without affecting their state. It is a grace that calls sinners to Christ but does not bid them surrender to Him. In fact, no-lordship theologians claim grace is diluted if the believing sinner must surrender to Christ. The more one actually surrenders, the more grace is supposedly watered down ( SGS 18). This is clearly not the grace of Titus 2:11–12.

No wonder Christians are confused. With so much contradictory and obviously unbiblical teaching continuing to gain popularity, we might wonder about the future of biblical Christianity.

What Is Grace?

Grace is a terribly misunderstood word. Defining it succinctly is notoriously difficult. Some of the most detailed theology textbooks do not offer any concise definition of the term. Someone has proposed an acronym: GRACE is G od’s R iches A t C hrist’s E xpense. That’s not a bad way to characterize grace, but it is not a sufficient theological definition. One of the best-known definitions of grace is only three words: God’s unmerited favor. A. W. Tozer expanded on that: “Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits on the undeserving.” Berkhof is more to the point: grace is “the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, effected through the agency of the Holy Spirit.”

At the heart of the term grace is the idea of divine favor. The Hebrew word for grace is chēn , used, for example, in Genesis 6:8 : “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Closely related is the verb chānan , meaning “to show favor.” In the New Testament, “grace” is a rendering of the Greek charis , meaning “gracefulness,” “graciousness,” “favor,” or “gratitude.” Intrinsic to its meaning are the ideas of favor, goodness, and goodwill.

Grace is all that and more. Grace is not merely unmerited favor; it is favor bestowed on sinners who deserve wrath. Showing kindness to a stranger is “unmerited favor”; doing good to one’s enemies is more the spirit of grace ( Luke 6:27–36 ).

Grace is not a dormant or abstract quality, but a dynamic, active, working principle: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation … and instructing us” ( Titus 2:11–12 ). It is not some kind of ethereal blessing that lies idle until we appropriate it. Grace is God’s sovereign initiative to sinners ( Eph. 1:5–6 ). Grace is not a one-time event in the Christian experience. We stand in grace ( Rom. 5:2 ). The entire Christian life is driven and empowered by grace: “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods” ( Heb. 13:9 ). Peter said we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” ( 2 Pet. 3:18 ).

Thus we could properly define grace as the free and benevolent influence of a holy God operating sovereignly in the lives of undeserving sinners.

Graciousness is an attribute of God. It is His nature to bestow grace. “He is gracious and compassionate and righteous” ( Ps. 112:4 ). “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and relenting of evil” ( Joel 2:13 ). He is “the God of all grace” ( 1 Pet. 5:10 ); His Son is “full of grace and truth” ( John 1:14 ); His Spirit is “the Spirit of grace” ( Heb. 10:29 ). Berkhof observed, “While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fulness of Him who is ‘full of grace and truth.’ ”

Charis is found in the Greek text 155 times, 100 times in the Pauline epistles alone. Interestingly, the term itself is never used in reference to divine grace in any of the recorded words of Jesus. But grace permeated all His ministry and teaching (“The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” [ Matt. 11:5 ]; “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” [ Matt. 11:28 ]).

Grace is a gift. God “gives a greater grace.… [He] gives grace to the humble” ( James 4:6 ). “Of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace” ( John 1:16 ). Christians are said to be “stewards of the manifold grace of God” ( 1 Pet. 4:10 ). But that does not mean that God’s grace is placed at our disposal. We do not possess God’s grace or control its operation. We are subject to grace, never vice versa.

Paul frequently contrasted grace with law ( Rom. 4:16 ; 5:20 ; 6:14–15 ; Gal. 2:21 ; 5:4 ). He was careful to state, however, that grace does not nullify the moral demands of God’s law. Rather, it fulfills the righteousness of the law ( Rom. 6:14–15 ). In a sense, grace is to law what miracles are to nature. It rises above and accomplishes what law cannot (cf. Rom. 8:3 ). Yet it does not annul the righteous demands of the law; it confirms and validates them ( Rom. 3:31 ). Grace has its own law, a higher, liberating law: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” ( Rom. 8:2 ; cf. James 1:25 ). Note that this new law emancipates us from sin as well as death. Paul was explicit about this: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” ( Rom. 6:1–2 ). Grace reigns through righteousness ( Rom. 5:21 ).

