Short Summaries of
Sermons on Ephesians
Love Working through Grace
(Eph. 2:9-10 #1)
To have a right conception of the Christian religion, the meaning of "good works" must be correctly defined and understood, for the idea of good works has broad implications. The doctrines of salvation and the last judgment, and the philosophy of ethics and history, to name just a few important truths, are inseparably connected to one's view of good works. To any religion or sect ask the question "What is the conception of good works?" and we obtain a key to understanding the very heart of its philosophy.
That No Man Should Boast
The doctrine of salvation by faith has been borrowed, though infrequently, by non-Christians and by aberrant forms of Christianity. Some Buddhists, for example, pray to Amidha and hope to be saved just by calling on his name, a doctrine borrowed from the Christian church in China (See: John M. L. Young, By Foot to China: Mission of the Church of the East, To 1400). But this doctrine was developed in order to make salvation easier for the masses of men, as a remedy for their weakness. In a sense it is also an affirmation of man's goodness. Weak though he may be, man can do the one thing necessary for salvation, he can call on the Buddha. In this conception man's problem is suffering and weakness, not sin.
In the Bible the doctrine of salvation by faith is not a mere helping hand for man's weakness, it is a fundamental denial of his ability to do anything to please God. Paul's words "not of works, lest any man should boast" mean that sinful men are not permitted to contribute anything to their salvation. They must be passive before God, receiving the gift of His grace. Any other posture would be blasphemous presumption. Sinful rebels have no standing before Him. They cannot offer anything meritorious to Him to obtain justification.
Man's natural tendency to boast is rebuked repeatedly in the Bible, especially in Paul's epistles: "For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7). Sinners are proud fools who resist God and boast of their goodness, their works, their wisdom. Even after men become Christians they need to be taught deeply and emphatically that they are what they are by the grace of God alone. Indeed, God saves the most sinful and despised among men "that no flesh should glory in his presence" (1 Cor. 1:29).
The Christian doctrine of salvation by faith, then, is a confession of man's utter sinfulness. Man is helpless because he is perverted in the extreme. His sin is too deep to root out by any human means. He has no good works to present to God and when he attempts to do so, he finds that like Cain's his offering is rejected.
Unto Good Works Which God Ordained
The Bible denies good works in order to affirm them. Good works are denied only in the sense that they can in no way contribute to justification. Salvation by grace means that God takes the initiative and that God alone effects our liberation from sin. But the very nature of salvation as salvation from sin and evil demands good works as the result of God's grace. God bestows grace to save us from sin unto good works. In this sense good works are essential to salvation. Whoever is lacking in good works has not been saved by grace.
This is what Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 2:9-10. He is anxious to deny that works play any part in our reception of salvation "lest any man should boast." But Paul is equally anxious to declare the wonder of God's grace in saving us unto good works. We, who were utterly incapable of doing anything to please God, have been recreated in Christ. We have been ethically renewed. What we could not do before to obtain God's favor, we are now able to do as an offering of love and gratitude to Him for His grace. We are recreated "unto good works" which are so important, so essential to the nature of our salvation that Paul adds "which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."
The absolute denial of good works in the doctrine of justification is logically connected to the absolute demand for good works in the doctrine of sanctification by the Christian idea of salvation as salvation from sin by the grace of a Holy God. Just as His holiness could not tolerate our depraved deeds as a basis for our acceptance before Him, so also in His perfect holiness He could not design a plan of salvation that merely forgave us from sin. Salvation by grace must be salvation to good works because of who God is.
What Are Good Works?
It is important at this point to define good works so that we may clearly know what kind of life we are called to live. Good works are good when they conform to the Bible in 1) their motive, 2) their nature, and 3) their purpose. To be good, in other words, a work must be 1) motivated by a love for God and our neighbor, 2) conform to the Bible's teaching about righteousness, and 3) be done in order to promote God's glory and kingdom. All three of these are essential to a work being truly good.
Even outside of Christ men may do many things that superficially conform to the Biblical standard for good works, for the Holy Spirit of God works even in non-Christians, both to restrain them from sin and to lead them to do socially good works--were it not so, history would be an utter chaos of rebellion against God and hatred toward man, a mere vestibule of hell. What unregenerate sinners cannot do, however, is love God or their neighbor. Their purpose in doing good, therefore, is never to promote God's kingdom.
Given a right motive and purpose in Christ, what exactly is it that we are to do? We are to pursue the kingdom of God: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Mat. 6:33). We do this in our everyday life as well as by those special works that only Christians perform. Christians must eat and sleep like all other men, but unlike other men they may eat and sleep to the glory of God: "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). Our work at a company, cleaning the house, studying in school, and voting for political leaders are no less sanctified than the works of the Mosaic priesthood, for we are priests of God called to live for His glory in all that we do.
We must also be careful to affirm, however, that as Christians we do have a calling to do certain good works that are no part of the lives of unregenerate men around us. We have a calling to worship God in our homes and in local churches We also have a calling to preach the Gospel to the non-Christian world around us and to seek their salvation by prayer and the example of our righteous living. Arminian churches sometimes emphasize evangelism so much that they bifurcate the Christian life--evangelism is a good work, everyday living is secular. Calvinists, however, sometimes emphasize the holiness of everyday life in Christ that they hardly do anything to seek the salvation of the lost world.
Postmillennial Calvinists, however, must be zealous in their witness for we have God's guarantee that our works will be blessed and through our preaching by word and deed, the world shall be saved.