Sola Gratia: Saved by Grace Alone

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9

Grace. A most wonderful and most humbling truth. Grace saves. It delivers one from the greatest evil and misery and makes him a partaker of the greatest good.

Saved from the greatest evil. The greatest evil is to be spiritually trapped in the powerful grasp of the wages of sin. Sin earns death. Every sin must be punished, and the punishment for each is certain death at the hands of the just and holy God. God punishes sin with death (Gen. 2:17). This is as it ought to be, because sin is always a violation of God. The only correct response the holy and just God can give to each violation of Himself is to punish sin with death. This death is spiritual (the inability to do anything good and the inclination only to do evil), physical (the cessation of earthly existence), and eternal (the endurance of divine wrath in hell forever). This is the greatest evil and misery. Grace saves from this great misery.

And to be saved is to be made a partaker of the greatest good. The greatest good is to be as God and to be with God. It is to be made beautiful as God is beautiful. It is to be able to fellowship with the living God Himself. It is to know God, to hear Him, and to talk with Him. It is to know that God is with you—always—and that thus you are always with Him. It is to be spiritually alive, that is, always conscious of His blessed presence and able to want to please Him. This is the great good. Grace gives us this great good.

The inspired apostle spoke about this greatest evil and this greatest good in the earlier verses of this second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. He had said that the greatest evil is to be dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). He then explains this spiritual death as being physically alive but able only to do evil. He writes that it is to be imprisoned in the constant pressure to walk according to the ungodly world. It is to follow the devil himself, whose power is evidenced in his constantly leading men into disobedience (Eph. 2:2). Spiritual death is the truly horrible experience of doing whatever you can think of (the desires of the mind) and whatever your flesh wants (the desires of the flesh)—and then to be so deceived that you believe that this is wonderful and right (Eph. 2:3). In these verses Paul makes it clear that this spiritual death characterizes not only the heathen (“ye”), but also the Christian (“we”).

The greatest good Paul describes as being made spiritually alive (“quickened”) with Christ (Eph. 2:5). It is to be born again with the very life of Jesus Christ Himself, so that He is in you. Then this greatest good consists of one being raised with Christ (Eph. 2:6). It is to be so in Christ and with Him, that you share in His resurrection from the dead. A spiritual resurrection takes place in believers—they are justi ed before God. Still more, union with Christ takes believers into heaven with Him. When Jesus ascended into the realm of the heavenly, then those in Him receive spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6, 1:3).

This is what it is to be saved. How is it possible that those dead in sin can be saved? Paul has already pointed to God for the answer: “But God…” (Eph. 2:4). The possibility of salvation is found either in God or in those who are saved. Paul looks away from the saved and looks up to God. It is the rich mercy of God, which mercy is based on great, divine love (Eph. 2:4). Rich mercy derived from everlasting love.

Now in our text the apostle is inspired to point to another attribute of God at work in making it possible for spiritually dead sinners to be brought into living communion with God. It is grace. “By grace are ye saved.”

Grace is the attitude of undeserved favor, which becomes an active power to save. Grace is an action of God which arises from His beautiful character. (The root meaning of the Hebrew word for grace is “beauty.”) This beauty of God becomes an attitude of favor and love. When the object of God’s gracious attitude is unworthy and sinful, then it is an unmerited favor and stands diametrically opposed to obligation. If it is by grace, then there is no obligation. If God is obliged to save, then it would not be by grace. Grace is that favorable attitude in action. It is that redemptive power which delivers from the great evil and imparts the spiritual blessings which make beautiful. The objects of divine grace are made beautiful as God is beautiful.

Grace is the fountain out of which God makes the chosen, wretched sinner to be beautiful. Salvation is not God’s response to something in us. It is “not of yourselves.” The word “grace” excludes that. The only reason spiritually dead creatures could now be alive is because of the grace of God. Paul personally experienced that it was by grace, and only by grace, that he was a Christian.

Gracious salvation is entirely of God and in spite of us. We have no right to salvation. When God’s mercy, love, and grace are the source of salvation, then in the ages to come the exceeding riches of God’s grace are shown (Eph. 2:7). God is shown, not man. The first three verses of Ephesians 2 demonstrate clearly that we deserve nothing but eternal hell. The next four verses powerfully exalt God for giving liberally of the exceeding riches of His grace.

Gracious salvation is not God’s response to something in us. The only reason spiritually dead sinners could ever be saved is the grace of God! That one is a Christian gives one no grounds whatsoever for boasting. In truth, it forbids all human boasting. This is precisely the emphasis of this text. It is “not of yourselves.” It is “not of works.” If it were of ourselves or of our works, then we could and would boast. But it is grace, “lest any man should boast.”

