May 1, 2016
The reality of all that God has done for us in Christ Jesus should cause us to ponder why God would shower His blessings on undeserving sinners. The apostle Paul wrote that God’s reasons are based in His character of love, mercy, grace, and kindness. In this message, Alistair Begg explores these motivations and teaches that, just as we rely on God’s grace for our salvation, we must also depend on His grace to empower us to obey and follow Him day by day.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read this morning from Ephesians chapter 2, beginning at verse 1. By now some of us almost know these verses off by heart, and that will do us no harm at all. Ephesians chapter 2. We’ll read the first ten verses:
“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. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
All right. Well, we’ll pray together:
Father, thank you that we’re able to turn now to the Bible. Thank you that we’re not left waiting for the meanderings of some man’s mind coming up with some ideas or notions or concepts but that together we bow underneath the dictate of your Word, and we say together, “Speak, Lord, in the stillness while we wait on thee; hushed our hearts to listen, in expectancy”—that you, God, will speak. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, I invite you to turn again to these opening verses of Ephesians 2. We are not moving very quickly through them, but our pace is purposeful. It’s important as we come to them that we keep in mind that there is, if you like, a big story, that there is a big idea that Paul is conveying. He emphasizes it twice in the recurring phrase, in verse  and in verse 8, “By grace you have been saved.” And it is that story, it is that emphasis, which forms, if you like, the melody line that runs throughout the entire section.
And Paul, of course, emphasizes these things as he writes to the different churches. And verses 21 and 22 of Colossians 1—you needn’t turn to it; I’m just going to read it to you—are, I think, something of an apt summary of these ten verses here in Ephesians 2. He writes to the Colossians, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” So, that sense of the abiding work of Christ in them and pointing forward to all that it might mean is here in Ephesians 2.
And I found it helpful just to pay attention to the fact that our verses are virtually bracketed by one verb, and that is the verb to walk: in verse 2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked”; and then you will notice that, in verse 10, God has good deeds “prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” That notion of walking is reference of our way of life, and it is an indication of the company that we keep and the way and the place in which we walk. “Previously,” he says, “you were walking in a different environment, you were submitting to a different master, and you were understandably under the condemnation that follows. But now everything has changed.”
Those of you who enjoy Emma or Jane Eyre, you enjoy Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, are familiar with this very picture of “walking out together.” Sometimes in those stories, you read of Mr. X and spinster Y, who are “walking out together.” It’s an interesting phrase. It’s quite graphic.
In ancient days, there were processes then that have been long obliterated and three stages in courtship between a man and a woman. There was, number one, where they were able to talk with one another if they had been properly introduced. Secondly, they may then walk out together. And thirdly, if they have affirmed their mutual affection for one another, then they were able to keep company with one another. But even when they kept company with one another, they did not keep company with one another alone but in the presence of a chaperone. And when they walked, although they walked side by side, they did not walk with any holding of hands. The only time you could get ahold of her hand was if you were privileged enough to dance with the lady at some kind of occasion. But even after the dance was concluded, that gave you no access once again to her as an individual, nor she to you.
It just seems such a strange world, doesn’t it, when you think about the dreadful nature of where we are today? You’ve heard it here. I’d be quite glad to take my granddaughters right back into the Victorian era in a moment. I’m sure they wouldn’t be remotely interested in it, but I’d certainly like the idea. “Who were you talking to? Who were you walking out with? In whose company are you spending time?” These are all important questions, actually.
But anyway, the point is, the reason I mention it is because Paul is reminding his readers here that they once listened to the voice of another, they were once walking out with another, and they were enjoying the company of another, that “prince of the power of the air.” But all that has now changed. In verses 1–3, we saw that he’s describing the way that we were: we were dead, we were enslaved, and we were condemned.
