Faith and Works, Getting the Order Right (an epilogue to The Unexpected Way series): The way of salvation is all about faith in what Jesus has already done. However, after salvation, the Christian life is then all about grace-motivated, Spirit-empowered good works. The relationship between faith and works can be tricky, but we must get the order right. Recorded on Oct 23, 2022, on Ephesians 2:1-10, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy, and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus, which means that all year we’re trying to answer the question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” And we’ve just finished working through a very famous teaching of Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount. We spent three full months going through what is honestly one of the most influential teachings of anyone, anywhere, in the history of the world. That’s the power of Jesus. But before we start our new sermon series called Redeeming Regular Life, which starts next week, I felt led to do a little epilogue here at the end of this series. And the reason is that there’s a fundamental danger in listening and trying to obey the teaching of Jesus. And it’s not only the temptation to ignore his teaching. Disobedience is the ditch on one side of the narrow path of following Jesus. And, of course, that is a problem. The way of Jesus is sometimes very hard and painful. And it’s tempting to ignore the bits we don’t like or are particularly difficult. But that’s not the only problem. There’s a ditch on the other side of the road. There’s a trap that many people fall into in trying to obey the teaching of Jesus or really in trying to do anything for God. The problem/trap is confusing the Christian life with the way of salvation, to forget that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our obedience/righteousness/works. So before we have another sermon on how to live in light of the gospel, we need to revisit faith and works and make sure we get the order right. Because, and here’s why this is so important, if we get this wrong, it’s possible we never understood or believed the gospel in the first place. Given what’s at stake, we must be clear. So if you have a Bible/app, please open to Eph 2:1. We’ll read this and then unpack it together.
Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV), “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
So Ephesians is an epistle or letter from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in and around the city of Ephesus in the modern country of Turkey. Paul had spent more time in Ephesus than anywhere else around the Roman Empire during his travels as a missionary in the first century AD. His typical approach was to come into a city, preach the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, appoint leaders, and then move on down the road. However, he would often write back to his friends later. Now, different from other epistles in the NT (and other letters of Paul), which often address issues that were specific to that particular church, Ephesians was more general and was meant to be shared with other churches, too. But Paul wrote to encourage men and women in their faith, to clarify the gospel, and to remind them of what he taught when he was among them. In this passage, Paul reminds these Christian brothers and sisters of four things: 1. past condition 2. gracious solution 3. future purpose 4. present calling. Let’s start back at v. 1.
Ephesians 2:1-3 (NIV), “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” So first, we have the past condition of these Christians. And what were they before they were Christians? Paul says they were dead in their transgressions and sins. The word “transgressions” implies crossing a barrier or boundary that should not be crossed. The word “sin” is a word that comes from archery that implies missing the mark or falling short of an intended goal. These two terms together encompass all the evil in the world, both gross sins and little daily things that no one seems even to notice that fall short of God’s purposes for us. Paul gives three causes for this evil: the world, the devil, and our own flesh or sinful nature. The bad news that is necessary to understand before the good news of the gospel makes any sense is that evil is found both within and without. The main problem of the world is both out there and in here. We live in a world marred by sin, and everything and everyone is affected by sin to some degree. Now, I don’t know anyone who would disagree with the belief that this world is a mess. Even secular humanists do not believe that we live in a utopia. We might disagree about what the problem is and, therefore, what the solution might be, but we can agree that this is obviously not heaven. According to Paul and all the Apostles, the result of this past condition is twofold: spiritual deadness and the wrath of God. Did you notice the unusual phrase? “…you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live”? You were dead, even though you were alive. So Paul must not be talking about physical life and death. According to the whole Bible, eventually, it is our spiritual death that results in our physical death. The final, terrifying result of their past condition is wrath. And Paul doesn’t leave anyone out of this condition. He says, “all of us” and “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” Jew and Gentile, man and woman, young and old, slave and free, we all have a problem with sin and death. But God is holy and righteous, and he wouldn’t just be unjust if he let all the evil and wickedness of this world slide, he’d be a monster. So what can we do? What can we do to be saved from the power of sin and death? And from the just wrath of God against sin? This past condition required a solution. But how would people in the bondage of the world, the flesh, and the devil be able to find freedom? How could spiritually dead people make themselves alive? Look again at v. 4.
Ephesians 2:4-5 (NIV), “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” So first, we had the past condition. And this wasn’t only for the Ephesian Christians, this is the condition of the whole world apart from Christ. Now here, we have the gracious solution. Though they were dead in their transgressions and sins, though they were enslaved in a kingdom of darkness, and though they were deserving of wrath – because of his great love for us, God did something. He set in motion a rescue plan. He intervened. Why? Because God is not only holy, righteous, and just, but he is also love; he is rich in mercy. So God made us alive with Christ. We didn’t make ourselves. Remember, dead people can’t give themselves life. Paul repeats, even when we were dead in transgressions. Christian salvation is a miracle, a gift of God. This is why Paul says it is by grace you have been saved. Grace is a gift, not a paycheck. Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God; grace is not a payment that you earn by your good deeds or even your potential for doing good things for God. The gospel, which means good news, always includes both the past condition and the gracious solution of what God has done through his Son Jesus. Jesus gave his life on the cross. Why? To satisfy the wrath of God against sin and to atone or pay the price for our sins so that we might be forgiven and freed. But Jesus also rose from the dead. Why? So that he would break the power of death for us, but also because he had earned life by his own righteousness. In this way, when we put our faith in Jesus, we are united with him in both his death and his resurrection. We are no longer spiritually dead; we are born again. And we are no longer held in the bondage of the world, the flesh, and the devil; we are a new creation; we are the righteousness of Christ. But this past condition and this saving work of God in providing a gracious solution result in a wonderful future purpose. Look again at v. 6.
