What Is Grace?
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

What Is Grace?

Ephesians 2:8  (ID: 0514)

Salvation makes us alive, sets us free, and puts us in good standing with God. This salvation is produced through God’s grace, delivered through faith in Christ Jesus and the work He did on our behalf. As Alistair Begg points out, when Paul wrote “By grace you have been saved,” he was describing a present state based on a past activity. This grace has transformative, life-giving power—but only for those who know they desperately need it!

Sermon Transcript: Print

The phrase that is under our consideration today is the phrase “For it is by grace you have been saved.” “For it is [through] grace you have been saved.” This is in a tense that points to a present awareness on the basis of some past activity.

The phrase “by the grace of God” is not only a very familiar phrase, but it is also a very abused phrase. Some people, admittedly, on a daily basis may refer to the grace of God in a reverent fashion. Others do so in a facetious way, simply using the phrase to cover over, as it were, a multitude of sins. Many times the phrase is used in a kind of benign mentality whereby they’re not seeking to say anything or we’re not really seeking to say anything very much. It just fills in the blanks. We use it casually. But in the vast majority of usage, I think it would be possible to argue that most people use it without knowing what in the world they’re talking about.

Now, that may seem like a very bad way to begin something like this, because if you are a frequent user of the phrase “only by the grace of God” and you feel that I’m suggesting to you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s not really a good way to make friends and influence people. I understand that, but I stand by my assertion.

Most bookstores in Cleveland carry books. They also carry a book which I found all around, which is a book of pictures, I think taken in New England, and at the bottom of each page are the words from the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which probably now is the most referred to hymn in the Western world, and certainly the most quoted.

And if you’ve seen this book, you will notice that it has pictures from all different spots, and then at the bottom, without any immediately obvious connection, you will find the phrase “was blind, but now I see,”[1] and it may be a picture of a barn in Massachusetts—making me wonder whether the people who did the book really got to the heart of this notion of the grace of God or whether they determined that since the hymn “Amazing Grace” has been prostituted to such a degree that it now has been made famous by a bagpipe band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, that it’s really safe to do just anything with it that you, frankly, choose, so we might as well take it and stick it on the bottom of a group of photographs. Thereby continuing to underscore the notion that this idea of the grace of God—while it is in the consciousness, as it were, of our nation, while it is part of the parlance of our culture, while it is something that each of us would say, “Yeah, we understand something of that”—when we try and get to the very essence of it, we might be hard-pressed to come up with anything that was directly related to what we find here in Ephesians chapter 2.

And in this phrase—which is actually from verse 8, although there are no verse designations on the sheet that you have in front of you—in this phrase, in verse 8 and the beginning of verse 8, we’re introduced to three key words which we’ve been dealing with during these weeks. You may recall that it was some months ago that we set out to answer this question: What is genuine Christian faith? What is genuine Christian faith?

And now, for some of us, that was simply we wanted to find out because we wanted to avoid it. We would definitely want to find out what the real thing is so that we can be sure that we don’t get involved. For others of us, it is because we are wandering, as it were, in the tracks of Christianity, but we’re not sure what the genuine article is. And so, in the process of going through these verses in Ephesians, we’ve discovered that there are three key words, which, interestingly, are all present in this phrase: “For it is by grace you have been saved.” Actually, you need to add two more words: “through faith.” And the three key words are salvation, grace, and faith.


Now, what we discovered is this: that salvation involves more than simply forgiveness. And when we looked—some of us were present—at the first three verses, which you’ll find in largely the first couple of sentences at the top of this page, we discovered that the Bible declares that mankind has a basic problem. And it is not simply that he is bad and needs to clean up, but it is, according to these verses, that he is dead and cannot make himself alive, that he is enslaved and is unable to liberate himself, and that he is under the wrath of God and cannot do anything to hold back God’s settled response to man’s essential condition, which is to find himself parked, as it were, on God’s yellow lines or to have parked in a parking spot that was unavailable to him.