Now, I repeat this routinely, and I do so purposefully. It’s important for us to recognize what a radically different perspective this is—namely, the biblical, divine perspective on man. The Bible is making it perfectly clear that man as man is not simply lost and in need of direction, nor is he just confused and in need of instruction, or weak and in need of strength, or sick and in need of medicine, or unhappy and in need of joy. All those things are true. But rather, he is dead and in need of life. Dead and in need of life. And the raising of the dead is the province of God. And as he has shown his immeasurable power in raising Jesus from the dead—1:19—so he is showing now his immeasurable grace in what he has done for these individuals. We are now, he says, “made … alive,” “raised … up,” and “seated.”
Can we pause just one more moment and remind ourselves of the fact that the story of the Bible is that we have been made for a relationship with God; that we have chosen and we choose to live our lives without God; that we are, as a result, alienated from God, and God is not indifferent to that fact. Our alienation is two-sided: from ourselves to him, on account of our sin; from God to us, on account of his wrath. And the mystery of his grace is that in Jesus, God has reconciled sinners to himself—that Jesus did not come to tell us what we need to do to try and make ourselves Christians; he came to save us and to reconcile us to God. That the testimony of genuine believing faith is as it is provided for us here in this section: we once were, but now, verse 4, “being rich in mercy,” we who, “when we were dead in our trespasses,” have been made alive, we have been raised up, and we have been “seated …with him in the heavenly places.”
That is what God has done. And we come now to ask the question, “Why has he done what he has done?” And Paul essentially answers this with four statements, and I want you to notice them in turn.
Notice verse 4: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…” Let’s start, then, with the immensity of God’s love.
If you know the Bible at all, you know that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe[s] in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The work of Jesus on the cross was not to coerce the Father into granting something that he did not want to give, nor was the work of Jesus on the cross a reluctant engagement in that which the Father had planned, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together, working according to the eternal counsel of their will. And although “mercy” comes first here in our verse 4, we take it first because it is from the fountain of God’s love that the streams of mercy flow. It is out of the fountain of God’s love. It is his love which is the guiding force of his mercy. Remember in the Old Testament, God says, “I will … show mercy [to] whom I will show mercy.” Well, on what basis does he show mercy, and to whom? On the basis of his love.
So, we often sing,
Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
[And] mercy there was great, and grace was free;
[And] pardon there was multiplied to me;
[And] there my burdened [heart] found liberty
[I, who once was enslaved,] at Calvary.
When you think about the story of the prodigals in Luke chapter 15, the one who takes off by himself and makes a royal mess of things, what moved the Father to mercy in relationship to his son was his love. I think when we finish this morning, we’ll have that couplet in one of our songs, “O, the love that made him run to meet his erring son!” What kind of love is this, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”?
The story is not “Clean up and God may have a place for you.” The story is “You were completely unable to clean up, and God reached down and washed you, and raised you, and made you new, and set you free.” This is what he’s saying. He’s reminding these Ephesians, from a Jewish background, from a gentile background, united first to Christ, united now with one another, in order that in the unity of the purposes of God within his church, the world might look on and see what God does.
So then, first, his love. Why? On account of his love—this great love.
Also, backing up a phrase, because he is “rich in mercy.” He’s “rich in mercy.”
You see, mercy really doesn’t mean very much unless you are in the dock. I mean, if you’re sitting out in the courtroom observing it, the fact of mercy may be an observable feature. It may be something that we are interested in at arm’s length in relationship to the outcome of a trial. But if we are justifiably condemned, and if we await our sentence, and instead of the execution being performed, we are set free on account of mercy, then it is amazing! But, you see, mercy means nothing to us unless we understand our predicament. That is why the Bible is so very clear in the way it unfolds this. That’s why Paul writes as he does: “You were this. You were dead. You were enslaved. You were condemned. But God, who is rich in mercy…”
But you see, if you are here this morning, and you are operating on the basis, in relationship to your consideration of Christianity, that runs along the lines of every other thing that you have ever got involved with—so that, for example, you were able to get access to a club on the basis of your social background, or you got into university on the basis of your intellect, or because of your ability to run fast, you got a scholarship to a particular sports team at a prestigious university—then, of course, your whole life has been such that you are pretty well convinced that you have earned everything for yourself and that there is good reason for you to be in the status that you’re in and the position that you’re in. Then you come up against this story of the death of Jesus on a cross, who comes in order to deal with us who are dead and enslaved and condemned. And you say, “Well, I don’t think that could possibly describe me.” So you see, it is the work of the Spirit of God that shows us first what we are. That’s why when we pray before we turn to the Bible together, we sometimes pray, “Make the Book live to me, O Lord; show me yourself within your Word; show me myself, and show me my Savior.” First, he shows us ourself, and then we stand before his mercy.
