Grace in Salvation

Perhaps the greatest risk surrounding the doctrine of grace in the Bible is that we allow it to become a cliché. We talk about it, sing about it, take great care to define it, but through it all fail to feel its weight. So, as we continue our reflections on the many-sided beauty of God’s grace revealed in Scripture, I want to focus in this article on its immensity in salvation.

The obvious place to focus these reflections is Paul’s statement to the Ephesians, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2.8). It is the apostle’s grand and definitive declaration that, from its inception to its consummation, salvation is God’s free gift. What Paul says here is the New Testament counterpart to Jonah’s declaration from the belly of the great fish in the Old Testament, ‘Salvation is of the LORD’ (Jon 2.11). But in both these instances, these words carry theological freight that is infinitely more substantial than we can ever fathom.

In the context of Ephesians, the one thing we often forget when we blithely cite Paul’s affirmation is that it is not a stand-alone remark. It is the culmination of a chapter and a half of some of the most profound doctrinal reasoning found anywhere in Scripture. More than that, its profundity is designed to fuel doxology. We as readers, reflecting on the implications of grace for our own deliverance, are meant to be left breathless in our efforts to respond. And that is precisely the point to which Paul takes us in the mid-point climax of the letter where he erupts in awe at the immeasurable greatness of the God’s grace-laden love, and then punctuates it with the great doxology,

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3.20-21)

It is only as we trace the route by which the apostle leads us in these opening chapters – through the junction of his statement about grace in the second chapter – that we begin to appreciate both the hidden and the public dimensions of grace that alone will generate such a response. Let me flag up some of the its components.

Paul begins this letter, not in time, but in eternity. He takes us to ‘the heavenly places’ and back ‘before the foundation of the world’ (1.3-4). He brings us into the realm of  ‘the eternal decree’. That single, unified, yet multifaceted divine edict in eternity that would determine every detail and aspect of what would unfold in history. But what is so striking in what Paul says about it is that salvation is its centrepiece. God’s ultimate purpose in the mystery of all he had planned was redemption – to rescue and restore, not only a ruined race, but the cosmos that shared in that ruin.

From the perspective of finite, fallen human minds – and even the minds of the redeemed – a million questions arise from what Paul says. But before we try to push our own answers (or objections), Paul supplies God’s own answer: it is all ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’ (1.6) – repeated and reinforced in what follows (1.7, 11, 14). By beginning his exposition of the gospel in this way, Paul challenges the deep instinct of every Christian to relate our salvation to the notion ‘I have decided to follow Jesus.’ The seeds of Pelagianism and its variants run deep in our veins! But Paul reminds us of the bigger picture. There could never be a decision to seek salvation on our part were it not for the prior decision on God’s part to draw us to himself. Therein lie the roots of grace.

As we dig deeper into Paul’s treatment of the divine decree it is fascinating to see where its focus lies – not in the vastness, intricacy and beauty of creation; but in Christ. In the opening section the apostle does not fill in the ugly details of Adam’s fall and what that meant for humanity and the cosmos. Instead he frames it in terms of God’s ultimate purpose in the eschaton which will eclipse the beauty of Eden in every way. The reason? Because restoration and new creation will be brought about and secured ‘in Christ’. Indeed, every component of redemption as outlined here is either explicitly or implicitly declared to be ‘in Christ Jesus’. Therein lies the magnitude of grace: it entailed the humiliation and immolation of the Son that through his exaltation his people would share in the glory he secured for sinners.

Our horizons are stretched even further as Paul gives a glimpse of the scope of God’s saving grace. Too often Christians are inclined to regard salvation as private and personal; but its scope is infinitely greater. God’s ‘purpose in Christ’ when ‘the times have reached their fulfilment’ is ‘to bring all things under him’ (1.9-10). For our generation, obsessed as it is with the dream of saving the planet, we would do well to remind ourselves of the only One who is able and eager to do just that and more!

It is interesting to see how Paul presses home the greatness of grace as he moves into the second chapter. Having focused on the splendour of God’s plan of salvation and its fulfilment in Christ, only then does he turn the spotlight on the sinners he came to save. Their (our) plight could not be bleaker. It was not that we deserved nothing from God; we deserved something from him – his wrath and condemnation! But what have we actually received in Christ? – All spiritual blessings in the heavenly places where we are seated with him! Such grace, as Paul will go on to show, is not just amazing; it is transforming. And we will look more closely at just how transformative it is in the articles due to follow.