The great B.B. Warfield once said that “Calvinism” (which he described as as “that sight of the majesty of God that pervades all of life and all of experience” and by which he simply meant that system of theology that joyfully embraces the rich, comforting, God-exalting, self-abasing, Christ-honoring, biblical message of the sovereignty of God in salvation and all things) could be summed up in three words: “God saves sinners.”
God. Saves. Sinners. Each of those words is important for understanding what the Bible teaches about salvation. 1. God saves sinners. God, not man, saves. We do not save ourselves. Only God can save. 2. God saves sinners. He does not make us potentially savable. He does not enable us to save ourselves. He saves. 3. God saves sinners. He saves a multitude that no man can number out of a world of human beings who are dead in sin and in utter opposition to his kind and sovereign rule. He saves people who once hated him, ignored him and resisted him. In salvation, God does not help those who help themselves, because no sinner can help himself. We are not “basically good” and in a position to “get by with a little help from” God. We are “without hope save in his sovereign mercy.”
This is precisely Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians 2:8-10. Paul wants us to understand that God himself has saved us. He puts this emphatically and strikingly: “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (NASB).
Did you catch that? Paul manages, in six distinct ways, in just three tiny little verses to tell you that your salvation is not due to you, but rather is all of God. Notice how he does it.
First, he emphasizes that we are saved by God’s grace. That is, the cause of our salvation is God’s free saving favor to us, despite our sinfulness and deserving of judgment. Notice that Paul juxtaposes “by grace you have been saved” with “not of yourselves.” It’s his way of saying your salvation came from God not from you. “You want to understand the source, the cause of your salvation?,” Paul asks. “Well,” he says, “Don’t look at yourself. Don’t look within. Look up to God. Look at the unmerited favor of God shown to you. That is what and who saved you! Not something in you, or about you, or that you did.” Though we don’t deserve God’s saving mercy. Though we had disqualified ourselves from communion with God by our rebellion, our insurgency against Him, by our alienation from him, by our indifference to him, by our walking according to the world, and the flesh, and the devil – yet, YET! – the Lord has saved us by grace, and lavished his forgiving favor on us.
Second, notice what he goes on to say, our salvation has been received by faith – “For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . .” So, your salvation is not something that you have attained by doing, it is something that you have received by believing. Paul is emphasizing our passive reception of something from God. Salvation is not something that you went out and pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and got. It’s not something that you accomplished by your own might and main, by staying up late at night and working hard and keeping your nose to the grindstone. It is something that you simply received from God. Your salvation was received by faith rather than gained by doing something. In other words, you were saved through the instrument, the means of trust. You just trusted God. You had to throw your hands up and say ‘Lord God, there is nothing that I can do. “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.’ And so, you’re saved not by your doing, not by your worthiness, but by God’s grace, and you simply, humbly, joyfully received that salvation by trust, by faith, by believing God’s promise.
Third, if he isn’t clear enough already, Paul goes on to say that salvation is God’s gift to you. We must understand salvation as a gift from God, not as a right, obligation, payment due us from God based upon our performance. Look at how he puts this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God . . . .” Paul’s point of emphasis is this: the whole of your salvation is God’s gift to you – not your gift to yourself but God’s gift to you; not something that we have by right or deserving but by free bestowal. So he asks “You want to know how you obtained salvation?” And he answers: “By gift, by grant, by God’s grace.” So we who by grace trust in Christ, need to view our salvation as a free gift and grant from God, which we have simply received by faith.
Fourth, and this is very important for us to note that Paul goes on to emphasize that our salvation is not as the result of works in any way. It is, he says, “. . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Any boasting on our part is excluded because our works are not the cause of our salvation. Our salvation is the result of God’s gift, not our works. So, Paul is in effect saying: “By the way, just in case you’re missing my point, let me say the same thing again, this time in the negative – your salvation is not due in any way to your works, to your doings.” In other words, if you want to look at how you were saved, don’t look at yourself; don’t look at your works. We are not saved by our self-effort or deeds or actions.
Fifth, Paul says in verse 10, our salvation is the product of God’s workmanship! “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works . . . .” Isn’t that an extraordinary statement? The point is this: Your salvation is not the product of your workmanship, rather your salvation is the product of God’s workmanship. You were saved because of God’s work, not because of your work. You were not saved by your good works, but in order to do good works. We are not saved by doing what is right in the sight of God, but we are saved unto doing, with joy and gladness in gratitude for God’s free grace, all that he created us to do originally in paradise. Indeed, the very possibility of our doing to be saved is utterly precluded by Paul’s language of “creation.” You can be created and then work. You can be created for work. But you can’t create yourself by work. Indeed, you can’t create yourself at all. So by speaking of salvation as a work in which God creates us anew in Christ Jesus, Paul is affirming in the strongest possible way the divine sovereignty and monergism at work in our salvation. Our works may and do result from God’s saving work, but they do not and cannot cause it. The order of salvation is not “do this and live,” but “live, and do this.”
Sixth and finally, lest we make the erroneous deduction that God looked into the future and foresaw our belief in Christ and our subsequent good works and thus based his salvation of us on foreseen faith and obedience, Paul tells us that God saved us by grace and created us in Christ (not by our works) but in order to do the works he had foreordained for us to do from eternity past! Listen to his words again, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Did you hear that? Paul is saying that even the good works we now do were prepared beforehand by our gracious God for us to do. He didn’t save us because he foresaw that we would do good works. No, the message is far more glorious and comforting than that. Indeed, it is far more staggering, even mind-boggling than that. God saved us by grace in order for us to “walk in good works,” that is, to do righteousness, to live in godliness, to practice a holiness, that he had predestined us to do and be from before the world itself ever existed. So our righteousness is not the means or instrument or way of our salvation, it is instead part of God’s goal in his salvation of us! God created us to be his image, to be like him. That image was marred in our fall into sin. In glorification, that image is fully restored, and so John can say that in the coming of our Lord, “we will be like Him” (1 John 3:2). But these good deeds that we walk in far from being the cause of our salvation are instead its goal, its aim. And our doing of this good is itself part of God’s predestined plan for us. The way Paul says this in Ephesians 1:4 is that God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” So, Paul emphasizes, your whole salvation, justification and sanctification, is the sovereign, eternal work of God.
Well, there you have it. Six times in three little (but hugely important!) verses, Paul stresses that you were saved by God’s grace alone. Your salvation is wholly due to his saving, forgiving, transforming, undeserved and unearned, power and favor. You received that saving favor through trust (and even that trust is the result of God’s Spirit at work in you). You didn’t do anything to earn salvation or deserve it, you simply trusted God to give you something that you didn’t deserve. It was God’s gift given freely to you, not a debt owed you by God. Salvation was not accomplished by you, nor did it result from your works. No, instead you yourself are God’s work and have been saved by God’s work (rather than saved by God because of your works), and even your Christian life, your walking in good works as a saved sinner, itself is the result of God’s workmanship, and the consequence (not the cause) of something that God pre-appointed, foreordained, predestined “before the mountains were brought forth or ever the earth and the world were made.”
Do you see Paul’s point? It is all of grace! The totality of our salvation is from God. And understanding this is absolutely essential for healthy Christian life, ministry and experience.
This article originally appeared on LigonDuncan.com, and is used with permission.