There are two extremes to be avoided in the matter of grace. We must take care not to nullify grace through legalism ( Gal. 2:21 ) or corrupt it through licentiousness ( Jude 4 ).

Two Kinds of Grace

Theologians speak of common grace and special grace. Common grace is bestowed to mankind in general. It is the grace that restrains the full expression of sin and mitigates sin’s destructive effects in human society. Common grace imposes moral constraints on people’s behavior, maintains a semblance of order in human affairs, enforces a sense of right and wrong through conscience and civil government, enables men and women to appreciate beauty and goodness, and imparts blessings of all kinds to all peoples. God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” ( Matt. 5:45 ). That is common grace.

Common grace is not redemptive. It does not pardon sin or purify sinners. It does not renew the heart, stimulate faith, or enable salvation. It can convict of sin and enlighten the soul to the truth of God. But common grace alone does not lead to eternal salvation, because the hearts of sinners are so firmly set against God ( Rom. 3:10–18 ).

Special grace, better called saving grace, is the irresistible work of God that frees men and women from the penalty and power of sin, renewing the inner person and sanctifying the sinner through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Normally when the New Testament uses the term grace, the reference is to saving grace. Throughout this book when I speak of grace, I mean saving grace unless I specify otherwise.

Saving grace “reign[s] through righteousness to eternal life” ( Rom. 5:21 ). Grace saves, sanctifies, and brings the soul to glory ( Rom. 8:29–30 ). Every stage of the process of salvation is governed by sovereign grace. In fact, the term grace in the New Testament is often used as a synonym for the whole of the saving process, particularly in the Pauline epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 1:4 ; 2 Cor. 6:1 ; Gal. 2:21 ). Paul saw redemption as so utterly a work of God’s grace that he often used the word grace as a blanket term to refer to the totality of salvation. Grace oversees all of salvation, beginning to end. It never stalls before concluding its work, nor does it ever botch the job.

What we’re really saying is that grace is efficacious. In other words, grace is certain to produce the intended results. God’s grace is always efficacious. That truth is rooted in Scripture. It was a major theme of Augustine’s teaching. The doctrine of efficacious grace is the bedrock of Reformed soteriology (teaching about salvation). Charles Hodge defined efficacious grace as “the almighty power of God.”

No-lordship theology is fundamentally a denial of efficacious grace. The “grace” described in no-lordship teaching is not certain to accomplish its purposes—and most often, it seems, it does not. Under no-lordship grace, key parts of the process—including repentance, commitment, surrender, and even holiness—are optional aspects of the Christian experience, left up to the believer himself (cf. SGS 18). The believer’s faith might even grind to a screeching halt. Yet no-lordship grace tells us we are not supposed to conclude that “he or she was never a believer in the first place” ( SGS 142). Well, then, what are we to conclude? That saving grace is not efficacious? It is the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from no-lordship theology: “God’s miracle of salvation in our lives, accomplished by grace through faith without works, makes ample provision for the lifetime of good works for which he has designed us. But it does not guarantee this ” ( AF 73–74, emphasis added).

One could legitimately characterize the whole lordship controversy as a dispute over efficacious grace. All points in the discussion ultimately come back to this: Does God’s saving grace inevitably obtain its desired effects? If all sides could come to consensus on that one question, the debate would be settled.

Sovereign Grace

It is clear from all this that the sovereignty of God in salvation is at the heart of the lordship debate. The irony is that the so-called Grace Movement denies the whole point of grace: that it is God who effects the complete saving work in sinners. Redemption is all His work. God is wholly sovereign in the exercise of His grace; He is not subject to the human will. “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” ( Rom. 9:15–16 ).

Don’t misunderstand; we are not idle in the process. Nor does saving grace force people to believe against their will. That is not what irresistible grace means. Grace is not coercion. But by transforming the heart, grace makes the believer wholly willing to trust and obey.

