Still Amazed by Grace

Ephesians 1:8

Tom Pennington  •  September 23, 2007
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Several weeks ago, I mentioned as an illustration, Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Some of you have had the opportunity to see that masterpiece. It struck me this week as I was thinking about it again, that every year, millions of people stream through the Sistine Chapel. They spend their fifteen minutes looking up at that great masterpiece, and then they move on to the next stop on the tour, hardly doing justice to the effort and energy and the amazing creativity of Michelangelo. To fully appreciate that work means that you have to spend some time poring over the detail. Only then can you fully appreciate the incredible richness of the painting.

It's really true in all disciplines of life isn't it? In every discipline, to fully appreciate the skill involved means that you have to take more than a sort of cursory look. The same holds true for our study of Ephesians. We ought not merely glance at the amazing artistry of God's eternal plan of redemption. We ought to study it. We ought to, as it were, sit down and notice every tone and every shade of color and every nuance of shape, because the glory of a great artist is in the details. There's one rich detail that keeps showing up on the canvas of Paul's letter to the Ephesians that we really haven't studied yet as deeply as we should. It's already been mentioned a couple of times in the first verses of Ephesians 1, that we've studied, but Paul introduces it to us clearly the last of verse 7, and the first words of Ephesians 1:8.

Notice what he says. Look at the end of verse 7. "The riches of His grace, which He lavished on us". The riches of His grace, which He lavished on us. God has lavished us with grace. Now "lavish" is not a word we use that often in English. The English word lavish simply means "to give in great amounts without limit". To give in great amounts without limits. The Greek word from which our English word is translated simply means to cause to abound, or to cause to overflow. God has caused us to abound, or overflow with grace. If I could put it in a sort of vernacular, we would say this: God has literally flooded our hearts with grace. He's flooded our lives with grace. He was generous, liberal, excessive, unrestrained, extravagant with His grace. He demonstrates His grace toward us, we could say, with reckless abandon, like there's no tomorrow. Those expressions capture what Paul is trying to say in the Greek text here.

Here in verse 7 he says, "He lavished us with the riches of His grace". In 2:7 he speaks of the surpassing riches of His grace. If we turn outside the book of Ephesians, and were to turn to Romans 5 for example, in Romans 5:15, he talks about grace abounding to the many. Verse 17 of Romans 5, the abundance of grace, and Romans 5:20, he says where sin increased, grace superabounded all the more. You see, God wants us to know that He's not stingy with His grace. He literally floods our lives with grace. When we step back and look at the sweep of God's great plan for us as His people, we see that, at its heart, it's all about grace.

Next week, Lord willing, we'll examine most of verses 8 - 10, and most of verses 8 - 10 have to do with explaining God's great eternal plan for Christ. But what about God's plan for us? What is the heart, the soul, the core, the essence of God's great plan for you, if you're in Christ? We could say it like this: God's eternal purpose for His people is to put His glory on display by lavishing us forever with His grace. That's God's plan for you, to put His glory on display by lavishing you with His grace. By spending to excess.

What does, exactly, it mean that God lavishes us with grace? It's an important word. Paul uses the word grace some 100 times in his letters. It's obviously crucial to his theology. It's at the heart of the salvation we enjoy, and so it's imperative that we truly understand what it means. But grace, like so many other words we use, and certainly biblical words, we become so accustomed to it and yet, so few people really understand its richness. As we prepare our hearts this morning for communion, I want us to think about God's grace as it flows through the letter to the Ephesians. If you look at Ephesians carefully, as I've had the opportunity to do this week, you see that there are really four clear perspectives about grace that emerge from Paul's letter. Four clear perspectives. And I want us to look at those four perspectives together in the time we have this morning.

The first perspective that we need to grasp is our desperate need for grace. Our desperate need for grace. Why does man need God's grace, or more to the point, why do you need God's grace? Why do I need God's grace? What has happened to us that calls out for undeserved favor? Theologians are right when they say that to really understand grace, you first have to understand sin. Bruce Demarest writes, "the nature of the fallen person's capabilities serves as the canvas for the rich portrait of God's saving grace. The entire human race is afflicted with objective guilt, alienation from God, and depraved natures that refuse to know, love, and serve the Creator."