Ephesians 2:6-7 (NIV), “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Through our union with Christ, by faith, we are united with him in his present state as the risen and triumphant King of heaven. Though we are still, in one sense, part of this kingdom of darkness, this broken world, we are actually no longer citizens here. We are pilgrims making our way to a new land, we are citizens of another kingdom, the Kingdom of God. But in this new resurrection reality, we have before us our future purpose. That in the coming ages, God might show/reveal the incomparable riches of his grace! We then, the simple men and women that we are, most of us having a relatively unremarkable background, we will become the crowning masterpiece in the gallery of God’s grace. A work of marvel for all the angels and any other worlds of God’s creation. How? Because each one of us can point back to the time when God expressed his infinite kindness and goodness, and love to us in Christ Jesus. When the Author of life gave his life. When the judge stepped down from his judgment seat and served our sentence. Our past condition was met with God’s gracious solution, which will become the song of praise for all eternity. This is God’s future purpose for us in Christ. And this whole grand story of rescue and redemption in Jesus is summarized in v. 8.
Ephesians 2:8-10 (NIV), “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In light of our past condition and the gracious solution that God has provided for us in Christ, it is by grace that we have been saved. Again, to be clear, our salvation is a gift from God to us, not something that we have earned or have to earn. Not by works. If our salvation was something we earned, then we, in some way, would be able to take the credit. We would be able to boast about our righteousness and our spiritual life. But that’s not the gospel. We have been saved by grace through faith. This means salvation comes from hearing the good news of who God is, what he has done through his Son, and in light of our present condition, we believe it to be true. We believe that Jesus died for us because we were dead in order to give us life. We believe that he rose from the dead and reigns and rules today as the Lord and Savior of our lives. And if that’s true, then he gets all the credit. He gets all the glory, honor, and praise. However, in light of the good news of the gospel, there is a present calling which is found in v. 10. We who have been made alive with Christ, we who have been raised with him, we who have believed the gospel and received the grace of God, we have been “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This speaks to what we have been saved for. We have a future purpose, which is to be a testimony to the incomparable riches of God’s grace. But we also have a present calling: to do good works. To follow a new way, the way of Jesus. To obey the commands of Christ. To be salt and light in this broken world. To serve/love/give/worship/forgive/pray/sing/share in Jesus’ name. Simply, to love God and love people. Now, on the one hand, this will seem subversive and countercultural in a world that is spiritually dead and under the influence of the evil one who seeks to divide, discourage, and destroy. But on the other hand, it is the way that God intended for us and the whole of creation to work. It might seem weird or unexpected, but it’s the only way that truly leads to life, joy, and peace. In fact, these works of love are what God has always planned for his children. These are the works that he has prepared in advance for us to do.
But what do we do with this sweeping story of salvation that covers the whole history of the world and on into an eternal future in God’s kingdom? Is there any way to apply this in some simple way to our lives today? Well, in many ways, we will spend the rest of eternity marveling at this story. But for today, I want to simply draw your attention to the order of the story. And again, we must get the order right, or we might tragically miss the gospel. The way of salvation for us is all about faith, of hearing and believing what God has already accomplished in Christ. Faith in Jesus, both in believing the news about what he has done and in actively trusting him moment by moment in life, is what it means to become a Christian. But what, then, is the rest of the Christian life about? It’s about getting out there and doing the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. It’s about being salt and light. It’s about speaking the truth in love and doing justice and caring for those in need, and being faithful and growing in godly character and love. The Christian life takes work. It takes work to do good works. However, it is critical to remember that the good works that we do in Christ are not to earn or pay for our salvation. Salvation is by grace; it’s a gift, forever. Not only do we need to get the order right of faith and works to become a Christian, but we must also keep the right order, or our works will lack the true power that God offers us through his word and his Spirit.
What does this mean? Well, it is possible to be a true Christian and yet still fall back into the ditch of works righteousness and self-salvation. This mindset disconnects us from the true power source of God to do good works. Why? Because for the Christian, good works should only result in more boasting in God, He gets the credit, and we get the joy and fulfilling our unique created purpose, and often, others benefit as well. But what happens when we get the order wrong? Then our good works, whether we are fully aware of it or not, become the evidence that God was right in saving us. This results in two bad outcomes: First, we will be prideful if we are able to meet our own expectations of what it means to be a good person. This is the Christian that seems to look down their noses in judgment toward other people who don’t have their act as much together or who struggle with different sins than they struggle with. This is more of a pharisaical mindset, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Lk 18:11), people who don’t attend church as often as I do, or give as much as I give, or who don’t have their theology or politics or money or family as figured out as I do. This is all a result of pride. But the other bad outcome isn’t any better. It’s the Christian who is crushed with guilt and shame because they do not live up to their own expectations for what it means to be a good person. They don’t measure up, and they are inordinately crushed and in despair. My friends, this is not the life that Jesus died to give you! “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1). It’s ok for the Christian to receive healthy conviction over sin that is still present in this age – but not to be crushed by it. But when we get the order right, then faith naturally leads to works because the grace of God is so sweet that we want to obey him. But the very context for our attempted good works is one of unconditional love and acceptance. Our foundation is rock solid in Christ. So if we try and do something good for our neighbor or as a sacrifice of worship for God, and it goes well, we can boast all the more in Christ and receive the joy that comes with knowing you are doing God’s will, God’s way. But if it doesn’t go well, you can laugh and get back up, dust yourself off, and keep taking one step after another in the way of Jesus. Because you know that your imperfection doesn’t jeopardize your relationship with God or your salvation for even one second. You are safe. You are secure. Both now and forevermore. Praise God. So let’s get after it. Let’s work hard for the glory of God, for our joy, and for the good of all people. This is both the way of salvation and the Christian life. This is faith and works.