Grace excludes boasting! It makes human boasting impossible. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). Salvation comes out of grace, which means that there is absolutely no grounds for being proud of oneself. It is grace alone. If salvation is by anything other than grace, or if anything is added to grace, then there is reason to boast.

Paul presents himself as an example. Prior to his being a Christian he did a great deal of boasting. He was very self-satisfied, self-assured, and self-confident! He writes that he had reason for confidence in his flesh. He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3: 4ff.)! But Paul came to see that when he became a Christian, then everything of which he was naturally proud became suddenly insignificant. No, worse! He now realizes that those things he would naturally be proud of, he now considers to be worse than insignificant and irrelevant. Now he considers them all to be dung and loss, vile and foul.

All humans are inclined to boast in their works. The root of man’s fall into sin was pride. Man wanted to determine for himself what was right and what was wrong. He did not want God to determine it. Ever since then the nature of all humans is that they want to boast in what they have done or in what they can do. Jesus spoke a parable “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9). Man always likes to think that he can earn his way into heaven by doing “many wonderful works,” even works supposedly done in Jesus’ name. But the only response Jesus gives to such thinking is: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23).

By nature we always tend to think of ourselves in light of what we have done (either good or bad). Human nature makes us compare ourselves to other humans (never to God). We quickly think about our accomplishments, religious or otherwise: sports, business, family, cooking or cleaning, etc. On the basis of our accomplishments we build our self-esteem.

However, the gospel of Jesus Christ denounces any reliance on works, pride in works, boasting about works. “And if by grace, then is it no more works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). The gospel of salvation by grace condemns every human. It strips us naked and shows us that we are lthy and vile, that there is none righteous, no not one. To introduce works in any sense is what Paul said was a going back to the law (cf. his epistle to the Galatians). If we try to justify ourselves by our works, then we are to be condemned, because the best works of man are not good enough to earn any merit in the sight of God.

If in our consciousness of who and what we are we think of our goodness or rely on anything we have done, then we deny grace. We must see ourselves as having nothing of merit before God and men. The correct perspective of good works is that God makes us Christians so we may do good works (confer the next verse). Salvation is by grace alone and it leads to good works; good works never lead to salvation. We are saved by grace “through faith.”

Faith is the God-given instrument through which salvation comes to each of God’s elect. First, faith is the bond of living fellowship which connects the Captain of our salvation to each of the elect. Then faith becomes an activity according to which the elect believer experiences his relationship to the Savior. As such it is knowing Christ and trusting in Him for salvation. So salvation in Jesus Christ from the greatest evil unto the highest good is by grace alone through the instrumentality of faith.

The emphasis of our text is that salvation by grace through faith is the gift of God. In every respect it is a gift, given by God to those given by Him to the Son; never is it a gift of man to God. Salvation by grace through faith is a gift of God. To say that salvation is through faith is to say that it is by grace. “It is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Rom. 4:16).

This is emphasized because human nature always wants to boast of what it has done or can do. So quickly we take the talents God has given to us and glory in them as if they originated in us. We even tend to boast of our faith. Many want to turn their faith into a kind of work. They say that by believing on Jesus Christ a man saves himself. They will still say that salvation is by grace, but they make faith to be man’s contribution to that salvation. Then salvation will be God’s work, but a work of God which ultimately depends on man’s believing to be realized. Others even make faith a condition unto salvation in the covenant. The covenant is established, they say, with every child of believers (elect or reprobate), and the realization of salvation depends on whether the child believes and accepts. This concept of faith makes the covenant a conditional covenant.

In our text the apostle makes it clear that salvation is entirely the result of the grace of God: “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Many are the discussions whether the antecedent to “that” is “faith” or “salvation by grace through faith.” Let it be understood beyond a shadow of any doubt that salvation by grace means that it is all of grace. If it is my believing which saves me, then I have saved myself. The inspired apostle says that it is not of himself. It is “not of yourselves” in any sense. We must never speak of our faith in any way of being of ourselves. Instead we must see faith to be a gift of God (Phil. 1:29). It is God who produces both the will to believe and the act of believing in every believer (Canons of Dordt, III/IV,14).

Faith is not the cause of salvation, grace is. Faith does not save us, Christ does. That anyone is a child of God is entirely the result of God’s work of grace. It cannot be anything else but God’s work, in light of what we are by nature, according to the first three verses of this chapter. And in light of what God does to save, according to verses 4-7, it has to be only the gift of God.

Grace. Saved by grace. Saved by grace through faith. It is not of us. It is not because of our works. We cannot and may not boast. Then what? While the text denies us the right to boast in ourselves, it clearly implies that we may and can and must boast in God. And in God alone.

All the glory for salvation belongs to God. God alone is to be glorified for salvation, for grace, and for faith. Salvation by grace—a beautiful conception of God.

Therefore, “blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.”

Written by: Pastor Ronald Van Overloop | Issue 5