That's our condition. You see, here in Ephesians, Paul paints the background of the canvas of salvation with the dark and threatening hues of our own sinfulness. He makes it clear that every facet of our being has been affected by sin. Let me illustrate that for you.

Every facet of our being? Well, Paul says that sin has darkened our minds. Intellectually, we have no perception of spiritual realities, and we are unwilling to receive saving spiritual truth. Our minds have been darkened. Turn to Ephesians 4. Ephesians 4, as Paul begins in verse 17 to explain how we ought to live in light of the truth of the gospel, he says, "so this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer" don't live any longer like the Gentiles live. Don't have the lifestyle they have, because they walk, notice the end of verse 17, "in the futility of their mind." This is how all of us used to be.

If you're here this morning, and you're in Christ, this describes you before Christ. It describes me as well. We walked in the futility of our minds. Why? Verse 18, "Being darkened in their understanding [the blinds were closed on our spiritual understanding. We had no capacity to fully understand the truth because we were] excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that [was in us]". Sin had darkened our minds--blinded us to spiritual realities. Unreceptive to all saving truth.

But Paul also says that not only has sin darkened our minds, it has enslaved our wills. It's enslaved our wills. Apart from divine grace we would consistently exercise our wills against God and against His word, against His will. Look again at Ephesians 4:18. He says, after he mentions this darkness that's over our minds to understand spiritual truth, he says, "because". Here's the reason there's this ignorance in us, here's the reason our minds have been darkened "because of the hardness of their heart;" This has to do with a conscious choice. A stubborn resistance to the will of God. I have made my heart like stone the Old Testament prophet says, and so have you. Apart from God's intervening grace, our wills were turned against God to our own way.

In the words of Isaiah 53, each of us have turned like sheep to his own way, our wills stubbornly set against God. Notice verse 19. and they, having become callous, have made a conscious choice to give themselves over. Our wills were enslaved to our sin. In fact, we were so badly enslaved, that in 2:1 it says that we could be described as living in the sphere (or being dead literally) in the sphere of transgressions and sins. Sin and trespasses were so much a part of our lives that they could be described as the realm in which we lived.

You understand what Paul is saying about our wills? Apart from divine grace, we cannot choose God. We cannot choose good. We will always choose our own way. We refuse to stay within the boundaries God has set. On my drive home each day I pass a large field that has a couple of small burros in it. And invariably, once a week or so, I'll see those burros with that huge field behind them, with all of that rich green grass, and their heads thrust through the barbed wire outside the fence, trying to grab what is bound to be better grass than that within the fence. That's a description of us and our wills. We refuse to stay within the boundaries God has established. We want what's outside, because surely it's better. Our wills are enslaved to our sin. Augustine said, "a man's free will indeed avails for nothing except to sin".

Sin has also perverted our affections, what we love, what we delight in. Left to ourselves, our affections have been so perverted that we delight in sin and evil. Look back at Ephesians 4 again. Verse 19, having set our wills to pursue sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity (notice those last two words) with greediness. Some translations have "with a lust for more". I just want more of that. I love it. I have to have it. In 2:3 Paul describes it like this. He says, "Among them [that is, the sons of disobedience] we too all formerly lived in the [cravings] of our flesh"

In the cravings of our flesh. We longed to satisfy our cravings. We loved them. They're what we wanted. Without the intervention of grace (listen carefully), we would love, and did love what we should hate, and we hate what we should love. We hated, according to Jesus Christ Himself the Father and the Son. In John 15:24 He says, they have hated Me and the Father as well, because we don't want to be bothered with all of the rules and stipulations that a sovereign God puts on us. And we hate others as well.

