Theme: The Christian’s Bright Future
This week’s lessons describe how God’s grace in salvation impacts the Christian’s past, present, and future.
Scripture: Ephesians 2:4-8
Having spoken of the Christian’s past and present, the Apostle now speaks of our future. This has two parts. There is a distant future, which Paul treats in verse 7, and there is an immediate future, which he treats in verse 10.
The distant future. The Christian’s distant future is that “in the coming ages [God] might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” We do not understand very much what this means because, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). It is true that the very next verse adds that “God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (v. 10), but the context shows that at that point Paul is thinking of the mysteries of the gospel and not our future joy and blessings in heaven specifically. What we can know is that, as God has been gracious to us here, so he will be continuously and exceedingly gracious to us in heaven forever. There is no good thing that he will ever withhold from those who are his people.
An immediate future. The most interesting part of the Christian’s future described here is what I have called our immediate future, which Paul refers to as doing “good works.” And it is fascinating too, because the verse immediately before this has said that it is “not by works” that we are saved. Not of works! Yet, created to do good works! Once again there seems to be a contradiction. But once again it is only an apparent contradiction. The true and important teaching is that, although we are not saved by works, being saved, we are nevertheless appointed by God to do them. If we think our good works have any part to play in our salvation, we are not saved. We are still in our sins. We cannot be saved by grace and be saved by grace plus works at the same time.
On the other hand, if we have been saved, we will not only want to do good works to please God who has been so gracious to us; we will actually do them. In fact, if we are not doing them, this is also a sign that we are not genuinely converted.
In my opinion, this is one of the most neglected, though essential, teachings in the evangelical church in America today. The Protestant church is proud of its Reformation heritage in maintaining that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. It repudiates the Catholic teaching that works combine with faith to produce justification. Protestants are right at this point. But Catholics are at least concerned to see works, and there are many segments of Protestantism that deny the place of works entirely. They teach that it is possible to be saved by faith alone and never produce any good works at all. They teach that it is possible to be saved but also to be utterly unchanged by that experience. What are we to say about a theology that does not have a place for works, especially in light of this important passage in Ephesians? What would Jesus think of such theology?
When we study Jesus’ words it does not take us long to discover that he insisted on changed behavior if a person was actually following him. He taught that salvation would be by his death on the cross. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is perfectly consistent with the fact of salvation by grace through faith alone—grace in his death and faith being our response to it.
But Jesus also said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? The one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built his house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete” (Luke 6:46, 49). He told the Jews of his day, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
When we put these texts together it is easy to see that this is not only a matter of our demonstrating a genuinely changed behavior and thus doing good works if we are justified. It must also be that our good works exceed the good works of others, which is obvious once we consider that the Christian’s good works flow from the character of God within the Christian. When Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…” he meant, “Unless you who call yourselves Christians, who profess to be justified by faith alone and therefore confess that you have nothing whatever to contribute to your own justification—unless you nevertheless conduct yourselves in a way which is utterly superior to the conduct of the very best people who are hoping to save themselves by their own good works, you will not enter God’s kingdom, because you are not Christians in the first place.”
John Gerstner, whom I referred to earlier, called this “a built-in apologetic” for Christianity. It is because no one but God could think up a religion like this. You and I would do it in either one of two ways. Either we would emphasize morality and end up saying that a person can justify himself by good works. Or else we would emphasize grace and teach that works do not matter, and that it is possible to be saved by grace and yet be utterly unchanged. For us, an emphasis on works leads to self-salvation. While an emphasis on grace leads to antinomianism. But the true Christian religion, while it proclaims pure grace with no meritorious contribution from man mixed with it, nevertheless at the same time requires of Christians the highest possible degree of moral conduct.
Not for a moment can we suppose that there is anything we can do to earn or even contribute to our salvation. Salvation is truly and utterly by the grace of God alone. But if we are saved by that grace, that is, if we are whom we claim to be as Christians, we will be abounding in good works lived by the new life of Christ within and which glorify him.
From the lesson, what two aspects of the future are involved?
What is the connection between works and grace? What happens when you teach the one without the other?
Application: Pray that the Lord would make you aware of ways for you to put your Christian faith into practice, so that others still in need of God’s grace might come to Christ for salvation.