Scripture makes clear that every aspect of grace is God’s sovereign work. He foreknows and foreordains the elect ( Rom. 8:29 ), calls the sinner to Himself ( Rom. 8:30 ), draws the soul to Christ ( John 6:44 ), accomplishes the new birth ( John 1:13 ; James 1:18 ), grants repentance ( Acts 11:18 ) and faith ( Rom. 12:3 ; Acts 18:27 ), justifies the believer ( Rom. 3:24 ; 8:30 ), makes the redeemed holy ( Eph. 2:10 ), and finally glorifies them ( Rom. 8:30 ). In no stage of the process is grace thwarted by human failure, dependent on human merit, or subjugated to human effort. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? ” ( Rom. 8:30–32 , emphasis added). That’s grace.

Many people struggle with the concept of sovereign grace, but if God is not sovereign in the exercise of His grace, then it is not grace at all. If God’s purposes were dependent on some self-generated response of faith or on human merit, then God Himself would not be sovereign, and salvation would not be wholly His work. If that were the case, the redeemed would have something to boast about, and grace wouldn’t be grace ( Rom. 3:27 ; Eph. 2:9 ).

Furthermore, because of human depravity, there is nothing in a fallen, reprobate sinner that desires God or is capable of responding in faith. Paul wrote, “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips” ( Rom. 3:11–13 ). Note the metaphors involving death. That is the state of everyone in sin. As we shall see shortly, Scripture teaches that sinful humanity is dead in trespasses and sins ( Eph. 2:1 ), “separate[d] from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12 ). There is no escape from such a desperate predicament, except for the sovereign intervention of God’s saving grace.

By Grace Are You Saved

The classic text on salvation by grace is Ephesians 2:8–9 : “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” Let’s look at those verses in their context and try to understand better how Scripture describes the salvation that is by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians 1 , Paul’s central point was God’s sovereignty in graciously saving the elect. He wrote that God chose us (v. 4 ), predestined us (v. 5 ), guaranteed our adoption (v. 5 ), bestowed on us His grace (v. 6 ), redeemed us (v. 7 ), forgave us (v. 7 ), lavished riches of grace on us (v. 8 ), made known to us His will (v. 9 ), obtained an inheritance for us (v. 11 ), guaranteed that we would glorify Him (vv. 11–12 ), saved us (v. 13 ), and sealed us with the Spirit (vv. 13–14 ). In short, He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (v. 3 ). All of this was the work of His sovereign grace, performed not because of any good in us, but simply “according to the kind intention of His will” (v. 5 , cf. v. 9 ) and “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (v. 11 ).

Here in the first ten verses of Ephesians 2 , Paul chronicles the process of salvation from eternity past:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course 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. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Paul’s focus in those verses is solely on God’s work in saving us, because there is no human work to be considered as a part of the saving process (vv. 8–9 ). These verses describe our past, present, and future as Christians: what we were (vv. 1–3 ), what we are (vv. 4–6 , 8–9 ), and what we will be (vv. 7 , 10 ). The passage reads like a tract on lordship salvation. The apostle Paul names six features of salvation: It is from sin (vv. 1–3 ), by love (v. 4 ), into life (v. 5 ), for God’s glory (vv. 6–7 ), through faith (vv. 8–9 ), and unto good works (v. 10 ).

Salvation is from sin. Paul writes, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course 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. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” ( 2:1–3 ). There is perhaps no more succinct statement in Scripture on the total depravity and lost condition of sinful mankind.

Because we were born in sin we were born to death, “for the wages of sin is death” ( Rom. 6:23 ). People do not become spiritually dead because they sin; they are sinners “by nature” (v. 3 ) and therefore born without spiritual life. Because we were dead to God, we were dead to truth, righteousness, peace, happiness, and every other good thing, no more able to respond to God than a cadaver.

One afternoon early in my ministry at Grace Church I heard a frantic pounding on my office door. I opened the door and there was a little boy, breathless and crying. In a panicked voice he asked, “Are you the Reverend?” When I told him I was, he said, “Hurry! Please come with me.” It was obvious something was terribly wrong, so I ran with him to his house, about half a block away and across the street from our church.

Inside, the boy’s mother was weeping uncontrollably. She said, “My baby is dead! My baby is dead!” She quickly took me to a back room. On the bed was the limp body of a tiny infant. He had evidently died in his sleep. The body was blue and already cold to the touch. The mother had been trying desperately to revive him, but nothing could be done. The child was gone. There was absolutely no sign of life. The mother tenderly held the tiny body, kissed it, gently touched its face, spoke to it, and wept over it. But the child made no response. A crew of paramedics arrived and tried to get the child breathing again, but it was too late. Nothing had any effect. There was no response because there was no life. Even the powerful love of a heartbroken mother could not evoke a response.