Titus 3:3, Paul says that unbelievers are hateful, and hating one another. If you doubt that, just pick up the newspaper. Our affections, what we love and delight in, is naturally turned on its head. Instead of following God's priorities, loving Him, and loving others, the Bible says that we love these things: public recognition and praise, wealth, our lives, money, ourselves. We love pleasure; we love the world; we love the lust of the flesh; we love the lust of the eyes; we love the pride of life. We love to be first, and the last book of the Bible says we love lying. So, our affections have been thoroughly perverted. We love by nature what we should hate, and we hate by nature what we should love.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He also makes it clear that sin has dominated our lives and our lifestyles. You see, when it comes to our behavior, without grace, we would give ourselves to a life of pursuing the basest impulses, selfish agendas, and personal advancement. Look again at Ephesians 2:3. He says we all formerly lived in the cravings of our flesh, but it didn't stop with what went on in our hearts, it didn't stop with cravings; we indulged the desires of the flesh and of the mind. We gave in to those things and pursued them. We did them. We practiced them. It became the habits of our lives.

If you doubt that, look at Ephesians 4. Beginning in Ephesians 4:25 and following, Paul goes through a lengthy list of sins that we are to stop doing as Christians. Let me just (I won't even cite the references.) Let me just walk you through what he says beginning in Ephesians 4:25. He says, as Christians, stop lying and dishonesty. Stop anger, stealing, rotten speech, bitterness, wrath, anger, yelling (which is clamor), slander, malice, immorality, impurity, greed, off-color jokes, idolatry, drunkenness, being ungrateful, being self-centered in your relationships, husbands refusing to love their wives, wives refusing to submit to and respect their husbands, children disobeying their parents, fathers exasperating their children, employees not working hard except when their boss is around, employers taking advantage of their workers, and on the list goes. Why does Paul take the time to command all of those things? Because, by nature, we would do them all. We do them all. Sin has dominated our lifestyles.

Sin has also severed any relation to God. Back in 2:3 he ends that verse talking about the reality that we've indulged these desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were (end of verse 3) we were by nature children of wrath, even as everyone else. You know what Paul is saying? He's saying it's as if wrath were our middle name. It's so much a part of our future that we could be called by the nickname "wrath". It's coming. As I've often described to you before, it's like that cartoon where the little boy walks around with the cloud over his head. That's how we walk around with God's wrath hanging over our heads.

In fact, in John's gospel, in chapter 3 where we find that great verse God so loved the world and gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not have death, but instead have eternal life through believing in Him. Later in that same chapter he says, but those who have not believed have been what? condemned already. If you're here this morning, and you're not in Jesus Christ, a verdict of guilty hangs over your head, and you're just waiting for the sentence to fall.

In fact, look at Ephesians 2. Beginning in Ephesians 2:13, we find a couple of interesting expressions about our relationship to God. Notice verse 13 describes us as having formerly been far off, distant from God. Verse 15 speaks of enmity, verse 16 enmity. Verse 17, you were far away. You know what those terms describe? Far off and enmity? It means there was conflict between you and God. You say, I didn't think there was conflict. Doesn't matter what you thought. That was God's view of the situation. Before you came to faith in Christ, you were at war with God.

Isaiah 59:2 says your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God. Romans 5:10 says that we were God's enemies. Colossians 1:21 says we were alienated from God. We were alien to God, and hostile in our minds against Him. What an incredible indictment of us. What a portrait of our hearts. That's not exactly a portrait of yourself you want hanging on your den wall is it? And yet, that's the reality of who we are apart from grace. Were it not for grace, that is a description of every one of us.

When you survey the biblical evidence you have to agree with John Calvin's verdict that "all of us who have descended from impure seed are born infected with the contagion of sin". Martin Luther added "all our faculties are leprous, indeed are utterly dead."

Now, if you find yourself irritated by this description of you? If you find yourself angry with this assessment of your character, I'm certainly sorry about that. I don't intend to offend, but that's the assessment of God. And I can guarantee you this, that if you are offended by that assessment, you are not a true Christian. No one ever comes to Christ without first realizing the reality of his situation.