You see, you don’t want to ask for justice. It’s not a good idea. You know the old chestnut about the fellow who’s having his photograph taken for a brochure, and he says to the photographer, “Now, I want this photograph to do me justice.” And the photographer says, “Well, having looked at you for a bit, what you require is mercy, not justice. There is no Photoshop that will be able to fix your miserable visage. You are in need of great mercy.”
Well, you have the same thing, don’t you, in The Merchant of Venice, in Shakespeare’s play?
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.
“That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” If we’re given our just deserts, no chance. We pray for mercy.
That’s why Augustus Toplady has that wonderful hymn where he says, it begins, “A debtor to mercy alone.” “A debtor to mercy alone.” And Thomas Goodwin, one of the Puritans, says mercy comes first in this list here, in verse 4, because it suits our condition. We are in need of mercy. But he says it’s not because it was that attribute—i.e., mercy—out of which the initiative of God proceeded, but rather that in calling us to himself, he purposed to display his love by way of mercy.
So his love is displayed in his mercy. Mercy causes a king to pardon a traitor, but only love will raise the traitor up to sit beside the king upon his throne. And what did we discover is true of us? He has not only made us alive; he has raised us with him, and he has seated us beside him on his throne.
Think about it again in terms of Luke chapter 15, if it’s helpful to you. It’s not the overheavy load of sin that brings that boy back up the road. It is the prospect of mercy. It’s the prospect of mercy! He could have been aware of the fact that he was loaded down with sin and stayed down there in the pigsty, couldn’t he? He came to an understanding of the mess that he was in, but he prepared his speech while he’s in the pigsty: “‘I will arise, and I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him.” Why? Because he loved him. He loved him!
Are you running from God? You in your own little private pigsty this morning? Your kinda air-conditioned pigsty? Your very nicely tailored environment? God knows. God loves. God seeks. God runs.
It would have been an act of mercy on the part of the Father to say, when the boy began his response, “Father, I’ve sinned against…” and he said, “You know what? You’re dead right! You absolutely have! And I have a little cabin out the back, and I think you’ll make a pretty good servant. After all, given all that you’ve done…” But that’s not how the story ends. The father breaks in, and he starts barking out orders: “Get a fattened calf and kill it! Get the band in place! Get my boy a robe! Give him a ring! Give him shoes! For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and now he’s found.”
You see, the Pharisee’ll never understand grace. The Pharisee’s the other lost boy. He’s the guy lost out in the field: “I’ve been slaving for you all this time, and you never gave me anything. And this kid comes back, and he made a royal mess of his life, and now he gets a party. What kind of deal is this?” I’ll tell you what kind of deal it is: it is the love of the Father. It’s the immeasurable, wonderful grace and mercy of God.
Thirdly, “the immeasurable riches of his grace.” Why has God done this? What has he done? He has quickened us. He has raised us. He has seated us. Why? Because of his love. Because of his mercy. Because of “the immeasurable riches of his grace”—verse 7. It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it? Paul is sort of loading it up. By mercy, on account of his mercy, we don’t receive what we deserve. On account of his grace, we receive what we don’t deserve. Grace is the undeserved favor of God.
That’s why we sing, isn’t it, “I cannot tell why he whom angels worship should set his love upon the sons of men.” And what Paul is doing here is simply reinforcing the fact that all that God has done, he has done because he is gracious, because he is working according to his own holy will.
And that is displayed in his kindness towards us. That’s the fourth thing: “in [his] kindness toward[s] us in Christ Jesus.”
