Going spelunking: the cavernous grace of the gospel.
The opening verses of Ephesians 2 are among the most significant in all the pages of Scripture. In a mere ten verses, the apostle Paul upends nearly every presupposed notion about religion, the church, and the believer’s life in Christ. In this text, the Spirit of God, through the pen of a stubborn apostle, single-handedly dismantles any and all preconceived notions about how the Christian life is supposed to work, simultaneously giving us a grandiose portrait of God’s salvation. Such why it is considered by many to be, perhaps, the most important passage in all the Bible.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do. (Eph 2:1–10)
By writing this epistle to the Ephesian Christians, Paul seeks to address the false ideologies and philosophies that had risen up in the region after his time with the church. Paul first passed through Ephesus in A.D. 52 during his Second Missionary Journey. He would later spend two-and-a-half years in intentional preaching and ministering and discipling in the church (A.D. 54—56). It is generally believed that Paul wrote this letter sometime between A.D. 60—61, in conjunction with his letter to the Colossians. Indeed, you can find very similar themes and topics addressed in both epistles. It is, therefore, asserted that both churches were enduring some of the same issues regarding false doctrine.
What’s more, as with Colossians, Ephesians is said to be a “circular letter” — that is, despite being a letter purposefully written for the context of the Ephesian church, it was providentially meant for a broader audience. The topics addressed throughout apostle’s discourse were no doubt relevant to the church at Ephesus and resonated with them to a great degree, but they were also words that were crucial for all the Christians in the region. Thus, it is held that this letter was passed around to multiple churches, to be read in public worship services.
In similar fashion, churches in the 21st century are reading the same Ephesian letter, some 2,000-odd years later, and finding it just as relevant today as it was then. Ephesians is a letter that serves as the perfect anthem to God’s incomprehensible love for sinners. Most notably here, in the first ten verses of chapter 2, we are made to see the clearest picture of God’s gospel of salvation and the basis upon which all Christian life rests.
Who does God save?
Who are the kinds people that God chooses to redeem? To rescue? Who does God go after? Certainly not the sort of people one would instinctively expect. Paul declares that it is those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” that have been sought after. (Eph 2:1) Those who walk “according to the ways of this world” and “according to the ruler of the power of the air.” (Eph 2:2) Those who are by nature “disobedient” and “under wrath.” (Eph 2:2–3) In short, God goes after sinners!
Verses 1–3 describe every single person who has ever lived on this earth. Even though you might call yourself a Christian, and walk and live as a redeemed child of God (albeit imperfectly), the apostle’s description was you. “We were by nature children under wrath as the others were also,” he says. (Eph 2:3) We all lived this way. At some point in time, you were dead in sin — you were a child of wrath. You were a breaker of God’s law and, because of that rebellion and disobedience, you were deserving of God’s wrath. Before you knew Jesus Christ as your Savior, you were his enemy, living under the influence and rule of sin and the devil. Your life was one that was racked with “fleshly desires” and “inclinations” that only sought after the fulfillment of the flesh. (Eph 2:3) Before Christ came into your life, nothing about you was good or holy or righteous — everything about you was sinful and selfish.
Perhaps, though, this is still you. If you don’t know Jesus as your Savior today, you are in terrible jeopardy. You see, because what Paul is trying to get across here, is that those who don’t know God aren’t just sick, they’re dead. You don’t just need medicine, you need resuscitation, you need resurrection! The sickness of sin can’t be taken away by a magic pill or a silver bullet. It can’t be fixed by your own doing or by your own activity. It can only be eradicated by the everlasting grace of God.
What did God do?
What does God do with these dead sinners? With these enemies of his kingdom? He does what he always does: he shows mercy and love for them by making a way to redeem them. (Eph 2:4) Despite all that was done against him and his name, God himself intervenes on behalf of sinners. “But God . . .” (Eph 2:4) These are, perhaps, the two most beautiful words in the entire Bible. One would feel all the wrath and vitriol for sin, but for this God, “who is rich in mercy,” who has, “because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ.” (Eph 2:5) It is God himself who quickens us, who raises us from the dead. This brings to mind the opening verse, as those who were once “dead in sin” have now been “made alive” in Christ. They’ve been made alive to spiritual things, resurrected in the Spirit.
But this merciful God “raised us up with” Christ, it also says. (Eph 2:6) God raises us with Christ, giving to us the full measure of his righteousness. But this merciful God “seated us with” Christ, Paul continues. (Eph 2:6) God sits us down with Christ, at the Father’s right hand. And in so doing, we are given us all the benefits of being God’s sons and daughters. In which we are made to see that this salvation is the adoption of lost sinners into his glorious family. God’s church, then, is an orphanage of sinners saved by grace. And every delight God the Father has for his Son is conferred to you once you believe in him. This is what God does for those who believe in him.