In his most famous sermon, Jesus, in that sermon on the mount, you remember, begins that sermon by telling us the path to spiritual happiness, and the very first step to spiritual happiness, you know what He said? you remember it? "Blessed are the poor in spirit." You know what Jesus was saying? Happy are those who have come to realize that spiritually they are beggars. They have nothing to offer God. All they can do is come and fall down and beg for His grace. Pleading with God to help. Why is grace important? Because, as you can see from this portrait, without it we have no hope. Bruce Demarest writes, This grim human condition constitutes the stage for the display of God's marvelous grace." G. S. Bishop writes,

grace is a provision for men who are so fallen that they cannot lift the axe of justice, so corrupt that they cannot change their own natures, so averse to God that they cannot turn to Him, so blind that they cannot see Him, so deaf that they cannot hear Him, and so dead that He Himself must open their graves and lift them up in resurrection. [That's our desperate need for grace.]

Secondly, I want us to consider, the second perspective we need to see is the ultimate source of grace. Where does it come from? Where does grace come from? You say, well that's easy. It comes from God. Well, that's a correct answer, but let's go a little deeper. To be more accurate, God gives grace to sinners because God is, by nature, gracious--filled with grace. This is who God is. You remember His revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6? We're told, "… the Lord passed by in front of Moses, and [He] proclaimed [His name, and this is what He said], "The LORD, [JHWH, the JHWH Almighty], compassionate and gracious." It's interesting that that assertion of our Lord and His character is repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament, throughout Old Testament history. It occurs a number of times in the Psalms. They clung to this. God is gracious.

And in that same spirit, Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:10, and there he calls our God the God of all grace. But nowhere did God's grace come into clearer focus than in Jesus Christ. John the apostle writes in John 1:14, "the word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace"

Let me take it one step further. Outside of Christ, there is no grace. John 1:17 "… the Law was given through Moses; grace ... was realized through Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 1:4 says, "the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus". Luther was right when he preached a sermon on John 14, and he said this, "whatever is not Christ is not the way but error, not the truth but a lie, not the life but death."

Grace flows to us from the Father, from the Son, but also from the Spirit. In Hebrews 10:29, the writer of Hebrews refers to the third member of the Trinity as the Spirit of grace. So, in essence, in the heart of His divine being as Trinity, our God is known for showing grace. God the Father is the fountain of grace. The Son is the channel through which that grace flows to us, and the Spirit is the one who applies it to our hearts.

So, we've examined our desperate need of grace, the ultimate source of grace, the character of God Himself, but what exactly is grace? What is this quality that we talk about but understand so little? Let's look thirdly at the true meaning of grace. Grace, in the concept, occurs in both the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament word for grace is" khane". It's a Hebrew noun that occurs some sixtynine times in the Old Testament. Forty-three of those times it occurs as part of the expression "to find favor in the eyes of" someone. Most of the time that expression refers of man-to-man. One man found favor in the eyes of another man.

However, in those passages where it is God looking at man, and man finding favor in the eyes of God, it is referring to "grace". Don't misunderstand when you read those expressions, and think God was impressed with Noah. God wasn't impressed with Noah. There is none righteous, no not one. That includes Noah. When it says Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord, it means he found grace. God looked on him with grace.

But it's when you come to the New Testament this concept is really filled out. The Greek word is "charis", which you'll recognized even used in some English names and other words. It occurs about a hundred times in Paul's writings, twelve times here in Ephesians. When you look at both the Hebrew and the Greek words for grace, and you try to define them, you come up with a definition something like this. Grace is undeserved favor shown to those who deserve the wrath of God. Grace is undeserved favor shown to those who deserve the wrath of God. There's a little bit of confusion in some people's mind between mercy and grace. They're different. Mercy is God's goodness shown to the sinner in spite of his misery, or in light of, I should say, his misery. Grace is God's goodness in light of the sinner's guilt.