Spiritual death is exactly like that. Unregenerate sinners have no life by which they can respond to spiritual stimuli. No amount of love, beseeching, or spiritual truth can summon a response. People apart from God are the ungrateful dead, spiritual zombies, death-walkers, unable even to understand the gravity of their situation. They are lifeless. They may go through the motions of life, but they do not possess it. They are dead even while they live (cf. 1 Tim. 5:6 ).

Before salvation every Christian was in precisely the same predicament. None of us responded to God or to His truth. We were “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” ( Eph. 2:1 ). “We were dead in our transgressions” (v. 5 ). “Trespasses and sins” and “transgressions” here do not speak of specific acts. They describe the sphere of existence of the person apart from God, the realm in which sinners live. It is the eternal night of the living dead. All its inhabitants are totally depraved.

Total depravity does not mean that every person’s lifestyle is equally corrupt and wicked, or that sinners are always as bad as they can be. It means that mankind is corrupt in every regard. The unredeemed are depraved in their minds, their hearts, their wills, their emotions, and their physical beings. They are utterly incapable of anything but sin. Even if they perform humanitarian, philanthropic, or religious deeds, they do them for their own glory, not God’s (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31 ). Sinners may not always sin as grotesquely as possible, but they cannot do anything to please God or earn His favor. Sin has tainted every aspect of their being. That is what it means to be spiritually dead.

A hundred cadavers in the morgue might be in a hundred different phases of decomposition, but they are all equally dead. Depravity, like death, is manifested in many different forms. But just as death itself has no differing degrees of intensity, so depravity is always absolute. Not all people are manifestly as evil as they could be, but all are equally dead in sins.

How do people get around in this state of spiritual death? They walk “according to the course 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” ( Eph. 2:2 ). Satan is “the prince of the power of the air.” He governs the realm of sin and death (“this world”) in which the unredeemed function. It is a realm that features many different and apparently competing religions, moral systems, and standards of behavior, but ultimately they are all under the control and in the grip of the devil. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” ( 1 John 5:19 ).

Thus the unredeemed—whether they realize it or not—have a common lord, “the prince of the power of the air.” Satan is the archōn , the prince. He is “the ruler of this world” and will reign until the Lord casts him out ( John 12:31 ). All those in this realm of sin and death live under his dominion, share his nature, are conspirators in his rebellion against God, and so respond naturally to his authority. They are on the same spiritual wavelength. Jesus even calls the devil the father of those under his lordship ( John 8:44 ).

Note that the unsaved are “by nature children of wrath” ( Eph. 2:3 ). People are not “all God’s children,” as some are fond of saying. Those who have not received salvation through Jesus Christ are God’s enemies ( Rom. 5:10 ; 8:7 ; James 4:4 ), not only “sons of disobedience” but consequently “children of wrath”—objects of God’s eternal condemnation.

Paul’s purpose in Ephesians 2:1–3 is not to show how unsaved people live—though the teaching is valuable for that purpose—but to remind believers how they previously lived. All of us “ formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (v. 3 , emphasis added). The realm of sin and death is a past-tense experience for the believer. We were hopelessly subject to the world, the flesh, and the devil (vv. 2–3 ). We formerly walked as sons of disobedience (v. 2 ). We were dead in sins and trespasses (v. 1 ). Now all that is in the past.

Although we were once like the rest of mankind, by God’s grace we are no longer like that. Because of His saving work in us, we are presently and eternally redeemed. We have been delivered from spiritual death, sin, alienation from God, disobedience, demon control, lust, and divine judgment (vv. 1–3 ). That is what saving grace accomplishes.

Salvation is by love. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us … made us alive together with Christ” (vv. 4–5 ). God’s mercy is “rich,” measureless, overflowing, abundant, unlimited. Some who struggle with the concept of sovereign grace believe God is unfair to elect some and not save everyone. That is exactly opposite from right thinking. The truth is, everyone deserves hell. God in His grace elects to save some. No one would be saved apart from God’s sovereign grace. The thing that keeps sinners from being reconciled to God is not a deficiency of mercy or grace on God’s side of the equation. It is sin, and sin is a human problem. Rebellion and rejection are in the nature of every sinner.