You know, if you were to consult your Greek Lexicon, you would notice that verses 1–7 comprise one long, run-on sentence — one continuous thought. I bring that to your attention because I want you to notice who is doing all the actions in this sentence. (Eph 2:4–6) It is God himself who quickens, raises, and sits us down. God and God alone is at once the Author, the Agent, and the Advocate for our complete redemption. He is the subject of this sentence, the Actor on this glorious stage of salvation. We, the dead, the sinners, are merely the direct objects of his grace. And so it is that we are made to see that this process of salvation, of redemption, is not a human achievement. It’s an act of divine goodness and grace. “You are saved by grace!” Paul implores. (Eph 2:5)
When did God do this?
We understand that God saves sinners and he does the saving. But when does God do this? When does God establish this way of salvation? Does God wait to see something in us before he saves us? Does God hold off on the measure of his grace until we show a smidgen of change? Not even close! God makes a way for us dead sinners to be made alive “even though we were dead in trespasses.” (Eph 2:5) Even while we were dead, God was loving us.
The gospel is good news because it meets the worst sorts of people with the best news possible: that even while they weren’t seeking after God, in fact, even while they were running away from him, God was seeking after them! Paul elsewhere says, “But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) God shows his love for the world by loving the world even when they were enemies against him, even when they were rebelling against him.
Consequently, God’s love for us does not depend on our love for him. It does not depend on what we are. God’s love is a manifestation of his own heart. God loves you not because he sees something lovable and good in you. He loves you because everything in him is good and full of love. In fact, the Bible elsewhere says that he is Love (1 Jn 4:8) — it is who God is. God’s love for us is there even before we seek or ask for it. It is there from eternity, from “before the foundation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) Before you were even born, God paid for your sins by his own blood.
Where did God do this?
Where does God do this mighty work of rescuing and resurrecting dead sinners? Where does he win this glorious victory over sin and Satan? Paul asserts that God has “made us alive with Christ,” and “also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,” and seeks to forever display “the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:5–7) It is thus that we are made to understand that in a gloriously paradoxical manner, God the Father redeems and rescues sinners at the very scene of his Son’s death. At a place called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, on the cross where his life was laid down for you.
The remarkable fact of the gospel is that the very place that was meant for execution is the very place where eternal life is born. That place of punishment is the place of freedom. As Jesus was breathing his last, he was buying all of mankind’s redemption. As the nails pierced his hands and feet, and as the blood poured from his head and side, he was thinking of individual sinners, buying their pardon. “Father, forgive them,” he says from the cross, on behalf of those who put him in there in the first place.
Why did God do this?
But why does God determine to save sinners at all? If we disobeyed him and deserved his wrath, why didn’t he just burn us all up and start over again? I believe it’s because he wanted to show you just how awesome he is. God wanted to show you just how important his holiness is and how amazing grace is. God’s holiness and righteousness are so significant that at his own Son’s expense, he will pay for them — likewise, God is so good and gracious, that at his own Son’s expense, he will pay for our sins.
A world [that remains] unfallen reveals but half of God. The deep recesses of his character only come out in connection with a world [that is] fallen . . . To learn what holiness is, and how holy God is, we need not merely to see his feelings towards the holy but towards the unholy . . . God’s purpose is to make more of himself known to you, a sinner, than was made known to Adam in his sinlessness.1
You see, God’s salvation of sinners tells us far more about God than we could ever learn in any other way. We would know some of the holiness and goodness of God by learning of his interaction with the angels, with holy creatures, but when we hear of God’s interaction with sinners, we learn far more. God wants the full expanse his heart and character to be known to the world. Therefore, he has seen fit to showcase the immensity of his love and grace by saving sinners who once were dead. He shows off his great mercy and kindness for all the for all creation to see for all the “coming ages.” (Eph 2:7)
And so it is that we see that God’s way of salvation is his way of showing us the depths and heights of his glorious Person. Think of the character of God as a cave, a vast cavern. The purpose of the Christian life, then, is to be mining the immeasurable riches of God’s cavernous, gracious character. (Eph 2:7) We’ll never reach the bottom or find the limits of this cavern. “God’s love, Christ’s grace is an infinite depth,” writes Octavius Winslow, “deeper than our sins, deeper than our unworthiness, deeper than our need.”2 As soon as you think you have found the floor, God exposes yet another undiscovered cave to explore.
Sinners saved by grace are masterpieces of God’s grace. (Eph 2:10) They are works of art that showcase how great and good and kind and patience and merciful the God of the Bible is. They are the workmanship of the Spirit’s work. Out of the nasty material of our sin, God the Father makes a masterpiece of grace, showcasing his love, mercy, patience, kindness, and holiness for all the world to see.
How did God do this?
How does God accomplish this marvelous act of salvation? How does he redeem those who are dead in their sin? The answer to these inquiries is, perhaps, the foundational element of the entire Christian life. Indeed, misconstruing the answer to “how does God save” leads to a litany of heresies and misrepresentations of the gospel and Christianity as a whole. Paul writes, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8–9) All of salvation is all of grace. God accomplishes every miracle in the work of salvation by his marvelous grace alone. It is not by works that man is saved. Not by merit. Not by sweat. Not by blood. (At least not yours.) Man’s own efforts and ingenuity are woefully inadequate to meet God’s requirements. It is only by the blood, sweat, and tears of the One who has taken your place on the cross that this work of redemption completed. Every part in God’s way of salvation is a product of his grace.