So when Paul addresses the issue of salvation, he is referring to the fact that God did something to take people who were spiritually dead and make them alive (you’ll see that in the second line), to take people who were enslaved to all kinds of desires and liberate them from that slavery, and to take people who were under condemnation and to put them in a position where the legal rendering was “You may walk from the court. You have now no charge against your name. The record is torn up, and the record is gone.” That, says Paul, is the essence of this notion of salvation.

The Bible declares that mankind has a basic problem. And it is not simply that he is bad and needs to clean up. It is that he is dead and cannot make himself alive.


The conduit through which that experience comes is in the third word, which is the word “faith”: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” It is not faith that produces salvation. It is not that because we decide that we want to exercise faith, that God rewards us with salvation. But the very faith itself is as a result of God’s goodness to us.

If we went out onto Public Square this afternoon and just simply conducted a survey and said to people, “Do you have faith?” many, many people would say, “Oh, yes, I have faith. I couldn’t live without faith.” So we could say, “Oh, well, that’s good. There’s tons of people on Public Square who have faith.”

All of us understand faith in some measure, insofar as we sat on these chairs. I didn’t see anyone examining the legs. There was just a basic assumption that your weight and the configuration of that chair would be able to coalesce without mishap. And I think we’ve proved that successfully. There is a basic faith assumption that the juxtaposition of gases in the air in this room is such that we will be able to stay here for the duration of the luncheon without passing out. You go to the hairdresser, you get your haircut, you sit in the seat; there is a measure of faith involved in that—depending on who your hairdresser is, a greater degree of faith than in other cases!

And so, the notion of faith is kind of out there. The idea of being saved is not so sure, but when people talk faith, many times what they simply mean is a kind of subjective deal whereby because I believe it, it is true. Therefore, the intensity of my belief makes a thing true for me. That’s very trendy: “Well, it might not be true for you, but it is true for me.” So, how does it become true for somebody? Well, it’s simply a subjective notion. That is not what the Bible is talking about when it says “faith.” Nor is the Bible speaking about faith which is merely credulity: the idea of believing something anyway, although we know it isn’t true. So it’s a kind of credulous perspective. And that, of course, is the feeling of many people in relation to Christianity. They say, “These are nice people, but they are misguided people, because their faith is credulous. They are simply psyching themselves up about stuff that isn’t actually true.” Or some would actually go as far as to say that all that faith really is is a kind of a form of optimism—Norman Vincent Peale. And there may well be people who are here today who have benefited from thinking positively about life, but I want to say to you in all honesty that if you think thinking positively about life may be combined with an understanding of the word “faith” here in Ephesians 2:8, you are wrong.

I’ve read The Power of Positive Thinking, and it ends by suggesting that we should wake up in the morning, and on the very first thing in the morning, you should say this three times: “I believe.”[2] Okay? So it’s half past five in the morning, and you wake up, and you go, “I believe! I believe! I believe!” Now, your wife, if she bothered to wake up at this, if it hasn’t become so routine, has every right to say, “Finish the sentence.” Okay? Because to simply affirm “I believe, I believe, I believe” is to say nothing at all. Okay? So, it has to be faith in something or faith in someone. And it is to this that Paul is referring when he says, “It is by grace you have been saved through faith.”


The experience is salvation, the conduit is faith, and the motor that drives the whole issue is in this word “grace.” You see, how can a dead person become alive, spiritually? How can an enslaved person be liberated, spiritually? How can somebody who is under God’s wrath now walk under God’s smile? What is going to make this happen? Or what makes it happen? Or in Paul’s case here, what made it happen for these Ephesians? And the answer is, it was made happen as a result of grace.

At Sunday school in Scotland, we were taught that the word grace meant this: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” You’ll notice that that’s an acronym, or an acrostic—I can never remember which is which. “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” That’s grace—the totally undeserved giving of God, providing us with what we really don’t stand in merit of.