You see how all of these things are “in Christ”? That’s why Calvin says, remember, that all that has been done for us in Christ is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ. So we’re like people standing outside of a building, looking in and seeing all of the wonderful things unfolding within, but we have never entered in for ourselves. We have never actually come by faith to trust in the promises, in the assurances that are given in the gospel.
That may be you this morning; I don’t know. Has his kindness brought you to repentance? His kindness brought you to repentance? You remember when your father or your mother, when you deserved a significant reinforcement of the principles of parental jurisdiction, they showed kindness to you. They showed kindness to you. Oh, those tears were the biggest tears on my pillow—far bigger than the tears that emerged from the sting in my tail. That I knew I deserved. This kindness I did not deserve.
You see this picture?
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of [man’s] mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
“Do you, then,” says Paul, as he writes to the Romans, “do you show contempt for his kindness?” How many times, may I ask you, are you going to spurn his advances? How many times are you going to hear his voice? How many more times do you plan on running the risk that you’ll hear the gospel plea again? How many times will you withstand God in his amazing love, in the vastness of his mercy, in the riches of his grace, and walk away? Today, if you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your heart. That’s the insistent Bible call, isn’t it?
So, let’s summarize. Why, then, has God acted in this way in salvation? On account of his mercy, his love, his grace, his kindness, and in order that, “so that”—it’s a purpose clause, verse 7—“so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward[s] us in Christ Jesus.”
So in other words, he is purposing to have this gigantic, cosmic show-and-tell. Okay? And he’s going to take, if you like, what he’s been doing in time and reveal in eternity the immensity of what he has done in putting together a people that are his very own from every tribe and nation and language and tongue and so on, so that this great display of God’s magnificent glory will be such that the whole of creation will witness it.
We sang it in part, really, in the Townend lyric there: that the whole of creation will join in this song. One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow” and “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” And on display in that day will be those whom he has redeemed. He will bring them forward and say, “Look”—that Christ will say, “Father, these are those for whom I died, and here they are.” And the whole of creation will praise God. That’s why, in the old hymn that we never sing, it goes,
With harps and with viols, there stand a great throng
In the presence of Jesus, and sing this new song:
What’s the song?
Unto him who hath loved us and washed us from sin,
Unto him be the glory forever, Amen.
All these once were sinners, defiled in his sight,
Now arrayed in pure garments in praise they unite.
Unto him who ha[s] loved us…
Oh, it’s so wonderful!
You know, somebody—I think it’s John Stott—says that when the principal of his college in Oxford was retiring, they painted a portrait of him, a very nice portrait. And the man who was the recipient of the portrait said in a deferential expression of humility, he said, “In years to come, when people view this picture, they will not ask, ‘Who is that man?’ They will ask, ‘Who painted that portrait?’” And you see, that’s it! On that day, they won’t be asking, “Who are these people?” They will say, “Who did this?” And the answer is, God did this. He did it! It’s amazing.
In the coming ages, the whole universe is going to see what God has done. It’s “the immeasurable greatness of his power,” he says in chapter 1, that has raised Jesus from the dead. And in raising us from spiritual death, he is displaying the immeasurable riches of his grace.
Sinclair Ferguson, our good friend, said, “Heaven is the final showroom, and earth is God’s workshop as he paints on the canvas of our lives.” So, we’ve got all these funny faces and places, and all from different backgrounds, and the work of God in us and through us is to conform us to the image of his Son, so that although we all come from different places and have had all kinds of different experiences, we are unified in this amazing reality.
And that brings us to verses 8 and 9 and 10. We can say a word about them. Everybody thinks they know them so well that we don’t need to pay attention. That’s always dangerous. But what he’s saying is, the reason all of that praise belongs to God is because God alone is the author of our salvation. By grace we have been saved from the death and the slavery and the condemnation that we considered in verses 1–3. How has this happened? Because of God’s amazing grace. Grace is the cause. Faith is, if you like, the conduit. We bring nothing to our salvation except the sin from which we need to be saved. Salvation is not a transaction between God and us whereby he contributes grace and we contribute faith. You’ll notice in his language here: “This is not your own doing,” this faith; “it is the gift of God.” Faith is our response, but it is not our contribution. It’s our response.