A. W. Pink defines grace this way, "the favor of God to those who not only have no positive desserts of their own, but also who are thoroughly ill-deserving, and hell-deserving." You see, grace is not God's goodness shown in the absence of merit. God's grace is His goodness shown in the presence of demerit. A simple definition that's often quoted for grace is that grace is the unmerited, or undeserved favor of God. As far as it goes, that's an acceptable definition. But remember, it's not just undeserved favor, it's favor shown to those who deserve exactly the opposite.

But the key question is, what is "favor"? We talk about it as grace is God's "undeserved unmerited favor". What's favor? To really understand grace, you have to understand favor. Listen carefully. Favor is an attitude. It is a disposition of mind. Often in human relationships, there's a question about what one person's attitude is toward another. Will that person welcome me? Are they open to being my friend? Will they grant a request from me? Are they a friend of mine, or an enemy? When the person has a positive attitude toward another, it's described as favor. So, with that in mind, let me give you a little more detailed definition of grace. This is my own definition, and I think, pulls together these various biblical elements.

Grace is the attitude or disposition in God that causes Him to delight in doing good to those who deserve only His wrath. Let me say that again. Listen carefully to each of those words. Grace is the attitude or disposition in God that causes Him to delight in doing good to those who deserve only His wrath. Now think, Christian, about that definition this morning in light of your own situation. Do you deserve God's wrath? Well, the Bible says you do if you've sinned even once. Every sin deserves the eternal wrath and curse of God. So, you deserve it. Then, the fact that God is gracious means that nothing would bring God more delight than doing good to you.

Although grace is an attitude in God, it's more than an attitude. It's more than a disposition. Grace always acts on the attitude. It is an attitude or disposition that expresses itself in action. So, the fourth and final perspective about grace that flows through Ephesians is the expressions of grace, the expressions of grace. There are several ways that grace expresses itself in life.

The first is, grace for salvation; grace for salvation. Here in Ephesians, Paul underscores that the entire process of salvation from beginning to end flows solely from God's grace. Turn to Ephesians 2:5. After that terrible description of what we used to be, he says, verse 4,

… 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 … [rescued]). [You've been saved. You've been delivered--by grace.]

Verse 8, "For by grace you have been saved through [the channel, or the] faith and ... not of yourselves [in other words, that--all of that, the salvation in total including faith is not of yourselves,] it is the gift of God; not as a result of works so that no one may boast."

If you're here this morning, and you're a Christian, if you enjoy salvation, if you've been spiritually rescued from the penalty of your sin, it is solely because there is a disposition in God that delights in doing good to people like you who deserve His wrath. And He's acted in grace to rescue you.

What is true of the process of salvation is also true of each aspect of salvation. If we could take salvation apart and look at the various components, you would see that each of them trace back to grace.

Take election, for example. In Ephesians 1:6, that we studied several weeks ago, Paul talks about God's grace being behind election. God chose to set His glory on display, and the way His glory is set on display in the context of Ephesians 1 is through His grace. So, grace lies behind election.

As we saw last week, forgiveness of sin is one of the primary expressions of God's grace. Verse 7, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.…"

What about faith? The ability to believe God's saving message, the gospel, that too is a gift of God's grace. I just read to you Ephesians 2:8 and 9. Paul includes faith in with the package, and says it's by grace that you've been saved.

And of course, the amazing reality of justification, that the sinner is declared righteous before God; that too comes to us through the channel of God's grace. Paul doesn't mention it by name here in Ephesians, but he does in several other places in the New Testament. Romans 3:24 he says, "having been justified freely by His grace". Titus 3:7 says, "justified by His grace". Here's the point. If you are saved today, the sole reason is God's grace, that disposition in God that delights in doing good to His enemies. Salvation by grace.

