On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther hammered his now famous Ninty-Five Theses to the castle door at Wittenberg. It wasn’t long before his “beef” with Rome went viral and led to his excommunication. Less than four years later, Luther was summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms. He was asked if the books, which were publicly displayed, were his. Indeed they were, according to Luther. When Luther was asked to recant, his response reverberated throughout Germany and echoed around the world: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”[1]

The central question of the Reformation was, “How can a sinful person stand in the presence of a holy God?” We might say, “How is a person saved?” Before we answer this important question, we turn our attention to a question that lurks in the background, namely, “Why do we need saving?” Ephesians 2:1-3 provides a sobering answer:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Paul tells us in verse 1 that, apart from grace, we are dead in trespasses and sins. Simply put, unregenerate people are spiritual corpses, destitute and without life. They lack the desire and ability to approach God or please him in any way. According to Ephesians 2:2, apart from grace, we are walking according to the dictates of this world; following the prince of the power of the air. That is, prior to receiving grace, we willingly followed the devil and lived according to his delights. Additionally, we lived according to the passion of the flesh and were in bondage to sinful impulses (verse 3). We were lovers of self and incapable of breaking free from the demands of sin.

And apart from grace, we were children of wrath (verse 3b). Apart from grace, we were wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and unrighteous (Romans 3:10). We had no desire for God (Romans 3:11) and had no inclination to do good for the glory of God (Romans 3:12). Indeed, we hated God and were hostile to him (Romans 3:13-17; 8:7-8). We were slaves to sin (John 8:34) and unable to come to Christ apart from God’s empowerment (John 6:44, 65). It is in this context that we begin to comprehend the need for God’s grace. Who is behind our salvation? And how are we saved from the wrath of God? Ephesians 2:4-9 helps us make sense of these questions and offers hope for needy people.

Salvation Is Generated By God

First, salvation is generated by God. The Bible is clear about this. Indeed, salvation belongs to the Lord (Jonah 2:9).

The Fact of Regeneration

Regeneration is the decisive act of God whereby he sovereignly grants new spiritual life to dead people. R.C. Sproul adds:

“Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit upon those who are spiritually dead. The Spirit recreates the human heart, quickening it from spiritual death to spiritual life. Regenerate people are new creations. Where formerly they had no disposition, inclination, or desire for the things of God, now they are disposed and inclined toward God. In regeneration, God plants a desire for Himself in the human heart that otherwise would not be there.”[2]

Regeneration is the sole work of God. John writes, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).

Regeneration is the special work of the Holy Spirit. In his fascinating exchange with Nicodemus, Jesus helps this man understand the role of the Spirit: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6). Regeneration is the sovereign work of God. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans: “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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:15–16).

Regeneration is never based on works: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness …” (Romans 4:4–5). Regeneration precedes faith. While many evangelicals are content to believe that sinners must believe in order to be regenerated, the New Testament teaches something very different. John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1st John 5:1).

The Fallout of Grace

The blessing of receiving God’s grace become immediately clear in Ephesians 2:6. First, Paul says, “God raised us up with him.” Sunegeirõ means “to raise together from mortal death to a new and blessed life that is dedicated to God.” Spiritually dead people are granted new life in Christ, which is all due to the grace of God. Second, God seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ. Notice that the purpose is to “show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).

Salvation Is By the Grace of God

Acknowledging that salvation is generated by God is a theological boon for the soul. But it doesn’t end there. We also recognize that salvation is by the grace of God.

The Basis of Salvation Has Always Been the Grace of God

There has never been another route to God. The basis of our salvation is grounded in God’s grace alone. Wayne Grudem writes, “God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.”[3] One definition of God’s grace is stated as follows: “Grace makes up the difference in what we lack.”[4] Jerry Bridges confronts this pagan notion of grace and responds rightly by arguing that “grace is not a matter of God’s making up the difference, but of God’s providing all the ‘cost’ of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.”[5]

There is no price tag on God’s grace. The grace He sovereignly grants to His people is a gift. And gifts by definition are free. There is no possible way to buy our way to God or work for our salvation. The basis of salvation is by grace alone. However, the means to receive it is by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). “We are not in Christ because of our initiative,” writes Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday, “But by virtue of God’s work in our lives. In other words, we do choose to be in Christ, but we only make this choice because God has effectively worked in our lives so that we desire to make this choice.”[6] Notice the language of Scripture:

  • “This is not your own doing.”
  • “It is a gift of God.”
  • “Not a result of works.”
  • “So that no one can boast.”

How can a sinful person stand in the presence of a holy God? Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Are you a “religious” person or do you have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, by grace alone through faith alone? The Scripture is clear on this matter—“who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” (2nd Timothy 1:9).

Exactly how are we saved from God’s wrath? How are we saved from the penalty of sin and the power of sin? Again, salvation is by the grace of God alone. Yet, we are hardwired to think we only get what we earn. R.C. Sproul comments:

Perhaps the most difficult task for us to perform is to rely on God’s grace and God’s grace alone for salvation. It is difficult for our pride to rest on grace. Grace is for other people – for beggars. We don’t want to live by a heavenly reward system. We want to earn our own way and atone for our own sins. We like to think that we will go to heaven because we deserve to be there.[7]

Final Thoughts

Martin Luther died in the early hours of February 18th, 1546. His final words are consistent with the discoveries he made and fought for: “We are beggars. This is true.” Are you a beggar? Or are you too proud to receive God’s grace? Are you totally dependent upon the grace of God? Do you believe in Sola Gratia or do you hold to grace plus self-effort or grace plus self-discipline, ad infinitum, ad nauseam?

Salvation is generated by God, by grace alone. This mighty theological reality humbles us and causes us to recognize that we, like Luther, are only spiritual beggars. This weighty theological reality reminds us that God’s grace is totally undeserved! But we are also reminded that since God has been gracious to us, we, in turn, are called to be gracious to other people. Paul writes, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2nd Corinthians 4:15). We are completely dependent upon that grace of God in Christ. This is the critical gospel truth that the Reformers rediscovered in the sixteenth century. They called it Sola Gratia—grace alone. And a rediscovery of the Gospel brought radical life change. This is the reign of sovereign grace in the soul of man!

The reign of sovereign grace changed the life of an Augustinian monk and propelled him onto the world stage as he went from Wittenberg and Worms, to Wartburg where he translated the Greek New Testament, and further fueled the fires of the Reformation cause in Europe. Has the Gospel brought change into your life? Do you stand forgiven by a holy God on the basis of God’s grace alone through faith alone? Let us glory in the grace of God as He makes us into the people he wants us to be! Sola Gratia!

References:

[1] Martin Luther, Cited in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Ontario: Mentor Book, 1950), 144.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1998), 171-172.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 200.

[4] Jerry Bridges presents this definition that he strenuously argues against in Transforming Grace( (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 26.

[5] Ibid, 27.

[6] Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 320.

[7] R.C. Sproul, “Suffering and Merit?” Tabletalk magazine (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries), vol. 13, no. 1, February 1989, p. 5. Cited in Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, 60.