The gospel, as presented here, and as seen throughout the rest of your Bible, dismantles any notion that one can venture upon any enterprise to save oneself. You can’t do anything in the way of salvation except provide the sin that makes it necessary. The Word of God alone announces that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone all for the glory of God alone. Period. Full stop. There are no add-ons to this good news. No addendums. No amendments. No stipulations. No fine print. This is the essence of the gospel.
Do you see how this flies in the face of modern philosophy? Do you see how this dismantles all our religious egos? God, through Paul, adamantly declares that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to save yourself. You can’t raise yourself. You can’t make peace with God by yourself. You can’t buy your own salvation. Nothing you can do, no amount of effort on your part can ever make up for the infinite debt of sin you owe. No amount of working will make it up. No amount of religious activity will pay off this debt. No amount of moralism will ever satisfy the righteousness that is required by the law. Regardless of how busy you are for God, if you are not resting in his completed work of salvation alone, your spiritual bustling amounts to nothing but a hamster on a wheel: spinning and striving and sweating but going nowhere, accomplishing nothing. Unless you are entirely dependent upon God’s grace for your salvation, you’re on terribly dangerous ground.
There’s one and one thing alone that can span the vast crevasse between the sinner and God, and that is the cross of Christ. The chasm between us and God has been bridged for us by the law-fulfilling grace and death of Jesus on that cross. He became our curse. He bore our sin. He endured the brunt of God’s wrath that you and I were due! All the disgust God has for you was poured out in that brutal death at Calvary. Now, there’s nothing left for you to win or finish or accomplish or merit. “It is finished,” he cried. By which, he meant that the work of salvation is secured, paid in full, forever. All has been won and done by Christ. All that’s left for you to do is live as the glorious expression of what’s been accomplished for you, on your behalf. This is extremely offensive to us.
No one wants to hear that their works don’t matter. “You mean to tell me I can’t do this on my own?” Challenge accepted. We want some skin in the game. We are so desperate for what we do to matter, to count for something, that we’ll rely on our doing for our salvation. But what Paul declares here is that God’s way of salvation is not for those who insist on having some “skin in the game.” The fact of the matter is, there is no more game — the game is over. It’s already been won on your behalf by the death of another. The skin was his, not yours.
Grace nixes the competition by giving you the only score that actually matters: the righteousness of God — given, not won or earned, but given for free. We offend God greatly when we insist on making our religious activity the basis for our salvation. By doing so, we’re demanding to pay for a check that Christ has already taken care of. Have you ever done that? Have you ever been out to eat with someone who demanded to pay some portion of the bill? They try and leave at least the tip. Even after you told them you’d cover the whole thing. Remember how offended you felt when that person shook off your kindness and generosity by insisting on paying his part? Amplify that offense a million times and you’ll get a small sliver of an idea of God’s feeling towards us when we demand that our works pay for something in the way of salvation. By doing so, you’re shoving the gift of salvation back in God’s face and saying, “Nah God, I got this. I can do it on my own. I can make my own way. I can be my own savior. I don’t need you God.” Tragic words.
For me, I believe that when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” he meant it. He meant for himself to be the final sacrifice for sin, securing a salvation that leaves nothing undone. It is perfect, it is complete. God didn’t go ninety-nine yards for your redemption and leave the remaining one up to you. God in Christ went all the way to save you. He took all your filth, all your guilt, all your shame. Jesus took all our lustful thoughts, all our foul words, all our fits of anger, all our bitter feelings — he took all that as his own and died for it! Jesus became the criminal so that we the criminals might go free. He became the murderer, the thief, the liar, the adulterer, the drunkard, the rebel, so that you and I could stand as sons and daughters of God the Father. This is the salvation of the Lord. Do you see, now, the incredible lengths to which God has descended to secure your salvation?
Why refuse this gift?
Thus, to the Christian, I would leave you with the endorsement to remember, again, the salvation that was purchased by divine blood for you before you were even alive. To remember that “it is finished.” To remember that you have never done anything to win your salvation and, likewise, you can never do anything to lose it. You live forever on Jesus’s grace.
To the non-Christian, to those who don’t know Jesus as Savior, I pray these words press upon you the urgency of your repentance. This gift of salvation by grace has been tendered and extended to you by Christ. He bought it with his own life, by his own blood. And he gives this gift to you freely. When you repent, you’re not unlocking God’s forgiveness. You’re just recognizing the fact of your sin and the fact that God has forgiven you already in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, when you repent, you are planted on something new, solid, firm, finished.
Why are you waiting? Why do you leave this gift unopened? Don’t refuse God’s generosity. Allow his Spirit to work in you and open your eyes to your desperation. Cry out to Jesus, “God, I’m a sinner, but I want to be saved — I need your gift of salvation.” God answers this prayer with full salvation, total amnesty, gratuitous pardon, and cavernous grace.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 47–49.
Octavius Winslow, The Ministry of Home: Brief Expository Lectures on Divine Truth (London: William Hunt & Co., 1867), 110.