The two words “but God” affirm that the initiative to save is all God’s. Because He is rich in mercy toward us, and because of His great love for us, He intervened and provided a way by grace for us to return to Him.

God is intrinsically kind, merciful, and loving. Love is so integral to who He is that the apostle John wrote, “God is love” ( 1 John 4:8 , 16 ). In His love He reaches out to sinful, corrupt, impoverished, condemned, spiritually dead human beings and blesses them with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ ( Eph. 1:3 ).

Not only does God love enough to forgive, but also enough to give His Son to die for the very ones who had offended Him: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” ( John 3:16 ). “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” ( John 15:13 ). God’s love for those who do not deserve it makes salvation possible and fills salvation with every mercy. It is the epitome of sovereign grace.

Salvation is unto life. “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ” ( Eph. 2:5 ). The saving transaction begins the moment God gives spiritual life to a dead person. It is God who makes the first move. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” ( John 6:44 ). Of course! The unsaved are dead, incapable of any spiritual activity. Until God quickens us, we have no capacity to respond to Him in faith.

When sinners are saved, they are no longer alienated from the life of God. They become spiritually alive through a miraculous, God-wrought union with Christ. They become sensitive to God for the first time. Paul calls it “newness of life” ( Rom. 6:4 ). Now they understand spiritual truth and desire spiritual things ( 1 Cor. 2:10–16 ). Now they have become partakers of the divine nature ( 2 Pet. 1:4 ). They can pursue godliness—“the things above”—rather than “the things that are on earth” ( Col. 3:2 ).

This new life is “in Christ Jesus” ( Eph. 2:6 ). He is our life ( Col. 3:4 ). “We … live with Him” ( Rom. 6:8 ), in the likeness of His resurrection ( 6:5 ). Our new life is actually His life lived in us ( Gal. 2:20 ). It is utterly different from our former life and the supreme manifestation of God’s sovereign grace.

Salvation is for God’s glory. “[God] raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” ( Eph. 2:6–7 ). Salvation has a particular purpose: that we might enjoy and display His glory, showing forth the riches of His grace (cf. Rom. 9:23 ).

Our new citizenship is in heaven ( Phil. 3:20 ). God raises us up with Christ and seats us with Him in the heavenly places. We no longer belong to this present world or its sphere of sinfulness and rebellion. We are rescued from spiritual death and the consequences of our sin. That is pure grace.

Note that the apostle describes this heavenly life as if it were already fully accomplished. Even though we are not yet in full possession of all that God has for us in Christ, we live in His domain, just as we formerly lived in the realm of sin and death. “Heavenly places” clearly implies the full sense of God’s dominion. This expression cannot be read in a way that makes His lordship optional. To dwell in the heavenly domain is to enjoy full fellowship with the Godhead. It is because we dwell in this realm that we enjoy God’s protection, His day-to-day provision, all the blessings of His favor. But no one dwells there who still walks according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and under the control of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience. We are no longer “children of wrath” but “children of God” ( John 1:12 ; 1 John 3:1 ) and citizens of heaven ( Eph. 2:19 ).

Just as in the old realm of sin and death we were subject to the prince of the power of the air (v. 2 ), so in this new realm we follow a new Lord. Just as we were “by nature children of wrath” (v. 3 ) and “sons of disobedience” (v. 2 ), so now we are by nature “alive together with Christ” (v. 5 ) and “in Him” (v. 6 ).

God’s ultimate purpose in our salvation is to exalt His sovereign grace “in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7 ). So our loving Father glorifies Himself even as He blesses us. His grace is the centerpiece of His glory. From the first moment of salvation throughout “the ages to come,” we never stop benefiting from His grace and goodness to us. At no point does grace stop and human effort take over.

Salvation is through faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” ( 2:8–9 ). Faith is our response, not the cause of salvation. Even faith is “not of ourselves”; it is included in “the gift of God.”

Some no-lordship advocates object to this interpretation. They point out that “faith” ( pistis ) is feminine, while “that” ( touto ) is neuter. Grammatically, the pronoun “that” has no clear antecedent. It refers not to the noun, faith, but more likely to the (understood) act of believing. It could possibly refer to the whole of salvation.

