May 31, 2009
Where do good works come from?
I. Not from us (Ephesians 2:1-3)
II. But from grace (Ephesians 2:4-9)
III. That works (Ephesians 2:10)
I very much suspect that most people struggle with expectations, with shoulds and oughts. On any given day, if you are like me, you have a long list of stuff you should be doing. I should be reaching out and sharing Christ. I should be taking care of my family. I should be studying my bible. I should be praying. I should be helping families and communities with needs. I should be giving to Christ’s work. I should be conserving my resources so as to not dishonor Christ by debt. I should be discipling believers. I should be caring for my aging parents. I should be exercising. I should be still and know that He is God. I should be working with all my energy. I should, I should, I should.
How do you deal with this tension that seems to pull in ten different directions? How do you deal with Scripture which seems to amplify the tensions by continuing to give commands like ‘love one another’ ‘always be prepared to give an answer’ ‘pray without ceasing’ ‘study to show yourself approved’ ‘do not neglect good works’ ‘help your brothers in need’?
This summer we’re going to look at some of those commands, look at legitimate expectations for the Christian life, things like growing in purity and prayer and fruitfulness, compassion, community, outreach. But we have to lay the right foundation or these expectations will overwhelm us. The key is to ask Scripture “where do these good works come from?” I look inside and see I’m inadequate for these things. I suspect you feel the same way. But if not from within where does the ability to obey come from? It’s not that difficult a question Biblically, and the answer is both comforts and strengthens.
The series we begin this week is ‘Faith that Works.’ Part of the Scripture we read was Titus 3, where Paul says God saves us, not because of righteous things we have done, but through his mercy; he justifies us by grace; he gives eternal life. But having said that Paul tells Titus: “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.” My goal s that those of us who have trusted in God may be careful to devote ourselves to doing what is good.
But first we have to resolve this tension. What is the source, the supply, that allows us to live the Christian life? The clue is in Paul’s sequence. Notice in Titus 3 that he clearly holds off on the expectations until he has explained salvation by grace. There is something about salvation by grace that allows God to make these demands and put these tensions in the lives of believers.
Next week we’re going to look at some very challenging verses in the book of James that will emphasize the necessity of good works by believers, so much so that James has been accused of requiring works for salvation. But to grasp what James teaches about works, we need first to learn what Paul teaches. . To do that we’re going to look at a very familiar passage, Ephesians 2:1-10, and we’ll answer the question ‘where do good works come from?”
I. Not from us (Ephesians 2:1-3)
The first part of the answer us: not from us. Ephesians 2:1-3 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
We’re really going to focus our attention today on Ephesians 2:10, but you can’t understand that verse, which is the answer to our question, without revisiting these familiar foundational verses. So notice verse 1: our initial condition is dead: not a good condition to be in when attempting to meet expectations. Most companies are quick to dismiss dead employees. The Greek word implies both physical and spiritual death. We’re not yet physically dead, but we are spiritually dead, there is no spiritual vitality in us, no life in us. That’s the extent of our uselessness: we are corpses trying to keep up a certain lifestyle.
And this death is the result of our transgressions and sins. Sin is disobeying God. When we do anything we know is wrong, anything God says is wrong, anything that violates his moral law, we’ve sinned. Whether it’s a seemingly minor thing like anger or selfishness, or major like adultery or murder, it’s all sin. In fact Jesus taught that embracing images of those sins in your mind, even if you don’t carry them out, is still sin. So if you listen to your own train of thought, you’ll find all kinds of antagonism and hate, greed, lust and laziness. Scripture says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “The wages of sin is death.”
This is a simple case of cause and effect. Sin. Die. Isaiah explains: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.” Sin separates. If you’ve never received salvation, your sins now separate you from God. And like a baby separated from its mother, or a branch separated from a tree, the fact of separation is a death sentence. As a result of sin, you’re like a person who sees an atomic explosion and receives a fatal dose of radiation. You’re dead, you just don’t know it yet.
Every one of us, before salvation, lives in sin. The world, the flesh, and the devil work to keep us there. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.”
The world is a system, organized by Satan to hate and oppose all that is godly. Ask yourself: Is there anything in this world - media, politics, business, industry - that promotes right behavior? Not often. Most of the world’s systems promote wrong behavior: materialism and greed, sexual sin, oppression, victimization, selfishness in relationships.
