On October 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure was playing in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas, when she accidentally fell into an abandoned well. For the next 58 hours, the entire world stopped and watched the dramatic rescue effort. This week, I pulled up an interview conducted with Jessica and her family 10 years after that incident.
As you might expect, Jessica didn’t remember that ordeal at all, her mother had to explain what happened to her. Imagine what the mother might say. “Jessica, you were trapped in a 20-foot pit, you were alone without food and without water and with little hope of rescue. We could hear you singing Winnie the Pooh and Jesus Loves Me to comfort yourself. But then the rescuers drilled a 29-foot vertical shaft next to the abandoned well, and two men made their way down that shaft and they attached you to a board, and they lifted you up out of the pit! And the whole world cheered when they heard the good news.”
In Ephesians 2, Paul uses similar language to describe God’s dramatic rescue of every Christian. In verses 1-3, he says that before we were saved, we were dead, we were depraved, and we were doomed—trapped in a deep hole of sin. But in verse 4, God instigated the most miraculous rescue attempt of all time when He Sent Jesus Christ to resurrect us from the spiritual grave, release us from slavery to sin, and reinstate us as one of God’s children.
That is what it means to be saved. Only when you understand our desperate situation apart from Christ—dead, depraved, and doomed—can you truly appreciate God’s miraculous liberation of our lives.
We have seen the miracle of our salvation. What was God’s motive in saving us—it has nothing to do with us, but everything to do with God. God saved us because of his great love, mercy, kindness, and grace.
But how exactly does God save us?
For this blog, I want us to focus on three profound words in this verse that describe God’s method for saving us: grace, faith, and works.
1. We Are Saved by Grace
For by grace, you have been saved. We’ve seen this phrase before, in verse 5, Paul says the same thing in a parenthetical statement to explain why God “made us alive . . . with Christ” even though “we were dead in our transgressions.” Simply put, we are saved by grace. But whose grace—God’s grace.
We hear this word a lot, but what is grace?
The Meaning of “Grace”
- By Definition
The word translated as grace is “charis” in the Greek language. The Greeks used that word to describe that indescribable something that causes one person to be attracted to another person. Those of us who have been—and are in love—know exactly what that feeling is, though we really can’t define it.
At other times, the Greeks used the word to describe that burst of generosity that would bestow a lavish and undeserved gift on another person. We saw an illustration of that last week in the story of Henry Moorhouse, the London social worker who saw the little girl drop a pitcher of milk and purchased another one for her. Why? Because of this burst of compassion and generosity—grace.
Later, the word “charis” was used to refer to the forgiveness of a debt. A person might owe a debt he could not pay, but the owner, out of charis—grace—would forgive the debt. The greatest picture of this is when Jesus, while on the cross, cried out: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). That phrase is captured by the Greek word: tetelesai. It’s an accounting word meaning, “paid in full.” In ancient days receipts for a purchase were often inscribed with “Tetelesai.” We have a similar practice today. It’s just that we stamp our receipts with “Paid in Full.”
That is what grace is—an undeserved, inexplicable, burst of generosity shown to someone in need.
The best anyone has done to nail down exactly what charis means is this: It is God’s unmerited favor and divine enablement.
For by “grace,” we have been saved.
- By Contrast
But even a better way of understanding what it means to be saved by God’s grace is to understand by contrast how we are NOT saved. Verse 8—that not of yourselves—verse 9 not of works, that no one should boast. This is absolutely contrary to our natural way of thinking. 99 out of 100 people believe that getting to heaven must in some way be based on our works.
But Paul says salvation is not by works—it’s a free gift. “Since we have not been saved by our good works, we cannot be lost by our bad works,” Warren Wiersbe wrote. “Grace means salvation completely apart from any merit or works on our part. Grace means that God does it all for Jesus’ sake! Our salvation is the gift of God. . . . Salvation is a gift, not a reward.”
But why isn’t salvation a reward for good works?
- We are unable to earn eternal life. (Romans 3:10, 23)
- God is unwilling to allow us to earn eternal life. (Romans 4:1-5)
2. We Are Saved Through Faith
Let me give you an example of what I mean by faith being a channel or conduit. Whether you’ve ever had a home built or not, you’ve seen new home construction. When a new home is in its skeleton phase, when there’s nothing but the framing, it’s difficult to distinguish rooms—bedrooms from the kitchen, the dining room from the living room.
When the plumbing goes in, however, even before they’ve put up drywall outlining the boundaries of each room, you can get a pretty good idea of the layout of the house. Plumbing is a vital part of making a house not just livable, but comfortable.
But the pipes that lead to your kitchen sink, the bathtubs and showers, and the bathroom faucets—to say nothing of the toilets—aren’t the most important things. If your pipes are not connected to the city’s water system, it doesn’t matter how extensive the plumbing is in your home, or how beautiful the bathtubs and faucets are. The plumbing is merely the means through which you receive the most important thing: water.
In the same way, grace is like the clean, refreshing water that flows into our homes. Faith is like the plumbing that delivers God’s grace. This is why I say, faith is not what saves us. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have, it is worthless by itself—just as plumbing is without water. The source of our salvation is God, our faith is simply the means by which we receive his salvation into our lives. Did you catch what Spurgeon said earlier? Faith is the “instrument” by which the grace of God saves us. The water is always flowing, but not everyone turns the faucet and lets it flow into their lives.
Let me say one more thing about faith, as a clarification. Spurgeon mentioned this also. The effectiveness of our faith is not based on the amount of our faith, but the object of our faith—“Christ’s blood and merits,” Spurgeon wrote. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have if your faith is in the wrong thing, any more than if all your plumbing was hooked up to the city’s sewer system instead of just the pipes used for waste disposal.
3. We Are Saved for Good Works
Please notice these small, but critical, prepositions. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. God’s whole purpose in creating us was that we would perform good works.
By the way, will you notice here that good works such as compassion for people in need, love for the unlovable, self-control, forgiveness toward those who wrong us, serving in the church, investing our money in God’s work—these things are not niceties, they are necessities in the Christian life.
Here are two reasons good works are important.
For example, suppose I invite you to my backyard on a nice fall day to see my apple tree. I brag incessantly about my tree and all I do to care for it. You point out that there are no apples anywhere on the barren branches and that the tree is dead. I say to wait just a moment while I drive up the street to Tom Thumb, buy some apples, race back to the backyard, and tie the apples to the dead branches. I say, “Now it’s alive! Look at all the apples.” Apples do not produce life on an apple tree, but they prove there is life in an apple tree.
In the same way, a non-Christian who tries to get to heaven by doing good works is just as futile as tying apples to a dead branch—it will never produce spiritual life.
Likewise, good works don’t save us, but they prove we are saved. “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone,” Martin Luther once said.
Grace that is received through faith will always, ALWAYS produce works. But where there is no fruit, there is no genuine faith.
Full Passage: Ephesians 2:8-10