Either way, the meaning is inescapable: Faith is God’s gracious gift. Jesus explicitly affirmed this truth: “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” ( John 6:65 ). Faith is also spoken of as a divine gift in Acts 3:16 (“The faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all”), Philippians 1:29 (“To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake”), and 2 Peter 1:1 (“Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours”).

“Not by works” is not contrasting faith versus repentance, faith versus commitment, or faith versus surrender. In fact, the issue here is not as simple as faith versus circumcision or faith versus baptism. The contrast is between divine grace and human merit.

Human effort cannot bring salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. When we relinquish all hope except faith in Christ and His finished work on our behalf, we are acting by the faith that God in His grace supplies. Believing is therefore the first act of an awakened spiritual corpse; it is the new man drawing his first breath. Because faith is unfailing, the spiritual man keeps on breathing.

Obviously, if salvation is entirely by God’s grace, it cannot be as a result of works. Human effort has nothing to do with gaining or sustaining it (cf. Rom. 3:20 ; Gal. 2:16 ). No one should boast, as if we had any part in bringing it about (cf. Rom. 3:27 ; 4:5 ; 1 Cor. 1:31 ).

But we cannot stop here, for there is one more crucial point in Paul’s line of reasoning. It is the principal thesis to which he has been building.

Salvation is unto good works. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” ( 2:10 ). That is a verse no-lordship theology cannot adequately explain. Many no-lordship books have simply ignored it. Verses 8 and 9 may seem to fit easily into the no-lordship system. But without verse 10 we do not have the full picture of what Paul is saying about our salvation.

It cannot be overemphasized that works play no role in gaining salvation. But good works have everything to do with living out salvation. No good works can earn salvation, but many good works result from genuine salvation. Good works are not necessary to become a disciple, but good works are the necessarymarks of all true disciples. God has, after all, ordained that we should walk in them.

Note that before we can do any good work for the Lord, He does His good work in us. By God’s grace we become “ His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The same grace that made us alive with Christ and raised us up with Him enables us to do the good works unto which He has saved us.

Note also that it is God who “prepared” these good works. We get no credit for them. Even our good works are works of His grace. In the previous chapter we called them “faith works.” It would also be appropriate to call them “grace works.” They are the corroborating evidence of true salvation. These works, like every other aspect of divine salvation, are the product of God’s sovereign grace.

Good deeds and righteous attitudes are intrinsic to who we are as Christians. They proceed from the very nature of one who lives in the realm of the heavenlies. Just as the unsaved are sinners by nature, the redeemed are righteous by nature. Paul told the Corinthians that God’s abundant grace provided an overflowing sufficiency that equipped them “for every good deed” ( 2 Cor. 9:8 ). He told Titus that Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds ” ( Titus 2:14 , emphasis added).

Remember that Paul’s primary message here is not evangelistic. He is writing to believers, many of whom had come to Christ years earlier. His point is not to tell them how to be saved, but to remind them of how they were saved, so that they could see how grace is meant to operate in the lives of the redeemed. The phrase “we are His workmanship” is the key to this whole passage.

The Greek word for “workmanship” is pōiema , from which we get poem. Our lives are like a divinely written sonnet, a literary masterpiece. From eternity past, God designed us to be conformed to the image of His Son ( Rom. 8:29 ). All of us are still imperfect, unfinished works of art being carefully crafted by the divine Master. He is not finished with us yet, and His work will not cease until He has made us into the perfect likeness of His Son ( 1 John 3:2 ). The energy He uses to accomplish His work is grace. Sometimes the process is slow and arduous; sometimes it is immediately triumphant. Either way, “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” ( Phil. 1:6 ).

Cheap grace? No way. Nothing about true grace is cheap. It cost God His Son. Its value is inestimable. Its effects are eternal. But it is free—“freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” ( Eph. 1:6 )—and “it abounds to many” ( Rom. 5:15 ), elevating us into that heavenly realm where God has ordained that we should walk.

John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles : The Role of Works in the Life of Faith, Originally Published: Faith Works. Dallas : Word Pub., c1993. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 2000).

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.

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