Paul specifies that you followed “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” This spirit is not God’s Holy Spirit, but the accuser, the devil, Satan himself. He is the ruler of the kingdoms of the air: of principalities, powers, and authorities. 1 John 5:19 says “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” He orchestrates the evil environment in which we struggle. “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel.”
Yet we can’t blame the world or Satan entirely for our sinful choices. Paul goes on to say “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” Our sinful nature, our flesh, is the part of us that won’t resist sin, that wants to disobey God, and wants to give in to evil desires.
Paul told the Galatians that “the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” We all know the voice of inner desires that says: “I don’t care about consequences, I just want this.”
Sin is thus focused on self gratification. John Stott says, in The Cross of Christ: “The emphasis of Scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sins. We actively refuse to acknowledge and obey God as Creator and Lord. We’ve rejected the dependence which our createdness requires, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we’ve dared to proclaim our self-dependence, our autonomy, claiming the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards: it’s essence is hostility to God, active rebellion against Him”
So our initial condition us utter deadness to God in sin. Paul says that we were by nature objects of wrath. The word translated objects is frequently translated ‘children’ It means those who are closely associated with someone or something. It says we are naturally heirs to the wrath of God. How do we understand God’s wrath? We have to start with God’s holiness: God is entirely pure and sinless. Isaiah sees a vision of God’s throne, and he hears the angel host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty.”
Isaiah right response to this is “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips” He saw his sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness. Habakkuk 1:13 “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil: you cannot tolerate wrong.” God’s wrath is his holy response. Stott puts it this way: God cannot be in the presence of sin, and if it approaches him too closely, it is repudiated or consumed.”
This is what theologians mean when they talk about ‘total depravity’. It’s not that unsaved men can’t do anything good, though it’s likely their motivations are flawed. But even if men do good, that good cannot offset or outweigh or bridge the separation caused by sin. Perfume cannot cover the stench of rot or reverse its effects. Therefore we are by nature objects of wrath.
II. But from grace (Ephesians 2:4-9)
So the right behavior and obedience we’ll be studying these next eight weeks is not found in us. We’re the sinners, willingly trapped in sin. Rescue comes not by our efforts but God’s. Verses 4-9: 4But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love for us, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions– it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Even though we were dead in transgressions, God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ and saved us by grace. We’ve seen this so graphically in this spring’s study in Mark. Christ became sin to rescue us from wrath. He experienced the wrath of God which should have been directed at me. Christ knew the revulsion, the disgust, even the hatred of God the Father. He knew the separation sin creates from a holy God. This is why he cried out on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
And because of what Christ has done, you are saved. It’s as if you were cowering out in a field in the teeth of a great thunderstorm. And you knew the next bolt would strike you. Suddenly Jesus stands over you with arms outstretched and shouts “Let it be me”. With a wild rumble that next shattering bolt of lightning, due you, strikes him.
Sin so vile, wrath so great, that it required the death of God’s Son can never be repaid by mere good works or any act on your part. It is by grace that you have been saved. God is more gracious than you could ask.
Look at what He does by grace, verses 6 and 7: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Here is a great truth: God has already raised us up as he raised Christ. He’s already positioned us in the place of exaltation which we will occupy in the ages to come. He has done so in the spiritual realm, the heavenly realm, in order to show every creature in that realm, both good and evil, the incomparable riches of his grace, his infinite kindness to us in Jesus.
The Bible pictures this as God rescuing us from the pit. Psalm 88:6: You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. But, Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. 2He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” God’s grace lifts us up out of the mud and filth of our sin, and places us in Christ, given righteousness and cleanness in him.
A band called ‘Clear’ put this well in a song on Psalm 18: Great foundations, the ocean valleys, laid bare by his scolding. He reached down from high, took hold and pulled me out of water so deep. To wide open spaces, from darkness below, the floods from the torment had swallowed me whole. To wide open spaces you handed me out, and delivered me over to wide open spaces.
Do you see it? In three verses we’ve gone from objects of wrath to exalting rescue. How? Not by our merit, but by His grace. Paul nails this in verses 8 and 9. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God --9not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Salvation is impossible to sinful men: It is impossible to dodge the bolt, impossible to make yourself clean, impossible for a dead person to climb out of the pit. But God gives salvation as a free gift; He paid the whole price; neither down-payment nor installments nor final payment is required from you. Salvation is by grace though faith, and even the faith is a free gift.