Now, this, you would see, is very, very different from much that is represented in religious experience today. The fact that our religious experience in the twentieth century is marked by a mentality that is different ought not to surprise us, because it has been throughout all the years. In 1511… Remember 1511? In 1511…

Do you know that story about the Americans going to London, to where they signed the Magna Carta? And the guide says, “And this was signed here at 1215,” yeah? And the guy turns to his wife, and he says, “Honey, you know, if we had only been here forty-five minutes earlier, we could’ve seen the whole thing.” (Thanks. It’s good to have an educated group, you know. Nobody bailed me out on acronym, though, so… All right.)

In 1511, Martin Luther, in great mental and spiritual anguish, visited Rome, and he visited for an express purpose: he visited in the hope that he might find a way to unburden his soul. And instead of the four weeks that he spent—which were four weeks of dutiful religious observance—introducing him to liberation and to joy, they in fact simply increased and deepened his sense of disillusionment.

Martin Luther, as you know, was a devout monk. Martin Luther was exceptionally religious. The cumulative religious endeavor of this room this afternoon probably wouldn’t even come close to matching what Martin Luther was into. But Martin Luther hadn’t understood grace. Martin Luther didn’t understand faith. Martin Luther could not get to grips with salvation. Martin Luther was on a quest, four hundred years ago—the same quest that we’ve established a few months ago, and that is: What is genuine Christian experience? And Martin Luther was living proof that hair shirts, beds of nails, intensity of prayer, genuine desire to be a good man, did not answer the longing of his soul.

He was working from the axiom that a good God is bound to accept a good man if the good man does all that he can. And so, on that basis, Martin tried his best. He was a good man doing as good as he could. But the more he did good, the more it heightened his anguish. Because he was left with a sneaking suspicion every time he went to his bed at night, “Maybe I didn’t do good enough.” And how good do you have to do to merit grace? See, that was his question: How do you get this grace? What do you have to do to get it?

And some of you are coming along to these luncheons, and at least subliminally, that question’s rattling round in your head. You’re asking yourself the question, “One, is this legitimate? Two, is there truthfulness in this? Three, does this really bear any resemblance to what I’m doing with my life? And if so, how do I get ahold of this? What do I have to do? What’s the key that will allow me to merit grace?”

Martin Luther failed to understand that the fault lay in his understanding of what was going on, not with God. When the lights went on in his life, this is what he said: “When I had realized this”—namely, quoting Romans 1, that God had provided his righteousness for our problem[3]—Luther said, “When I had realized this, I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of paradise had been flung open and I had entered. There and then, the whole Scripture took on another look for me.”[4] As a result of searching the Scriptures, he discovered, number one, that the theology that he had imbibed to that point in his life didn’t cut it; and number two, that when the Bible got ahold of his heart and shone out into his spiritual anguish, God came in grace and set him free.

You see, that was the reason that Newton’s hymn was put so quickly into English usage. Because everybody knew that John Newton was as vicious a slave captain as there had ever been. It was said of Newton that he went into such rages that when he had used up every filthy profanity that was known to the crew, he would then invent his own. And so people were so used to Newton and all of his garbage that when they saw Newton singing hymns, saying prayers, they were forced to either—that Newton had had a frontal lobotomy. Okay? And to that point in his life, John Newton had always said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” So… (I couldn’t resist that, I know. But anyway…) So, we rule that out as a possibility.

And when Newton went to take up his responsibilities as a clergyman in the South of England, the people who had been involved and at the receiving end of his brutality were forced to conclude, “Something happened to John.” And when they asked him, “How did you make the change?” he said, “I didn’t.” “But,” they then said, “you are radically different from what you once were. Is it your faith, John?” “No, it’s not my faith.” “Well then, what is it?” And he said, “Well, I wrote it down in a hymn.”

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now [I’m] found,
[I] was blind, but now I see.

It’s good theology from an old cussing slave trader, isn’t it? Where does a man like that come up with that stuff?