There's another important expression of grace, not only grace for salvation, but also grace for sanctification. You see, many Christians begin their Christian lives understanding the importance of grace for their salvation, but then they try to pursue holiness on their own, by their own strength, by the power of their will, by the wonder of their resolutions. But the New Testament is equally clear that just as salvation is by grace, so is the process of being made more like Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 4, look at Ephesians 4:21 - 20 and 21. He talks about our salvation. He says, you learned Christ, you were taught in Him. This is reference to our salvation. And then verse 22 he tells us that we are to pursue the process of sanctification. And that process has three parts. Verse 23 has the second of those three parts. You are to be renewed in the spirit of your mind. Notice that's passive. That's passive. Why? Because we can't do that. We can co-operate with that process, but we can't renew our minds. Who does? The Holy Spirit of God. It's by His doing. It's by grace, something the Spirit does.

And of course, the rest of the New Testament makes this point explicitly. First Peter 5:10 says that the God of all grace will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. You understand that if you become more like Jesus Christ, (and if you're a Christian you will, God has guaranteed that will happen) that won't be because you're so great, because you work so hard. It'll be by an act of God's grace. Now, don't misunderstand. We must expend the maximum effort to obey the scripture. But we can never change our own hearts. So, as we seek to obey, God, solely by an act of grace, changes our hearts. We expend the effort, and God produces the change. Grace for salvation, grace for sanctification.

A third expression of grace is grace for spiritual service and ministry. Ephesians 3:1, Paul writes of his own ministry. He says,

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles--if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you;

What's he talking about? Notice verse 7. He says I was made a minister of the gospel "according to the gift of God's grace which was given me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given [here it is] to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ."

You know what Paul was saying? He was saying the ministry I have to the church, it's a gift of grace. I don't deserve this. Paul wasn't standing up saying, you know, I did a lot of study before I came to Christ, and I've done a lot of study since. I deserve this position. No, he was saying, whatever I have for ministry it's grace.

And listen, that's not just true of Paul. That's true of us as well. Turn to 4:7. Here, referring to spiritual gifts, he says, "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift." Listen, you were given a gift to serve in the body of Christ, and if you serve here, the place that you have is a gift of God. If you serve God effectively; if you use your gift to some spiritual benefit of others; understand that that is not because of you at all. That is because of the grace of God in your life and in ours. God's grace is the operative power behind our salvation, behind our sanctification, and even behind our service and ministry in the church.

There's one more expression of God's grace, and it passes beyond this life into eternity. I love this. God gives us grace for eternal blessing. Some think of grace as something we only need in this life. That once we're perfected, then we won't need it any more. That's not what the Bible teaches. Look at Ephesians 2:7. This is one of my favorite verses in all the Scripture. He's just told us that He's saved us, He made us alive, He raised us up with Christ. Verse 7, "so that [here was God's purpose, here was one of God's great eternal purposes behind our salvation, so that] in the ages to come [that's eternity] He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" That's amazing. God says I am going to put my grace on display in your life for eternity.

Listen to me. Every temporal blessing that you enjoy in this life is a gift of God's grace. Every spiritual blessing in this life is a gift of God's grace. But here is the shocking thing. In eternity, every second we enjoy God's goodness instead of the wrath we deserve will be a gift of God's grace. Christian, think about it. Meditate on it. Gaze on the grace of God, because God's grace is His greatest masterpiece. Although every sin you have ever committed begs for God's wrath to be poured out on you in eternity in Hell, a place that Jesus said, "where the worm doesn't die and the fire is not quenched".

In spite of that, there is in the heart of our God an attitude, a disposition that finds it greatest delight in doing good to you, by rescuing you from the penalty of sin, by making you more like Jesus Christ in your character, by giving you a spiritual gift and a place of service in His church, and by overwhelming you with kindness for all eternity. No wonder Paul says that God has lavished us with His grace.

John Newton, the one who wrote Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, near the end of his life and ministry said this. He said, you know, when we get to heaven, there will be three great wonders there. The first wonder will be who is there. The second wonder will be who is not there. He said, but by far the greatest wonder of all will be that we're there. It's no surprise that such a man gave us the song Amazing Grace, and may God keep us still amazed by the grace.

No prayer this time.