This point cannot be made too strongly. The Gospel is about our desperate need and God’s awesome grace. His grace is documented proof of how much he loves us. Your value is not based on what you do - your works - but on how much you are loved, so much that God sent his Son to bear your punishment.
So where do good works come from? They don’t come from us. Our salvation is not by works. This is foundational to our next eight weeks of study. Paul says ‘Not at all works. All grace.’ Can you say that with me: ‘Not at all works. All grace’. It is the gift of God, not by works. Therefore no one has any reason to boast in themselves. We are all saved by grace.
III. That works (Ephesians 2:10)
But the good news about the good news is that it does not end with our rescue by grace. The answer to our question is found in recognizing that the same grace that saved us now enables us to do what God has called us to do. Verse 10: For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Though we are not saved by good works, they are not unimportant: they are the outcome of God’s grace toward us: our obedience is a work of God as mus as our salvation. It’s not that we are saved by grace and then we stay saved by our own works; rather we are saved by grace and we stay saved by grace. Good works are an outgrowth of salvation, because when he saves us, God creates us anew in Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
In salvation God has re-created us. We are his workmanship. The Greek word is poiema, a variant of a common verb, to do or to make. But this variant is used of the work of a craftsman or an artist. And Paul says that we are that workmanship, recreated in Christ Jesus – and him alone.
One of my favorite places in the world is the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Russian czars gathered an incredible array of European and Oriental art over hundreds of years, and it is displayed in the over three hundred rooms of the Czars’ winter palace.
Included are some of the most renowned masterpieces of all time. Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ is there, as are Renaissance works by DaVinci, Michaelangelo, and Rapheal, Impressionists like Renoir and Monet, and French masters like Cezanne and Van Gogh. The finest works of these masters are beautifully displayed in the ornate halls of the endless palace.
But this verse speaks of an even more magnificent display of an artist’s work. It speaks of an artist who from the most unpromising material crafts images by his grace and for his glory. The Artist is God himself, and you are his workmanship, his masterpiece. Michelangelo was once asked what he was doing as he chipped away at a shapeless rock. He replied. “I’m liberating an angel from this stone.” That’s what God is doing with us. We are being shaped by the hands of the great Maker, the sculptor who created the universe out of nothing.
So you were by nature an object of wrath; now you are a masterpiece. If it wasn’t for grace you’d be what you once were: marred and deformed by sin. But by grace you are God’s own workmanship.
You might also compare yourself, in Christ, to a carefully precisely crafted tool: a perfectly aligned lathe, or a perfectly working machine. We have been re-created not just to be looked at but to do good work. What does it say? You are his masterpiece, re-created in Christ Jesus to do good work: to work well, especially at certain tasks: “which he prepared in advance for us to do.”
This is the answer to our question: where do these good works come from? Where does the ability to meet the expectations of Scripture come from? Where does the ability to obey even the simplest of commands come from? Where does integrity come from? It is not of us – it is grace that works in us.
Imagine you’ve been asked to fill a swimming pool with water. You have plenty of hose, but it’s not hooked up to anything. Will you ever succeed? No. Where will the water come from, you ask? Then the master plumber comes along and he says “Hook it over here. There’s an endless supply of water behind this valve.” God remakes us so we can become a conduit of his love and grace, not because it’s in us, but because he supplies it in limitless quantity.
This is the testimony of Scripture. In the Old Testament God taught his people that their victory was ‘not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit’. And in the New Testament God told Paul that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness."
Do you believe that? Do you believe the answer to our question? The callings of the New Testament to put off sin, to put on righteousness, to bear fruit, to do good works, to show compassion and kindness, to share good news, to love one another, these can only be done when you are the willing recipient of grace. It’s not of us, it is by grace that works in us.
So when you’re tempted to think the expectations of the Christian life, the shoulds and oughts are overwhelming, think about God who saved you as a free gift, by grace alone; think about God who re-created you in Christ Jesus as his workmanship, his masterpiece. Remember that he crafted and formed you to do these good works, which he prepared in advance for you to do.
Where do these good works come from? Not from us but from his grace which works. If that is so, there is no reason left not to approach his demands with confidence, which come not from our strength, but from the fact that his grace is made perfect in our weakness.