Unless you’re a wretch, the grace of God is irrelevant. Unless you’re blind, you don’t need to be made to see. Unless I’m dead, I don’t need to be made alive.

You see, what did he have? First, he had an awareness of his condition: he was a wretch. That is probably the one single issue that prevents men and women today from making a discovery of God’s grace. Because the one thing we’re not going to admit, whatever else, is we’re not prepared to say that we’re wretched. “I mean, I’m a nice guy. I have a nice car, a nice house, and a nice job. I am not a wretch, and I will have nobody tell me that I am.”

Well I got news for you: unless you’re a wretch, the grace of God is irrelevant. Unless you’re blind, you don’t need to be made to see. Unless I’m dead, I don’t need to be made alive.

“So,” says Newton, “it was grace.” “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” To fear what? To fear God. To fear eternity without him. To fear living the way I live for the rest of my life. “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

That’s why when the Word of God begins to get into somebody’s life, in the beginnings of genuine Christian experience, one of the reactions often is “I’m out of here. I don’t want to listen to any more of that guy. I am really resentful of that kind of talk.” And when you drive away in your car, there’s a sense of fear, of foreboding, that takes over in your life, because there is the sneaking notion that perhaps what has been said is true. And if it’s true, it therefore has implications, but you can’t understand why that would ever be, because you always thought that religion was supposed to make you feel good. Religion was supposed to put a spring in your step. Religion was supposed to make you a better guy in the office. And it will do all of these things, but not until it has first produced within us a fearfulness of continuing to live as we are.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

And he looked back to a moment in time that was then matched by a journey of faith, a pilgrimage—faith seeking understanding, a transforming work that allows me this morning to take the phrase “For it is by grace you have been saved” and use an illustration with which most of us can find some point of identification.

That’s the illustration, this is the Scripture, and here’s the question. The phraseology used by Paul is present tense. It is indicative of a present state in which the Ephesians find themselves as a result of a past action.

I’ve used the illustration ad nauseam, but many of us today are in a present state, in present-tense activity, as a result of a past action. For example, marriage. For example, the bar exams. For example, points on our license. Okay? We are in a present condition as a result of a past action. He writes to these people, and he says to them not “It is by grace you may be saved” but “It is by grace you have been saved.”

I’m saying to you this afternoon, the Word of God then speaks to us and says if we would ever understand genuine Christian experience, then we’re going to have to wrestle with these three words. One, the nature of salvation. It’s more than forgiveness. It’s from death to life. It’s from bondage to freedom. It’s from wrath to smile. Faith is simply the hand of a child that reaches out to take hold of that which is offered to it. It confers nothing in the system. And that which brings the experience of salvation into the realm of personal faith is one word, and the word is grace: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”—paying a penalty we could never pay, offering a gift we could never earn, introducing us to a crossroads that we cannot avoid.

Let’s pray together:

Our God and our Father, we thank you daily, but we thank you on these Wednesdays that we have a Bible to read. And we want to be looking at the Bible; that’s why we have this page in front of us. Because none of us want to be conned by the articulate or inarticulate ramblings of a man. We want to hear your voice, and we want to know your truth and nothing else.

So since you know our lives and you know us as we sit before you today, we ask that you will be merciful towards us, that as we continue to ask this question and seek to answer it, that you will bring us to points of crossroads and of conviction and of change. We thank you for each one. We thank you for the time together, for the opportunity just to talk around the tables. We thank you for the privilege of employment, and for those of us who are seeking employment, we pray that you will give us patience. And we ask that you will raise up in this great city men and women all across the business community who shine as lights into darkness.[5] Make us those people, for your name’s sake. Amen.

[1] John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).

[2] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (Hoboken, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1952; repr., New York: Fireside, 2003), 93.

[3] See Romans 1:1–5.

[4] Martin Luther, preface to Latin Writings (1545). Paraphrased.

[5] See Philippians 2:15.

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.