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.
Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV
Word came to Jesus that His friend, Lazarus, was ill, but Jesus did nothing. He did not immediately race to Lazarus’ side; He just stayed where He was for two whole days. But after that time, Jesus went with His disciples to see His friend, and along the way, He confided in them that Lazarus was already dead. But Jesus continued onward with a plan.
After being greeted by Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus asked to be taken to His friend’s tomb. Upon seeing the burial, Jesus wept, which was a pretty typical response to the death of a loved one, but then He commanded the stone of the tomb to be rolled away, which was not a typical response at all, especially since Lazarus had been dead for four days and would be smelling quite bad. Nevertheless, they obeyed Jesus, and once the tomb was opened, the Lord commanded Lazarus to come out of His grave. And he did! The same Jesus who gave sight to the blind, now displayed His ability to give life to the dead.
THE GRACIOUS GOD
God’s grace must properly be understood alongside His mercy, since both are given to sinners in the place of His justified wrath. Mercy, as we noted, refers to God’s benevolent withholding of righteous judgment; it means that we do not receive from Him what we do deserve. Grace, on the other hand, is the giving of something that we do not deserve. For example, a police officer deciding not to give you a ticket for speeding when you were, in fact, speeding is an act of mercy. However, if the officer then gave you a $20 bill, that would be an instance of grace.
Yet grace and mercy do differ in the fact that mercy is by necessity a response to sin, while grace is not dependent upon sin to exist. For instance, God’s giving of Eve to Adam as a helper fit for him is certainly a gracious deed. The first man did nothing to warrant such a gift; God simply gave out of His gracious being. God’s mercy, however, was not shown to Adam until Genesis 3. Although mercy is eternally within the character of God, it was only unveiled for His creatures to behold following the introduction of sin. The same is also true of His wrath, by the way. Grace, however, does not require sin to have been committed. Everything good and unearned gift given by to us by God is a sample of His grace.
The vastness of this generous attribute of God has caused theologians to traditionally speak of God’s grace in two ways: common and special (or saving). The common grace of God is what God bestows upon all of humanity and all of creation. Indeed, creation itself is a kind of common grace. We each only exist, rather than not existing, by God’s pure graciousness. Yet beyond that, our existence is sustained only by God’s grace. What, after all, have you done to deserve the air that you are currently breathing? If were to shut the heavens from giving rain, we would quickly remember the everyday grace of water. Likewise, we take for granted each day that our vital organs were designed and set in motion by God, requiring no conscious thought of our own to govern them.
The examples that we could give of God’s common grace are endless, and because they are common, He pours them out upon both the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous, the saints and the sinners. Even those who passionately deny His very existence are only able to do so because He continues to uphold them by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). For this reason, Paul wrote that “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Every new sunrise proclaims the grandeur and goodness of the LORD our God, but the wicked do not have eyes to see nor ears to hear this truth.
BY GRACE ALONE
For those who are in Christ Jesus, we find in the open and extended hand of God more than even the common grace that He has given, we receive from Him special or saving grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. We call this grace saving because that is its function. By this grace, we are saved, rescued from the bondage and futility of our sin. And it is special because it is given only to God’s elect, His chosen people, the church. Furthermore, as our salvation is displayed on three fronts, so too does His grace meet us on three fronts.
First, we are justified by His grace. Ephesians 2:1-10 is perhaps one of the best snapshot summaries of this within the whole of Scripture.
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 the 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.
Notice that Paul begins by establishing the hopelessness of our situation for the first three verses, emphasizing that we are only worthy recipients of God’s wrath; however, from God’s great love and the riches of His mercy, He saved us. Paul then places two realities beside one another: 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. Our justification before God is grace, and this grace excludes works. It is God’s gift to us that we must receive through faith, but any attempt to earn this gift makes void the essentially free nature of grace itself. Like Lazarus raising from the dead, we cannot save ourselves; God must bring us to life through Jesus.
Second, we are sanctified by His grace. In justification, our salvation is sealed once for all through the perfectly atoning sacrifice of Jesus; however, our salvation also has a continual element to it. Although Christ has made us holy before the Father, each day we still grow into greater and greater conformity to that spiritual reality. We call this lifetime process sanctification, and it too is dependent upon the grace of God.
The relationship, however, between grace and works is a bit different in sanctification than in justification. We are justified solely by the work of Christ. Our own good works contribute absolutely nothing to that endeavor. Yet within sanctification, we are commanded to do good works. Indeed, we glimpsed the beginning of sanctification within the final verse of the passage above: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Although we are not saved (justified) by our good works, we are saved in order to do good works (sanctification).
But if sanctification is the process of us conforming to the holiness of God through obedience, where does grace come in? Hear Paul’s answer to this question within Philippians 2:12-13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
How mighty of a thought is this! We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We must strive diligently in being sanctified, in imitating our Father as beloved children. But even as we do so, we also take comfort that it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Thus, in sanctification, we really must do the work, yet we do so only by the strength that God supplies to us. As during Israel’s battle with Amalek (Exodus 17), Moses’ hands were truly held up, but the strength to do so was given by Aaron and Hur.
Finally, we will be glorified by His grace. If justification is the past moment of our salvation and sanctification is our present movement, glorification is the future completion of God’s saving work in us. Glorification will be whenever our sanctification is complete, and our physical reality matches our spiritual one. In death, we conclude our lifetime battle against sin and the flesh; however, our glorification will only properly be fulfilled in the resurrection, when we are raised to life into holy and sinless bodies for all eternity.
Glorification too is a gift of God’s grace. To Philippians, Paul wrote,
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.Philippians 3:20-21
Christ will transform our bodies into glorious ones like His own glorious body. He will do this, not us. As with our justification, there is no work for us to contribute; we are entirely within His hands. Or, as the apostle also wrote, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Upon viewing these applications of God’s grace, let us never wrongfully conclude that God’s grace is nothing more than a get-out-of-hell-free card. The assurance of our full justification and steadfast hope of our glorification should strengthen us to work mightily throughout our sanctification within this life. Yet even in this work, we cast ourselves upon the grace of God. May we each be able to say with the Apostle Paul,
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.1 Corinthians 15:10