That’s why, again, we sing, “I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart.” Don’t you wonder? “Why is it? How come I believe this stuff? How come when I sing this, I mean it? I know not how.” Well, it’s the grace of God. We’re entirely dependent upon God for the capacity to embrace the gospel. Entirely dependent upon God for the capacity to embrace the gospel. That makes sense, doesn’t it, if we were dead? What can you do if you’re dead? Absolutely nothing! So if you’re dead, you’re going to have to be made alive so that you might then be enabled to reach out the empty hands of faith and receive a gift from God, which is the gift of salvation. You will notice that salvation isn’t an achievement of our own doing; it’s a gift. Nor is it a reward as a result of the works that we’ve done, in verse 9. If it were, then there would be a basis for boasting.
But in this wonderful balance that you find throughout the Bible, although we are not saved by works, we are saved for works. And what he’s saying in verse 10 is that our ongoing Christian living depends on God’s grace. Our ongoing Christian living is as dependent upon God’s grace, all day, every day. That’s why when we sing, we sometimes sing, “Help me [then] to live a life that’s dependent on your grace.” So you see that this “workmanship” that is “created in Christ Jesus for good works” God has “prepared … that we should walk in them.” The good deeds that he has prepared beforehand, as they are worked out in our lives, are the very evidence of his grace.
Says Lenski, “All the works are ready, they only await the living doers and their doing.” And Paul is going to go on from this point, in the “Therefore” of verse 11, to point out that it is in the church now that God is providing a working model of his power and of his grace. That’s why when we come together tonight for the Lord’s Supper, we come together as a company of sinners saved by grace; that our fellowship is with the Lord Jesus and with one another; that the ground at the cross is completely level; that the issues of intellect and social standing and finance and all the things that make for division—culture, race, all these things—they’re not irrelevant issues, but they are completely set aside when we gather in the awareness of God’s goodness.
You see, I think the real question with which we should finish is this: Am I amazed by the grace of God? Am I amazed by the grace of God?
Father, thank you that your Word is fixed in heaven. Thank you that although we are tempted to believe that all we really need is a little more education or a little more legislation and we’ll get this place sorted out, we realize, Lord, that the depth of our predicament is such that we are in need of resurrection. We need to be raised from the deadness and the enslavement and the condemnation of our lives lived in indifference and in rebellion to you.
Thank you that in Jesus, that is exactly what you’ve done—that Jesus hasn’t come to give us an example of how to try and be a good Christian but that he has come to die in the place of sinners and to reconcile us to yourself. Thank you that our hearts then can be filled with the immensity of his love and the wonder of his mercy, the extent of his kindness and the amazing depth of his grace. Oh, grant that in our amazement we may bow down and trust you, confess our sin to you, and live to please you. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.
 Emily May Grimes, “The Quiet Hour” (1920). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John 3:16 (KJV).
 Exodus 33:19 (ESV).
 William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).
 Emmanuel T. Sibomana, “O How the Grace of God Amazes Me.”
 Romans 5:8 (ESV).
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.
 Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).
 An Exposition of the Second Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, Verses 1–11, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861), 2:149.
 Luke 15:18–20 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:22–24 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 15:29–30.
 William Young Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell” (1929).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.
 Frederick W. Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1854).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 95:7–8; Hebrews 3:7–8, 15; 4:7.
 See Revelation 7:9.
 Stuart Townend and Andrew Small, “Loved before the Dawn of Time (Salvation’s Song)” (2007).
 Philippians 2:10–11 (ESV).
 Arthur Tappan Pierson, “With Harps and with Viols” (1874).
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 82. Paraphrased.
 Ephesians 1:19 (ESV).
 Daniel Webster Whittle, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” (1883).
 Bob Kauflin, “O Great God” (2006).
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 428.
 See Psalm 119:89.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.